Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My first (unwanted) experience with Chinese medicine

I know, I always say I want to fully experience the country I'm visiting, and this is why I usually stay longer than a normal holiday. Of course this applies to China too, being the Giant Dragon a fascinating society and boasting one of the richest cultures in human history.

But let's face it, I would have gladly avoided experiencing Chinese medicine so early. Or at least in these conditions.

I believe this time the ever-present air conditioning is to blame. Although we are nearing the end of September, the weather in Shanghai was still humid and stifling hot. To put it mildly. Apparently, to please users and customers in China is very trendy to have the air conditioning at its maximum, and this has been lethal for me.

Shifting quickly and repeatedly between hot and humid to the dramatically low temperatures of the metro stations has caused my first Chinese flu.

The initial symptoms were the usual sore throat, cough, shivers and weakness, so I asked my Chinese teacher to write something to show the chemist in order to get the proper medicine. All good, except that by the time I got to the pharmacy I was also boiling with fever.

Due to an excessive weakness, I avoided new medicines and immediately opted for a common aspirin to make the temperature drop, but for throat and cough, I was still at the mercy of Chinese natural remedies.

Following my teacher's guidelines and some of my best gestures (in these cases being Italian, and able to talk with hands, helps), the chemist gave me a flowery box containing the herbs that will make my cough and sore throat go away.

The medicine is called Sangju Ganmao Keli, and is a mix of mulberry leaf, chrysanthemum, weeping forsythia, mint, bitter apricot seed, balloon flower root, licorice roots, reed rhizome. I've been taking one sachet in hot water three times a day and results are good so far: my throat is getting better, my voice has got back to normal, I'm not constantly blowing my nose, which is re-assuming its natural colour and abandoning that ridiculous red-ish look. In a nutshell, I'm breathing again.

What I have learnt, a little doing some research before coming to China, then listening to my teacher's anedoctes and being in touch with Chinese people, is that their philosophy is to prevent rather than treating, so they maintain a very healthy lifestyle and natural remedies are part of their daily routine.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who caught the flu despite the heat. My teacher came to class yesterday with weird red signs on her throat and forehead, and even before we could ask what had happened to her, she explained that it is Chinese medicine against the fever. Our puzzled look prodded her to explain further: basically when we start having fever, by pinching on our forehead and our throat, we make the temperature drop.

I'm not suggesting anyone to do it, as I believe there is a special way to pinch effectively and not just randomly to only cause awkward redness. I don't think I'll try that either nex time I have the flu, but I found it fascinating as an introduction to alternative medicine.

Finally today the weather has changed and is much cooler, a completely different season from yesterday, quite pleasant and certainly more appropriate to the end of September.

I was told Shanghai's coldest temperatures are around 10-8°C, but it feels colder as it's always very humid. This might be an incentive for me to start looking at different remedies in order to prevent a potential next flu.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Settling in Shanghai, easier said than done

After a couple of posts covering the quirky aspects of my stay in Shanghai, time has come to release the truth: it's not all that fun.

First of all, ni hao everybody, as this is one of the very few Chinese words I managed to grasp before starting the course.

When I've arrived in China, end of July, I took all August as a holiday-adjustment to the new reality, and although it's been great traveling to Beijing and Qingdao and exploring Shanghai itself, the first signs of what I was going to face shortly had started showing up.

First and foremost, the biggest barrier was (and is) the language. Not just because Chinese is very difficult, but also because nobody speaks English. Or French, or Italian, or Spanish, or Portuguese, for that matter.

I agree that I am the foreigner, meaning that I have to adapt, and locals don't have to feel compelled to study another language just to make tourists or expats feel at home. Also true is that in Italy is not that common to find locals with a proficient level of English either, except in very touristy areas, but this applies to Shanghai too. 

What is the problem of not being confident in Chinese? For a Westerner like me, used to completely different writing characters, is impossible even to look up in the dictionary when in need to translate Chinese to English.

Going shopping for food is still a disaster: there is literally everything on sale, some things I have never seen before, and names and descriptions are only in Chinese, making it impossible for me to buy them. Admittedly, with my great regret as I'm quite open-minded food-wise and I love trying anything new. Well, almost anything.

If you are wondering about the public transport, yes, the metro (very well organised, 13 lines that reach pretty much every corner of the city) is bilingual, meaning that the stops are written also with English characters, but the workers are still monolingual.

The linguistic hindrance entails much more than just grocery shopping, of course. A couple of examples? Getting the mail, understanding the bills, reading building announcements and block rules. Or answering to the lady who came to read the business gas metres and ask for the money missing from last bill.

All these difficulties notwithstanding, I have always had the impression that life in China is made very easy, little hassle and relaxed.

I am now on my third day of Chinese class, tomorrow will be the fourth one, and I already know several words, I can make sentences just swaping the terms and changing their order and, most of all, I can do all this also by writing with Chinese characters.

This does require every-day after-class review and studying at home, but it's way less difficult than I had ever thought. After a month and a half of China, and almost two weeks living by myself in my own place, the initial frustration is gradually giving way to a greater appreciation of a totally new lifestyle (it is what I was looking for, isn't it?), discovering unknown social mores and small idiosyncrasies that make the Sleeping Dragon an invaluable mix of tradition and modernity.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Wandering about Jordan treasures

I went to Shanghai International Expo with the aim to visit the pavilions of the countries that captivate me. So I found myself on the lookout of the nations I'm curious to visit.

Admittedly, they are a lot and due to the many queues standing in front of each pavilion, I realised I wasn't going to see them in only one afternoon.

I had to make a choice and this didn't take me long: Middle East.

Just off Shibo Avenue lied all "my" countries, and for my greater convenience the Asia Joint Pavilion II gathered most nations I had in mind. This is how I made my way to discover the ancient wonders of charming Jordan.

Jordan is renowned for its timeless beauty, and travelers are bedazzled by its evocative landscapes and heritage, but getting under the skin of place is always a challenge, and dawdling about Jordan pavilion felt like taking a crash course in digging deeper into a foreign society and sharing cultural norms with its people.


Goes without saying that the welcoming of the visitors was prerogative of the overwhelming landscape of Petra, and after walking past the initial posters I was met by Jordanian products, styles and atmosphere. Looking about me, I realised that Jordanians have all the good reasons to be proud of their country.


What was on display were the typical products coming from Jordan, from food, to pots, to textiles, all oozing the flavours and ochre colours that belong to the Middle Eastern region and represent much of its identity. Since I've been to the United Arab Emirates, I've fallen in love with those countries where the desert plays a major role, both geographical and social.

Visiting Jordan vicariously through its pavilion has proved as inspiring as I had predicted, and the neighbouring nations-pavilions, Syria, Afghanistan and Palestine, managed to keep high my enthusiasm and make me promise I will come back next time I visit the Expo, in the wait to experience the real country.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Enjoying Chinese cuisine, and I'm not talking about worms, scorpions and grasshoppers!

I had heard about it: "In China they eat worms!" - "Oh please!" Was my usual answer.

Until I went to Beijing and Qingdao street food markets. Food of any sort, insects of any sort, from worms to scorpions to grasshoppers. The scorpions were still alive ready to be spit-roasted, the grasshoppers were already warm and crunchy.

Surprisingly though, I didn't lose my appetite and I delved into the other delicacies the street vendors were cooking, from seafood to fried noodles to steamed dumplings filled with vegetables and meat.

In Beijing, the street market was set up every evening only for dinner just in front of my hotel, becoming in a matter of minutes absolutely packed with tourists and locals alike in the lookout for their favourite delicacy.

After a couple of days in Beijing I went to Qingdao, little town (only 8 million people) on the coast of the Yellow Sea, where the street market in the old part of the city was also for lunch. And for lunch I went, finding a huge range of Chinese treats for all tastes, to be eaten rigorously with the chopsticks.

What I like of this way of eating is that I can have a little of many different things, instead of a full dish of only one choice. And this is exactly what I did, jumping from one vendor to another, I had the opportunity to taste several specialities, and I'm pretty sure nothing I've had involved snakes, worms or other delicacies I'm not ready to understand yet.
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