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Consumptiopn 2: Eating

We ate our first food in Shanghai on a campus tour with Cai. She steered us past important landmarks, emphasized cafeterias tucked into dorm buildings.  She had been an undergrad at SHNU and gave us her best-place recommendation.  It was the brightly lit, expansive dining room closest to the west gate.  One of the extended airport pick up group took us to the only counter open at the time.  Mr. ? signaled for the kerchiefed woman to scoop Shengjian bao (Shanghai pan-fried pork buns speckled with tiny black sesame seeds), crowded like monkey bread in a tub-sized wok, into a waxed paper bag for Liam.  Liam played the “Mikey hates everything kid,” took a cautious bite and was sold.  He would make the pork buns the mainstay of his eating on campus. He would hurry to the counter to count the buns, making sure he wasn’t stuck with the short end of the morning’s batch. The same server would always be there, as though she were waiting for my son.  She smiled at him with the look of a would-be kindergarten teacher stuck working at a job serving time-of-their-life college students and filled his plate with more buns than he ordered. 

The food service counters in the dining hall were assembled along one wall and wrapped around the back of the room.  The signs hanging above the counters differentiated one seller from the next.  The colors helped.  Cai asked us midway through our stay if we found we had a preference for one counter over another.  I was sheepish.  I had not yet come to differentiate one seller from another.  It was McDonalds vs. Burger King.

The sign for the canteen opening tells us that “you can have more choices,” but the pictures suggests a game of Othello.  Place one small green foody circle on a square and it’s green, place another one on the board and it flips to brown.  Another turn and it’s green again.  For Liam and me, it all was somewhat interchangeable.

The campus offered one restaurant catering to its international student and faculty population.  We photographed the helpful bilingual menu and figured we could puzzle over the Chinese characters back in our room where we had internet access and could check the online dictionary.  The Korean on the right-hand side of the menu was not helpful.  For us, anyway.

Students ate on campus using meal cards issued by the school.  A kiosk by the ATMs allowed them to refill their cards.  We were given a card when we got there and were told that the card itself would be replaced before we left if we wanted it as a souvenir.  I could only then imagine hacking into the Chinese banking system through a card previously used only to buy plates of dumplings and bowls of noodles.

But not all eating was done on campus. A short stretch of Guilin Road, immediately outside the campus gate, was lined with food shops that offered skewered meats and vegetables ready for the open-air soup pot and curb-side griddles where men in quilted jackets and white aprons expertly filled crepe-like rounds with assorted chopped foods and ladles of sauce.  In addition to the storefronts, there were street vendors who seemed to have no permanent position on any particular corner and whose offerings varied from day to day.  One day a cart brimming with fresh roasted yams called to the hungry and hurrying students, another day an outdoor burner cooked up popcorn on the spot.

I learned what a pomelo is in Shanghai.  Carts were full of the over-sized, glossy yellow and irregularly shaped citrus that I had mistaken for large grapefruits when I first saw them for sale in fruit stands on Avenue U in Brooklyn.  The taste was surprising in that it was much less sour than a grapefruit and completely satisfied a craving for something sweet in large doses.  Without its thick skin a pomela is half the fruit you thought you were buying, but its size still rivaled any other citrus fruit you might have tried. One day I peeled a pomelo, took a bite from a section and was amused by the abominable snowman that appeared in my hand. A colleague whose family immigrated to the US from Canton knew the Pomelo well and told me that his family used the bitter pith in a pork dish. They burnt the spongy white flesh and then mixed it with pork fat.  Nothing ever wasted, especially in a family that had survived the cultural revolution.

Related to the street food sold on the corners of Shanghai’s modern and heavily trafficed intersections, tourist areas of the older parts of town with cramped streets that had no vehicle traffic had shops selling local favorites. 

Glutinous rice is synonymous with historic Shanghai food.  We were impressed by the strength of the vendor pounding what appeared to be a small, spongy mattress of glutinous rice that he would shape and fry into several types of dessert logs.  We ate them in the small garden of a small museum, stretching the elastic food from our mouths and completing each bite with some trouble.

Despite an abundance of food sold on the streets of China, a concern for sanitary conditions would sometimes mark a meal.  More than one restaurant we ate at set its tables with shrink-wrapped dish, cup and bowl sets.

I crave one food from Shanghai more than anything.  We finished off the opening reception lunch after many courses with a crunchy, yellow corn cake, sliced and served like Chicago-style pizza off a black griddle. I found the cakes again when touring Qi Bao, an old section of Shanghai, occasionally pointed to as a consolation prize for Shanghai tourists who wouldn’t have a chance to get to Suzhou. Qi Bao has its canals and densely packed tourist streets.  Near the entryway to a town square show-casing a two-story, man-made rock mountain and waterfall, a vendor sat selling at least three versions of corn cakes: black corn (cooked up as a lovely lavender cake), the orangey-yellow cakes I remembered from the reception, and white cakes.  All were crunchy and sticky, like Rice Krispy treats with a less sugary sweetness.

I searched determinedly when back home for the name of the cakes, expecting I would find them for sale at one Chinese neighborhood or another, but lost hope after a time and began to recognize that these nameless corncakes, in coats of many colors, would be a thing in my life treasured for the time and place when I could have and enjoy them easily and only dream about them afterwards.

The ultimate street food may be what is found when foraging in street-less parks and woodlands.  My introduction to the concept of foraging came in a typically New York manner, and therefore not a typical manner at all.  Years ago I heard the so-called “Wildman” Steve Brill interviewed on the radio.  The Wildman led city folk through Central Park pointing in all directions to the previously unknown (to those signed on for the tour) ingredients for a complete and nutritious dinner.  I think Brill cautioned his followers against denuding the public park with their insatiable appetites, but I can’t say that I have seen an overwhelming number of foragers in New York City parks.

In China it felt different.  It felt as though the elderly couple I saw foraging on the foothills of the Fruit and Flower Mountain in Lianyungang had been gathering onion grass for their whole lives, had gathered it in the company of their own elderly grandparents, and had learned the ways of including nature’s free offerings in their vegetable dishes without ever listening to a human interest story on American public radio.

In contrast to dining in nature, we ate out at many restaurants in China. We visited Suzhou, “the Venice of China,” with our student guide Sharon.  Sharon was always concerned that she should save us money and after our four hour visit to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, Sharon let us across the pedestrian mall to a tiny restaurant with a narrow interior that zig-zagged back towards a wall with a wide window opened onto the canal.  The mismatched furniture of the restaurant was not the conscious work of a designer, but made use of what was available at the time the owner opened the place. 

The restaurant in Suzhou called to mind a tiny restaurant strip in Brooklyn, not on the now-popular Smith Street, but on Courtelyou Road in Ditmas Park.  Among the half dozen trendy restaurants found there is the Farm on Adderly, which got its name, the story goes, “from an expression that [the owner] grew up with in South Africa that basically means a long shot. Adderley is a main thoroughfare in Cape Town and  to have a farm there is somewhat of an impossibility. ‘If that ever happens I’ll buy you a farm on Adderley.’”  (

The Farm serves odd, yet surprisingly successful, combinations of foods: poached farm egg with wheatberries and kale, oatmeal with butternut squash and chilies, chocolate brioche with sea salt and butter.  Bentwood chairs sit side-by-side with wrought iron garden chairs and tuck under a variety of marble-topped, baked enamel and country kitchen wooden tables. 

In Suhou the furniture was mismatched, but the food was predictably Chinese.  We ordered every dish individually and it came out on a variety of crockery.  The view over the canal was entertaining but required turning around from our table, leaning out the window and craning our necks to see the off-duty gondola oarsmen dressed in loose blue pajamas and conical straw hats chatting it up from boat to boat.

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Following our formal farewell banquet, some friends from work invited Liam, Nell and me to eat at a favorite hot pot restaurant, Hai Di Lao (  We caught a bus close to the college and rocked our way to the Gubei section of Shanghai. We got off at what our friends thought was the stop we needed and walked back and forth along one street several times before the natives admitted that they had no idea where the restaurant was.  This was always our experience in Shanghai.  Shanghai is a city with a landscape that changes daily as new buildings go up, lots get filled in and the locals find their sense of direction all askew. We didn’t need to be on our own to be lost.  We were just as sure to have our nose in a map or to be listening to one of our guides repeat questions into a cell phone while trying to steer a course as we were to be on our own trying to place the Chinese characters for east and west on a road sign.  The kids and I took some photos by the gumby-like Haibao statue posed at the entry way to a shopping court. Meanwhile, XiaoXia, Ma and George puzzled over street signs, store signs and a cumbersome, foldout map, hungry and ready for lunch.

Once we got our bearings, we headed to the second floor of a newly constructed, mixed use building with spacious hallways and an eager line of servers waiting to greet us as we entered Hai Di Lao.  Manicure cubicles to the right, internet stations to the left. There was even food, an impressive condiments table and an acrobatic waiter spinning out long noodles to the table on our right.  When leaving the restaurant, we caught nearly the entire crew of servers following the steps of an exercise instructor twisting to some upbeat music and toning up the muscles midway through their workshifts.  It was hard to imagine McDonalds back on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn caroling the staff throughout the day to run through a “good-for-you” cheerleading routine to flex those tired muscles and perk up the spirits.

Hai Di Lao is one of many businesses filling up a rapidly expanding, new business district in Shanghai.  The Chinese are embracing a culture of disposable income and putting up elaborate restaurants in what would have been, before the advent of private car ownership, the most unlikely places.  On the long drive through the mountains to reach the Great Wall of China, we passed this outpost, gaily decorated with dozens of welcome lanterns, a large parking lot, and no doubt an extensive menu.

Westerners visiting China today are more than likely to be treated to a banquet at some point on their trip.  As an honored visitor at SHNU, I was treated royally to a welcoming lunch and a farewell lunch held at the college.  My son and I also enjoyed an elaborate meal in a private room at a restaurant in the city that housed his orphanage. Each meal was marked by an endless procession of dishes, ordered by someone at some point prior to our arrival.  It was rarely easy to understand when we had come to the end of the meal, although a fruit course was usually the signal that the meal was ending.  There were no fortune cookies, of course (for the interesting history of this and other Chinese food customs in the Americas, see Jennifer 8 Lee’s Hunt for General Tso’s, a 2008 Ted talk).  We were asked after many courses during each of these meals if we wanted rice.  I had been told that rice was always offered at the end of a banquet or not offered at all as a sign of the wealth of the host who could fill you first with expensive meat dishes and did not need to rely on rice for sustenance.

Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai, a formal and ancient Chinese garden sits cheek in jowl with apartment buildings sporting the ubiquitous hanging laundry.  Near the entry way to the gardens, one finds also the Yuyuan Bazaar.  Tourists have many opportunities to shop for souvenirs and to eat.  We chose a second floor restaurant on the day we visited and puddle-hopped over to escape the rain.  Climbing the open staircase to reach the place, we previewed the menu pictured on the walls around us and couldn’t take our eyes off the Purple Osmanthus Taro the Ddtemple We ordered it as well and were disappointed in its mild taste and mealy texture.  The color, though, is unforgettable.

Other unusual food included the snacks sold at the Laiyifen shop on campus.  The store consisted of a long wooden display opened to passersby as rows of wooden compartments dividing up an array of small, mystery, packaged delectables.  Two gloved and hair-netted women stood bored and waiting behind the counter, ready to weigh out and bag the student orders. The varieties of dried fruit and nuts were identifiable, but many items were tempting and totally obscured by their vacuum-sealed packaging.  In my photos you can make your best guess, as I did, for what you think will hit the spot after dinner or as a mid-day snack.  The company web site reveals many of the secrets.  It displays each tempting item as it might appear on your banquet table.  I chucked a number of the delicacies I thought I would try after visiting the Laiyenfen snack stand, but there was one snack I truly did enjoy that will live with corn cakes as something I just can’t get in the US.  These were the Nan Zo He Tao Gao (南枣核桃糕) or Nanzo Walnut Cakes.  I always worked at peeling away the thin, tissue paper coating wrapped around these chewy snacks, first pulling off tiny shred with my fingers, trying then with my teeth and finally giving up when I realized that eating the treat, paper and all, did not seem to make a difference.  Google translate lists edible rice paper as one of the ingredients in the Nanzo cakes, so I am sure the paper coating is meant to be eaten and is just there so that you can slip the candy out of its plastic package.  These things are really yummy, but all I can find about the company and the United States is web sites that point to the unfortunate incident of someone’s finding a squashed fly in his leiyifen packaged pork jerky.

Our first meal out in Shanghai at a fancy place was at Din Tai Fung, a modern, chrome and glass restaurant in the Xintiandi mall.  The mall was notably empty for a Saturday evening.  The only people in most of the stores were stylishly dressed sales women standing guard over coach handbags and Calvin Klein underwear.  The crowd waiting for tables at Din Tai Fung, however, was sizeable.  The New York Times gave the place a rave review in 2007, (  Food writer Daisann McLane commented over her own surprise at finding the best of Shanghai’s noted dish, xiao long bao (little basket dumplings), in a mall, of all places.  A friend who had made the CUNY-Shanghai exchange trip before me had recommended that we try the place.  It seemed to me to be out of our league even as we entered the empty mall, but when  the hostess at the restaurant covered our knapsacks and packages with a chair cover especially designed for this task, I knew we would need to put on our best manners (Liam did not), and not eat with our fingers.  The food was good.  They took our American credit card.  It was not cheap.

I, like Disanne McClane, also expected the best of the local to be found on some back street in some small, one table restaurant.  Xiao Xia suggested we stop at one of her favorite bun shops down the street from the Shanghai Public Library we had just visited.  This, I imagined, was a close as we were going to get to Shanghai authentic, the natives know it and love it. I don’t know the know the name of the stand, if it is one of a kind or a chain, but you can see the big wicker steamers on either side of the counter and the local people gathered around at lunch time.

Another fine dining experience was in Beijing, when Nell was with us and we went in search of Peking Duck.  The internet battle of opinions and the location of our hotel made Da Dong the best choice.  Da Dong is famous for getting the fat out of its duck.  Reservations were a must and the presentation screamed nouvelle cuisine.  Large dishes, small portions artfully displayed.  Both Nell and I took many pictures and I’m sorry that Liam missed the final presentation of the oranges.  They were served with leaves and branches on misty dry ice, looking like a park on a foggy day.  The duck itself required the showmanship of a masked chef, carefully carving and re-constructing a three-dimensional mound of faux duck and his female accompanist explaining how to fill both the wrap and the sesame seed bun.

Despite enjoying the authentic Chinese experiences of buns and Peking Duck, we had our share of western food when the craving for yeasty breads and rich cheeses got the better of us.  A visit to the basement 2 level of the Xintiandi mall led us to the Bazaar Supermarket and below the elegant Shanghai Theater, where Liam’s well-spoken and somewhat cynical sitter, John, was volunteering for the jazz festival, we found the City Shop (  We visited Bazaar a few weeks before Halloween.  Halloween is not a big holiday in China, but a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai and a western grocer like Bazaar would not let the holiday pass unnoticed.  A pushcart set up at the entryway offered as many rubbery horror masks and plastic, “blood” covered spears and javelins that we might have found had we been back home cruising the aisles of CVS or Walgreens. Visiting the Bazaar Supermarket satisfied even the simple need to see loaves of French bread.  Its sectional design allowed for an immersion experience with whatever culture or country a particular cluster of shelves supported.  Nationalities not often in harmony on the grander scale of things, co-existed peacefully side by side in markets designed for Americans dying for cheez whiz and Nabisco crackers.  These western markets seem to redefine the word “gourmet.” Suddenly taco chips seem exotic and the price tag underscores the status.  The ten dollar impulse buy of Tostitios Scoops, sent me running to compose an email to Nell, arriving from the States the following week, encouraging her to bring another bag as part of her carry-on luggage as she made her $1000 flight.

We satisfied our pizza craving one day with lunch at That’s Amore.  I didn’t want to go to Pizza Hut, although there are enough of them in Shanghai, and wasn’t interested in Papa John’s, oddly easily identified even when the signs were in Chinese, so found this place near Taikang Road, well recommended and about to close down lunch service when we arrived. The owners, émigrés from Naples, were gracious in keeping the kitchen opened and served us a delicious pizza.  Our Chinese companion, perhaps put off by the high prices and not wanting to be a burden on me, refused to order any food and my son was a little disappointed that he wasn’t being served New York style pizza.  The roof-top patio that opened above this fifth floor restaurant, was a glorious place to visit and stretch out on gargantuan lawn chairs. 

A couple of odder moments that I associate with eating at That’s Amore include:

  • asking the wait staff if we could take home the leftover bread in our bread basket (no we could not, and this had to get you wondering when you grew up in an American restaurant culture and we are told that any uneaten food left on a table by departing diners gets tossed) and
  • arguing with our Chinese companion about whether it was appropriate to tip the wait staff (I had read, not necessary in Chinese restaurants but appropriate in western restaurants, the owner assured me it was appropriate, and as I later learned from our companion, the staff told her that the owner would pocket any tips).  Oh, well.

We were not very successful in finding American food in China if this meant anything other than McDonalds or KFC.  No meatloaf and mashed potatoes or macaroni and cheese at a diner. One thing that was surprising about the American chains in China was that who knew they delivered?


We did enjoy eating at one unusual restaurant.  Sarah. Sarah is odd in that it has only two locations in Shanghai, both on the campuses of Shanghai Normal University.  In fact, Sarah is located in the library on the Fengxian campus. Sarah offers an international menu, easy to read with large photographs and clear descriptions in English.  The first time we ate there we had little trouble ordering and the food came out promptly.  We dined outside on a patio that was build over the entryway to the library.  A few tables with no umbrellas and no ambient vegetation invited diners who didn’t mind the sun and preferred little  company.  The second time we ate at Sarah, we moved from the deck to the inside because of the blinding sun.  We were somewhat of a large group, about eight of us, and each dish came out painfully slowly, so that by the time the last person got her meal, the first person was done eating and wondering if it was worth ordering dessert.  The restaurant would never survive a New York minute, but it was a welcome site on our campus after one too many noodle dishes and a craving for French fries.

I couldn’t resist including this shot of the Bologni bus in this section on food.   Who would expect bologna in China?  It sure ain’t Oscar Meyer!

I’ll end this discussion of dining in China with a pair of photos that I enjoy seeing coupled.  We stayed at a fine hotel in Beijing, but didn’t get a deal that included breakfast.  That seemed like it would work best for us, since none of us is an early riser and the thought of rushing to wake up and dress to catch a free meal was not appealing.  We had had breakfast buffets in Lianyungang.  They were included in our tour package.  In fact, heading to breakfast at the Yuntai Hotel put us in touch with the few westerners we ever saw in that lesser-known city.  We ran into an orthodox Jewish man with a British accent one morning and wondered where exactly he would be able to eat, and we noticed a blond senior couple eating by the window overlooking the entry to the hotel at a table for four in an otherwise empty restaurant.  I wondered at the time what had brought them to Lianyungang but didn’t ask.

One day when staying in Beijing we were scheduled to join a tour going out to the great wall so we decided to try the hotel breakfast buffet since we had to wake up early anyway to catch our bus.  I remembered many stories of Chinese hotel breakfast buffets from the days of planning for Liam’s adoption.  Standard practice for American families adopting in China has been to check in to the White Swan Hotel for the final days of paperwork processing in Guangzhou and feast each morning until bursting on a magnificent breakfast buffet.  My ex traveled to China alone to bring Liam home and so I never had my chance at the famous White Swan buffet.  So now, at the Prime Hotel in Beijing, Nell, Liam and I had our chance to eat hardy and so we did.

I love to compare our dishes.  Mine, full of green things and Chinese noodles, Nell’s, American with sausages, eggs and pancakes scarfed down with a lovely expression more fitting on the face of an American teen.

Enough with food and eating. Let’s go shopping now.


Consumption 1: Tea

I described my still photos in the Prelude as creating a moving image of events. I did film video, too, of some of what I saw. The tea brewing in the glass was worth a movie.

Tony brought the glass of tea to me from the library cafe counter. The tea was as it must be when harvested, moist and vibrant green. Like koi jamming the surface of a garden pond when a visitor arrives with bread crumbs, the leaves massed on the surface but then broke rank in ones and twos. They pitched langidly downward where they formed a bed at the bottom of the glass.

I was mesmerized watching the slowly falling leaves. The image became an opening metaphor in a presentation I would later make of slowly discovering China piece by piece. The tea video as an opening paralleled nicely, too, with the Chinese tradition of greeting one another, “你吃饭了吗” (nǐ chīfàn le ma), “Have you eaten yet?” Always begin with a reference to food.

My hosts at the university were fond of pouring me tea whenever I arrived at the office. It seemed important to them that I should always have a full cup. Lei quizzed me at first as to whether I had brought my own mug, but seeing that I had not, dug into her supplies for a ribbed, disposable plastic cup. She did this every day until the day she arrived at the office after me, and she saw that I had already helped myself.

Preparing the tea at work was simple. Lei would pour hot water from a large, black thermos and then added a pinch of leaves. On the day I added my own leaves when offered, Lei exclaimed in surprise that I liked my tea strong. Used to having my tea portion controlled in a post-it-sized, permeable bag, cast stringed or stringless into a cup, I hastened to apologize for what might appear to be greediness with my host’s tea. Lei smiled and went ahead anyway, filling my cup with water.

I remembered to take a photograph of a plastic cup still with its leaves that I took back to my room one evening. The first shot is a bird’s eye view.

The second shot is from the side. You can see an electric tea kettle in the background through the plastic cup. The kettle was one third of the kitchen fixtures Liam and I used in the hotel room that was our international campus housing during our time in Shanghai. The rest of our kitchen was made up of a small refrigerator and a bathroom sink. We got adventurous one day and made noodles in our tea kettle. Food was so inexpensive, however, in any of the campus cafeterias that it was almost cheaper to buy prepared food than to cook our own ramen. But cooking ramen in an electric kettle is so right for college life. The college life of a 53 year old woman and her nine year old roomie, AKA her son.

At my office in New York I keep a mug or two for everyday use, as does Lei in her office at Shanghai Normal University, as does Ye Zhu, the foreign languages cataloger I visited one morning at the SHNU Xuhui campus.

Ye Zhu has worked at the Shanghai Normal University Library for about a year. She has a masters in Japanese and her desk reflects a Japanese orderliness. Of the few things on the desk other than her work, Ye Zhu had a calendar that I saw on any number of desks in the library offices I visited. The margarine-yellow photo of a bed, inexplicably featured for October in the vendor-supplied calendar is the same color as Ye Zhu’s eyeglass case. The Hummelesque figurine pencil cup, the small thermos decorated with an image from a popular Chinese children’s cartoon, Pleasant Goat and Big Bad Wolf and the ceramic tea cup with its philosophic message, “Wonderland Love has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, like new!” all evoke Japanese Harajuku Girl culture cast as Hallmark-worthy collectibles.

Lei’s black thermos, Ye Zhu’s Pleasant Goat thermos and the thermos filling stations on the campuses of the colleges I visited. Perhaps this storing of hot water so that it is not so hot after all allows for me to drink the tea from plastic cups and watch tea brew in ordinary drinking glasses. I learned somewhere that you can’t pour boiling water into glass and certainly not into thin plastic cups, but in China, from a thermos, the water is no longer boiling. I feel like I am in a culture of hot water wells, where the village women gather in a central spot to collect the water for their tea and then store as best they can to protect its precious warmth. When the hot water is gone, they will need to make another trip to the well.

My CUNY colleague told me that in her campus housing at Shanghai University residents were not allowed to boil water in their rooms. Like the students, she left her room with a large thermos and went down to the first floor of her dorm to draw from a central hot water tap. The village watering hole.

Tea is still central for the Shanghaiese I met. The assistant director of the library, Ms. Hu, came exhuberantly into Lei’s office one day with two boxes, a box of Lipton’s “red” tea (we would call it black) and a box of coffee packets. With much exclaiming and smiling all around, Ms. Hu presented the boxes as gifts to Lei, Ma and Xiao Xia, all the employees present. I understood the ritual, though the language escaped me, and wondered about the new place coffee was coming to occupy in the lives of the Chinese. And what was happening to tea. Tea bags? Ms. Hu’s Lipton might have come from an American supermarket. My hosts, so far, had always offered me loose tea.

Remember the opening video. I am the one admiring the falling tea leaves in the glass. My companion Tony, nee Tang, is stirring a cafe latte in an oversized cup.

Below pictured is a sign in Beijing, in plain English, inviting in the plentiful coffee drinkers. The store is named Serendipity Coffee which gives it even more western appeal, for me that is, being reminded there on the streets of China of the restaurant back in the Bloomingdale’s district of Manhattan where they serve frozen hot chocolate amid lacy long dresses hung for sale and display at the restaurant Serendipity 3.

In another shot, taken an hour’s drive from Beijing, a large cafe dominates the plaza leading up to the Mityanu Great Wall. Italian coffee supersedes tea. In the background we can see that plastic resin chairs displace any wrought iron, twisted wire or rattan garden benches that might grace a similar western cafe found in the charming countryside. Mutianyu did not need so much charm. It has the great wall instead. And coffee. Italian coffee.

With the next photo, our China excursion takes a u-turn for another cup of tea back at SHNU. The conference center, a fancy place, where the abundance of Chinese human capital is put to work graciously slipping umbrellas into slim plastic bags on the day we arrive in the rain.

I went to the conference center for a final presentation to the library staff. The teacup is capped, I opened it for my first sip and had trouble remembering to cover the cup each time I drank from it. Am I supposed to do that? I search for the answer and find the Etiquette Scholar. I decide that the cup is a hybrid of a Chinese cup called a gaiwan, 盖碗. The gaiwan dates back to the Ming Dynasty and typically is a lidded, handleless tea bowl. The Etiquette Scholar instructs us:

“To drink from the gaiwan, use the thumb and index finger of your left hand to hold the lid by its knob, and let the other three fingers follow the curve of the gaiwan, Tilt the lid slightly away from your lips so that it serves as a filter holding back the leaves as you drink the liquid. The cup is never removed from the saucer.”

I doubt I could have mastered the maneuver, having failed to replace the cover on my first try. And what would I have done with the cookie cutter, circuit board patterned coaster?

I loved the loose tea I drank so much while working in Shanghai, that I asked for the names of what I was drinking a couple of times. When Cai, the foreign language reading room librarian spent a day with me comparing cultures, politics and little bit of library practices, and her office mate Kai (point of information, Kai is pronounced with the hard “K” sound and Cai is pronounced “T-sigh” (sort of)) offered me tea, I enjoyed the mellow, vegetable-flavored tea enough to comment. Kai surprised me by showing up the next time I came by with a tin of the tea I liked.

I also liked the hot tea served at the restaurant we ate at across from the Yuyuan Gardens and asked for the name of that tea. The clerk seated behind the beverage display wrote out the characters I would need to find the tea again. So when my daughter Nell came to join us in Shanghai and we headed out to the shopping malls, I passed a mall tea shop and went in to see if I could find the tea.

The saleswomen in the store knew immediately what we wanted, Oolong, 乌龙, as it turned out, but it was not enough to simply sell us the tea. These diligent clerks needed to serve us the tea, and perform an extended ritual of brewing, pouring, re-brewing and pouring again. The tea was steeped in a small, round, brown pot and served in tiny companion Yixing stoneware cups. The costumed and well-rehearsed clerk who served us agreed reluctantly to be photographed at the scene. Her face shows some of her discomfort, which surprised me, given her role as a performer on what was beginning to look more and more like a stage set.

Retail is thriving in China. From cubby-hole variety stores on busy streets, stores that grown dark as the day ends and no interior lights are turned on to elegants stores named for a single international brand, shops abound in China. Not only did we pay big time for fancy packaging of Oolong tea, we didn’t leave the store until we had tried several types of tea snacks first and bought a half dozen boxes to weigh down our luggage on the trip home.

As I discovered back at home, the store, Ten Ren, is an international chain. I searched online to resupply the green tea candies we bought there, learned they were out-of-stock at the U. S. supplier Uncle Lee’s, was contacted by an Indian supplier that was insistent on selling me some other snack, and discovered a Ten Ren shop on Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Tea tins available for upward to $120. Dozens of loose teas also for sale, arrayed behind the glass-topped counter in golden urns. Tea in colors, black, white, green, tea in shades, King’s 319 Dark 2nd Grade, King’s 919 Dark 3rd Grade, teas that lived their long lives to reach the shelves as Aged King’s Tea selling in a limited editon, for $108 for a half pound presented in a satin-lined box.

I knew even as I shopped for tea in the mall’s store that what I really should be doing was going to some open air market and finding sacks of tea where I could scoop our bagsful for a song. A market something like the one pictured below, only this place was selling a full color palate of rice.

I didn’t realize what a fine tea city Shanghai was until we left. In Lianyungang where we visited for three days we had the surprising experience at a restaurant of asking for the hot water pot on our table to be replaced with a pot of tea. The waiter looked at us peculiarly, as though we were in an German pub asking for milk, shrugged his shoulders and told our guide that the restaurant had no tea.

Lightening our load during the big pack up to get ready to leave after four weeks of souvenir shopping and working in Shanghai, we ditched about half a box of tea bags we had bought in the campus grocery. Wanting tea for the hot water we could boil in the electric tea kettle we had in our Beijing hotel, we missed those tea bags but found we could buy loosie, 4 yuan a piece tea bags (60 cents each) in a small fruit and vegetable store down the block. The price was still way cheaper than what we had to pay for the tea tempting us from the hotel room snack bar. Beware of the water. It was close to $10 a quart.

Regardless of whether we wanted to drink tea, hot water is always brewing in China. Our seat mate on the plane going over was Chinese and when offered hot drinks after a meal always asked for hot water. It reminded me of Duke Ellington, the first person I had ever heard of who drank hot water rather than coffee or tea. Reuse your leaves enough times and you will approximate this flavor. I do that.

Americans are considered odd in China for their preference for cold drinks. The Chinese picture Americans with water bottles in hand at all times, and they could be right. Nonetheless, it is not all always hot water or tea. Outside the Palace Museum, or the Forbidden City, we saw a cold drink vending machine which impressed me with its customized front.

Liam, Nell and I checked out of our visiting faculty and student campus hotel at the beginning of November. Xiao xia helped us with the final paper work. We were charged ten yuan, or about $1.50 for a tea cup we had broken. There was no charge for the time we jammed the sink stopper in the bathroom sink and locked the bathroom door so that we couldn’t get back into it once we left. I’ll have to describe the communication challenges those two incidences offered us. But some other time.

Next, food.

Ignore this:
(Parking here: still searching for something about a sign at a grocery store in bj, but I can’t find the picture now).

China’s C3’s

I went to China on an educational exchange. I work for the City University of New York (CUNY) and between 2009 and 2011 CUNY offered eight library faculty resident scholarships at Shanghai University and Shanghai Normal University. Another CUNY librarian and I were the last two to travel. During the two years of the exchange program, CUNY also hosted visiting Chinese librarians.

My visit to China focused on academic libraries but I also learned other things about higher education in China.

I learned that China does not have an ivy league, but they do have the recently established C9 league. I visited one of the C9 league schools while in Shanghai, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

The C9 universities include:

Fudan University, Shanghai
Harbin Institute of Technology, Heilongjiang
Nanjing University, Jiangsu
Peking University, Beijing
Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai
Tsinghua University, Beijing
University of Science and Technology of China, Anhui
Xi’an Jiao Tong University, Shaanxi
Zhejiang University

I learned later on the trip that older pronunciation of the name of the Chinese capital of Beijing as Peking has stuck to two things: Peking University and Peking Duck. Add to that list the Peking Opera.

Try renaming “Hah-vud” in Cambridge or “hot dawgs” in the Bronx when new accents take over the hood and it just won’t work. Long-standing pronunciations in certain contexts are here to stay. So Peking University is Peking University and not Beijing University and it holds its esteemed position as one of the spokes in the wheel of the C9 league.

I like the feel of the expression “C9” on my tongue and practice saying it as I imagine it is said in Chinese: Tsee-joe, Tsee-joe. I push my tongue up against the back of my top front teeth, shouldering the “T” forward to where it can’t help but to jolt the “S” which in turn sends the long “E” sound sailing out of my mouth in a breath. I tighten my nose, my mouth rounds like a fish and and the “joe” drops out like a coin from a return slot. “Joe” is a character in my son’s Chinese name and I take ownership of it whenever I say it. “Tsee-joe, Tsee-joe,” I say the name of the C9 league and repeat myself, confirming that I have said it. Saying it in Mandarin to attach myself more firmly to China, China the birthplace of my son, China where I have been sent to discover my own profession dressed in Asian garb.

Having discovered the C9 league, I decide that I can view my China trip also in a rarified organization based around the letter “C.” “C” makes sense because it is the “C” in the word China, though the Chinese word for China is Zhong Guo, meaning “Middle Kingdom,” and pronounced with a “J” sound and not a “C.” But I will use the Roman letter “C” and divide my Chinese experience into three parts. The C3 lense of my trip I decide will include Consumption, Connection and Contribution.

I will begin my next blog entry with Consumption. As the Chinese say in greeting one another, “Have you eaten yet?” We shall begin with food, most everyone’s favorite consumable.


Bad photos are like everyday food.  They provide what is needed to preserve us, to sustain us.  They fill an ache to hold on to moments in the past with the aid of an image.  They are food gulped down from the necessity to live, food not celebrated for its choice of ingredients or presentation on the plate, but food taken in to keep us alive.   A blurry image, a crocked image, an uncomposed image, or perhaps one that was composed and is full of imperfections all keep memories alive.

We live in a culture where photography is like gourmet cooking.  It is expected to be good to be called photography, to be worth any attention, to deserve any comment.  If you plan to show anyone your photos, the pictures had better be good. 

I took over six thousand photographs when I went to China with my son in the fall of 2011.  Many of them are not good photographs.  Other people seeing the sights I saw, walking the streets I walked, shopping, talking and visiting as I did also had cameras and chose to pass by or take pictures of the same things I saw.  When they took pictures, they may have taken better pictures than I did. Perhaps not.  Maybe their pictures were shot with a finer camera, maybe they circled the subject several times, finding a certain angle, waiting for the best moment or catching it by coincidence. They may have deleted several dozen photographs while reviewing them on their cameras, tapping the trash can icon until they found just the one.  I, as is my way, deleted nothing.

When I shoot pictures I click away eagerly, barely composing the shots, clicking in continuum as though my camera is making clean sweeps of extended moments.  I shoot mostly stills, but the stills collect like motion picture frames and collect into a narrative.  They preserve my experience better than note taking could.  The abundance of images are meant to jostle from me the text of my experrience.

I experienced my trip in a number of ways and in the end sorted the photos into two ways of viewing what I experienced. First, there are the place albums, each library I visited as part of my residency, each city I toured as a first-time explorer.  Then, there are the category photos, divided into the themes of big buildings, dining and food, historic sites, gardens and zoos, Liam, Nell and Beth (my family), libraries, new colleagues and friends, people at play, people at workshopping, signs, menus and packaging, steet scenes and transportation.

While in China I downloaded photographs daily. I painfully processed each image through a slow computer on a slow internet connection.  I needed to empty my stuffed camera everyday of its contents. I knew the day that followed would require the same storage space currently occupied.  I speedily sorted these photographs into place name folders.  It was after I got home and considered the size of the collection that I began to select.  First I created a folder called “A Selection,” but then broadened how I would present those that I considered the most representative by creating folders that would allow me to construct a text based on each theme.

For those who are eager to see all of my trip to Beijing, take a look at the 1854 photos uploaded to Fotki.  In fact, you can visit this folder and see all the pictures you could care to see of Beijing, Shanghai (excluding the libraries), Suzhou and Lianyungang, my son’s hometown.

For the complete collection of photos related to my library residency, colleagues and other librarians may want to look here where there are my pictures of

Either approach… pictures by location or pictures by a theme tell pieces of the story. For those who care less to be saturated in images and crave a narrative, consider following my blog as I reconsider any number of the photos, and bring in a video or two. I will tell the story of China as I lived it, studying, touring, sharing and comparing and fostering the bonds that enrich myself, my profession and my family. Follow the blog and see how bad photographs can reveal good memories.