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…

Mooncakes

18 Sep

Those who know me and with whom I have discussed living in China know how enthusiastic and in what state of salivation I can get when speaking about some Chinese cuisines. Not that I have become an expert at it, but after nearly two years I have come to looooooove parts of it. I say parts of it as, I may have mentioned it before in this blog or at least in conversations, when you arrive to China you quickly realise that there is no such thing as Chinese food. China is so wide and diverse (geographically, topographically, climactically, linguistically, etc.) that it is absurd to assume that it is homogeneous in any way – it is after all as big as Europe! This is a common mistake, and one which I was certainly a culprit of before and when arriving here. Thankfully, I’ve realised a few things since then.

So far, I have liked or loved most dishes I have tasted, particularly dishes from the Sichuan (super spicy), Hunan and Yunnan provinces. Fortunately I guess, I can’t say I have been pushed to my relative or absolute limits in terms of tasting bizarre foods. With J., we are regular jellyfish eaters, but we haven’t yet tasted chicken feet or, to address the common and somewhat lame joke, dog, cat, rat, snake, monkey and the likes. Those harsher dishes are not common in Shanghai and known to be more the speciality of the Guangdong province or, in other words, of Cantonese people.

Nonetheless, one common and national, if punctual, pastry I have to admit I do not enjoy are mooncakes. As their name indicates, they are small cakes which are round or square and which look very pretty on the outside. They are generally produced and consumed around this time of the year, in September and October, as part of the Mid-Autumn Festival (literally zhōng qiū jié) honouring the moon goddess of immortality and celebrated on the day of the full moon. During this time, families are meant to come together and eat round foods, such as (round) mooncakes or grapes. In the corporate world, any self-respecting company also usually offers mooncakes to its employees and sometimes clients. So far, J. has received two boxes, one from his own company and one from a supplier. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a third one.

Corporate mooncakes always come in fancy boxes.

Corporate mooncakes always come in fancy boxes. You can barely see it, but the top of this one is embossed.

Mooncake 1

This is our third Mid-Autumn Festival. I have tasted mooncakes when we settled in Shanghai and, since then, I have stayed clear from them. The reason I do not enjoy them is because they are Forrest Gump’s chocolate box, but with far more surprises. First, mooncakes can be savoury or sweet. However, from their shape or colour, there is no way (for us at least) to know what you’re gonna get. Second, you can be in for a big surprise. The mild version comes filled with some sort of bean paste which is either neutral in taste or vaguely sweet. But there are mooncakes filled with cooked egg yolk, maybe even duck egg yolk which can be extremely salty, or worse: fish. The trouble is that when you are expecting bean paste, you taste buds are in for a wild ride if you get fish or egg. J. is far more courageous than me and goes for it with the risks it entails. That’s how I know what’s in them. He did insist that I taste one yesterday, which was filled with sweet coconut paste and was therefore very nice. But it’s the first mooncake bite I had since I got here.

Most likely, egg yolk filling.

Most likely, egg yolk filling.

As in other countries, the year is punctuated by delicacies, dishes and foods that announce the time of a season or some festivities. Next in line in November are the hairy crabs which, unlike the mooncakes, do announce the real arrival of autumn in Shanghai as they coincide with a drop in temperature and, incidentally, are far more appreciated by my palate.

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

The Cult of the Míngpiàn

6 Jul

There are lots of things to unravel about Chinese culture and not least of them is how to do business and how to interact with your Chinese co-workers. There’s a very delicate balance to respect and much of it can be quite opaque for those of us foreigners coming from a Judeo-Christian background. In the latter culture, borders between yes and no, right and wrong tend to be quite well defined and we generally struggle with the grey areas. In Chinese culture, there’s a lot of grey. To start with, there are no words for “yes” and “no” in Mandarin. It feels like a truism to say this now, after having lived a year and a half in China. If you are asked a question, you would reply using the main verb to signify the equivalent of a yes or a no. For example: – “Are you Lebanese?” – “I am.” Yes and no questions are often asked in a positive/negative mode: “You want you don’t want…?”, “Is there isn’t there…?” but then again, because of the lack of single words for yes or no, you answer: “I want” or “I don’t want”, “There is” or “There isn’t”.

To add to this, Chinese people rarely ever refuse to do something or admit that they don’t know how to do it. Fear of losing face I suppose. So they rush into agreeing or saying ok, ok, ok or kěyī, kěyī, kěyī (i.e. I can, I can, I can) and you have to read between the lines to understand that it’s a no. Many foreigners who have worked here will testify to this. I can see it on my students’ faces. I’d ask them if they’ve understood something and they would always say it’s fine even though I can clearly see their faces decomposing.

We were once explained by our French friend S., whose parents are Chinese, that Chinese attitude and interaction are a question of harmony and maintaining an equilibrium amongst all things present or at stake. Therefore, yes and no positions can be a bit brutal for the contextual balance. (S. please feel free to correct me on this.) After having spent over 5 years in Shanghai, he said he was getting better at navigating within this fragile equilibrium and that got him a lot of satisfaction, as he was being able to draw the best out of his team at work.

All this restraint however blows away when it comes to networking. Then Chinese people can become rather forthcoming whereas we first engage in a bit of small talk before getting into the business side of things. At various events, I have noticed that they spot the slightest opportunity to talk to you and immediately ask who you work for and tell you what it is that they do, without much preliminaries. Essential to this process is the exchange of míngpiàn* or business cards. Some of them have those ready in their hands as they start speaking to you. I say hands because manners here require that you exchange business cards with both hands and that the text on the card is oriented towards the recipient. In turn, the latter should receive the card with both hands and read it duly and respectfully before putting it away. Mingpian are so important that everyone should have one and foreigners have in turn started to refer to them as “name cards” – the literal translation of mingpian – instead of the more correct “business card”.

So next time you do business with Chinese people, make sure both your hands are free and never, ever throw your business card nonchalantly across the meeting table.

* To be pronounced mingpyen

The Avocado Lady

30 Mar

In more than one post I have referred to the Avocado Lady. Far from being an elusive character, she is nothing short of a celebrity for the foreigners’ community of Shanghai who regularly go fill up their fridge and pantry at her very unassuming shop in the former French Concession. There you can find all sorts of Western food products as well as fabulous vegetables at really reasonable prices. I think she sometimes has more on offer than expat supermarkets. I never went there to shop and not found what I was looking for! Polenta, couscous, fresh basil, fresh mint, fresh rosemary, parmeggiano, parsnips, San Pelegrino, very good dried fruits, red and green lentils and other pulses, tehini, De Cecco pasta, etc.

The shop is held by two Chinese ladies, but the one with short hair is the one in charge. Just Google: Avocado Lady Shanghai and you’ll see what she looks like. She speaks English or at least knows the English name of all her products and so you can ask her for whatever you want and she’ll find it somewhere in her tiny shop. She’s very friendly and will never hesitate to round down what you owe her which, amongst other things, makes her a great trader. I was told three years or so ago, her shop was half its current size but due to her success and being able to win the loyalty of many foreigners, she’s expanded into the next unit.

She’s been dubbed the Avocado Lady because avocadoes used to be a very rare commodity in Shanghai and she was one of the first to sell them. Now you can find them in many places but the nickname stuck, which comes in handy because her shop, like most fruits and vegetable shops of the city, has no name.

So next time you’re despairing over the expat supermarkets’ prices and complaining about not finding this or that, head to the intersection of Wulumuqi Lu and Wukang Lu and walk southwards on Wulumuqi Lu on the right hand side of the street. Just watch for the many laowai holding blue plastic bags and you’ll spot the place!

The Avocado Lady's shop

The Avocado Lady’s shop

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