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Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving Dinner

Family? Check.
Turkey? Check.
Stuffing? Check.
Cranberries? Check.
Mashed potatoes? Check.
Pumpkin pie? Check.

Yes...it's Thanksgiving again! Even though there are many different harvest festivals throughout the world, Thanksgiving is a uniquely American tradition. The story that we are taught as kids in the U.S. is that the first Thanksgiving was a three-day harvest celebration that took place in Massachusetts in November of 1621. It was organized by colonists who were living in the area and they invited the local Wapanoag tribe of native Americans to join them. It is believed that the colonists may have served turkey during the celebration.

Thanksgiving day was made a national holiday in 1863 during the U.S. civil war by then President Abraham Lincoln who decided that the nation needed a day of thanks. Since then, it's turned into the start of a four-day weekend that begins with gorging on food and ends with gorging on consumerism. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, now marks the the start of the Christmas season and is one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Unfortunately, I really don't know a lot about that history or shopping stuff. All I know is that it is the only day when my extended family gets together. The way my family celebrates Thanksgiving has changed some over the years. We used to meet up at my Aunt Cathy and Uncle Tom's house where, in some years, everyone would stay the entire weekend. I can't imagine doing that now but it was fun at the time.

For the past twenty years our Thanksgiving has been held in a few different places but for the better part of the last decade we've had dinner at my cousin Mike and wife Karen's house. This year, however, they were remodeling their kitchen so we went to my cousin Robin and husband John's house. Each year the program is basically the same. We hang out in the basement and/or in the kitchen eating appetizers, drinking adult beverages made by my Uncle Tom, and catching up with each other's lives.


Because I've lived so far away for so long, it's great for me to get to see so many people that I love in one place at one time.
   
Can you feel the family love yet?
   
Also, because the members of my family are very successful breeders, there's always an opportunity to be someone new's favorite uncle.
   
At about the time when everyone is completely stuffed from eating bacon-wrapped snacks, nachos, veggies with dip, and about 100 other appetizers, dinner is served. This year we did it buffet style.
 


We used to have very strict family traditions and rules (seriously) about who could sit at each table. We had a table for the "elders" (again, seriously), the adult's table, and finally the kid's table. With each passing year, if you were lucky, you'd graduate up to the next table in the hierarchy. Seats would open up as people passed away or worse, if someone missed a Thanksgiving. Not attending a family Thanksgiving for whatever reason, including a hospital stay or other uncontrolled event, would send you back the the next lower table Chutes And Ladders style. Even though they're cute, they're at the kids' table and will be for a looooong time:
   
I'm not sure what my brother did wrong this past year but here he is at the (other) kids' table:
   
Because I've missed so many Thanksgivings, I'm hopelessly out of the running for getting close to the adults' table much less ever getting to sit there. I managed to purchase this candid photo of some of the adults this year:
   
From what I've found online, the average American consumes at least 3,000 calories eating Thanksgiving dinner with the total for the day being over 4,500. I know that I did my part trying to achieve these milestone numbers. Just when I was just about to fall into a food coma from overeating, dessert was served. This year's evil dessert? Pumpkin pie cheesecake. Yep. Had a piece of that.
   
Christmas is by far my favorite holiday but Thanksgiving is easily my favorite day of the year. I'm reminded, yet again, how lucky I am to have such a great family and life. I can't wait until my next Thanksgiving with the family!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Matchmaking Shanghai Style

In the center of Shanghai at People's Square Park, a tradition is carried out every Saturday and Sunday. Here, as in other cities in China, older parents meet in a public place to try to find an eligible spouse for their unmarried adult children. This photo is of some of the parents who were hanging out right near the entrance to the park:


I had heard about this before coming to China but I was thrilled to get to see it for myself. Basically what happens is that parents make up a resume (or profile?) of sorts and bring it with them to the park. In the case where a mom and dad come to the park together, one stays with the ad while the other goes out to look through the other resumes. Here are other hopeful moms and dads checking out today's offerings:


From the parents that I talked to, they are all looking for a tall, well-off, smart, good-looking, and employed person who owns a car and a home. My guess is that the goal of these parents is to find people exactly not like their kids while those that they seek probably have no problem finding mates of their own. One dad told me that there were no good people to be found there yet he comes each week "just in case". Here's an example of the ads you'll see:


While in the park I had a couple of younger girls come up to me who wanted to practice their English (which was actually a fairly common occurrence). The girls told me that the kids hate the fact that parents are doing this "for them" but that they really can't stop them either. From what I saw, none of the kids being marketed was actually there and it looked as much like a social gathering for the parents as it was a true attempt at emptying the nest.

Can you imagine a match.com where your mom and dad fill out your profile and then handle all the responses for you? Hmm...sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Shanghai Expo2010

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Every couple of years there's a world's fair somewhere but, from what I can tell, there's no real pattern to when and where they are held and the theme is up to each location to decide. This year there was an expo (another name for world's fair) in Shanghai that was attended by over 73 MILLION people in six months. I didn't get to go the the fair while it was open but I did have the chance to visit the grounds after they closed with some folks from a meeting I attended in Shanghai.

Officially the theme of this year's expo was "Better City, Better Life" but after my visit I think that a better theme would have been "Expo 2010, A New Hope". Let me show you why I feel that a Star Wars theme is more appropriate.

First, there was Poland's pavilion:


which looked a lot like the Jawa Sandcrawler from the first Star Wars movie:


Next up, the Expo Culture Center:


which, in my opinion, was a complete rip off of the helmet worn by the Imperial Gunners who worked on the Death Star:


Spain had an interesting contribution to the "Expo 2010, A New Hope" theme by designing its pavilion:


...to look like a Tusken Raider's (a.k.a. Sand Person) clothing:


I thought that England did a great job making their pavilion:


...look like when the Millennium Falcon made the jump to light speed:


And, finally, Germany did their part by:


...approximating when the Death Star was under construction:


Unfortunately, not all the countries went with the "Expo 2010, A New Hope" theme. The Netherlands, on a high after being named one of the happiest countries in world, designed their pavilion:


...to remind everyone of how happy they are by making it look like one of those paper crowns they give out at kids parties at Burger King:


Thailand's pavilion was a cross between a crappy casino and a Thai restaurant. Wait, maybe it was just a Thai restaurant?



I was super lucky to get to walk around the closed Expo grounds. I'm guessing that it would have taken me an entire day or more to see everything that I got to see in just over two hours. And now for a parting shot of me in front of the very cool Chinese pavilion building:


Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you're my only hope.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Getting Shanghai(ed)

Well, not really Shanghaied as I went there without being abducted. Shanghai is the third "country" I visited in a one-country tour. First, there were the "Chinese" cities like Beijing, Xi'an, and Chengdu. Then there was Tibet, which is pretty much a different country. Shanghai is basically every other large financial center in the world, which I guess is good for China. At times, I couldn't tell, for example, if I was in some neighborhoods in San Francisco (clean, nice, and lots of Chinese people).

Shanghai, with its almost 20 million people, is the largest city in China and probably its most "western". Ever since its brief British occupation after the Opium War (in 1842), Shanghai has been on a path to be the world-class financial and shipping center of China. Is this your mental view of China?


The above photo was taken in the French Concession area of the city. Like I said, a lot like San Francisco...or even Pasadena? Upon arriving into Shanghai airport, you have a few choices to get into the city; buses, Metro, taxi, etc. are all available. Boring! How about taking the MagLev (magnetic levitation) train that goes 300km/h (186mph)? It's a bit pricey but worth it for the experience.


There were several cool areas to visit. One was the French Concession (above), which was very posh. Along the Huangpu River, which winds through the center of the city, I visited the Bund area. The Bund has a bunch of early 1900s-style buildings and the views are amazing. This is the view from the Bund towards the newer financial center and Oriental Pearl Tower (with the spheres on the left) during the day:


...and from almost the same spot during the evening (better, huh?):


You can go up to the top of the Pearl Tower, which I recommend. The city was a little foggy while I was there but the views were still good. This shot is towards the Bund:


Inside the tower, there's one part where they've made platforms out of glass. You're standing on glass a few hundred feet above the ground. If you get vertigo (like me) then it's probably not for you. :-)

If you're thinking of visiting China but are apprehensive, I'd recommend Shanghai as your first stop since it's the easiest to navigate (in my opinion), the people are accustomed to foreigners, and everything is in both Chinese and English. Can you say "ni hao"?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base

Located about 30 minutes outside of the center of the southern Chinese city of Chengdu is the Chengdu Research Base Of Giant Panda Breeding. If you're into pandas, this is the mother load:


The large, zoo-like facility houses 80+ pandas in a variety of settings and enclosures. One of the first areas that you get to see during your visit is the nursery where baby pandas are cared for. Yes, there are five baby pandas in this photo:


Did I mention, if you're a fan of pandas, then this place needs to be on your to-do list? Throughout the facility the staff is busy feeding the residents their diet of bamboo. You get to be so close that you can hear them chew.


At one of the pavilions they had this table set up where you can sample "Panda Bread", which is one of the foods that they feed them. The little samples are individually bagged and are about the size of a crouton.


I'm guessing that, like doggy biscuits, the intended consumer finds them delicious but humans (like me) find them less than delicious. I've seen pandas at the San Diego Zoo but I never realized that they like to eat while on their backs. They'll drag a branch of bamboo over top of themselves and munch away on it until all the leaves are gone. Here are two of the Chengdu locals macking out:


Like preschoolers after snack time (or you at your desk after lunch), the pandas all seemed to fall asleep around 11am after they were done their breakfast. This guy must have climbed up the tree and then fell asleep. One of the caretakers was yelling at him to try to wake him up but he gave up after a few minutes.


I thought these two guys were kinda' cute. To me they looked like a couple of panda-bear rugs or something.


In one of the enclosures a handler called these two pandas over and started playing the "cat-and-ball-of-string" game with some apples. I'm still not sure how I feel about this one but I hope that the pandas at least enjoy eating the apples.


I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get this photo once they were done with the "game":


I searched all over for the breeding part of the research base but the closest that I found was this poster in one of the pavilions. In case you're wondering what giant-panda nookie looks like...


Over at the rock-and-roll-panda enclosure:


Sorry, couldn't resist that last one. The city of Chengdu was another surprise in my voyage around China. It ended up being a nice town with lots to see and do. The Panda Base is definitely the highlight. I have to be honest though that I ate Japanese food while there. Yum, Kyushu ramen...

And, finally, a way-too-exciting video of pandas eating...

video

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Teaching English In Tibet

While in Lhasa, my Tibetan guide Gaden asked if I would mind going to a local English-language school where his friend teaches some classes. He told me that it would be great for the kids to be able to have conversation with a native (American) English speaker. SURE!!! I'd LOVE to do it!

Our driver dropped us off in front of the school, which has several multiple-floor buildings. While walking through the courtyard we could hear people yelling "hello" and other greetings out the windows. What? Huh? What's going on? I started to get a little nervous at that point but I still answered each and every greeting with one of my own.

The classroom that I was led to was on the second floor and there were eight students, four guys and four girls, who all looked to be in their late teens. Here's my first English class:


We spent about an hour or so having "question-and-answer" time as well as "conversation" time. They asked me for my feelings about the U.S., Spain, and Tibet and about some of my travels. I was asked to give my opinions on how people from the U.S. are similar and different from people in Tibet. Some of their questions were pretty deep like when one student wanted to know if people in the U.S. believe in karma.

They also asked me for advice on how to learn English. I told them about my experience learning Spanish and that the "trick" for me was to just let go, not to worry about if it's right or not, and just talk. Over time, you'll improve by listening to people correcting you. You'll have to ask my Spanish-speaking friends if my method has been effective...

I had the chance to ask them a bunch of questions too. I asked each student what their goals were and what they wanted to do once they've finished school. Interestingly enough, the top two answers were to be an English teacher and to be a tour guide. I actually like both of those answers and will consider them as career options too. :-)

After "class" we left the building and hung out in the courtyard for a while. A bunch of students came up and were talking with me. It was a lot of fun for me and I hope valuable for them.


What a great experience. Over the past year I've thought about different career options including teaching English somewhere in the (non-English speaking) world. I'm currently looking into a couple of different options and, after this, I think teaching English might be fun and rewarding. I guess we'll see where the wheel stops spinning.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sera And Deprung Monasteries

The Sera Monastery is located just outside of Lhasa. This college is famous as a place to watch the "monk debates", which, for the monks, is a fundamental part of the process of learning Buddhism. The debates are held in an open courtyard where visitors can stand along the sides to watch.


Sets of two monks, with one being the questioner and the other being the defender, debate a variety of topics. There are many rules and traditions that are observed during this process including gesturing, clapping, tones, wording, and a bunch of other stuff that I'm sure that I didn't even notice. During the day of my visit I'd guess that there were about 100 monks in the courtyard.


Nearby Lhasa is another college monastery called the Deprung. Here I got to observe a couple of cool traditions. The first was a gathering of a large number of monks in a central prayer hall. It was a very interesting to see so many monks in one place.


After leaving the prayer hall, our guide took us over to another area of the monastery where repairs were being made to a roof on one building. In the courtyard in front of the building, workers were preparing a fine, reinforced crushed-stone mixture to be used up above.

About 100 young volunteers were up on the roof doing a call-and-response-style of singing (girls in one group and guys in another) and tamping down the roofing mix with weights on posts. I could tell that they were having lots of fun and you could see that it was an honor to work on the monastery.



I went up on the roof and helped (believe it or not) for about five minutes. Here's a quick video I took of the repair process:


It was an honor and quite an experience for me to be able to watch and participate in the repair of the monastery, which I know will be around for hundreds if not a thousand years.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Potala Palace

On a large hill just west of the center of Lhasa is the Potala Palace. My guess is that this amazingly beautiful building is the most photographed item in all of Tibet.


Built in 1645, it served as the home of the Dalai Lama until the 1959 Tibetan uprising when he fled to India. To visit the Potala Palace, it is necessary to make a reservation at least a day prior and to arrive at the front gate around your appointed time. From there you walk up the front stairs to reach the building. Since the palace is at 12,100 feet (3,700m) above sea level you...feel...every...single...one...of...them. What must Everest, at twice the height, be like?


One of the first areas you come to during the tour is the White Palace, which serves as the residence of the Dalai Lama. I wanted to go take a quick nap there but was told that we were limited to only one hour for the entire visit and that we needed to move on.



The parts of the Potala Palace that aren't living quarters are dedicated to things like meeting areas, offices, chapels, shrines, study areas, and so on. You can't take pictures inside most of the palace so my photos are all from the outside. As you can see, the structure is impressive. The contrast between the dark red areas and the white areas is striking. The palace also has some gold-colored buildings spread throughout (you can see a hint of one in the photo above). The white areas are painted with a lime-based mixture that builds up over time. If you look closely at the photo below, the walls look like there are stalactites growing on them.



You know when you see travel photos that there are always these brightly-colored spots that look too nice to be real? I have a bunch of photos like that from my visit to Guatemala a few years ago and, well, here's one from Tibet (yes, it's real):



The tour of Portala lasts just over an hour or so. It's an inspiring building in an inspiring place and definitely worth the trip. At night they have the palace lit up and I took a bunch of photos from the plaza across the street. I think that this was the best one I got.