Political parables: talking around the censors

Perhaps one of the quintessentially Chinese qualities is making best of the worst. (Hey, you kind of learn after 5000 years of trying and still not finding one stable system of self-governance!). So, the Chinese part of me got to thinking this week that the upside of all the media censorship (which feels tighter, judging by regular interruptions to my Gmail access, with Xi at the helm) is the political humor. Cultural-linguistically, we Chinese have always been fond of riddles, metaphors, and parables. We don’t like to say what we mean directly. In “New China” (since 1949), that fondness for dressing up literal meaning has been reinforced by Big Brother listening to everything we say.

Photo credit: Kim Jong Ill Looking At Things blog

Lately, there have been many “political parables” – little stories that can pass off as children’s tales or other kinds of jokes – circulating on Weibo and Weixin. The velocity with which they get forwarded around and readers’ comments to them give me a glimpse into what my countrymen and -women think about the current state of domestic and international affairs.

One popular Weibo writer I’ve been following is purportedly Choi from Pyongyang. I want to say he writes satire – a kind of text version of the website Kim Jong Il Looking at Things – but sometimes his adulatory comments on “highest commander Kim” and all the authentic (-looking) photos of North Korea that he posts make me wonder if he isn’t a Chinese-fluent North Korean agent living somewhere secret. I’ll translate here a recent posting, which brought on >1000 comments from Chinese readers and 1500+ forwards:

A 6-year-old boy likes to throw rocks at birds, but he never gets them. His neighbor Big Brother Park taught him how to aim and he got the bird, just like the adults can. The boy was very happy but the villagers started to worry that they would get hit with his rocks. So they had a meeting about locking up the little boy in a dark room. Big Brother Park quickly raised his hand in support. But every adult knows that the baddest person around isn’t the boy, but that guy Park. My story is finished.

Maybe a Western audience wouldn’t think twice about this story, but 2500+ Chinese readers got the point. The blogger is talking about China, North Korea, and the UN/international community. While a few comments laud Pyongyang Choi for his creative writing, most Chinese readers comment by extending the parable:

They’re all bad birds… (Bravo for going nuclear, and down with Western imperialism?)

Big Brother Park is a bad egg indeed, two-faced…The little boy is also bad, never thinking about moving forward but always going against the tide, trying to take the village hostage, lying everyday. Why doesn’t he learn from his neighbor in the south but always taking lessons from that brother in the east? (We have a pro-West liberal on our hands it seems. This guy admonishes China and North Korea, and looks up to South Korea).

That’s because Big Brother Park later learned that the little boy is psychotic. He’s afraid it’ll infect all the other little kids. (China’s afraid of North Korea’s brand of conservative madness spreading to radical conservatives in China).

Just a sampling of the three reader comments above gives you an idea of the spectrum of political opinions among Chinese netizens. Skimming through the 1000+ comments, I have to say a significant portion seem to be “pro-China.” Readers aren’t naive, they know it’s a dirty game in international relations. But at least they’re sympathetic to the quandary their Big Brother Park is in…

Choice political humor and Chinese people’s assessment of domestic politics to come…

Bear with me…

…while I make a couple of changes.

After losing my domain name I also lost about a year’s worth of posts and publications. In an un-savvy attempt to get it back (doing something fancy like “Importing” code) I’ve messed up a few things on my homepage, such as added a top bar with bizarre menu options! Please ignore – things will return to normal soon (fingers crossed!).

I’ll Have the Wolf, Medium Rare

Our week-long double date road trip in Provence with D&G went smashingly. Though we saw the most adventure on our first day, my favorite moments from the trip took place at a dining table (as always).

On Day 1, my G and I arrived first at the Avignon train station. We found a grassy patch outside, spread out my sarong (now in daily use as a picnic blanket), sank our teeth into hot sandwiches, and happily waited for D&G to get in. When they did, they looked fresh as daisies and bore no signs of the long flight they had just taken from Singapore to Paris, followed by a delayed train ride. The quartet complete, the men were dispatched to pick up the rental car while the women continued to soak up the brilliant Provencal sun.

When D pulled up and honked I was pleased to find the car was an Opel, a roomier vehicle than the Fiat Panda, Europe’s cheapest rental car. The Opel was still compact, but at least there was trunk space for the collective luggage. We set up the Tom Tom GPS device and were off to see the ancient Roman aqueducts, the Pont du Gard.

The drive was easy, enabled by the soothing voice of the GPS lady. The highways of Provence reminded me more of Florida than of France – sprawling depot stores (Ikea, Carrefour), abundant McDo’s, and “Formule1” motels. But interspersed with these drab, geographically indistinct roadside features were patches of deep violet (lavender fields) and profound green (grape vines and olive plants). These colorful splashes on the landscape and their aromatic emanations made it clear that we were in fact in Provence.

At any moment we expected to see our final destination rise out of the horizon, perhaps a pile of yellowing stones, a piece of old Italy in modern France. But the GPS announced in elegant British English, “You have arrived at your destination,” in front of a large medical complex. The Polyclinique du Grand Sud looked like an abode for the elderly, with not a Roman waterway in sight. We realized we must’ve made a mistake when plugging in the coordinates for the aqueducts and couldn’t blame the innocent Tom Tom for dutifully bringing us here.

Some fiddling with the GPS device, a quick change of drivers, and we were on our way, determined to find the Pont du Gard. We arrived twenty minutes later and bounded out of the car, our excitement compounded by the earlier disappointment. The parking lot of the aqueduct, set in the middle of a large forested park, was no place for modesty. Each of us deftly changed into swimming gear behind the doors of the Opel. We grabbed the bottle of wine G and I had brought from Paris and set off for the main attraction.

The Pont (“bridge”) stood majestically high and wide in the middle of a deep valley. It was a singular flat pane of ancient stones and archways – imagine if you unwound the circular Coliseum and laid it across a rapid river. Delighted, we ran towards the shallow banks of the river where canopied four-poster tanning beds lay waiting. A quick swig of red wine and we were down by the water in no time.

The water was divine, the best swim I’ve ever had. When we dipped our toes we found it chilled and crisp, too cold to swim in. But as we waded deeper and saw the other visitors completely submerged in almost-frigid waters, we decided to brave it. The ensuing submersions were hilarious. We each stuck to our preferred method: my G liked to dunk without hesitation, the girls favored a long exposition of nervous giggles and an anxious countdown, and D had to be dragged in. Despite the cold, once we were in the water it was heavenly and refreshing. I wouldn’t have gotten out till nightfall if not for the grey clouds that suddenly drifted our way. Raindrops turned to heavy rainfall, which then developed into an immense hailstorm.

We made it to the car before the hail hit but the drive to our hotel was hair-raising. The windshield wipers worked overtime but, still, we could hardly see. Most of the cars on the road pulled over to wait out the storm, but we forged on, eager to settle into cozy rooms and dry clothes. The final mile was especially stressful as we were in the historical center of Avignon. These medieval alleys were not built to accommodate cars and at every turn we wondered if we would have to get out and heave the vehicle onto our shoulders to be carried out. If we took a wrong turn, we would’ve had to choose between calling a forklift to the rescue or to mercilessly scraping the paint off the sides of the car.

But we managed to get there, and cleaned ourselves up, and set out on foot to find dinner. We passed by some restaurants advertising exotic fare like lapin (rabbit) and loup (which we decided was wolf and not fox, remembering the French title of the movie “Dances with the Wolves”). After a day of incessant snacking we were in the mood for a light dinner, so we agreed to save the loup for another day.

The opportunity to eat loup presented itself after we left Avignon and arrived in Arles. We had endured another frightening drive through even narrower alleys and our appetites were sufficiently worked up by the time we sat down at Le Galoubet, a restaurant G had researched before hand.

The vine-canopied terrace was fully booked so we sat down in the air-conditioned interior. Our corner table was flanked by one wall decorated with a large painting of a wolf striding along and another wall covered with bronze sculptures of heads of bull. This seemed to hint that gamey meats were part of the menu here and, sure enough, midway down the page we saw oven-roasted “loup” seasoned with some kind of special salt none of us recognized.

D, in an especially adventurous food mood, ordered the loup. I noticed the waitress didn’t ask “Quelle cuisson?” (“how would you like it cooked?”). Maybe loup was such an exotic meat that the average diner can’t be trusted to decide on its rareness?

All through the appetizers we discussed the loup. How it might be presented, what kind of seasoning and preparation, and whether it would taste like boar or beef. We rubbed our palms in anticipation when the main courses were brought out. Here was a roast vegetable salad, a pappardelle mixed with shreds of duck meat, a roasted chicken leg, and in front of D, the waitress set down the most awaited platter.

But the bright white ceramic vessel held at its center a slab of fish. It was a beautiful slab of fish, perfectly deboned down the center and the two halves artfully arranged upon a bedding of crisply roasted skin, yet this was no wolf!

Gingerly, I asked the waitress, “Ca, c’est le loup”?

“Oui, c’est le loup.” Affirmative, this is the “loup.”

“Mais, c’est une poisson.” I protested that this was fish, not mammal.

“Oui, le loup est c’est du poisson.”

What? Of all the non-sensical double entendres in foreign languages I had never before encountered one word that described two animals as distinct as fish and wolf.

Not wanting to accept the reality of this dish, I pointed to the painting on the wall and asked, “Mais le loup, c’est comme ca.”

Here she laughed and understood the confusion. “Ah, oui, c’est aussi le loup mais on ne mange jamais le loup comme ca.”

And there we had it, a real culinary coup de quirk. In the land where snails are salted and doused in pesto, where ducks are forced fed so their over-nourished livers can be fried, and where the smellier and moldier the better the cheese, our waitress was laughing at our ludicrous notion that a restaurant would ever serve wolf!

What a way to start!

Within an hour of D&G’s arrival in Provence we had:

1. Hit a backpacker with our trusty little rental car, the Opel. Luckily, the scruffy lad’s pack was large enough to shield his spine from suffering mortal damage from our collective inexperience with manual transmission.

2. Driven 30 kilometers to arrive at the Polyclinique du Grand Sud,and NOT the Roman Aqueducts. The neighborhood looked like a retirement community in Florida, far from the rolling fields of lavender and Gallo-Roman ruins we had so long looked forward to. Apparently GPS is imperfect.

3. Found the Roman Aqueducts (the Pont du Gard), drank a bottle of red wine, sunned ourselves brown(well, not all of us, D was still a little pale), swam under a 2000 year old bridge in refreshingly chill water, and had our toes nibbled by tiny fish. These were good things.

4. Driven through a hailstorm. Yes, HAIL.

Welcome to France, D&G!

Small Delights: Luxembourg

Excerpt from travel log

When it comes to Europe our thoughts jump firstly to the grand adventures it has to offer. The great romance of Paris. The blazing Tuscan sun. The imperious castles of Germany. But there are good reasons to make a holiday of a daintier place, such as that bite-sized delight called Luxembourg. You can take your time and savor the local flavors (gastronomic and otherwise) without rushing around worrying about missing out on the Sistine Chapel or the Louvre. You can see (and taste) it all in one amazing weekend.

The crowning glory of my trip to Luxembourg was the last dinner at Il Fragolino, a restaurant at the foot of the Petrusse Valley. I had just learned that the largest immigrant populations in the Grand Duchy are Italians and Portuguese and had had good reason to drool over the prospect of an authentic Italian dinner with my Italian family and friends. This bit of imagination-induced salivation was nothing compared to what came after the waiter brought out the “degustazione pasta”, a pasta sampler.

The four of us at one end of the table who ordered this behemoth platter of carbs had to move our plates and glasses into a position of delicate balance (between the edge of the table and our laps) to make way for the long silver vessel. The “plate”, quotation marks necessary here for it was more like a little boat set afloat on the table, was filled to the brim with generously-sized and colorful pastas. From my vantage point I looked down th table at one delectable row of penne arrabiata, ricotta ravioli (each one almost the size of cha siu bao), prosciutto ravioli, spinach ravioli, and mushroom fusili. From this point on I lost coherence and cognition and could only engage in a primal feeding frenzy. But I do remember that it was here, at this sumptuous table, that I raised my glass and drank to the health of my companions, to the best Italian food I’ve ever tasted, and to a small gem tourists often neglect on their grand forays intoEurope – to Luxembourg!

Au marche!

Excerpt from travel log…

The mention of a Sunday market excited me. I expected to find some food stalls selling sandwiches and Orangina, maybe some trinket vendors, like the ones around Centre Pompidou and other popular hangouts. What I found at the far end of Blvd Richard Lenoir, close to the Bastille, wasn’t just a “market.” It was…heaven. Beginning as abruptly as the neighborhood park where a few homeless men loitered ended, the magnificent marche began and extended out for at least a mile.

And what a mile it was! Row upon row of green awnings barely concealing the surfeit of fresh produce and cooked delicacies spilling over underneath. I entered the market at a seafood stall and my eyes widened to take in the sheer quantity and variety of oceanic fare. There were generously sliced filets of salmon, haddock, mackerel, and many more kinds of fish I couldn’t even name heaped on ice-topped crates. After walking around the fish crates with my jaw hanging down to my chest I moved stations into the merchant’s crustacean section. Atlantic crayfish, crab, and lobsters, which looked like they had swallowed ten of their smaller Pacific cousins before being poached by the fisherman lay about slowly moving their claws. Monstrously large scallops and shells, the size of saucers, strewn about half open and revealing sumptuous tender flesh inside. This was just the first stall!

I peeled my person and jaw away from the seafood. Enticing as it all was it wouldn’t give my belly immediate gratification. I walked a few more stalls and came upon a cheese counter, which put the fromagerie section at Cold Storage Gourmet to mortal shame. Cheese wheels the size of my head! Really stinky Brie! Bluey moldy Roquefort!

Here I began my consumption, not just ogling, of foods. I was excited but also timid, not knowing which variety to buy and budgeting in my head how much I could justify splurging on my first meal during this summer of unemployment. I asked the girl behind the counter if I could try some and she obligingly sliced me pieces of the Tomme de Savoie (a hard cheese), which I deemed not hard or salty enough. She then handed me another one and proceeded to explain the nuances in the four different families of blue cheeses, where my eyes had already roamed. After the tutorial I asked for three chunks of cheeses I had sampled, simultaneously salivating and fretting over how much this breakfast extravaganza would cost.

The girl wrapped up my purchases in wax paper (old school! No plastic wrappers!) and reported, “Trois euros et quarante-cinq centimes.

Did I hear correctly? Had my French eroded beyond hope in the years of non-usage? Three euros and forty-five cents!? I verified the amount on the printed receipt. I couldn’t have bought one sixth of this much wonderful dairy moldiness for so little money back in Singapore!

I was floored, and done for. This delightful surprise at the cheese counter unleashed the food monster within and I threw caution and budget to the wind. I left the cheese angel at her station of duty and bounded down the street, trying to find other foods to go with my purchases while biting into a hunk of blue…

Bienvenue a Paris

Excerpt from my travel log…

Today Paris welcomed me with open arms and a kiss on each cheek. At 5.30am, thirty minutes ahead of schedule, we touched down at Charles de Gaulle just as the sun began its glowing ascent from the eastern sky. There was no time left for hesitation or panic. I was already here.

A month earlier I had resigned from an admittedly good job (which looked relatively better and better as the recession got deeper and deeper) in Singapore to now come to Paris to “find myself.” Cold feet didn’t plague me at my spring-time wedding but here I was getting cold feet on the plane ride to my summer adventure! What was I thinking leaving a well-paying job in the middle of a recession when everyone in their sane mind was hanging onto their jobs for dear life? What could I possibly accomplish living for five weeks in an expensive European capital except deplete my savings further? Had I made a monumental mistake running away from reality to an idealized memory of Paris that I’ve been building since my first visit in the summer of sixteen? And what happens if I don’t discover anything new here – hang my head low and pray to heavens my old firm would have me back?

This chain of self-interrogation came to an abrupt end as the travelers of Air France 257 jumped up to jostle for their bags. The flux of impatient voyagers eager to leave their seats for the last thirteen hours overpowered me, propelling me towards the exit…