Licensed to Cycle

December 16, 2004


Last week I finally broke down and bought a bicycle.

Hmm, I think I’ll just wait a minute for everyone out there who has seen me ride a bike to stop laughing….

Actually, it is not so much bicycles in particular as anything involving wheels. I still have roller skating scars on my knees. There was one (and only one) childhood incident involving a go-cart and an overly steep driveway. My Great Rollerblading Adventure involved me careening down a hill yelling “I don’t have any braaaaaaaaaaaaaakes…..” and crashing, finally, into a tent-pitching demonstration (imagine their terror as I approached), never to blade again.

And don’t even get me started on driving (though I will insist forever that Suburbans are dangerously top-heavy. You tap them in just the slightest way with a small subcompact sedan and wham! suddenly you’re staring at the undercarriage and all four wheels, waiting for the cops to come fill out the accident report and wishing your drivers’ license was actually on you, not in the purse you’re driving downtown to pick up because you forgot it the day before).

Bicycles are no exception to this sordid history. I just don’t steer well. Coming up on a turn, I usually take the path of a tractor-trailer. Ninety degrees, hugging the curb? Forget it.

Aside from the steering issue, I’m a nervous biker. Cycling anywhere but a designated bike path in a park with absolutely no one else on it, I tend to try to brake for anything. Sometimes I find myself hitting the brakes even while trying to pedal (it is, of course, much harder this way, but safety first, you know). Trying to get going from a dead stop usually takes four or five toe taps on the pavement, varying sides, while I work up some momentum to keep my balance.

When I first moved to Washington DC in 1999, I was talked into the idea that I might cycle around town a bit, terrifying traffic patterns aside, so I brought my bike and chained it to the back deck of my house. When I was moving out of the house in 2002, we had to cut the lock off because I couldn’t remember the combination: it had, after all, been three years. The by-then-rusty bicycle was eventually donated to whatever neighborhood thief was kindhearted enough to relieve me of it when I left it standing appealingly on the curb, lockless and hopeful. Given this state of affairs, it should surprise no one that I’ve lived in China for two months without attempting to acquire my own set of wheels.

So what made me break down, finally? It was the archives. The Number Two Historical Archive is just too far away. I can take the bus, but it’s always so packed with people when I’m going and coming home (at rush hours) that I’m always hesitant to try to squeeze myself in (do not think bus packing in any local American city; think, instead, packed in a Tokyo subway at rush hour, or a college fraternity get-on-the-news-and-in-the-Guiness-Book-of-Records-Volkswagen-cramming stunt, with bodies twisted about in all directions. Clown car-packed. Beatles concert in 1964 packed. Then you’ll know what I mean).

For a while, I just took a cab there. A cab to the archives from the major thoroughfare closest to my house runs around $1.50. It didn’t feel like a major extravagance. My problem, though, is that it would take me forever to hail a cab. When I undeniably need to take a cab – let’s say, when I have luggage and am going to a nearby airport or train station, it’s late at night and unsafe, I have no clue where I am or where I’m going – I can throw out my arm as well as the next person. When I feel that there are other options, however (like a bus I could be taking), my cab-hailing wave is remarkably unconvincing.

In Taiwan I never had a problem getting cabs – in Taipei, at least, there are more cabs than people willing to pay for them, and being a foreigner to boot, if I happened to reach up and scratch my nose while walking down the street, three taxis would come to a screeching halt in front of me. Although I am still undeniably a foreigner, in China cabs are so cheap and the people going places so plentiful you can sometimes wait quite a while for an empty car to appear. Add to this a half-hearted wave, slightly guilty in expression, and I can wait a long time for the right taxi to come along and catch my eye. Sometimes I’d walk either to or from the archives, but it’s far – the walk takes about an hour and a half. As much as I appreciate the exercise (the idea of fresh air is immaterial – not only do I get an ample supply of air on my two and a half hour lunch break, but the air in Nanjing is so polluted you’d have to climb a mountain or wear an oxygen mask to get to fresh stuff), it’s a long time to hike through this urban jungle and I have plenty of ways I could use that time.

Hence the bicycle. Having decided to buy it, however, my first problem was where.

There are something like 300 million bicycles in China – and that figure is a few years old. Parked bicycles line the sidewalks. People on bicycles clog up the traffic and turn lanes. There are covered bicycle parking zones in front of stores, offices, and apartment buildings. There are literally bicycles everywhere you look. But they’re not for sale. Where, I wondered, do all these bicycles come from? I started going into every store I came upon – no luck. I found scooters and motorbikes, but not regular bikes. Actually, I think I found just about one of everything known to man (and a few things previously unknown to me), but no bikes. I began to wonder if the moment I decided to buy one, all the bicycle sellers packed up and left Nanjing (not unlike Chinese restaurants in Trondheim, Norway, which are everywhere when you are wandering around visiting museums in the afternoon, but suddenly disappear when it’s 7 pm and you’re looking for something stir-fried).

Frustrated, I started asking everyone I met. I got a lot of suggestions (mostly for a mysterious place on Shanxi Road that seems only to exist when people other than me are looking for it), but was finally, fortunately, directed to CE Mart. This place is a lot like Wal-mart, but a Chinese version. (Why didn’t I just go to Wal-mart, anyway? They only had fancy bikes. I wanted your basic, utilitarian, classic Chinese bike. Plus, their bikes didn’t have baskets. I felt I must have a basket.) CE Mart has everything, from inflatable life-size Santas (Christmas has arrived in China, and in a big, inflatable way) to imported canned peas.

I walked in on a Sunday afternoon, and immediately walked out again. There were just so many people inside (see notes on “packed,” above), and, of course, being a bit of an exotica myself, every time I go into a store like this one, a few people start to follow me around to see what I buy. Basically, I was intimidated out of it. I left, walked around the block (all the while scolding myself for my shopping cowardice), and returned to the heart of the action. Steeling my nerves and readying for battle, I marched into the bicycle department and picked out the cheapest model. (I’m only here for another six months, really, so no point in buying something that cries out to be stolen) (I also can’t work the gears on multiple-speed bikes. My old ten-speed had nine wasted gear options.) Once I actually started talking to the friendly bicycle sellers, the rest was a breeze. They tightened all the bolts to get it ready to ride, attached my extra-large basket, and helped me pick out a lock (here you only put a lock around the back wheel to keep it from moving. There are so many bicycles, there is no point in chaining it to anything). After I had made my purchase ($29, inclusive) they sent me down to the service desk to register my vehicle and get a number plate for it (a theft deterrent. Lots of foreigners don’t bother registering. They also buy new bikes frequently). I handed over my residence permit, and a few minutes later the attendant handed it back with something else: it was a little, green plastic folder with gold characters embossed on the front. It read, “Bicycle drivers’ license.” I opened the folder and found a license with my name and address, the model of my bike and plate number inside. I’m officially Licensed to Cycle by the City of Nanjing. All I could think was: “good thing there wasn’t a road test.” This woman has no idea what she has now unleashed on the unsuspecting population.

I’m doing okay, so far. It’s actually much safer to bike here than in any American city, because there are designated bike lanes that are separated from the car lanes by metal barriers. Every time you make a left turn, there are 20 other bicycles with you, so there are no worries about being the lone cyclist cutting through traffic.

The trickiest intersection is actually this tiny little three-way near my apartment. One day I ventured out and came upon total gridlock. Taking in the scene, I noticed about 10 cars, two buses, 25 bicycles and motorbikes, two large wheelbarrows, and a backhoe. Everything single one of these, uh, “vehicles” was facing a different direction, impossible as that may seem. I sat for about twenty minutes, spellbound, watching this mess sort itself out before I bravely peddled forward.

Even so, I brake a lot. I have an embarrassing time getting going sometimes, doing my little toe-tapping dance to get up and get myself balanced. And my legs are sore from the unexpected development of now riding for a minimum of an hour and a half a day (45 minutes each way, to the archives and back, though I have started to ride out for lunch now too). But deep in my heart I think this is the practice I need to become a confident cyclist, so that one day in the future, I can bike in the US without fear (cue uplifting music). I’m not ready to take on some of the more interesting bicycling challenges I’ve witnessed on the Nanjing streets, however, like carting around a bundle of 8-foot plastic tubing or pulling a large plastic Christmas tree (decorated, oddly, with a great many small, green foil Christmas trees) on a cart.

Today as I pulled into my apartment complex, a man with a wide, leather easy chair strapped to the flat cover above his back wheel pulled in behind me. I’m in the presence of cycling greatness here, and I am awed.

News roundup:

In the “I can’t believe that’s legit” category: I saw a couple of kids playing Chinese jump-rope today (the stretchy kind, that goes around two people’s ankles while the third person jumps in and out). I had no idea that it was actually Chinese. I always thought of it in the same terms as “Chinese fire drills” and such.

In the “At least I have options” category: a construction worker told me I’m pretty and asked me to marry him while I was heading to the grocery store (on foot). That brings my lifetime total number of marriage proposals up to two: him and the steamed bread salesman outside the Technology Building subway stop in Taiwan. A difficult choice, but the steamed bread man has a slight edge: he was willing to emigrate to the US.

In the “Torture through pop music” category: a no-name band from Denmark has discovered the ultimate way to have a hit song in China. They wrote English lyrics to a very famous, hugely popular Chinese song (“Wenbie,” most recently recorded by Jacky Cheung, for anyone into Mandopop). I sat in a coffee shop last week and listened to the song play over and over for an hour and a half. I finally asked the waitress why we were listening to the same song time and again. “Oh,” she gushed, “It’s on ‘repeat.’” Can’t argue with that. But walk ten feet in any direction in China and you’ll hear it (if anyone is curious, I can email the MP3s of the original and the new version. But it is torturous, so don’t say you weren’t warned).

And in the “I can barely wait” category: I’ll be home Monday for Christmas.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen

God Bless The People’s Liberation Army

December 7, 2004

Chapter subtitle: Thanksgiving Alone, Or Adventures With Mashed Potatoes

Merry Oyen 12/04

Last night’s Old Red Movie featured a portly, jovial Mao Ze-dong in a run-down hut, little to eat but joy all around, offering pencils as gifts to his children late in December, 1948. The scene then cut to a cold, sour Chiang Kai-shek lounging about before a fire in a massive mansion, with elaborate garlands and lights lining the room and a feast laid out on a table, all alone. At the moment when the piped refrain – in English, no less – of “Silent Night” became audible, it dawned on me: this is no ordinary Old Red Movie, it’s an Old Red Christmas Movie! It’s perfect, too: Chiang Kai-shek as the surly Scrooge with every material thing at his fingertips but no true interest in the masses, Mao Ze-dong as Cratchit, the man who has nothing but a desire to live in a world where everyone is warm and well-fed. I half expected Mao’s little daughter to stare joyfully into the camera, clutching her pencil, and cry, “God bless us and the People’s Liberation Army, every one!!” Of course, the whole thing did not end with the Generalissimo experiencing a change of heart (where are the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future when you need them?), but in Mao’s final speech to the masses, his demeanor did bear a striking resemblance to that of a certain right jolly old elf. I tell you, there is nothing like a little communist propaganda to put you in the holiday spirit.

The only other sign of Christmas around here is the fact that suddenly it seems that every cell phone in China has switched its ring-tone simultaneously to “Jingle Bells.” Perhaps there was a memo, and I missed it. Do you have any idea how many cell phones there are in China? Every where I go, every hour of the day, I hear small, tinny bells proclaiming, “da da dum, da da dum, da da dum da duuummmm….” Sometimes I sing along, which so far amuses adults and seems to frighten small children, the latter of which is not really in the spirit of the season, so I might need to refrain in the future. We’ll see.

About recent holidays: Thanksgiving was lovely. The big talk to the Nanjing University grad students association was moved to Friday, so the general topic of Thanksgiving was off the holiday agenda (it went fine, by the way. We American panelists were a little boring, though, so nothing much to report on it). I was, however, busy writing a paper for a conference that was due right after Thanksgiving, so I didn’t venture out much. I decided instead to stay in and have a traditional holiday meal of mashed potatoes, stir-fried green beans, and Tsing-Tao Beer. (I know, I know, some of you are thinking, Tsing-Tao Beer? The pilgrims didn’t drink beer! But in fact, the pilgrims, puritanical tendencies aside, did drink beer, as did everyone in those days. But aha, you think, where would they get Chinese beer in the 1620s? Impossible! May I be so bold as to point out, however, that it was not impossible for there to have been Chinese people at the first Thanksgiving. Improbable, yes. But not impossible: thanks to the trans-Pacific Spanish Galleon Trade, Chinese laborers were living in Peru by 1613, and in Mexico not long thereafter, and having traveled that far, it would not be unworkable for such intrepid souls to have made their way up to the Massachusetts Bay area in time for that first Thanksgiving. “But,” you continue, skeptically, “Tsing-tao???” Ah. Therein lies the real problem. The brewery at the German concession of Tsing-Tao, China was not established until 1903. So perhaps my meal was not altogether authentic. Of course, if you were going to start shooting holes in the whole thing, a faster approach would have been to start with the potatoes, which were not yet grown in North America at that time. Let’s hear three cheers for green beans….)

I had a bit of a time with those mashed potatoes, actually. I had them all peeled, cubed, and cooked – i.e. ready to mash – when I suddenly looked around my kitchen and wondered what I’d be using to mash them. My kitchen utensils are limited to: one spatula, one vegetable peeler, and about eight pairs of chopsticks. Tricky. I went with the spatula, say what you will, but although they were rather lumpy, they were still some awfully fine tasting ‘taters.

It might sound a little grim, me in my apartment eating mashed potatoes and drinking beer over a stack of documents and a paper draft, but I assure you, it was nothing of the sort. Beyond the Great Comfort that is the knowledge that I will be home for Christmas, there is also the Inescapable Truth that I have a great deal to be thankful for, whatever the circumstances of my holiday. I started making a list, in fact (as many of us are prone to do this time of year), and found that I ran out of time before I ran out of ideas, which is a blessing in and of itself. And, of course, at the top of the list were all of you friends and relatives (in some cases, even the same people in both categories!). Well, to be perfectly honest, at the very top of the list were “black sesame filled glutinous rice balls,” (a.k.a. hei zima tang yuan) which is what I was eating at the time, but the list was in no particular order, especially not in order of priority.

In other news, I got started at the Number Two Historical Archive this week. My first day there was a mere two hours, and consisted of me applying for admission and looking at some of the document catalogues.

It was, frankly, two of the most stressful hours I’ve had in grad school, second only, I think, to my PhD oral comprehensive exam 18 months ago. It’s hard to explain, actually, why it was so stressful. Certainly it is not because they refused my entrance, because they didn’t: I’m in. It also wasn’t because they aren’t letting me see the documents I want; again, they are. Really, I think most historians would scoff and say, “You think that’s tricky? Let me tell you about the time I was in [insert third-world capital with an authoritarian government here] and took gunfire in my quest for historical truths….”

Okay, maybe not, but historians, like all professionals, have their share of “war stories,” and most of them involve wrestling documents out of bureaucrats’ hands but leave you with a mental image of a grand adventure like something out of Indiana Jones (er, not that I would know really. I’ll see those movies someday, after Star Wars and Lord of the Rings and all the other pop culture classics I’m delinquent on getting around to watching as I re-read Jane Austen for the 11th time). My Number Two archives introduction would impress no one in such circles.

It began with an examination of my credentials.

On their website and publications, they state very clearly that they require every researcher to come with a letter of introduction from their local work unit (in my case, Nanjing University, where I’m affiliated for the year), their ID card or passport, and a general statement of some kind about their research topic. Before I went, I met with some professors at Nanjing University and asked what I needed to get in; they told me I would need a letter of introduction, my passport, and a statement of my research topic.

So, off I went, with a letter of introduction, my passport, and a statement of research. I went into the office where they manage archive admissions, sat down opposite to a busy man who thought he spoke English (after a few false starts, we switched to Chinese), and there I remained for about an hour. He showed me other people’s applications. I pointed out that I was carrying all the same credentials they were. He asked what university I was from. I told him Georgetown. He was forced to acknowledge that he had heard of it. He told me that a researcher from Harvard came, and she brought a letter of recommendation from the President of her university. I said how nice for her. He said I should bring a letter of recommendation, either from Nanjing or Georgetown. I said I had a letter of introduction, and pointed out the place where the archive rules said that introductory letters, but not recommendation letters, were required. He said it would be clearer with a recommendation. I asked what would be clearer. He said that he thought my discussion of what I wanted to study was too vague. I said my topic was large, but that I had all year as I’d be in China until next summer.

He said that gave him something to think about, and he left the room for a little while, apparently to ponder this strange fact. (Actually, the statement was awfully vague, but intentionally so. I’ve heard a lot of stories about this archive, and they often included people getting refused documents not because they were classified, but because they didn’t mention the possibility that they might one day want to see them the first time they applied for admission.) It all ended, rather unceremoniously, with him guiding me up to the research room and dumping me on the staff there. My application was, of course, accepted exactly the way I had submitted it.

I spent the second hour I was at the archives looking through the catalogs. I spent fifty minutes on the first one, panicking. I discovered upon opening it that I could not read a word inside. It might as well have been in Manchu, for all the good staring at it was doing me. How was I going to figure out what documents to order, much less read them? Finally I set it aside and opened up the second volume. Here the characters were in small, neat calligraphy – I could read every word. Whew. I’ll figure out what to do about that first volume later; the important thing is that I’ve at least got somewhere to start.

By the time I left that first day, I never wanted to go back. But back I was the next morning, ready and waiting when they opened at 8:30. This is when I discovered that first day anxiety aside, working at this archive will never be a truly grueling experience. That is because they are open from 8:30 to 11:30, then close for lunch for two and a half hours, finally reopening at 2, but only until 4:30, when they shut down for the night. This schedule keeps up five days a week, except that they close for the afternoon on the last Friday of every month, apparently to give their poor, overworked staff a much needed breather. If I had serious time constraints on my research, I’d be cursing these hours (by contrast, the US National Archives is open 60 hours a week), but as it is I’m in no hurry and can afford to find them amusing. My greatest concern is that I’ll get used to them, so that next year when I’m back home I’ll be insisting on a two and a half hour lunch, and what, me work after 4:30? Ridiculous.

With a hearty “Bah Humbug, The East Is Red” to all,


Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen

Ducktales- Jellied Webs and Dark Tofu

December 7, 2004

Filed 11/15/0o4

Next week I’ll be giving a presentation at a meeting of the Nanjing University Graduate Students Association comparing my life in the US with my life in China.

So far, I think it’ll be a bit dull.

My life in the US: read historic archival documents.

My life in China: read historic archival documents.

I’m trying to come up with some ways to spice it up, but so far, I’m not coming up with much. The presentation itself is on Thanksgiving Day; when I pointed this out to the organizers (there are two other Americans presenting, I just thought they should be aware of this), they said, “Oh, so you can talk about that holiday, then.”

Yeah, okay. Really, it’s not like I had other plans for Thanksgiving. I’ll make some mashed potatoes just because I can, and also because I think that is the only Thanksgiving staple I’d be able to put together in my kitchen. If it is possible to bake a pumpkin pie with a bamboo steamer and a wok, I certainly don’t know how to do it. (Ah, where’s Martha when you need her? Jail.) Actually, I can’t think of anyplace nearby (meaning closer than Shanghai) that sells pumpkin anyway.

To thank me in advance for my presentation (excellent thinking, in my mind, because they may not want to thank me anymore after I make it) two of the organizers took me out to dinner the other night. We went in a local restaurant, and we just sat around chatting over our dishes (spicy tofu, some assorted Chinese greens, a sort of egg omelet, spicy fish, and a mushroom and chicken soup). That place must not get a lot of foreigners, though, because when we were getting ready to leave they told us to hang on, they were going to give us a special Nanjing dish free of charge.

When the dish came, it consisted of some transparent noodles, bean sprouts, an unidentified but very clearly gray meat, and some “hei dofu”, that is, dark colored tofu. Actually, in the US you don’t see a lot of dark tofu, but I’m used to it from Taiwan, where it can be had in spades. I remember when I first tried it in Taipei a few years back; after I got over the initial disappointment that it was not, as I had hoped, made from chocolate soy milk, I thought it was fine. (For chocolate flavored soy treats, one must visit a “douhua” stand. Just so you know.) Tastes just like regular white tofu, actually, which is to say, it tastes like nothing.

My two dinner companions praised the choice of dish, called it “very special”, and insisted I attack it all alone. I was already pretty full, but in the interest of politeness, I picked up my chopsticks and got to work. The noodles turned out to be made from yams, whereas I’d only had this kind of noodle made from mung beans, so that was new. We had a reasonably dull conversation about the bean sprouts while I tried to practice being both polite and vegetarian by picking around the scary gray meat, and ate several pieces of tofu.

Watching me reach for another piece, one of my friends said, “How do you like the yaxie?” I wasn’t clear what she was referring to, so she pointed to the tofu, “The yaxie. It’s special in Nanjing. Do you like it?” At this point, I was wracking my brain for any kind of tofu product that contains a word sounding like ya or xie, and sadly, coming up empty. With a heavy heart, I finally asked how “yaxie” was translated into English. “Oh you know,” she answered, “duck blood.”

I’d been eating congealed duck blood, thinking it “safer” than the gray meat.

I put down my chopsticks and tried very, very hard to sound natural as I announced I had eaten so much already, I really couldn’t eat another bite. Really.

My new friends weren’t fooled. What evolved was one of those classic conversations where there is clearly a cultural gap that cannot be breached.

“But you were eating the duck blood, you like it.”

“No, I liked it when it was tofu.”

“But it wasn’t ever tofu, it was always duck blood.”

“But when I thought it was tofu, it tasted like tofu. When I knew it was duck blood, it tasted like blood.”

“It didn’t change, it tastes the same.”

“Yes, but now I can taste the blood.”

“But it was blood before.”

“But then it was blood disguised as tofu, so I couldn’t taste it.”

“It was never disguised, it was always just duck blood.”

“No, but I didn’t know it was blood.”

“But it was still blood.”

“I just can’t eat blood.”

“But you were eating blood.”

“Yes, but that was because it was tofu.”


“Blood is not tofu.”

“No. That’s the problem.”

“It wasn’t a problem when you were eating it.’

“It was a problem, I just didn’t know it yet.”

It finally ended with me teaching them that famous English idiom, “ignorance is bliss”, which I translated into Chinese as, “It’s better not to know what you’re eating.”

Along the way, I did accidentally get a bite of the gray meat, which turned out to be Nanjing’s other famous delicacy, pressed duck. I’m not sure what it is with duck in China; I sense that every current or former Chinese capital gets a part of the bird to cook in it’s own unique way. Beijing is famous, of course, for Peking roast duck. Nanjing has both the duck blood and the pressed duck. I wonder if Hangzhou and Chang’an (Xi’an) do anything special with bills or feet (jellied duck’s web, anyone?) So, how is the famous pressed duck? Awful. Tastes like death; there’s a reason I was so enthusiastic about the ‘tofu.’

That said, it is sold in marvelous vacuum packed bags, so I’ll be sure to bring a bag home at Christmas. We can put it out on the table at Grandma’s next to the meatballs, and not warn anyone not on this list what it is. Who knows, maybe the realization of being deprived of vital knowledge (like how bad pressed duck is) will gain me a few new “subscribers.”

Actually, what I was thinking about on the walk home from the restaurant was whether there was some sort of Chinese version of Better Homes and Gardens or Women’s Day that prints up classic recipes just like mom used to make. I was trying to picture how the Nanjing Congealed Duck’s Blood story would go:

“Now that the weather has turned cool again, it’s time for some good, old-fashioned congealed ducks blood. Drain the blood from two adult ducks, add gelatin (or, if there’s none available, simply pull the cartilage from one medium-sized cow knee), and set up on your stove to simmer. As the marvelous slaughterhouse-like aroma fills the air, let it take you back to all those childhood memories of being sent down to the countryside to Learn From The Peasants!

All day today (er, before now), I’ve been trying to get my mind off of the “duck blood incident.” My method for doing this is to read 1950s era US Information Agency (USIA) documents on how American propaganda was going to win the overseas Chinese of Southeast Asia for the Free World.

As I was reading today, I happened upon what I thought was an idea with real promise. In 1953, the some bright, young American Public Affairs Officers set up a thriving book club in Vietnam and Cambodia. The idea was that by using the informal, congenial atmosphere of a discussion group and interesting but clearly anti-communist novels, they could somehow Win Indochina For The West. The real pity is that we never got to see how this, the peaceful solution, would work out; a year leader the French would go down not quite in a blaze of glory in Dien Bien Phu and the real mess would start to heat up.

My thought is this: with all the clamoring for a peaceful solution in the Middle East, why not revive this bright idea? Okay, clearly we are militarily entangled, but that doesn’t prevent us from working on a parallel, more peaceful approach. Its just the sort of the thing my old roommate Dana, the highly confrontational peace studies student who couldn’t get along with anybody, would be out advocating. Just in case I’ve got something here, I say we send Oprah to Iraq and Afghanistan, wearing a flak jacket, with a couple thousand copies of “Tuesdays with Morrie.” It can’t hurt, anyway.

I leave you all with this, my thought for the day: “A Weasel Bit a Sick Duck”- Ancient Chinese Proverb meaning (essentially) when it rains, it pours

Two days later:

In a particularly fine example of “a weasel biting a sick duck”, my friend Matt now writes from Taipei to say that neither he nor anyone he knows has ever heard of “dark tofu.”

A Cross-Straits Investigation (mostly involving people in both Taiwan and China using “google” simultaneously, but requiring some basic fieldwork over on the Free China side) has revealed this: there is, in fact, a dark version of dried tofu (hei dou gan), which I ate with some frequency in Taipei. Odds are, however, that when it was not dried, but closer to the consistency of regular tofu, it was a duck blood product.

I had just always assumed, because dark soy milk and dark dried tofu do exist, that dark tofu was also a regular occurrence. I’d also learned early on at the hot pot restaurant to avoid the pig blood with rice cakes, and likely just assumed that all animal blood products looked alike and were therefore equally easily identifiable.

Obviously not so- essentially, this means that I’ve probably eaten the equivalent of the lifeblood of a good four or five ducks already, always (before now) none the wiser. If so, let me say this: it’s not bad in soup.

On the bright side, however, I’ve learned that duck blood is quite rich in vitamins.

That’s good; I’d hate to think I’d consumed all that duck blood and gotten absolutely no nutritional value from it, only so many empty calories.

So enough with the scary food stories.

Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen