Monday, March 24, 2008

A Costly Mistake

Last night, the foreigners of Zhanjiang Finance and Trade Secondary School (Janet and myself) along with the foreigners and a pair of Chinese friends from the Zhanjiang Normal University went to a local hotel to celebrate and enjoy an Easter dinner.

At the onset of the meal, we put in food requests and left the handling of the orders up to our Chinese-speaking friends. Among the requests were shrimp, which are found in relative abundance in the waters near Zhanjiang and fairly inexpensive here.

Somehow the hotel staff decided that the large group of foreigners needed something more upscale than common shrimp and we were brought a beautiful lobster dish. From here, the details get a bit murky. I'm not entirely sure if our Chinese friends were not paying attention to the mistake in dishes that was delivered (there were a total of 10 to 12 or so dishes) or what exactly happened, but we began to eat.

After enjoying the meal, the bill was brought and we discovered that the lobster dish alone cost 1000 Yuan! I haven't order lobster in the U.S. lately, but I thought the prices ranged somewhere around $30-$40 perhaps? Our lobster cost an outrageous sum of just over $140 USD!!! That would be expensive for home, but almost unheard of here where most dishes would cost between 20-40 Yuan, even at nice restaurants.

Luckily, there was a total of thirteen of us splitting the tab, but we still ended up getting much more than we had bargained for!

The beautiful and newly infamous "Zhanjiang 1000 Yuan Lobster," served with accompanying bird sculpture made from carrots and pumpkin.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Declining Dollar

It should come as no surprise when I say that the U.S. economy is a mess right now! Runaway government spending has led to inflation and low interest rates discouraged savings and helped lead to the current "sub prime mortgage" crisis. The low interest rates and weakening confidence in the economy have also devalued the price of the dollar abroad.

While this may be good for exporters and the domestic tourism industry, the flip-side of the coin is that imports and travel abroad are becoming more costly. Since one of our major imports happens to be oil, I'm sure you've noticed this at the gas pump.

For a long time, China pegged the price of its currency to the U.S. Dollar. This and an abundance of labor helped the Chinese economy become a major world manufacturer and exporter. Periodically, the peg was changed ever so slightly. Fairly recently, policy changed and the Yuan has been pegged to a "basket of currencies." The result is a more liberal currency that is allowed to make slight adjustments.

When I arrived near the end of June 2007, one U.S. Dollar bought about 7.62 Chinese Yuan. This morning, one U.S. Dollar would buy you 7.083 Yuan. Doesn't sound like a big change? Well, it's an appreciation of 7.05% of the Yuan to the Dollar. When you consider that most banks (brick and mortar) offer about 1.5-2.5% interest for savings accounts, it seems like a larger return.

Using July's rate, my monthly living stipend (paid in RMB) would be worth roughly $524.94. Now my monthly stipend is equivalent to about $564.73, an increase of nearly $40/month. My small living stipend is just a drop in the bucket compared to the large business transactions that occur for Chinese goods each day. When you go to Wal-Mart, what items didn't come from China? The Always Low Prices may soon be increasing...

100 RMB, now worth slightly more than a Hamilton and four Washingtons.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Unrest in the West

I just got back from another great birthday dinner. Kevin wanted to take Janet and me out to celebrate my recent birthday so we introduced him to the new chic restaurant in town, Steqking Kitchen Production. Kevin, who has an extensive network of Zhanjiang connections, has a former student (Rainbow) who works at the restaurant and her manager designated her to be our personal assistant for the evening.

Exciting things about the restaurant include their large array of sushi, good western dishes, both Italian and Caesar salad dressings and being perhaps the only location in town to sell shots and mixed drinks (most bars require you to buy a bottle). Aside from helping us with ordering, Rainbow, after finding out it was my birthday, tried to buy us a cake and arranged to have the restaurant's violinist (I did say new and chic) play a special rendition of Happy Birthday for me.

Arriving back home later in the evening, I checked the news online and saw that the current situation in the far west of China is deteriorating. I thought I would go ahead and post the link now while I can, as it will almost certainly be blocked from the internet here soon... Unrest in the West.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An Orc in New York and Chinese Food

You probably have heard the story of disgraced New York Governor, Eliot Spitzer. While not really pertaining to my stay in China, I couldn't help but post after seeing a picture of the Governor in the Times online.

The first thought that popped into my head was his uncanny resemblance to Gothmog, an orc leader in the Lord of the Rings movie Return of the King.

What do you think?

More related to issues of China, is this article asking, "Is Chinese food as American as apple pie?" The passage discusses uniquely American aspects of "Chinese" food such as General Tso's Chicken and suggests that Chinese may be our favorite ethnic comfort food. The article also reviews and asks follow up questions for the recently released Fortune Cookie Chronicles, which promises to be an interesting read about the history of Chinese food in America.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Arabian Nights comes to Zhanjiang

A few months back, at one of the earlier banquets I went to with the school, one of my Chinese colleagues offered two reasons as to the popularity of the Chinese banquet style. Her first, was that she felt that taking food together from the communal dishes in the center of the table was a more sociable way of eating than having individual plates. The second reason ties in with the first in that this style of eating allows everyone to sample a large number of different dishes as opposed to just a few things. According to her, the Chinese like to have many flavors at each meal.

Our local Pizza Hut has found that incorporating reason two into their menu is generally great for business. About every month, Pizza Hut releases a new "specialty pizza." They throw in just about every topping imaginable and then give it a special theme. Think of it as a supreme pizza on crack. Past pizzas have included the standard toppings alongside some unique additions including pieces of squid, raisins, carrots and more. This seems to have been a remarkable success for Pizza Hut. Almost every time Janet and I go, we are the only people in the restaurant who do not order that month's specialty pizza.

The newest themed dinner available at the Zhanjiang Pizza Hut is "Arabian Nights." Its mainstay, the Arabian Nights Pizza looks to include (I have not actually tried it, just judging from a distance) such diverse toppings as pepperonis, peppers, onions, meatballs, chickpeas and possibly others. Optional accompanying side dishes include Royal Lamb with Couscous, Lamb burger with hummus, Magic Apple Tea and my personal favorite, the Harem Sweetie dessert. This large array of flavors can be available to you for about 80RMB/person (minimum of 2 people), which is fairly expensive for a meal here.

The Arabian Nights Pizza, probably not coming to a Pizza Hut near you...

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Quick Update

First, my textbooks are supposed to finally be in, so I'll be looking forward to picking those up from the office tomorrow. So far, we've been doing some geography work in my classes. Since we are supposed to be learning about Britain and America, I thought a fifty states coloring map would be a good place to start. It is quite interesting how entertained you can keep 15-17 year old students with a handful of markers. Quite different from back home where any high school class would probably mutiny at a coloring assignment. I think the course material is going to be difficult for the students, so I'm going to try the approach of using activities and games to teach it. I mentioned before the challenge of placing yourself in their shows for this - having learned a just a little bit of a foreign language and then having to learn their history and culture in that language.

After we finished with the maps, I did a class game of hangman to try and help the students become familiar with the state names. They enjoyed this, but I found them constantly trying to "cheat" by looking at their maps to match up what states it could possibly be based on the number of letters. I even tried explaining that it was just a game and not a test, but the fear of being wrong was too great (this is one of my complaints about the education system here and will be the subject of an upcoming post)... After the first class, I learned to take away the maps when playing. I also split the class into teams and hung a large map up at the front of the room. After calling out the name of a state, the students would race to show me the location. I'll have to remember for the future that competition in the classroom is a very effective tool!

In other news, Kevin and I briefly became the first foreigners to step foot inside our new Wal-Mart. It apparently will not be opening now until April 17 (disappointing) but we were nearby when a maintenance crew opened the front doors to do some work and we briefly stepped in for a sneak peek before being escorted out. Sometimes the language barrier is fun as we are probably able to get away with things that regular Zhanjiang residents could not.

To end with a note of humor, I found a website today called "Stuff White People Like." Being in America, you may have heard of it already, I know its been mentioned on NPR before (interestingly, there is also a posting on "White People Like Public Radio"). I thought most posts were pretty funny. Worth a visit when you want to kill a little time at the computer.

I'll be back with more soon...

Wednesday, March 05, 2008


(Mangosteen Fruit)

This semester, one of my goals is to be a bit more adventurous in the produce section of our grocery store. Most fruits are available on a seasonal basis and there are always new, strange-looking ones every month or so. My first pick was a delicacy from Thailand (which I missed while there), the mangosteen.

Until just last year, fresh mangosteens were not available in the United States. Now you can find this exotic fruit at some upmarket grocers in big cities but be prepared to pay. A New York Times article from August of last year found the fruit selling for about $45 per pound or $10 per mangosteen. I was lucky enough to be able to pick them up for about $1 per mangosteen; still slightly expensive relative to most other fruits at the store here.

Once back home, it was time to try out my new luxury fruit. The mangosteen has a reddish-purple shell that cracks open to reveal the white fruit hidden inside. The fruit is found in little segments that reminded me of garlic cloves due to the similar shapes. There was a faint floral smell, almost like a very light rose. The creamy flesh reminded me of an overripe peach. And the taste test... the taste is a bit hard to describe, but was sweet and something like a combination of lychees, peaches, and nectar.

Small, but rich, the mangosteen packs a lot of taste. I'll be picking up a few more next time I'm at the store. I'm sure in the future the mangosteen will become more mainstream and the prices will drop a bit. For now, if you'd like to try one also, be sure to stop by the ATM on your way to the grocery store!
(White fruit inside the shell)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Flight Attendants Wanted

I traveled with Air Asia, a regional discount carrier, on my recent trip to Thailand and back. Accommodations were somewhat Spartan and luggage requirements a bit strict, but the prices were pretty good. Lacking any on board entertainment for the two and a half hour flight, I had plenty of time to look over the safety procedures in the seat-back pouch in front of me. Behind it, proved to be an even more interesting find.

It turns out that the airline was soon to be holding walk-in interview for flight attendants in Bangkok. A little brochure listed what they were looking for as well as time and location. I found the qualifications to be interesting...

  • Female age between 20-30
  • Thai nationality only
  • University graduate. Fluent in both written and spoken English
  • Fluent in Mandarin or Cantonese would be an advantage
  • Minimum height (bare-feet) 160 cm
  • Healthy with excellent eyesight (spectacle must wear contact lens only)
  • Good appearance, poised, smart look and well groomed
  • Service minded; cheerful and passionate
I guess it was no accident that the flight attendants all seemed friendly and attractive...

I'm sure the EEOC would have a great time with that if they could expand their jurisdiction.

Monday, March 03, 2008

A Happy Birthday

I'd like to thank everyone that took the time to call or write and wish me a Happy Birthday today.

This is my first birthday so far away from home. A special thanks also goes to Janet for helping to make it a great day.

For some reason, March 3 is not an official holiday in the People's Republic of China and thus I did find myself teaching two classes during the day. Luckily, they went pretty smoothly.

After class, Janet had some presents for me to open at home and then we went to Zhanjiang's one and only five-star hotel for a dinner buffet. We've been to the Crowne Plaza on two previous occasions, but the food this time was by far the best. Dining on upscale and authentic-tasting Western food really made the day!

Thanks again for all of the birthday wishes!