Saturday, September 30, 2006

We're still alive

Just in case any of you were watching the news and worried, knowing we were in Vietnam, no, the typhoon didn't even come close to us. It hit central Vietnam, and we're in Southern Vietnam. We went to Can Tho on the Mekong River delta in the very south, and tomorrow we go back to Ho Chi Minh City. We got a little rain, but nothing that would require an umbrella.

More stuff later. Most of the report of what's going on will have to wait until Tuesday, when I can upload my photos onto this blog. But I'll probably post something short when we get back to Ho Chi Minh City. The internet cafe there was challenging because it was set to a Vietnamese keyboard input, which means that when you type certain combinations of letters, it transforms those letters into letters with accents.

You'll see what I mean on the next blog entry.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Hong Kong food and "Chinese food"

I've always loved Chinese food. You know, sweet and sour chicken, Moo Shu pork, broccoli with beef, General Gao's chicken, Garlic beef, etc.

Now, as you might expect, there's a difference between US Chinese food and Hong Kong Chinese food. But it's not that the US Chinese food is made up (well, General Gao's chicken is, but it's not too far from other dishes that are authentic). Rather, it's that what is popular in Hong Kong is very different from what is popular in the US. Almost all of the above can be found somewhere in Hong Kong. But just about none of them is considered "standard fare".

What is standard: noodle soups with various vegetables and seafood, and a hard-boiled egg. Small pieces of pork in a delicious sauce, but every piece has been carefully selected to make sure it has a bone in it. Fish. Lots of fish. Seafood is king here. Eel, squid, jellyfish, and some other things I can't recognize. Mushrooms and other fungi. Cabbage. Pea pods. Steaming hot soups you can sip slowly with your steaming hot tea. Crazy for a place that already has hot weather, but I guess that's what they like. Most of it is in a very bland sauce.

Now, I had been informed that though China has many separate cuisines, the US Chinese food we get is most often from Hong Kong. So I was wondering whether I was misinformed, or whether I was missing out on the "real" Hong Kong food.

It turns out neither is the case. Once, at a restaurant with a bunch of other people (local Hong Kongers and foreigners), a local ordered for the whole table, and we ate family style. Out came a bunch of dishes, including sweet and sour pork. One of the foreigners excitedly asked what that dish was called. "Gu lou yuhk". I recognized the last word, "yuhk" as literally meaning "meat" but "meat" most often means "pork". We got the characters for it so we could recognize it on the menu. Another local asked, "Oh, so you guys like this?" To us, it was obvious that this is far superior to fungi on noodles, but to her, it was all good, and since foreigners didn't like some things, she was surprised we would all like "Gu lou yuhk". I asked whether "Gu lou gaai" meant "sweet and sour chicken", trying my mix-and-match language skills. One local said "yes". Another local repeated it and looked at me with a confused expression. "Sweet and sour chicken?!" Those crazy Americans!

I think chicken is most often served with bones and skin. I don't mean drumsticks. I mean small pieces of chicken with the bones chopped inside it, so you can suck out the marrow. For me (and most Americans), that's too much work. It wouldn't be battered. I suspect this is what she was thinking when I asked about sweet and sour chicken. Generally, I think Hong Kongers are willing to work more for their food than Americans are. I want the process to be efficient. Why bother having the bones there when I can eat it faster without them? They want the process to take some time. Hence the chicken feet that you chew on for hours. You have to search them out to pay the bill. Once I went to an American restaurant with some locals and mainland Chinese, and when the server came to take away our plates, a mainland Chinese person told me that he thought this was rather rude, as if they're saying we should leave. I can imagine many restaurants in the States where they'd say, "Darn right, we want you to leave!"

Later I tried to look for "Gu lou yuhk" on menus. I never found it. A local student I know happened to be eating at the same restaurant I went to, and stopped by my table to see if I needed help with translating the menu. I asked if they had "Gu lou", and he asked them. It wasn't on the menu, but they did have it. This verified to me that "pork" is the only thing you get "Gu lou", so that you don't even have to say "yuhk". It also demonstrated that although everyone knows what it is, generally speaking no one cares to order it, so it's never on the menu. It would be as if foreigners to America hated hamburgers, hot dogs, steak and eggs, french fries, and fried chicken, but loved cole slaw, and ordered it for a meal every time they could.

As an American I think of a dish as primarily what kind of meat it features, then what kind of preparation is has, which includes what vegetables might be on it or what kind of sauce it's in or how it was cooked. I think for Hong Kongers, a dish is primarily a combination of vegetables and seafood, and sometimes there might be meat as a kind of flavorful addition, like one might add garlic or nutmeg to a dish.

And "seafood" is really big here. It's not a matter of whether a dish has seafood. It's whether it has eel, sea cucumber, jellyfish, shrimp, or squid. These are generally bland flavors, and so the sauce used is bland, to make sure you can taste the flavors.

Dessert is a strange concept here. It involves beans. And is not necessarily sweet. Around now, in anticipation for the Mid-Autumn festival, mooncakes (made of hardened bean paste with egg yolks in the middle) are available. These are kind of sweet, but not what you'd expect when you hear "cake". A Hong Kong local told me he didn't like it because it was too sweet.

Tomorrow we head to Vietnam. So I won't be posting here until Tuesday. But then you'll see what we did in Vietnam. So be patient and you will be rewarded.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Singing out

I'm in two choirs here: one at the church, Kowloon International Baptist Church, and the other is the University (Hong Kong Baptist University) student choir.

The student choir is predictably more challenging, but they're both lots of fun. The KIBC choir is singing a Michael W. Smith piece for Christmas, and we've got a lot of music for the student choir, including Beethoven's 9th symphony (which we haven't practiced yet but the choir part for that is fairly short anyway) and a piece written by an HKBU music prof. for the HKBU 50th anniversary bash. We've also got a Negro spiritual. I don't know whether the students here have the cultural background to know what this is about. But they're not getting the sound. Yet.

This is my best opportunity to get into the local culture, since in my classes, I only teach Pepperdine students. I've met a few fellow basses, and there's the same fun camaraderie that there is in a student choir in the US. They're not so physical but they're just as rambunctious.

Asians have a reputation for being shy and reserved. But when they're among peers, the Hong Kongers can be quite gregarious and loud. Especially when the teacher's not in the room and this is especially true about the guys. You don't have random tenors showing off their singing in silly ways (like Dominic Falbo at Pepperdine) but you do have boisterous chatter about random things. About what? I don't know--it was in Cantonese.

I would say that the sight reading abilities are higher than those I've seen in student choirs in the States. That's probably because many more of them know how to play the piano, for instance. But as we are reading through some songs in English, many of them (predictably) have trouble. They can all speak English, but not at the same speed, while also trying to read the notes. So they sign nonsense syllables when they're learning the music.

I did play a role in correcting people's pronunciation. The kinds of pronunciation issues are very different. In the HKBU Prof's piece, there's a part where the text is, "My heart will praise you without ceasing". Some students were voicing the "s" in "ceasing", so that it sounded like they were singing, "My heart will praise you without seizing". Yes. Very different.

I tried to make a joke of it, but I don't think people understood it. They didn't quite get what "heart seizing" would mean. Or "heart ceasing".

This is all very natural to a native speaker, but I realized how difficult this can be for a non-native speaker. Neither "cease" nor "seize" are common words in conversation, and very often, an undoubled continuant consonant between two vowels is voiced, as in "bruised", "bathing", "rising", etc., and you need to have a double consonant to make it unvoiced, as in "passed", "missed", "possum", etc. But then there's "facing", "based", and, well, "ceasing".

I'm glad I'm a native English speaker, struggling with learning Cantonese, rather than the other way around.

At the church, Angie (the music director) was coaching everyone to sing "In excelsis Deo" with a pure "i", as in "een" rather than "inn". That's a common frustration for teaching Latin phrases to English speakers. But it only affected the folks from the US. The native Tagalog and Cantonese speakers in the choir usually make the reverse mistake: when speaking English, saying "een" for "in".

Back to the student choir, we had sectionals, meaning the men and women met separately to practice their respective parts. The conductor had to depend on individual students to help her run the rehearsal. The student guest conductors ran the rehearsal in Cantonese. I had some help from the people around me to figure out what was said, but I think I missed most of it. At least I know the numbers so I could know where what measure we were starting on.

The first day, the conductor made announcements about class policies. Apparently tardiness is a big problem. The section leaders suggested a HK$10 fine for being tardy. One student pointed out that this is in conflict with HKBU regulations on student payments. The conductor asked for suggestions. One that was suggested, and most people liked, was the tardy student would have to sing a solo in front of the class. This seemed to be viewed as quite a deterrent. I don't think it would be a deterrent in the States. It was used once during warmup, and a student had to do a warmup arpeggio by himself, and was visibly embarassed.

Even when asked to guest conduct, the students were in general shy to get up in front of the class, but once the guest conductors were there, they had no problem with poise. One time, when the professor started with the women's choir, the appointed student conductor came to the front and aped the conductor, using his falsetto, copying the professor's phrases in English, to comic effect. I think the shyness might be an act.