For Payton
and Deona


Connecting Mandarin and English,
          Chinese and American,
                    people with people

Chinese Cookoff
(October 11, 2008) (return to Homepage)
     Several students had mentioned it, it fit with our philosophy of supporting the students and the time slot was open. It was a Chinese cookoff. It was even suggested that I, or we, could participate as contestants. Wisely we chose not too.
     My classes were on the new campus today, running from 10:00AM until about 4:30PM. To support an ailing and aging husband, Gail came over in the afternoon It's about a 15 minute ride on the school bus. As I may have mentioned, the school bus here is not at all the same as in America. It's a standard bus like any other one of the 3000 or so running around the streets of Nanchang, but it carries only faculty and staff from one campus to the other. If there's space available students ride for a yuan. It's a free ride for employees. The 15 minute trip over to the campus became a 90 minute trip back as the driver wound through the streets to deliver riders to their homes, and stopped for refueling at a very busy service station. On some days, like last Monday, the relay is extended when the police stop the bus because it's overcrowded, (There are two standards: one for the city whose buses are packed tight and one for the university who has to have a seat for each occupant.) After a hassle and a tip of 20 yuans to the police, the Monday bus was back on track.
     This expanded trip home meant we were late to fix supper and we were very exhausted. But there was this Cookoff and we had promised in our hearts that we would make an appearance. You know, the standard "make an appearance" "slip in and out quickly and quietly" type. Well, the appearance started with one of our students asking if we'd pose for a picture. Sure, what the heck. We're a novelty here and it doesn't cost us anything, besides it artificially boosts and inflates our ego. Another student, not even one from our classes, asked if we would serve as judges. Sure, what the heck, we didn't have any other plans and it makes them feel good to include their American teachers.
     What a deal this turned out to be. There were probably a hundred students, most of them behind the judges' table so we didn't see the exact count. There was preparation pandemonium followed by an opening ceremony involving four students taking turns giving one-line introductions and instructions, or rules for the contest. The music roared, students scampered here and there fixing hot plates, cooking food, readjusting the speaker system and wiping up messes. Everything was in Chinese and it could have been Greek, for all I know. Fortunately we did not feel the burden of any final decisions as we were merely token American judges sitting with four Chinese judges. The judge next to us spoke English and translated critical passages.
     After the food was cooked (there were three cooking stations and students worked in small groups or pairs), it was visually presented to us with varying results. Moments after we viewed the presentations, small samples were brought to us to sniff and taste. Two points for each of style, smell, taste, texture and color, was the standard. The MC's interviewed the contestants and the judges. Our lack of mastery of the Chinese language saved us from an interview, but didn't save us from sitting for three hours on rock hard stools, sniffing and nibbling. Eighteen samples later we were waiting for the final two. One student had his birthday on this day and they presented him with a cake which was distributed far and wide including on faces and in hair. Three young men were selected to have an eating contest; a couple sticks of processed meat and two rice-flour steamed buns. Just like the American "stuff your mouth and gag contests."
     There was no privacy in the judging process as students peered over our shoulders, even as we sniffed and nibbled. Every glance around the room resolved in another student catching our eye and waving. Cameras were clicking constantly and there was no time to pick one's nose, or scratch an itch.
     As the final tallies were counted, we stood to stretch our exhausted bodies that carried our exhilarated souls. That must have been the invitation for the student to approach us and ask us to present the grand prize, the golden knife. So ad libbing we thanked them for including us in a anything but a tasteless task, and congratulated the winners. Incidentally, tastes obviously vary because I thought I remembered these contestants being on the bottom of my list. And then the photo ops: small groups, shots with winners, poses with the judges, individual students grabbing the opportunity to be seen with a "pale face."
     Having approached the evening as a "brief appearance," we didn't have our camera with us and we begged them to send us some copies. Elated and aching we strolled (any faster pace would have been an insult to our bodies) back to the apartmen
t and up the stairs. Seated on our bed ready to collapse, we write this short memory.

A note about the American presidential election:
     We received our absentee ballots from Oregon earlier this week. What a gift it is to be able to vote! So I shared this gift with my classes, and that's exactly how I introduced the topic. I said I had received a very precious and special gift this week, from my dad, from my grandparents, from other my fellow Americans. The gift is a sheet of paper on which I can mark my choice for president of the United States. I talked about other candidates on the ballot and referendum issues, and how sometimes it feels like the people's choice may not be the best decision. But I told them that with the limitations and weaknesses of a democracy there are many many freedoms and strengths. I passed the the ballot around the room unmarked and they poured over it with electronic dictionaries, digging through every measure and asking intriguing and somewhat naive questions. In one class there was an audible gasp when I told them what I was showing them.
     The presidential election is a common topic also at English Corner. The popular question is "Who are you going to vote for?" I tell that one of the privileges and freedoms in America is that I don't have to tell them, and then I do share some of my views. When I ask them what they know about the candidates, they typically prefer Obama. They consider this not only a major election for the United States but also for the entire world.

     We expect this weekend to be a quiet one around the apartment with a followup visit to the doctor.

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