When I was in high school, I saw the concert movie: “The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball,” which had several skits by Monty Python. One of the skits made me laugh so hard I almost lost control of my bladder.
Ever since then, I’ve wanted to perform the skit.
When my sons were old enough, I proposed performing it with them, but they refused. Can’t blame them, who wants to make themselves look silly on stage? But, I was still left with this unfulfilled goal.
Finally, I saw my big chance. Every year the Consulate throws a party to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Consulate staff are invited to be part of a talent/variety show. Last year I made a fool of myself in a green wig. This year, I enlisted two colleagues who are good sports and willing to indulge the weird fantasies of a strange little man.
I waited more than 30 years to do this. It was great. Thanks to S and D for making my dream come true!
Yesterday on the way home from work, the taxi driver put on some music. The song was an old Mandarin pop song from Taiwan that was popular in 1990. It was one of my favorite songs at the time, and I remembered it well. I started humming along, then noticed that the driver was humming along as well. Then he noticed that I was humming along. Then we noticed that we noticed each other humming along. Just then the chorus of the song came on. We made eye contact, and burst into song together.
He was surprised that I knew the song. I told him that I was living in Taiwan when it came out. We talked about Mandarin pop music and our favorite singers. Our respective musical tastes overlapped a lot. He said that he preferred songs from the 80s and 90s, because the lyrics captured his emotions. I told him that totally agreed.
It was a person-to-person diplomatic moment. Even though we come from very different backgrounds, we share a common taste in pop music. We talked about our feelings as much as men who don’t know each other are comfortable doing. We made a connection. I don’t have a word to describe the situation that isn’t a cliche like “cool” or “neat,” but it was those things.
We are on vacation in a new city. Being adventurous tourists, we want to try the local cuisine. Wandering around this morning, looking for breakfast, we saw a restaurant that seemed to be doing bustling business. There were a lot of people inside, workers seemed to be fussing over their open pots, steam was everywhere, it was your stereotypical Chinese breakfast place.
We were a bit puzzled over the choices of dishes. Most things didn’t seem to be typical breakfast offerings. It was strange even for China. But we are on vacation, we thought. Let’s not let our prejudices get in the way of meal adventure. So we ordered several dishes and began our breakfast experience.
We were unimpressed. The food didn’t taste very good, and it was expensive. We paid over US$10 for the two of us, which by China standards is a scandalous sum to pay for breakfast. Worse, we weren’t full.
We left our food half-eaten (and less than half-enjoyed), and slouched out of the restaurant, feeling like tourist failures. We can’t live like locals! we mourned. We are hopelessly in a rut! We are cultural snobs and look down on everyone who isn’t like us! We are terrible people!
That’s when we saw Pizza Hut.
Like many American fast-food companies, Pizza Hut has done a good job of localizing their menus. A customer in America would hardly recognize the menu. Significantly, Pizza Hut in China has a breakfast menu.
Slightly ashamed, we slunk inside, shuffled to a booth, and reluctantly opened the menu.
Oh, my! They have oatmeal! And French toast! Yummy yum yum!
As a concession to being in China, we got soybean milk 豆漿 instead of orange juice. And we feel like tourist failures, but at least we have happy tummies.
Before I arrived at post, I had lunch with somebody who was serving in Shenyang, while he was on a temporary assignment in DC. He briefed me on the pollution situation in China, and on food safety issues in general. He made some negative comments about the safety of food in China. He said that the pollution was everywhere. It was in the soil, so the food that was grown locally is inherently dangerous. He gave me the impression that everything in China is suspect. To be honest, I was skeptical about his warnings.
Recently, the office that I work in started a repair project. As part of the project, the walls will be painted. One of the local staff members has a health situation in which she has to be very cautious about human development. She asked me more than once about the safety of the paint fumes: how strong they would be, how long they would linger, how good the ventilation would be in the room, and how safe it would be to breathe. I passed on her concerns to the consulate’s facilities manager, who let me look at the paint, smell it, and assess it for myself. He assured me that it was good quality, safe paint that the consulate imported from America.
As soon as I told the local staff member that the paint was from America, she immediately was assured. I could actually see her physically relax. She said that she was confident in the quality of paint from America, but had no confidence in products from China. If the label on the American paint said that it was safe, she said, then she trusted it.
Not for the first time, I wondered about the mindset of the local people regarding the environment in which they live. Every morning when I wake up, I check the air quality index, to see if I have to wear a mask when I leave the house. It’s a bother, and I worry a bit about the long-term effects of exposure to the pollution on my body. But I also recognize that I will live in this environment for a relatively short time. My local coworkers are facing the reality of being born in polluted air, living their lives in it, and dying in (possibly from) polluted air.
A few months ago, I went hiking in Taiwan, and met up with a group of local people. As we were getting ready to start the hike, I applied some insect repellent that I had brought with me from China. One of the local people saw me spraying it on, and asked me where I got it. When I told him that it was from China, he shrunk away from me to avoid getting downwind of me, even after I told him that it was herbal. He clearly did not trust any product from China.
There is a real problem with the quality of many aspects of daily life in China. Some friends and family back home have asked me why I don’t bring presents from China back to America when I visit. The truth is that I simply can’t be sure whether what I buy in China is really what the label says it is, whether it was made where the label says it was made, and whether it’s as safe as the manufacturer says it is.
After all, I’m living in a country where the government ties plastic maple leaves to pine trees in an attempt to fool people into thinking it’s autumn.
In this light, I guess that I can understand why some local people just can’t trust local products.
At lunch that day in DC, when I asked my future coworker whether he ate the food that he said was poisonous, he shrugged and commented that one still has to eat. Just try not to eat the most polluted stuff, was his advice.
So to answer the question that the title of this post asks, my answer is: I don’t know, but if it’s American paint and it makes me sick, I’m more likely to know exactly what made me sick. If it’s Chinese paint, then your guess is as good as mine.