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The Chinese Love Affair with Mushrooms (originally posted January 4,  2008)

     We've been seeing expanded mushroom areas in western supermarkets lately -  with oyster mushrooms, chanterelles,  or the big brown and meaty Portobello.  But I've never seen a mushroom section in a western market with the variety I find here.  I don't have names for most of these.

mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket
mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket
mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket
mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket mushrooms in a Chinese supermarket

     The shoppers in the picture above are considering some dried mushrooms.  There's another whole wall with bags of the dried fungus,  in varieties I can't identify given their shriveled state.   The ones in the center of the bottom row are firm and solid,  almost like meat.  I've come to call the mushrooms in the right of the bottom row "flavour bombs" because they are hollow and if boiled in a soup release an amazing burst of flavour when bitten. Each mushroom has it's own subtle flavour and texture.
     For those of you reading this in a developed country,  and thinking that China is far away,  exotic,  and possibly dangerous,  I'd like to introduce you to RT Mart,  or Da Runfa.  This is a modern supermarket,  with a cosmetic section,  appliances,  footwear and clothing,  electronics,  bicycles, and assorted homeware and hardware on the ground floor and a modern grocery store upstairs,  complete with a liquor section. 

liquor section  in a Chinese supermarket     liquor section  in a Chinese supermarket

The liquor section includes a limited selection of popular western booze,  a few brands of scotch,  vodka,  brandy,  and liqueurs like Ruth's favourite,  Baileys.  Prices for the imported brands approximate the price in a western liquor store. 

Chinese wines tend to be like sweet grape juice,  but there are a couple of brands that are palatable and the prices are right.  We like the white sparkly,  which is almost like champagne but at 20 RMB a bottle (less than $3.00 Cdn.)

produce section  in a Chinese supermarket frozen fish section  in a Chinese supermarket
The produce section has great variety and is well stocked. The frozen foods have a bit more exotic seafood in stock than we might be used to.....
live crabs  in a Chinese supermarket fresh French bread  in a Chinese supermarket
...including live fresh water crabs. Most Chinese bread is sweet,  more like cake than bread.  It's great to find authentic French baguettes. 
meat section  in a Chinese supermarket dairy section  in a Chinese supermarket

The meat counter and

 dairy are pretty much like back home.

Chinese supermarket check out  in a Chinese supermarket

A foreigner might have a problem telling the cooked salty duck eggs from the raw ones,  but then a foreigner looking for salty duck eggs probably has a bit of experience in China.

Nothing too difficult or unfamiliar about the checkout.

     There are several such outlets in Wuxi,  where we shopped to the sound of All I want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth and Jingle Bells during the holiday season.  If you are worried that China might be too strange and exotic for you,  this should ease your mind.  You can get along here without a word of Chinese.  没问题  (mi wnt - no problem).

crowded checkout  in a Chinese supermarket
My only warning would be:  Don't shop here on a Friday afternoon or weekend.  The checkout lines do get a bit crowded.

normal checkout  in a Chinese supermarket

To be fair,  here's RT Mart at our normal shopping time,  mid-afternoon on a Monday.  It isn't always crowded.

     So Wuxi has everything you might want to live a western lifestyle.  We noticed a new Carrefour,  the French shopping center franchise, with 30,000 square meters of floor space,  going in a few blocks from RT Mart.  So even more variety will soon be available.
On the other hand,  if you are thinking of going to China to see a very different culture,  that's here too.  Here's a few shots from the market in the village a short walk from our university. 

     It's as "old China" as you could want,  with geese and ducks standing in a pen waiting for their turn to go into the cooking pot.  You don't need to speak Chinese to get by here either.  The sellers know what you are there for,  and will hold up a calculator to show you what you owe.

wood ear mushrooms, China
There are mushrooms here too.  These ones are called 木耳 (m ěr - wood ear)

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Leapin' Lizards (originally posted June 2,  2008)

Riding back from class this morning I saw three people staring at the ground by a bush.  Naturally I had to see what they were staring at.  I caught just a flash of the creature as it made off,  but one of the people had captured it on his digital camera. He sent me this picture.

变色龙 (bin s lng literally "change colour dragon")

He called this little lizard a 变色龙 bin s lng which literally translates to "change colour dragon".  My dictionary calls it a chameleon.  I didn't know we had them here,  and I'm delighted to find out we do.  Great racing stripe.

Why So Many Comics Are Inspired by Pets: (originally posted November 27,  2008)

Not hard to see why this happens.  You can't really look at an animal every day without wondering what it is thinking,  or putting words in its mouth.

I don't think Howard Tayler needs to be jealous of my talents as a cartoonist.

GouGou loves her towel.  She will play tug-o-war with it far beyond boredom limit.

October 18, 2008 Feedback that Gruntles Excessively

For me,  a day cannot begin better than by getting an email like this one from  Amelia, who sent her reaction to my Oral English class this past week:


Dear David:

Thanks for giving me the chance to stand in front of my classmates and encourage me to act.

Jiang hong liang, the boy helped me make the sounds is our monitor. As you see, he is very kind-hearted. I think it is considerate of you to give three of us the Canadian flag. I love the gift very much. it reminds me that standing out is not difficult audiences are willing to clap for you. Thanks again for your encouragement.

You said you didn't understand why I told myself I was shy. Here is the reason:

We common Chinese students are educated in a class consisting of 40-50 students. We are customary to sitting there, keeping silent because if everyone shout out the answer, teacher's voice will be swallowed and he or she will be angry.  In addition, if one is voluntary to answer questions but his answer is wrong, he will be laughed at. So I am just afraid to stand up and make a mistake. But now I am determined to change myself to be active and natural as you taught me. I think I will gradually get rid of the fearness of being paid attention.

I find that your points of view on things are more thorough than mine. For example, In my opinion, happiness is resulted from success, love and so on, while you you say happiness is an attitude. Finally I agreed with you.
Facts can't be changed, but our feelings can be determined. To be happy or not is up to ourselves. In you class I not only improve my oral English but also get further understanding of how to live a meaningful life.

Hope you enjoy the life in China.

Yours sincerely


It's a beautiful day in Wuxi.   The weather is still warm enough to be out without a jacket,  but the humidity is lower now so it's very comfortable.  The campus is beautiful.  It's a weekend.  How can life be tough?

By the way,  my spell checker is screaming about my use of the word "gruntles" in this entry heading.  Well "gruntles"is  still a legitimate word,  though a trifle archaic, one of those words which now is only used in the negative - disgruntled,  like the word "ruth",  which means compassion,  now only used in the negative form as "ruthless", a condition to which I do not want to return.
Apparently Bill Gates expects us to use only words that his programmers know,  which might limit our vocabulary somewhat.

Also,  by the way,  one of the things I enjoyed about watching my children learn to speak was their amazing creativity with the language.  My son Victor invented some brilliant words - "hand lockers" for handcuffs,  "not-come-off-knots" for the knot he used on his shoe laces.  I really love it when my students use words like "fearness",  and I find it difficult to correct them in the interests of prescriptive grammar.  The whole point is to communicate, and Amelia does that very well.

As 'twas said in "Educating Rita",  "assonance" is getting the rhyme wrong.  We'll accept and admire it from a poet,  but we want to beat these Chinese students into conformity.  (Interesting.  My spell checker does not balk at the word "assonance".)

And now I'm reminded of Milano Zorkin,  the late owner of Zorkin Realty in Nanaimo.  He spoke with a heavy middle-European accent,  and wrote the same way.  When his secretary corrected his letters,  he made her put them back the way he had written them.  Now there was a man who wasn't afraid to speak in his own voice.  We should all be so brave.

October 16, 2008 The Best Week of Classes Ever

Emily's letter lamenting her shyness and my response to it inspired my best week of classes since I came to China. 

     The week didn't start out all that great.  My first class,  with my International Business students who must prepare for the IELTS test that will let them go overseas,  began well enough.  But soon I was losing my temper with a few passive aggressive students who either didn't get that you can't learn to speak English without speaking English or who simply don't care about passing the IELTS and going to England.  I don't like losing my temper.  It's not helpful.

"I'm a shy boy," he said, making fun of my efforts.  He's not shy.  He's one of my livelier International Business students,  Jiangnan University,  Wuxi,  China

My International Business class.  I like these kids,  but they do make me work too hard.

     My first oral class,  I asked the students if any of them were shy.  No hands went up.  Now I know that most of my students would call themselves shy,  so the fact that no hands went up called for a lecture on participation.  Again I was expressing more anger than is helpful."I've come 15,000 miles,  that's 24,000 gongli (kilometers), to help you with your English.  If you don't PARTICIPATE,  I might as well have stayed home,  and you might as well have stayed in bed this morning."  After that lecture,  I asked the question again and got a few hands up. 

     It was in the next class that I refined this with a pre-emptive strike.   The students came in to find the word PARTICIPATE on the board in both English and Chinese (参加 cānjiā).  I told them about losing my temper with the last class,  and why.  I told them why participation is important if they want to get anything out of the class.  Then I asked if anybody in the class would call themselves a shy person.  A few hands went up.

     That lead into a lecture about emotional needs.  We do everything because of our emotional needs.  Every decision we make is because of an emotion.  In fact,  a person with brain damage that prevents them from feeling any emotion,  can't make any decisions at all.  So if they are calling themselves "shy",  then being shy must be giving them something emotionally.  What is it?  I suggested that they might have a need to feel safe.  A need to be hidden and private.  A need to avoid criticism. And I ask them whether satisfying this need is helping them learn English.

     I told them that they might find this hard to believe, but I was once shy myself.   I too needed to feel safe and to hide.  But I also have a great need for recognition and attention,  and that was in conflict with my need to be safely hidden.  So I started to push myself.  And the more I pushed myself,  the easier it was to stand in front of a group of people and do whatever needed to be done. 
     At first,  in front of even a small group,  I'd get the shakes and be unable to talk.  This I dramatized in class, hamming it up for my students,  chewing the scenery to demonstrate how terrified I was the first time I had to speak at a meeting.  (It was a delight to hear them laughing. They can be such a great audience.)   But that physical anxiety soon went away, I told them, and the more I pushed myself to center stage,  the easier it got to speak or perform for a large group.  Now I am totally comfortable in front a a group of any size.  Even the thousands of freshmen for whom we performed at the beginning of this term.

David and Ruth performing for an audience of thousans,  Jiangnan University,  Wuxi,  China

That lead into the next subject -  what we are? 

     It's my belief that we are a combination of what we've been told we are,  what we've told ourselves we are,  and what we really are.  All three of these are unknowable,  because we haven't paid attention to what we have been told,  or to what we've told ourselves,  and what we really are is largely untested. 

     When I was a child in school,  well meaning adults were constantly telling me that I was lazy.  My teachers sent home report cards that said I was lazy.  My mother would read the report cards and tell me that I was lazy.   Well,  what happens when you tell a child that he is lazy?  If the child believes you,  he acts like a lazy person.  And that's what I did.

As an adult I one day realized that I am not lazy.  In fact,  I'm one of the most energetic and active people I know.  Why were they telling me I was lazy when it was so obviously not true?  The problem wasn't that I was lazy.  The problem was that my teachers were boring.  They didn't want to talk to me about anything interesting.  I'd be going into the adult section of the library to take out books on hypnotism,  or natural history, or magic.  They wanted me to learn skills like spelling,  which came to me quite naturally as I read and wrote more,  and was finally made irrelevant by spell checkers. 
     The mature individual reduces the amount of opinion about what she "is" that came from other people,  and starts to consciously create their own personality,  taking responsibility for what he is.

And all of this leads into a lecture about the subconscious mind,  which runs 99.9% of all our functions,  including our emotions.  I talked about how the subconscious is really smart,  and can do things like play the piano with no conscious mind directing the fingers (once you have practiced enough),  but also really stupid.  The subconscious mind will believe anything you tell it.  And if you are telling your subconscious mind something that will prevent you from getting what you want, your subconscious mind will make sure you never get it.

The winner personality takes limited input from others,  and the superstar personality even pushes the boundaries of what he or she really is. 

My students all want to be winners,  if not superstars.  Success is very big in China.

Instead of telling yourself:

                         I'm shy.

Why not tell yourself: 

                      When I was a child I was shy,  but I'm not shy now. 

     Of course this is all just an amalgam of personal development course material and pop psychology,  Tony Robins meets Dale Carnegie.  But then the class started to be fun.  I asked the students who said they were shy if any of them wanted to stop being shy.  A couple hesitantly put up their hands.  I brought those students up to the front and got them to walk like a chicken.  Walk like a duck.  Bark like a dog.  Crow like a rooster.    They were having a great time by this point.  The whole class was energized and clapping for them.  I asked them how they felt,  and they said they felt really good.  I told them I was very proud of them,  and gave them a Canada pin as a reward for their courage.

     The next breakthrough for me was getting the students up and moving.  I put a pie chart of the seasons on the board and told them to think about which season they like best,  then told about seeing this demonstration at a Sophia Society seminar  and thinking it was a pointless and dumb exercise - "Of course everybody will put their mark in the same season.  There is only one season that is the best,  and it's so obviously the best that nobody will choose any other season."

     "I'm a smart person.  I've thought about this,  and decided what the best season is.  Of course,  everybody is going to think the same as I do,  and choose the same season.  Right?  If they don't,  well they're just wrong.  Right? 
Of course that's not right.  Not right at all.
     I love the Spring,  and I'm not fond of winter at all.  Spring is when the earth comes back to life,  flowers emerge and bloom,  buds burst into leaves,  bunnies run around trying to make baby bunnies.  By summer I'm already feeling like Winter is coming again,  so that season can't compete with Spring,  and it just gets worse as we head into Fall.  Nope,  Spring's the only season worth having.
     At the Sophia Society seminar, when everybody came up and put a mark on their favourite season,  the marks were all over the chart.  Even in winter.  And then each participant told the group why they had chosen the season they had chosen.
     Of course,  when I heard their reasons I could agree completely with their choice.  "I love walking in the winter on one of those really cold days when I can see my breath and sounds seem very clear and the hoar frost is crunching under my feet and everything seems frozen in the moment."

     I handed out three pieces of chalk,  and told the students to put a mark in their favourite season and then pass the chalk on to somebody else.  So now what had been a boring,  static class of students sitting at desks looking half interested suddenly transformed into an active and lively scene.  Much laughter as students started to get creative with the marks they put on the chart,  starting with a heart instead of a check mark and progressing to Chinese characters.

     By the time I had all the marks on the board,  the students were more than ready to stand up and tell the class why their favourite season is the best.  Like the Sophia Society group, the marks were all over the chart,  with only two in Spring,  a few in Summer,  and an amazing number in Winter.  I was very surprised to learn that the majority of my students think Winter is the best season of all.  This in a country where classrooms are all unheated.

     There was still time for more with this class.  We got into arranging lists in order of favourites,  with the students in groups trying to reach consensus on their order.  But this first part was the best.

Just a great class.  Now what on earth am I going to do next week?  How can I ever top this?

I'll think of something.

October 12,  2008 an Email from Emily

My student,  Emily sent me an email this morning,  with a question that I think a lot of my students are asking.  I hope they will all read my answer and take it to heart.

Dear Emily:

You wrote...

> Sometimes I am a little shy and I don't how to deal with it, can you help me?

That's what I'm here for. But really, nobody can help you. You must get so frustrated with being shy that you do something about it. You must decide that you will not put up with being shy any longer. Then, every time you find yourself hiding, or holding back, you should push yourself to the front, put your hand up, shout out an answer (not mumble an answer so that nobody can hear you but yourself), revel in attracting attention.

Why are you shy? Is being shy satisfying some need you have, perhaps a need to feel safe and hidden from critical people.

Wouldn't it be better to tell yourself that you were shy when you were a child, but you realized that being shy isn't giving you what you want out of life, so you aren't shy any more.

One thing you will find, and I can promise you this, the more times you do something that you are afraid to do because you feel shy, the easier it will get. In no time at all you will wonder why you ever told yourself that you are shy. Speaking to a group of people will seem so easy and natural, and your worries about doing it will seem so childish and foolish, that you will laugh about the way you once behaved.

I hope you will try this approach. It worked for me.

Warmest regards


How Long Before I Have a Right to Be Here?

I think this is a question all foreigners must ask themselves sooner or later.  How long do I have to be in China before I feel I have a right to the air I'm breathing?  How long before I can push back when somebody in a lineup pushes ahead of me?  How long before I can call a rule stupid,  and argue with the guards at the gate about letting my taxi take me to my door?

I'm now,  unbelievably, in my fifth year in China.  And I'm naturally a fairly assertive person.  (Okay,  I can hear my friends and relatives back home saying, "Ya think?" Laugh it up,  folks.) In China I've been trying to recognize that this isn't my country,  and I have no right to tell people here how to behave.  But when twelve students finish their dinner,  order beer,  and all light up cigarettes at the next table in a tiny restaurant,  I'm beginning to politely protest.

When somebody pushes ahead of me in a lineup,  I've been known to pull them back by their jacket collar, to the seeming approval of others in the line who are too politely Chinese to take action themselves.

The other evening in Nantong,  Ruth and I were walking with a friend on the sidewalk when a young man on a scooter came up behind us and beeped his horn repeatedly in an annoyed manner to make us get out of his way.  We turned on him and pointed out that we were on the sidewalk,  and there was a perfectly useable road right beside us, so he was welcome to get off the sidewalk and use the road.  Which he sheepishly did.

As for the guards at the gate,  whether I shout at them or not seems to correlate to how much whisky I had after dinner.  And that is not a good way to make social decisions in a foreign country.

I'm trying to find the balance.




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