Sunday, June 30, 2013

COLOMBIA: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


A little over a decade ago now, I read a story about a motorcyclist who wanted to drive from the United States to the tip of South America and back. In order to keep track of where he was, his family followed him through his credit card transactions. When he got through Panama and was driving through Colombia – his entry into the South American continent – he was kidnapped by Colombian rebels and forced to hike through the jungles in the rain carrying his gear with assault rifles at his back. After five terrifying weeks, they finally let him go, keeping the bike of course.  The embassy helped him get his passport and certain papers back, and his friends rallied together to send him a new bike. When asked if he was going to return back to the US, he replied (and I’m paraphrasing), “Hell, no. I’ve come this far, and I’m not letting those jerks ruin my trip.” Wow. Of course he’s an ex-Hell’s Angel. (Can you tell?)


Colombia is the only country in South America that touches both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It borders Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. Geologically, the land varies from beautiful beaches to Andean mountain views. Since Colombia lies on the famed Ring of Fire, it’s the home of active volcanoes and also frequent earthquakes as well. Columbia is one of the most ecological diverse countries in the world. Part of the Amazon rainforest extends itself into Colombia as well as being part of the drainage points for both the Amazon River and Orinoco River. (Every time I read about the Orinoco River, I think of that Enya song, “Orinoco Flow.”)

Colombia has some of the oldest artifacts and antiquities found in the whole world. The largest indigenous populations were mainly the Muisca (which is how I mistype the word “music/musica” all the time), Quimbaya, and the Tairona. The Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the first European to actually explore the area and see the Pacific Ocean from South America. While it was known by several names throughout its history, Colombia was essentially named after Christopher Columbus. Colombia (as part of the colonial name of New Granada) declared its independence from Spain in 1810 but wasn’t fully recognized until nine years later. The famous Simón Bolívar (and namesake of the country of Bolivia) became the first president of Colombia at this time. Colombian history from this point forward is marked by several periods of civil unrest and political fighting between rebel forces/vigilante groups and government forces. Of course, it hasn’t always been this way: there were periods of peace, too.
I love the windswept hair forward. A man ahead of his time. 
Colombia is ethnically diverse, with roughly a little less than 40% of its population coming from European roots, 10% from Africa, and the rest coming from indigenous peoples. And when you have such a diverse population, you also have large numbers of mixed and mestizo populations as well to consider. The national language is Spanish, spoken by over 99% of the country, but there are also 65 indigenous languages and two creoles that are also spoken. You’ll also find English spoken on the islands of San Andrés and Providencia Island. Like most Latin American countries, Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion, but they also have followers of all of the major religions found as well.


The capital city is Bogotá, a city of about 7.6 million people (a little less than Chicago’s urban area).  Nicknamed “The Athens of South America,” this world-class city boasts many prominent universities, museums, libraries, restaurants, theatres, sports arenas, and historic architecture. Bogotá was named a World Book Capital in 2007, the second in the Americas (after Montreal, Canada). The city (and country) has really made a push towards decreasing violent crime and crime in general in hopes that this results in increased tourism, which has already started to rise.


There are some pretty famous things and people that have come from Colombia: Juan Pablo Montoya (race car driver), John Leguizamo (actor), Shakira (musician), and many other musicians, scientists, and writers who have impacted our world. Colombia shares its wonderful coffee with the rest of the world (remember Juan Valdez?). I’m pretty sure I have a special place in my heart for all of the coffee-producing countries. I just know I’m pretty sure the meal is going to be incredible, just like my Colombian playlist on Spotify. And my husband is going to teach me how to grill. (Again.) So this should be interesting all around.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, June 23, 2013

CHINA: THE FOOD


Well, I was hoping that I would’ve had my Explorerback from the shop, but it turned out to be this long, drawn-out, highly-unnecessaryfiasco. The first shop closed down for good, so they moved my vehicle to theother shop on the other side of town. Fine, but now I think they’re jackingaround and taking their sweet time getting my vehicle fixed. Ugh, seriously? Ilove my rental car (2012 Kia Soul), but it’s already depleted our savings justto get around. So, once again, I really just needed this meal to go well. Andit certainly did. 
 
Even with nothing in them, they are nearly perfect. I'm thinking these may also make good mini-sandwiches. 
I started out with the bread: Chinese steamed buns.I love getting these at the Chinese buffet place we go to, and they’re aparticular favorite of my husband. It started out with dissolving the yeast inthe water and then adding a cup of flour, letting it rest for an hour. Then youmixed in the sugar, oil, and the rest of the flour, and let it sit for another2 hours (which I only waited about an hour). After dividing it into twosections to form a log, I cut 12 “rolls” out of it. Each roll was flattenedinto a disk. I brushed some sesame oil onto it and folded it in half, using afork to press the open edges shut. Then it’s time to steam it. My husband and Ihad to figure out the best way to do this since I don’t have a steaming basket:we used a colander hung over the side of a large pot with the lid on top. Itseemed to do the job. At first I was thinking, “Oh, it doesn’t look like theyset up,” but when I tried to take them out, I could tell they were much firmedthat they looked. And the flavor was so wonderful and yeasty. One variation Ikept running into while searching for recipes is to fill these rolls with piecesof meat, such as barbecued pork, but I kept these plain.
 
As cool as a baby cucumber and shrimp and lo mein. 
Then I made sesame noodles. I used lo mein noodlesfor this and boiled them in 2 cups chicken broth and 2 cups water. The saucethat goes on it was modified a little bit based on whether I could find all theingredients. So, my sauce included sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, peanutbutter, chili powder, salt, and sugar – and a splash of water. The sauce ismixed in with the noodles so that it’s all covered. I mixed in some choppedscallions, baby cucumbers, and sautéed shrimp. This is eaten cold, which sortof concerned me whether the family would eat it, but they certainly didn’t seemto mind. In fact, it’s been so hot lately that it was perfect.
 
They loved this. Now I know where my new bargaining point is. 
And lastly, we had jiaozi (Chinese dumplings).There are many varieties out there, but I chose ones with ground pork and freshcut chives. The pork-chive mixture is put in the middle of wantons – I boughtalready packaged wantons to save time – and then folded around the filling. Aswe found out, we made 44 dumplings, and it’s really important not to overfillthem. To cook them, we dropped each one in boiling water and when they floated,they were done. I wish everything were so easy to tell if they were done. Therecipe suggested using black vinegar with these to dip them in, but I justpoured a little soy sauce on them. And they were delightful. If I wasn’t sofull, I wanted to eat more. My daughter ate more than me, I think.  (And of course, I had Tsingtao beer toaccompany this fine meal, as it only seems appropriate.)
 
Life is just a bowl full of dumplings.
Perhaps we are at an advantage that we are alreadyaware of many Chinese foods because we’re inundated with Chinese take-outplaces no matter where you live. And a few people are lucky enough to live nearone of the various Chinatowns. In fact, my husband, a native Chicagoan, took meto the Chicago’s Chinatown on our first date. I’d love to take the kids backthere one day. I kept looking for “authentic” recipes, not Americanized Chineserecipes. But then it left me wondering where we ever draw the line on what isauthentic. It’s used a lot in food advertising. And even in the US, we havedebates over what constitutes as chili or baked beans or cole slaw. Does itreally mean that one is authentic and others are not? Are variations considerednot authentic because it’s outside of the norm? It’s hard to say. So, I madethe food, authentic or not, and it was good. And it tasted just like, if notbetter, than the Chinese food I’ve had here in the States. And maybe one day,I’ll have the opportunity to go to China and try these dishes myself. Authenticor not.
 
Better than most restaurants.  

Up next: Colombia

CHINA: MUSIC AND DANCE


Chinese music is some of the oldest music in the world. It can be traced back nearly 7000 years. Traditional music is written on the pentatonic scale (like using only the black keys on a piano) and was either played solo or in small ensembles.  The instruments are generally divided into three types: woodwind and percussion (paixiao [panpipes], gongs, bells, dizi [type of transverse flute], paigu [sets of 3-7 tunable drums]), bowed strings (erhu [2-string bowed “violin”], banhu [a 2-stringed instrument, looks similar to a banjo]), and plucked strings (guqin [7-string zither], yangqin [a Chinese version of the hammered dulcimer], konghou [Chinese harp], pipa [Chinese 4-stringed lute]).  Vocal music tends to rely more heavily on melody rather than harmony.  The style of singing is something that is normally disapproved of in Western music: vocalists tend to use a thin singing voice, which results in a non-resonating tone, or utilizing falsetto (usually heard when men try to sing higher than normal, sounding as if they were singing the female lines).


Chinese opera still remains quite popular as a cultural art. I first heard Chinese opera when I was in college studying world music as a music major at Indiana State University. It was really hard to get used to since the vocal quality and instrumentation (ok, mostly the vocal quality) was very different from Western music, which is what we’re mostly used to listening to. I think the thing about the Chinese opera that makes it hard to listen to is that the vocals are often guttural followed by high-pitched tones. It’s exactly why I don’t like some contemporary art music for the same reasons: there’s no cohesion.  But it's not all terrible; there are often a lot of acrobatics and choreographed fight scene that are pretty cool. Like a Chinese West Side Story. 


As Chinese students started studying abroad in the early part of the 20th century, they started bringing back Western classical music, and soon several conservatories popped up to teach music in this style. Symphony orchestras and jazz were soon making its way into the culture of China. However, it would all be put on hold when the Communist Party took control in 1949. Pop music and Western music were considered the bane of Chinese traditional music. Pro-communist music was pretty much the only thing that was allowed to go without criticism. After the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, pop and rock music made a huge push, especially in the revolutionary sub-cultures of China. Even now, it has limited airplay and is still looked down upon by the higher-ups.


The father of Chinese rock is often attributed to Cui Jian, who was the first one to use electric guitars in his music. A 2003 performance with The Rolling Stones solidified this feat. A band called Tang Dynasty is one of the few metal bands that came on the scene in the early 1990s. Even a couple of punk rock bands became fairly popular: Brain Failure (which I really like; they were discovered in the US by one of my other favorite bands, Drop Kick Murphys) and Hang on the Box (which reminds me a little of the Cambodian-American band Dengue Fever). Hip-hop artists have also made their mark, especially in the larger cities and in Taiwan. One of the most notable ones I found is DJ Hot Dog. Some songs totally reminds me of 90s hip-hop.


Dance is also very important and has important functions and meanings in Chinese culture. Probably the most well-known dance would be the dragon dance that is seen at the Chinese New Year. The dragon itself is made from paper and/or other materials constructed on lightweight hoops, originally wood but now aluminum and other lightweight materials. A special team is required to bring the dragon to life and make it move. They can range in length from 25m to 70m (about 82-230 ft). The smaller ones of course are used for more acrobatic movements while the larger ones are used more for ceremonial purposes and large parades. Different patterns in which the dragon moves have different names and meanings.


Another dance that is often performed similar to the dragon dance is the lion dance. Many times, they’re confused for one another, but the lion dance requires two people, and the dragon dance needs the help of many. The costume is construction is a little different in that the people are actually inside of the costume (like how we see the two-person horse costume in the US), as opposed to the dragon dance where they are lifting it up with poles attached to the frame. In China, there are basically two forms of this lion dance: a northern lion and a southern one. (There are also varieties of this dance found in Japan and Indonesia as well.)  The colors and designs used vary from region to region and they will often have more than one lion performing together.


Up next: the food!

Friday, June 21, 2013

CHINA: ART AND LITERATURE


In most art museums, the Chinese art section is one of the fairly larger sections. And Chinese art spans many different kinds of mediums. Some of the more common types of art are pottery, jade work, painting, sculpture, and calligraphy.


Paintings and calligraphy go back to the beginning, and the subject matter and styles vary from dynasty to dynasty. These paintings can be seen on folding screens, fans, and hanging scrolls. Many scenes depicted daily life or court life.



Ceramic art and pottery more than likely had its primary roots in functionality, redefining storing and preparing food and medicines. The whole invention of pottery is significant because people now had a way to cook and store food. But it also doubled as art in its design as well as creating it for the purpose of giving it as a gift. The Chinese also were known for their lacquer ware as well, which is when you see small boxes or other items that appear highly glossed.



Silk textiles and jade used for jewelry and carvings are also commonly found in Chinese art. Most people – including me – often think of jade as being a green stone, but it can actually range from reddish to various shades of green to milky white depending on the soil it was extracted from.



One of the largest and most impressive collections of sculptures ever found in the world is the famed Terracotta Army. (Terracotta is a type of earthenware, a clay-based ceramics that is porous when it’s fired. It can be either glazed or unglazed. I always think of flowerpots when I think of terracotta.) It was found inside of the tomb of the first Qin emperor – there were over 7000 life-size statues of soldiers buried. The amazing part is that each one is unique and different from each other, almost like they were based on real people.



Painting art among other types of cultural arts took a hit under Mao’s Cultural Revolution, but it later regained popularity. Many works of art, including paintings, pottery, and sculptures were destroyed during these years. The sentiments are a little more relaxed today than it had been in China’s past, but there is still an aura of censorship surrounding freedom of expression that remains today.

The earliest of Chinese literature is mostly philosophical and historical in nature, court documents and religious texts and such. One of these early books was the I Ching, or the Book of Changes. It’s more or less and divination manual and based on eight trigrams. (An example of a trigram are the black lines found on the South Korean flag.)



Poetry is also a very common form of Chinese literature. One of the earliest collections is called the Shijing, commonly thought to have been edited by Confucius. The structure of these poems is in couplets, with four symbols to a line. Each character is only one syllable. Each dynasty has it’s own styles and variations. I did have a small laugh, a chortle if you will, that one of the famous poets of the Song dynasty is Su Shi. Although the Song dynasty did bring about the practice of “travel prose,” writing about travels and the adventures of the journey; one example is Su Shi’s “Record of Stone Bell Mountain.” If you were well educated – probably part of the court and upper class – during the Ming and Qing dynasties, then classical poetry was a skill that you were expected to learn and excel at. It was a normal part of society.



There are four novels that are considered part of the canon of classical Chinese literature: Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin, Water Margin by Shi Naian, Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. 

During the New Culture Movement was the beginning of a literary change from the classical language to using more vernacular speech in writing. Literature in general took a hit during Mao’s Cultural Revolution years. Any written work that even hinted at humanitarianism or freedom was immediately quashed. And in many cases, the authors were treated as dissidents and dealt with in terrible ways. Today there are many Chinese writers, both in China and as residents abroad. One of my favorite authors is Chinese-American author Amy Tan. I’ve read her books Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, and The Hundred Secret Senses, all of which are very good.



In Taoism, the God of Culture and Literature is known as Wenchang Wang. He’s normally depicted as an elderly man with two attendants: Tianlong, or Heaven-Deaf; and Diya, or Earth-Mute. He’s the one that students and writers look to for inspiration and help just before exams.

Up next: music and dance

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

CHINA: HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS


Many of these holidays in China are based on the Chinese lunar calendar.

New Year (January 1).  This New Year’s Day is celebrated with the rest of the world, but with much less fervor than the Chinese New Year later on.  Government offices, schools, and other businesses are closed.  Some people do light off fireworks at midnight, though.



Chinese New Year (varies/January or February):  Also called the Spring Festival, even though it generally is celebrated at the end of January or beginning of February.  Starting days before, people clean their homes from top to bottom in preparation for getting rid of bad vibes and bad spirits.  It’s a time for visiting family and sharing a specially prepared meal together.  Fireworks are a popular feature for the holiday.  Red is considered a lucky holiday, and many people give gifts of money in red envelopes. 

Lantern Festival (varies): This holiday is the official ending of the Chinese New Year. Children (and adults too, I suppose) go out at night carrying paper lanterns to the temples. Poems and riddles are printing on the lanterns. Some places have larger festivities than others, the city of Chengdu being one of them. They are famous for their large lantern in the shape of a dragon.



Zhonghe Festival (varies):  Also known as Dragon Raising Its Head. This holiday goes back to the Chinese agrarian culture. In their culture, the dragon is thought to be the leader or king of all of the animals and is also thought to be the ancestor of humans. (I know a few slimy people who make me think there might be some validity in that.) Because they also believed that dragons caused it to rain, it’s become a festival for farming and planting and honoring the earth in hopes for a good harvest.

International Women’s Day (March 8): Celebrated in China since 1975, women are presented with flowers and children will help out with household chores. Women are rewarded with a half-day off, and some towns will hold small festivals and mountain climbing competitions.

Arbor Day (March 12): Much along the same lines as Arbor Day in most other places in the world, it’s also known as National Tree Planting Day.



Qingming Festival (varies/April): Also known as Chinese Memorial Day or Tomb Sweeping Day. Its name also denotes that this is a time for people to go outside and enjoy the fresh air. It’s a time to celebrate their ancestors by visiting their gravesites. Family members will often leave gifts including food and drink on the grave. Kite-flying is a popular activity to do around this time. At one time, people would carry burning paper or incense, but that has given way to carrying flowers, to the relief of fire marshals everywhere.

Labor Day (May 1): Also called May Day, many towns and cities hold festivals and celebrations for people to come out and enjoy. There are also speeches and special TV entertainment during the evening.

Youth Day (May 4): This day coordinates with the May Fourth Movement (as opposed to Star Wars Day, “May the Fourth Be With You”). This day is in remembrance of the May 4, 1919 anti-imperialist protests by students in Beijing, mostly in protest of the Treaty of Versailles, which among other things, allowed Japan to hold on to territories in Shandong, a peninsular province between Beijing and Shanghai; these territories had been surrendered by Germany. This day also is for Youth Day, a day intended for youth over age 14 to study hard and reward those students who are doing exceptionally well.



Children’s Day (June 1): Many museums and parks have special programs for children, and it’s a day that many parents take their kids out to learn about Chinese history and culture. There are also programs and shows of children's choirs and dance recitals and other activities for and by children. 

Dragon Boat Festival (varies/June): Also known as Duanwu Festival. It’s held around the summer solstice time, because in Chinese culture, both the sun and the dragon represent male energy (likewise, the moon and the phoenix represent female energy). So, this day where men are racing long boats with the ends sporting large dragonheads and the entire boat is painted like a dragon. The pilot episode of the children’s show Nihao, Kai-lan is called “Dragon Boat Festival.” I know this show well.



CPC Founding Day (July 1): This holiday is for the First National Congress in 1921. The actual site in Shanghai of this first meeting is now a museum. It more or less seems like a meeting of the leaders of the Communist Party, and even today, it remains so. The current General Secretary is Xi Jinping.

China National Maritime Day (July 11): 2005 marked the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s first voyage. He was a sailor and navigator during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) who traveled around the world, on seven voyages, just to show what strength China held. 600 years is such a long time, it’s hard for me to imagine. In the United States, we think of something that is 200 years old as “old,” but when I was in Japan, I went to a house that was 900 years old. I can’t even fathom that level of “old.”

Army Day (August 1): This is in commemoration of the Nanchang Uprising in 1927. This was the first major incident in the Chinese Civil War. It was basically between the communists (the Kuomintang) and the anti-communists. It’s become more like what Veteran’s Day is in the US. Some places offer free admission for soldiers and their children.



Double Seven Festival (varies): Also known as Qixi Festival or sometimes, Chinese Valentine’s Day. It’s based in the mythological story of a cowherd and a weaver girl who meet each year on this day. (It is also the basis of Tanabata in Japan and Chilseok in Korea.) Basically, the cowherd met a beautiful girl who escaped from heaven to look for fun; they fell in love and got married. The Goddess Mother got mad that she married a mortal and forced her to return to Heaven. Saddened, the cowherd’s ox told him that if he killed the ox and wore his fur, he could enter Heaven to look for her, which he did, and it made the Goddess Mother really mad. So, she scratched a line to keep them away forever – creating the Milky Way – but on one day a year, all of the magpies in the world formed a bridge so that they were able to meet again for a moment. (There’s no mention of the dad in this story, but maybe he was indifferent to the whole situation and just kept his mouth shut, and she created some other celestial body for him – a black hole, perhaps. Maybe?)

Ghost Festival (varies, late August): Sometimes called the Hungry Ghost Festival, it’s the day when all of the ancestors from the lower realm come out. Some of the rituals and traditions seem similar to the Qingming Festival back in April. Many people release paper boats and lanterns on the water, and offerings of incense and food are left on the gravesites. Many families will often have elaborate meals, leaving an empty seat for the deceased person. The origins are similar to O-bon in Japan.

Mid-Autumn Festival (varies/September or October): Also known as Moon Festival, it’s held around the time of the autumnal equinox. Eating mooncakes around this time is very popular. Lanterns, lion dances, incense, dragons, and moon watching are also popular around this time.



Chongyang Festival (varies/September):  Also known as the Double Ninth Festival. This festival takes place in autumn and celebrates the Yang, or male energy or positivity. Chong means double. People will have parties and the symbol for this day, the chrysanthemum, is placed everywhere. One popular event on this day is mountain climbing and cake. I’ll personally just skip the mountain climbing and stick with the cake.

National Day (October 1): One of the most popular traditions on this day is to gather at Tiananmen Square and watch the raising of the flag. (Yes, this is the same Tiananmen Square that that brave guy stood in front of the tank, whose images are still etched in my mind from watching it unfold on TV.) Festivals go on all day with fireworks displays at night. The festival generally lasts three days and is because there are a lot of indulgent foods around this time, it’s also referred to as Golden Week.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, June 16, 2013

CHINA: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


China is one of the most ancient places on earth, full of firsts and number ones. It’s the largest country by land situated entirely in Asia. It has the largest population in the entire world – at over 1.35 billion! It ties Russia with the most bordering countries at 14 (which are Mongolia, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan). It was a key inventor of paper and printing, gunpowder, and the compass. They also developed bells, pottery and cookware, forks, chopsticks, daggers, lacquer, noodles, silk cultivation and processing, coffins, rice and soybean cultivation, acupuncture, the zodiac, hand grenades, banknotes, blast furnaces, Mahjong toothbrushes, cast iron, chemical warfare, crossbow, dominoes (my husband would be happy), exploding cannonballs, fishing reels, flamethrowers, tofu, domestication of goldfish, helicopter rotors, harnesses for horses, incense, inoculation of small pox, the junk (type of boat), kites, landmines, matches, natural gas as fuel, negative numbers in math (bet the banks loved that), oil wells, pig iron, playing cards, puppet theatres, fireworks, menus in restaurants, rockets, tangrams, tea cultivation,  chain drives, and toilet paper. (I don’t know if ALL of that was true or not whether they “invented” it, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that these things were developed by the Chinese.) So, we have a lot to thank the ancient Chinese. It’s this ingenuity that has developed our world as it is today.



Chinese history is divided into dynasties, which is when a series of rulers come from the same family. For the most part, these dynasties start about 2850 BC and last until 1912, with some notable exceptions where different groups were warring, etc. In 1912, Sun Yat Sen (part of the Kuomintang) was named the head of the country and took control from that moment on, establishing the Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek forcibly took control of the established government in the late 1920s, and the Kuomintang under him moved the capital to Nanjing. In 1949, Mao Zedong pushed the country into the realms of communism, a philosophy that it still holds today. Mao Zedong was responsible for leading the Cultural Revolution, which was the push to get rid of capitalism; people were displaced and tortured, relics were destroyed, and cultural/religious sites were desecrated.  While China has opened itself up in certain ways with the rest of the world, censorship and oppression are still quite a common occurrence to ordinary Chinese.



The island of Taiwan (formerly “Formosa”) wants to be fully independent, but China has threatened to use military force if they make any actual formal declaration of independence. China considers them another province. Taiwan actually has one of the better economies in Asia and differs from China in the fact that it ranks highly in freedom of the press, health care, education, and human development.



Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas of the world. There are 7 million people living in 426 square miles. That’s like almost like forcing all of the residents of the Philadelphia, PA metro area to move into existing San Antonio, TX – no expansions, no San Antonio residents can leave, everyone just squeezes in and pretends they all enjoy it. Britain once had control of the island, and then signed a 99-year lease on it (with the exception of it being occupied by Japan during WWII), giving it back to the Chinese in 1997 when the lease was up. Hong Kong boasts one of the highest average IQ rates in the world, one of the longest life expectancies, one of the most traded currencies, highest per capital incomes, and ranks high in human development and quality of life. And yes, they do have a giant floating rubber duck in its harbor. 



Macau, along with Hong Kong, is also considered one of China’s special administrative areas. It also has a very high life expectancy and human development. The Portuguese actually had control of this area, so this is why you’ll find many Portuguese-speakers in Macau. The Portuguese handed this area over back to the Chinese in 1999. There's been a number of casinos going up in the past several years in Macau.



Tibet is a one of the western provinces in China that most people are at least familiar with by name because it’s made the news many times for wanting its independence as well. Tibetan Buddhism dominates the culture and lifestyle of Tibetans, and the have their own language that is very different from other Chinese provinces. Tibet was actually an autonomous region until the 1950s when they were forced to assimilate to “mainland” Chinese ways of life. There are several “free Tibet” groups out there in support of the autonomy and independence of Tibet.



Because China is such a large country, the landscape and climate varies greatly. The Gobi Desert covers part of China and Mongolia in the north and it can be quite cold in the northern regions near the Russian border. The southern areas of China are generally more subtropical and subject to seasonal monsoons. And this also causes China to have a fairly diverse flora and fauna. China is also famous for its bamboo forests and its pandas.



Over 70% of the people speak Mandarin Chinese, and the remaining 30% speak varieties of Chinese like Wu (Shanghaiese), Yue (Cantonese), Min, Xiang, Gan, and Hakka. Not all of these varieties are mutually intelligible with each other, but Mandarin is used as a lingua franca. China also has 56 ethnic groups living within its borders, with Han being the largest. In fact, Han Chinese is the largest single ethnic group in the world.

Taoism is probably the most widely adhered to religion in China, although a large number of Chinese people consider themselves non-religious. Buddhism does follow as a close second, but there are a number of other religions practiced in China, such as Christianity, Islam, Shamanism, and folk religions. Technically speaking, freedom of religion is on the books, but it remains subject to disagreement on the validity of this.



It almost seems that the US and China have a love-hate relationship. We do know a lot about China and its culture without having to do a lot of research. And a lot of this has entered our mainstream cultural as well. We have several Chinatowns across the country, as well as in other countries. Chopsticks, Chinese character tattoos, the Chinese film industry, the Great Wall, dragons, various martial arts (namely kung fu and ta’i chi), the zodiac, ping-pong tournaments, and Chinese food are something we’re all familiar with. But I’m hoping to find something new about this, something I didn’t know before. And I’m hoping that others will see China in a different light as well.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, June 9, 2013

CHILE: THE FOOD


I really needed this to go well today. See, on Friday my car died on the way to work. I got it started, but we later found out that basically blah blah blah, the transmission has to be rebuilt, blah blah, $1800 bill. (Glad my husband was talking to the guy.) So, I had to rent a car for the first time (and found out my corporate “discount” cost me more in the end than if I just went without it and got a weekly rate. Go figure.).  So, it’s been a fairly stressful last couple of days. I really needed this to go well today.
 
Kids making circles. As opposed to running in circles which is what they usually do. Usually with their heads cut off, kind of like how chickens do. Except chickens will stop at some point. 
And it did. I started out making the bread: pan amasado. I was really happy getting back to a yeast bread after doing fry breads for the past several countries. For this bread, I cut the recipe in half, simply because I thought six cups of flour was a lot. Although, I added too much water at the beginning (because I forgot to cut that in half too), so I did really have to add a lot more flour to stop it being so sticky.  It also called to add melted shortening, which I hate using shortening. I can’t wipe it off my fingers – it’s worse than baby poop. But it actually rose after the first rest! My favorite part is when I get to punch down the dough. It’s like I become a kid again for about five seconds. After my momentary lapse into childhood, I divided the bread into eight circles and let it rest again. I had the kids help me make circles and punch it down. When it came out of the oven, it was practically perfect. Slightly hard on the outside, soft on the inside. The best kind of bread.
 
Pan amasado. In English, this means the most perfect bread that goes with everything. Or something like that. (Ok, technically, it means "kneaded bread.")
The next dish I made was a chilled avocado soup. All of the ingredients seemed mostly like how I make my guacamole dip: avocados, shallots, lime juice, coconut water, cilantro leaves, parsley, and a generous pinch of cayenne pepper. Then I mixed it all in a blender to make it smooth. My kids were like, “Uh, what kind of smoothie is THAT?”— I only use my mini blender for making smoothies. (I can make some damn good smoothies, especially my peach pie smoothie and my cantaloupe rum smoothie). And unfortunately since I only have a mini blender, I could only mix a little at a time. It was the first time non-fruits went into it. (Well, technically, I think avocados are fruits since they have pits like peaches and apricots.) After it chills, it’s topped with crushed walnuts and cilantro. (The recipe called for chives, but I forgot to get some.) I thought it was really good, and in fact, even my finicky four-year-old liked it.
 
I've not eaten too many cold soups, except some cold noodles soups in Japan. But this surprised me and was very good. 
Finally, the main dish. For this, I chose pastel de choclo – a chicken and corn bake/casserole. It starts out boiling the corn in milk, then putting it in my blender again, stirring in basil, sugar and salt. In a different pot, I mixed chicken broth, shallots, red bell pepper, carrot, black pepper, garlic, and a couple bay leaves, letting it simmer for 15 minutes. Then I added in some salt and the chicken and parsley and cooked for another 10 minutes (taking out the bay leaves afterwards). Then I put this mixture in the bottom of a casserole dish (which may have been a little too large for this dish) and topped it with the pureed corn mixture and baked it. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to set up more than mine did, but the taste was outstanding. It could’ve used more chicken, though.
 
Not much to look at, but you don't have to look at it to enjoy it. The enjoyment is in the taste. Duh. 
Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without Chilean wine. I tend to get a lot of my groceries from Meijer stores, and they had a whole section on Chilean wines. Granted, it was kind of small, but they had some at least. I chose Long Country’s (a nickname for Chile, for obvious reasons) moscato red. I’ve been a fan of moscatos for a while now, but I’ve never had a moscato red before. It was very good. I think I’ll definitely go back and try more. Like when this bottle is empty.
 
It's such a colorful meal. Love everything about it! 
Sometimes things don’t go as planned. And sometimes you get lucky and they do. And sometimes you just go to Plan B, or C, or D. As long as you have a plan, you’re never half as bad off. This meal was really good, and even though things are a little stressful with my car situation and how much it costs, life’s still good. Sometimes I think that as long as we’re eating well, life’s not as bad as it could be. And eating well doesn’t mean really expensive meals. All of the ingredients by themselves weren’t that much (except I’m still trying to figure out what happened to the price of chicken. When did the prices skyrocket on that!? And I’m sparing everyone on my rants about food subsidies.) I was very happy with this meal. Definitely on the do-again list (minus the burns to the fingers).  Now I’m just patiently waiting for lunch tomorrow so I can eat the leftovers. Until then, I'll end this with some Easter Island humor:



Up next: China

CHILE: MUSIC AND DANCE


Music in Chile has influences from the native Mapuche, other Andean influences, as well as European influences.  The northern part of Chile was once the cultural capital of the ancient Incan civilization. 

Easter Island out in the Pacific is one of the most isolated islands in the world. Its nearest neighbors are hundreds of miles away, and it’s actually considered part of the Polynesian groups of islands. It’s most famous for its choral music, and they have competitions each year. Their music uses accordion music and guitars as well as other indigenous instruments that are closely related to Polynesian traditions.


Among common Chilean styles of traditional music, “the most popular airs” is called the cueca.  There are certain characterizations that define a cueca: always in a major key and is in 6/8 with the accompaniment in 3/4 which would give it a syncopated feel. The last note of the melody line will always end on the third or fifth of the chord, never the octave, which is somewhat different from Western music where the desire is to end on the tonic. But outside of those main things I just mentioned, the rules are pretty lax on the rest of it. A related form is called the tonada is differentiated by a having more of a fluid melodic section in general and is not intended to be danced to.


Although the cueca is found in neighboring countries as well, the corresponding dance is the considered the national dance of Chile. Its origins are linked to both Spanish and African influences. The dance is more or less a love dance – one intended on finding the right partner and is likened to mating “dances” between roosters and hens. While there are regional variations, the dancers wear traditional clothing and never touch, except for a handkerchief that is passed between the couple. I know I’ve written about other dances using handkerchiefs, but I can’t remember offhand which country it was from. I’m sure there are many variations around the world.

The 1960s brought about a sort of new era of Chilean music: popular music. In the beginning, musicians began to push traditional music (especially of the Andean regions) again, creating a new genre called Nueva Canción Chilena. However, the lyrics to many of the songs were pretty much a social statement of the time, criticizing how things were run – many popular poets doubled as lyricists. (Reminds me of the character Pedro Tercero Garcia in House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende that I mentioned in the last post.) In fact, many of these poets and musicians were under much scrutiny and targeted by the Pinochet administration in the 1970s.


Of the recent music, I found a couple albums that I really enjoyed. Since I’m such a huge fan of punk and ska, I found the album No Transar by the band Los Miserables. It was really hard to find them on iTunes, though. I kept coming up with the Spanish version of the movie Les Miserables. But alas, I did find it, and I might buy it. Another album I found is called Los Presidentes by the group La Ley. This album sounds a lot like reggaeton, which I’m also a huge fan of since we have a lowrider truck that we take to car shows (like, next weekend). I thought this might a good addition to my music collection. I also found the album Kaos by Anita Tijoux (or sometimes written as Ana Tijoux), which is a mix of pop, old school house, and old school hip-hop. Although, I think at times, she reminds me of MIA as far as her cadence goes. I also found the album 1977 on iTunes for $5.99 – I bought this album and absolutely love it. I think it’s won some awards and was featured on the show Breaking Bad. Both my husband and I are really into that jazz/hip-hop sound, and this is perfect for chilling out to. So glad that I bought this.

Up next: the food!