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Thick skin and dilemma

21 Mar

I have been spending a lot of time with H., S.’s nanny. She started working for us three weeks ago. She is a soft-spoken and kind-hearted lady in her late forties with a lot of experience with young babies.

Both H. and I like to cook and I think that’s how we hit it off. We have a natural curiosity for each other’s cuisines and are keen to learn from one another. She cooked a few jiāchángcài (home dishes with pork mainly, including the famously delicious Shanghainese dish hóngshāo ròu) using many of the ingredients I already had (dried mushrooms and dried tofu) in my pantry but didn’t know how to use. She’s also explained to me at length which foods you should eat when according to the heat or lack thereof within your body (basic principle of Chinese medicine). Unfortunately, I am ashamed to say that so far I think I only understand 60% of what she tells me and am therefore not in a position to faithfully relate all of it but I get the jinx of it. I hope that with time I’ll get used to her accent (very Shanghainese whereby all the sh become s and the zh z) and build up my vocab.

Two days ago, I saw a small box in our fridge containing some kind of shapeless black paste. I didn’t ask H. about it, she’s welcome to put whatever she needs in our fridge. Over lunch, she asked me whether I had seen the box and offered me a piece. Looking at it, the paste could be many things; the first thing that came to my mind was a brownie with very dark chocolate. As I took a bite of the piece she gave me, I naturally asked H. what it was. She said it was lǘpí but it didn’t ring a bell. While she was trying to explain and even mimic something, the paste’s taste invaded my mouth. It wasn’t particularly horrible, though not good either. Mostly it was very strong. I continued chewing and trying to make sense of what she was telling me, I knew pí can mean skin but still wasn’t sure what it was. Then I finally understood, took my phone to double check the translation and suddenly my heart sank more than a little bit, when I figured that I was eating donkey skin!

As I was trying to recover from the shock and hide it, H.’s explanations started to become clearer. Basically she told me that eating lǘpí is very helpful during winter if you have some sort of deficiency (don’t ask me which one). She added that this one in particular came from the province of Shandong (northeast of China) and was of really good quality. I told her that the taste was too strong for me and that I wasn’t used to it, to which she replied that she couldn’t feel it but that her family thought likewise and wouldn’t eat lǘpí. She laughed when she said that they even ask her how she could it! Very kindly, she told me that if I didn’t like it, it wasn’t a problem.

I now have this remaining piece I bit into in my fridge. As much as I like to be open-minded or to think that I am, I am not quite sure what to do with it. I would hate to throw it, out of respect for H.’s kindness. What I am sure of is that I don’t feel like eating it. I don’t look forward to its taste and now that I know it is donkey skin (I have eaten Italian donkey salami a long time ago) I can’t stomach it.

Sigh.

What would you do?

Donkey skin

Lǘpí

The acupuncture diary 2

15 Dec

Shortly after my first acupuncture session, about 36 hours to be precise, I woke up around 2:00 am with a burning and irritating sensation on my upper lip. I got up and discovered that not only I had one cold sore but two! Needless to say, one, I was so angry I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night; two, I wasn’t exactly thrilled when, two days later, the doctor asked me if I was feeling better on my second acupuncture appointment. Also one of my lymphoma under my jaw had grown back, so I was in a very dark mood… (The theory of J. and another friend was that perhaps the point was to get it out of my system.)

Not looking the least surprised, the doctor asked me if I was “feeling hot in my body.” I knew what she was referring to but could not relate to the sensation she was describing, so I just said: “… In winter I feel cold most of the time…”, fully aware it was not the answer she was looking for. The Chinese believe the body has a natural balance between hot and cold. Different kinds of foods are also hot (oranges) or cold (grapefruits) and should be eaten to preserve the balance which is affected by outside elements. For example, if I remember correctly, chicken soup should be eaten in autumn to prepare yourself for winter and such things.

After the chitchat (I’m sparing your some details), she said: “Today we need to step up a notch, so I’ll put some needles near your lips. I took it easy last time because it was your first time resorting to Chinese medicine.” Given that I was ready to anything to get rid of cold sores, I was almost expecting it and so didn’t bulge. She proceeded to position needles on my arms, shins and ankles like last time, as well as two needles near the sores on my upper lip. It did hurt a bit and made me quiver, but it was ok.

I was getting ready to relax and snooze like last time, but felt things moving around me. I opened my eyes and realised she was putting wires on the needles near my mouth. She explained she was going to turn on a mild electric current. Me of course: “Will it hurt?” Her again: “You will feel the sensation but it will not hurt.” And again she spoke the truth.

And so I lied down for about 15 minutes, feeling a swarm on my upper lip, which varied when I moved my lip. It was a bit trippy. When the session was over, she said that it should help me recover quicker. I don’t know if it’s in the head or for real, but I think I did feel my wounds drying faster than the usual… So maybe it does work after all.

More next time.

Beyond Index!

6 Dec

As I am writing this, I am trying not to give in to panic. As I mentioned in my last post, we have had very high pollution levels in Shanghai during the past month. Before that, I was in Beijing on the fateful 22nd of October, during which the AQI (air quality index*) was so bad that foreign media spoke about it. Further north in Harbin, people couldn’t see further than 3 metres and the airport had to cancel all incoming and outgoing flights on that day. Whenever this has happened up north, I kept saying to myself good we live in Shanghai instead of Beijing.

Yet somehow, it seems that the tables have turned. Today in Shanghai we have a whopping 503 AQI which is simply described as “Beyond Index”… It’s far off from the 900+ that north eastern China has experienced earlier this year but still it is beyond “hazardous” and poses risks for absolutely everyone. According to the American Embassy, it is recommended that “Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.”

The US Consulate AQI reading today

The US Consulate AQI reading today

At work and amongst friends, we have been commenting on the pollution levels but we also seem to be in permanent and increasing state of shock as the AQI levels have been going up and as our health has been declining. One of my colleagues has had serious respiratory problems, another one currently has bronchitis, a friend has chronic lung problems too and I have inflamed lymphoma below my jaw.

Two weeks ago, I was able to work from home for a full week but since then I have had no excuse not to get out. So I have finally bulged in and started to wear a mask when going out. I first wore the one that my colleague bought for everyone in the office, then have upgraded to one with a valve which enables you to breath more comfortably but leaves two horizontal marks on my face by the time I get to work. For the past two weeks, I have been waking up every morning with the hope that the situation would improve but it’s been getting worse, so much so that today you can actually SEE it. The white smog has been getting thicker and thicker, significantly affecting visibility and, in spite of the mask, giving me a very mild but present sore throat. (For sake of comparison see pictures below of the view from today and on a clear day)

The colour of the sky today near home

The colour of the sky around 1:30 pm today near home

My first and second masks

My first and second masks

On the street, while I admire Chinese people’s stoicism, I wonder how most of them as well as a few foreigners still don’t wear a mask and let their kids out. I’ve been asking if the local media have been mentioning anything but it appears that there’s little coverage, let alone outrage. The only explanation proposed has been that people north of the Yangtze (about 100 km north of Shanghai) have been using coal to warm their houses and it’s therefore affecting us. I find it very unlikely given that it’s not even that cold (around 15 degrees Celsius during the day) and during the worst days of winter in the past two years we have never had that. So, I don’t know… Is it because it’s Christmas soon in other parts of the world and factories are working double shifts to supply Christian people with gifts?

In the meantime, I have cancelled my plans for tonight and I intend to limit outings to the strictest minimum. One thing is sure, if things don’t improve, anyone usually receiving a Christmas gift from me shouldn’t expect anything from China this year. What I really wish for right now is a massive storm with lots of rain to clean up the atmosphere and hope things will get better soon because I actually like Shanghai and would like to stay here for a few more years.

*For more explanations on AQI and measures of pollution levels, see my post Giving In.

Post-scriptum: It’s just 2 hours after writing the post above and I saw that Le Monde has an article on the unusual levels of pollution. Apparently, the Municipality of Shanghai has recommended people not to leave their houses, construction and factories to stop all work (although I did hear works from home). Apparently, the high levels are due to industrial activities combined with unusual weather conditions. The article doesn’t mention what conditions but I suspect it’s the lack of rain.

Today around 2pm

Today around 2pm – from home

On a clear day

On a clear day

Today

Today 2pm also – other view from home

...and on a clear day.

…and on a clear day.

The acupuncture diary 1

4 Dec

This summer two of our very good friends, L. and M., told us they tried acupuncture and recommended it. L. was towards the end of her pregnancy and feeling back aches. After her treatment, she wasn’t anymore although the pain should’ve increased with the pregnancy advancing. M. was feeling nervous and restless and he felt acupuncture calmed him down. The doctor told L. that acupuncture could be used to cure all sorts of little aches and pains and “boost your immunity system”. This in particular stuck in my mind and, being open to alternative and less chemical healing methods, I thought I’d go try it out to help me go through winter. In addition to feeling permanently cold in the winter (permanently cold hands, feet and tip of the nose, bad blood circulation), 2013 has been an annoying year as I have suffered from unusual incidences of cold sores – sorry for the details but the story doesn’t make sense otherwise and hey, we all have our little health issues. Although it seems we can now cure AIDS, we still can’t get rid of the two viruses of cold sore and, apart from trying my best not to be stressed or tired, there’s nothing I can do to prevent them. So this summer, I decided I’d try acupuncture to give a kick to my immunity system and fight the insidious yet inexplicable chronic fatigue.

acupuncture 140

And so last week, I had my first session. The doctor, a very nice lady speaking a perfect English, started by asking me all sorts of questions about my health, lifestyle, eating habits and (in)tolerances, level of stress in Shanghai compared to other cities I lived in, etc. I told her what brought me to her, she listened carefully and took notes on the little booklet the receptionist gave me. She asked me whether I had tried Chinese medicine before. I said no and she explained to me that the symptoms I described above were due to my lungs not functioning in an optimal way. Being my normal cynical self as well as realistic, I thought that was hardly abnormal given the high pollution levels we’ve been experiencing over the past month. But I refrained from commenting and nodded politely.

The doctor then invited me to lie down to start the acupuncture session. Being highly sensitive and squeamish when it comes to body manipulations, I naturally asked whether it would hurt. She said not really, you have sensations but it’s not pain. I lied down and, as requested, moved my sleeves and trousers up to my elbows and knees respectively. She then wiped with alcohol the areas where she was going to put the needles, i.e. 4 pairs on either sides of my nostrils, just down the elbows, on my shins and on the inside of the ankles. As she said, I felt the needles being positioned (I closed my eyes obviously) but no pain whatsoever. Then again, they’re not planted very deep – thankfully. She then switched off the light and, much to my surprise, asked me to relax for the next 20 minutes.

She checked if I was not too hot or too cold and then left the room and let me be. At this point, I was wondering “hmmmm bullshit, not bullshit? Hmmmm… now that I’m here, let’s not over-think it.” And so I half fell asleep until she came back. She delicately and unpainfully removed the needles and told me it was over and that, for optimal treatment, I would need three other sessions. We set up the next appointment and as I was leaving she said that I might feel a little surge of energy after this session. Again, true to myself, I thought that if I did feel revitalised it was probably because of the snooze rather than the needles, but whatever… In fact I actually felt quite exhausted on my way back home.

To be continued…

The Return of the Chickens

25 Jul

About three months ago, all residents of Shanghai and east China turned totally psychotic because of the resurgence of the avian flu and its mutation from H5N1 to H7N9. Four of our five friends coming to China were equally worried about the outbreak of the virus and regularly updated us about the number of dead in Shanghai. While we were vaguely following the news, we were not that concerned. As Shanghai residents we were not short of a food or health related scandal. In fact, at this specific time, we had:

  • The resurgence of the avian flu,
  • Tens of thousands of dead pigs in the Huangpu River (Shanghai’s main river). We never got to the bottom of this story,
  • Who knows how many mysteriously dead fish in the Huangpu as well,
  • People had received text messages about rotten beef meat from Suzhou.

And, to make it exhaustive, we should include the permanent air pollution we live in, our friendly neighbour Kim Jong Un then playing about with his nuclear arsenal and threatening to use it and the contamination of the Nongfu Spring water (apparently the most widely bought bottled water in China) with lead. Nevertheless we were trying to re-assure our friends by telling them that you had to be in contact with live poultry to have any chance to get the virus, that even if you ate an infected chicken it would be ok because the virus is killed when you cook the meat above 70 degrees Celsius…

In the meantime, I was secretly planning to avoid taking them on any road where I knew live poultry was sold (Chinese like to buy their poultry and fish live and have it slaughtered on the spot). However, within a week or so, we noticed important changes in our immediate environment. All the loose and caged chickens on the street suddenly vanished. It was as if the whole species became extinct overnight. On our street, the lady who sells vegetables and chickens didn’t have any. My Chinese teacher told me it was increasingly difficult to buy chicken meat anywhere. Where I work in Jiashan Market, we can usually see and hear the poultry live and then be killed at the daily wet market. I arrived one morning at the same time as about 30 policemen, coming to check whether there were any live chickens still being sold. Although I don’t usually tend to panic too much about these things, I have to admit I was reassured to see that there was a certain level of control as I still didn’t want to spend several hours about 10 meters from any live poultry.

April 2013 - Jiashan Market 2

Jiashan Market, some time in April 2013

Jiashan Market, that same day

Jiashan Market, that same day

Our friends’ trip went well, although we did come close to a living chicken somewhere in the countryside near Yangshuo in the south of China, but no one got sick. By now, the whole matter seems to have disappeared from public concerns as well as from local and international media. People consume chicken again and in fact, they are back at Jiashan Market, as if they had never been away, tucked in their usual corner and being slaughtered the good old-fashioned way. And as per all things food and health related, we will never get to the bottom of that story either.

Two days ago also in Jiashan Market

Two days ago also in Jiashan Market

Pharmacies

6 Feb

Entering a Chinese pharmacy feels more like entering a witchcraft shop, even for a modern pharmacy. For most of us non-Chinese have a very clinical idea and relationship with our drugs. Little pills containing very specific doses of medicine and wrapped individually in plain packages; the long lists of guidelines and caveats that accompany each drugs, explain its uses and potential side effects. Even the off-the-counter drugs which are more aggressively marketed are just a pack of powder that we swallow without really knowing what are its constituents.

Those drugs do exist in Chinese pharmacies, but when you get in you are mostly drawn to all the funky stuff displayed around the shop and which you are not sure you can recognise or know at all. It looks like the primary resource is sold to you with barely any prior transformation. Dried mushrooms, ginseng’s thin roots, dried sea cucumbers (I think), and other things which can be roots but which really look like long dried worms. I don’t know what these things do to you and against which illnesses they are meant to cure you. However, I think there’s something quite amazing in being able to have access to the very product of pain relief or cure without the rest of the junk that we have to swallow knowing that it might affect something else in our body. True a single product can have both a desirable and undesirable effect, but the fact that it has not been subjected to so much transformation and has not been mixed with too many other products is quite interesting and perhaps altogether saner to the body. The problem with being used to totally clinical drugs is that I wonder if I would try some of it in its original format.

Why do I…

4 Jan

… put myself in odd situations? Now that I feel a bit more settled here and that the weather is too cold most days to do long walks, I have started going back to the gym. After two weeks of procrastination (technically one as we were in the Philippines for Chinese New Year), I finally put on my trainers and sportswear and headed to a 45 minute “Basic Aerobics” class, starting at 19:05. Although I am not at all a fan of aerobics, I thought it would be soft way to re-awaken my numbed muscles.

After making sure I wouldn’t be the only one to attend this class, I went into the studio only to find myself with about 25 mid-aged Chinese women and the male instructor. They obviously all noticed me but never looked directly at me. Conscious of the awkwardness of the situation, I really couldn’t help myself from having a big smile on my face.

The class started with some warm-ups. We then did a few basic moves which I was able to follow fairly well. Then the teacher started to get into a frenzy of various moves, which all formed a routine. I did my best to follow and was able to do it to some extent, but nothing compared to the ten women standing in front of me.

At 19:15, I was out of breath, had a look at the watch and thought I’d never make it until 19.50. I tried to follow the routine, but couldn’t help being distracted by the instructor’s shouting, alternating between “four, three, two, one!!” and “sì, sān, èr, yīīīī!!!!”.

At 19:25, the routine felt more like the behaviour of an overly drunk and excited clubber. I really wanted to get out but made it a point to stay.

At 19:30, although the class was losing more and more people but gaining spectators at the door, the instructor maintained his weird choreography, adding twists and moves and occasionally turning around like a princess with his arms lifted at waist height.

At 19:37, I was really ready to leave but then Madonna’s “Hung up” came up and gave me an extra boost.

At 19:45, it felt like that wretched watch was broken and just would not move to the next minute… At some point, I just gave up and exchanged compassionate and amused smiles with a Chinese lady, also unable to follow.

At 19:50, we were only 10 survivors to leave the class.

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