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Second Binational Conversation on Bridging Cultures

16 Oct

Today was the first day of the Second Binational Conversation on Bridging Cultures, or 中美文化论坛, which was co-sponsored by the American National Endowment for the Humanities, the Chinese Ministry of Culture, and UC Berkeley’s Center for Chinese Studies. Important figures like Yu Dan 于丹, of recent fame for popularizing Chinese philosophy, and Mo Yan 莫言, maybe known best for Red Sorghum, were panelists. Jonathan Spence and Ann-ping Chin, two noted Chinese historians, also shared some remarks.

Early morning attendees were greeted by a bevy of busy Chinese journalists and photographers. Tonight, I found 42 stories on the Binational Conversation in Chinese language Google News. Interestingly, I found 0 stories from English language press. A search even on solely the term “Berkeley” yields the following top three headlines:

  1. Berkeley filmmaker Gail Dolgin dies at 65
  2. Sunday Is Chow-Down Day in Berkeley
  3. Berkeley 63, De Anza 0

I suspect this press coverage discrepancy can be explained by three reasons.

First, I feel that the Ministry of Culture is a bigger deal to Chinese citizens than the NEH is to American citizens — as a matter of perspective, not actual value. Of course, maybe I’m only hanging out with Philistines, but I’m going to stick with this wager.

Second, Yu Dan and Mo Yan are household names in China; the American side did not have equivalent figures today. Again, I’m not conflating recognition with actual worth here.

Third, while there is a high level of American interest in U.S.-China commercial and human rights issues, most Americans simply do not have a significant interest in cultural ties with China — or really any other country, for that matter. I remember in 2008, my friend at Fudan said this reflected a “cultural hegemony.”

She may very well be right, but it’s also more complicated than that, at least in the Chinese regard. Chinese blockbusters are often period films (e.g., Qing Dynasty) and thus maybe less accessible to American audiences, people in China recognize the domestic market is currently much more ripe than the international one, and Chinese mass media culture has come a long way since the Eight Model Plays, but the creative environment still has its restrictions.

Conditions are sure to change in the future. But that is a subject for another time, one hopefully sooner than later.

photo storytime

4 Dec

Because I can!

This photo ended up on the front page of the Daily Cal in May 2008. I am prominent in the second row, unfortunately gigantesque next to the petite Korean girl in front of me. While I had planned to go to the protest, I didn’t intend to hold a sign (especially one with an incomprehensible stricken character … see upper right-hand corner), and I certainly didn’t expect to end up in media photos. I’d relate the story of how this all came to be, but that would take away from my protester cred.

S.Lam sits, reading on the skeletal futon. A few moments after this, her leg fell victim to its bony wrath. I actually have a video clip of her fuming about it. Incidentally, people were in the process of moving in and out, hence the eclectic mix of wooden elements.

Happy at a 798 Gallery in Beijing!

Exuberant. Surrounded by wonderful friends after my commencement ceremony.

Our apartment complex replaced some large number of toilets, and left the old ones by the parking lot. I’m sure this was hygienic, and that it was in our best interest to take advantage of this photo opportunity.

Photos: L.A. Japantown

13 Nov




One of the most popular spots in L.A.’s Japantown is Daikokuya, a ramen restaurant whose loyal patrons line the door for 20-30 minutes, waiting for their names to be called. Those who can’t stand the wait can head across the street to Japanese Village Plaza, where kitschy souvenir shops and baked goods abound. Above, dorayaki, still in the griddle. The wait for just one can be upwards of a half hour.

In the second photo, a bowl of ramen, kotteri style (added rich flavor of fatback). The noodles don’t come this red; my friend Ricky unscrewed the cap of the chili powder shaker and dumped 1/4 of its contents in.

Finally, Godzilla and dirty plastic baby dolls watch your meal from above. Comforting.

Ballade No. 1 – Chopin

9 Nov

I could listen to this song on repeat for the next several years and never grow weary of it.

《聪明人和傻子和奴才》(The Wise Man, The Fool And The Slave)

9 Nov

“The Wise Man, The Fool And The Slave” by Lu Xun. Translation is my own.

“Sir!” He lamented, tears streaming from the corners of his eyes. “You know – people don’t have to experience all I’ve gone through. Every day, I don’t know where my next meal is coming from, and the meal I do get is just sorghum. Pigs and dogs don’t want to eat this, not even a small bowl’s worth …”

“That is really moving,” said the wise man, also sadly.

“Of course!” The slave was happy. “But doing work tires me out: early in the morning, I carry water; late at night, I cook food. In the morning, I’m running around; at night, I mill flour. I wash clothes in the morning, hold the umbrella when it’s raining; heat the stove in the winter, and fan [my master] in the summer. I have to prepare white-ear soup all day, and I wait for the master to come back from gambling and the money never comes. Sometimes he even flogs me.”

“Aye, aye…” sighed the smart man, whose eyes were red around the rims, as if he were about to tear up.

“Sir! I can’t go through the motions anymore. I want to find another way. But what other way is there?”

“I … I think your lot will improve.”

“Really? I hope so. I’ve already complained so much to you, and have received your sympathy and comforting words. I feel so much better already. Apparently, reason hasn’t crumbled to pieces just yet.”

However, not long after, he felt ill at ease again and looked for someone else to vent to.

“Sir!” He sobbed as he spoke. “You know – my home is worse than a pig sty. The master doesn’t take me as a human; he treats his dog better than me.”

“Son of a … !” The man began to shout, which surprised the slave. This man was a fool.

“Sir, I live in a rundown little room that’s dank and dark. Plus, there are bed bugs that bite like mad when I sleep. It smells awful, and there isn’t a single window.”

“You can’t ask your master to open a window for you?”

“How could I?”

“Well, then … you just take me there!”

The fool followed the slave just outside his home, and then hit and destroyed part of the mud wall.

“Sir! What are you doing?!” He was shocked.

“I’m giving you a window.”

“That’s unacceptable! My master is going to scold me!”

“Who gives?” And he continued to break apart the wall.

“Somebody! Come! A bandit is tearing down our house! Come quick! Hurry up, or there’ll be a hole soon enough!” He wept, rolling on the ground.

A crowd of slaves gathered around, and sent the fool out of town.

After hearing the yelps, the master slowly came out at last.

“There was a bandit who wanted to tear down our house, but I loudly protested, and together, we all threw him out,” he proudly said.

“Not bad.” The master thus praised him.

That day, a lot of visitors came to express their regards. The wise man was among them.

“Sir. The master praised me, for I was meritorious. Before, you said I’d be on the up and up, and I think you had foresight.” He said this, imbued with hope.

“But of course,” the wise man joyfully replied.

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more n00b impressions

7 Nov

For what it’s worth, more n00b impressions:

  • I can’t connect to my wireless router. Whoo. My Machead cousin can’t access it either, so I’m supposing that this is an Unix/Linux-based OS issue. On the upside, I can, however, access an unprotected linksys (thanks, neighbor) …
  • This is really petty, but my doesn’t keep track of the number of times I play a song on repeat. Actually, my scrobbler doesn’t scrobble at all; it’s the applet in my Rhythmbox (iTunes alternative) that does it. What this means is that no one will ever know that I listened to Gong by Sigur Rós for two hours, continuously. The world is impoverished for it.
  • My computer is still faster than it was on Windows Vista, which is a benefit that I all too quickly forget given the glitches outlined in this post and the one before it.

n00b impressions

4 Nov

I just made the switch from Windows Vista to Ubuntu 9.10 – Karmic Koala, a Linux OS. Here are my impressions, worth little given my n00bitude.


  • My computer on Windows was always inexplicably slow. In fact, other people who used my Windows system would actually become angry waiting for programs to load. Since switching to Ubuntu, there’s been marked improvement in speed, and I also have a lot more freed up disk space. I imagine my friends might be pleased.
  • Unlike patchwork Windows, Ubuntu feels very integrated. There’s a very helpful Ubuntu software center, and generally everything available seems to have been tailored to this OS.
  • It’s an attractive system, and programs are fairly easy to use.


  • I knew I would be giving up a number of things by switching to Linux. iTunes and MS Word are two that come to mind, and I was ready to deal with their absence thanks to a number of program alternatives. Things that did not come to mind — browser based Pandora, my external harddrive’s .exe manager — are more difficult to deal with.
  • Some things are totally unintuitive. Take toggling between languages. Aside from downloading language software packs, I also had to type up a few command lines into Terminal to get Chinese input to work. Further, in Linux land, this task is at total n00b status, whereas I imagine this is considered ‘advanced’ in Windows and Mac territory. Ugh.

I’ll type more impressions of this OS as they come.

Who is Chantal Biya?

25 Sep

I was going through the Flickr stream of the U.S. Department of State, and happened upon portraits of the Obamas with various heads of state. Most of the pictures fall into the typical photo-op category, while some are contenders for Awkward Family Photos: Executive Edition. But one of the photos is in a class of its own.

L-R: Chantal Biya, First Lady of Cameroon; Michelle Obama, First Lady of the United States; Paul Biya, President of Cameroon; Barack Obama, President of the United States.

I … I don’t always come up short for words (see the below behemoth entry on a cookie), but … yeah.

So who is Chantal Biya?

Reliable sources are pretty scarce. Early background details are easy to find (born in Dimako to parents Georges Vigouroux, a French émigré, and Rose Ndongo Mengolo; grew up in the capital city of Yaoundé).

We know that she became the 2nd wife to Paul Biya after his first wife Jeanne Irène Biya died. Also, her AIDS/HIV cause is fairly well known due to her creation of the Chantal Biya Foundation Hospital, a unique organization that focuses on children. In fact, the hospital has been covered in the New York Times.

Chantal’s work and her hair are a double-team of media attraction, and have earned her some fans. I imagine news about her cause attract cameras, while the spectacle of her hair is at least partially responsible for keeping them clicking. She’s made famous at least two hairstyles, one of which is the aptly named Chantal Biya, and the other is the banane, or banana (actually, this is a general term, but I suppose the authors of the linked article found it worth mentioning because of her take on the style). Without precise definitions, I can only guess that whatever is emblematic of coiffed extravagance qualifies as the former, and any bouffant with hair twists counts as the latter.

Naomi Campbell and First Ladies, one of whom is not like the others

Paul Biya, Chantal Biya, Hat Biya, and Pope Benedict XVI

What gets hazy are the particulars. Cameroon is one of Africa’s most corrupt nations, so any illuminating information is hard to come by and difficult to verify. I’ve read that her foundation was created to shore up support for her (although it’s undoubtedly made some great contributions), and that it replaced the location of the pavilion that bore the name of the former 1st lady, whose death is shrouded in mystery. Biya is also rumored to have been a former prostitute (213). For a more optimistic look, there’s the book Chantal Biya: La passion de l’humanitaire (EN: Chantal Biya: Humanitarian Passion), which is a very long, 260 page ode to her. Also, the presidential website has some additional information on her youth, work, and family life (check out her photo album to see her holding a lion cub and uprooting a gigantic cassava specimen).

Jeanne Irène Biya

deconstruction of a cookie

25 Sep

These are the famed New York Times chocolate chip cookies (henceforth occasionally referred to as ‘NYC CCC’). Introduced in July 2008, the cookie recipe was published in the NYT under the name “Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies” and later shot to meteoric fame on the Net. Currently, a Google search for the term yields 135,000 sites, which breaks down to roughly 320 created webpages per day since the original recipe’s publication. The recipe was notable if only because no one imagined the 70-year-old cookie classic could get any better; word that the chocolate chip cookie could be improved was tantamount to claiming a reinvention of the wheel.

Food writer David Leite of Leite’s Culinaria wrote the article and created the adapted recipe (originally by Jacques Torres) after months of research. He found that there were three important modifications: (1) letting the dough rest for a 12-36 hour period, as it allows the dry ingredients to soak up flavors and creates a better dough consistency prior to baking; (2) adding a sprinkling of sea salt to bring out a sweet-salty contrast; and (3) spooning out large golf ball-sized servings of dough onto the cookie sheet to get a cookie with a 5″ diameter. Supposedly, only at such a large size will there be texture rings: crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, with a chewy secondary ring where the two textures combine.

I should also remark that his recipe is in near excruciating detail. A stickler for precision, Leite actually specifies the size of the balls of dough (3.5 oz), notes that all chocolate disks should lay horizontal and not point up because that inhibits the chocolate melting process, underscores the importance of using fèves as their size and flatness allows for “chocolate strata” within the cookie, and so forth. (Re: the latter two specifications, see video.) Baking is indeed a science, but … well, whatever.

I’ve done a lot of research on this cookie (i.e., looked at way too many food blogs), and have seen that responses of those who’ve baked the cookie separate into three groups. Nothing scientific here, but I’d say the first group of people, about 75%, extols the cookie and underscores the “toffee notes,” “incredible addition by the salt,” and “texture rings” that are achieved by following the recipe’s stipulations.

From “Believe the Hype: The New York Times Chocolate Cookie Is It!“: It felt like an eternity as I waited the twenty minutes baking time. Then ding! Out of the oven, the cookies emerged tanned, golden and oozing chocolate. The little flecks of salt embedded themselves into the cookie and sparkled in the light. … Oh heaven. The chocolate was molten and the cookie, crisp on the outside, buttery and tender on the inside. The dusting of sea salt created an interesting and complex contrast against the sweetness of the chocolate. It’s subtle but this addition makes this a chocolate chip cookie for grown ups.

From “And finally, the long weekend“: I’ll tell you this much: it’s worth it. It was worth it when I brought them to a dinner party Saturday night and saw people going for seconds, then thirds. It was worth it when the batches disappeared at home as fast as I could bake them. It was, mostly, worth it the moment I bit into a cookie’s crunchy outer rim and moved into the soft, chewy center. These aren’t just any chocolate-chip cookies. These are the ultimate chocolate-chip cookies, the only chocolate-chip cookies, the ones you have to, have to, have to try.

From “THE New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe“:  It is nothing short of orgasmic and has replaced my old standby CCC recipe forever. ORGASMIC, I say. There are too few things out there that can be described this way.

The second group of bakers is lukewarm towards the cookie and constitute 15% of the crowd. They find the cookie tasty, but on par with — or even falling short of — other versions. It seems to me that this group is made up of experienced bakers since they’ll often give detailed comparison with other cookies. See this post at the King Arthur Flour blog, or this one at Dessert First.

The third group of bakers, 10%, are not worth readers’ attention. They pooh-pooh the NYT CCC, but admit that they’ve either (1) decided not to wait the 12-36 hours, (2) did not want to add salt, (3) found the size too impractical and so scooped out smaller portions of dough, or did all in combination and even added more modifications. Effectively, they’ve made another cookie entirely, rendering their criticism moot.

Anyway, now that I have the experience of baking the cookie, I can give my own assessment. It’s good, but there is no appreciable difference between it and other good chocolate chip cookies. Here, it would help if I applied the wheel analogy again: there are poorly made wheels and good wheels, but no exceptional wheels. The same goes for cookies. It is simply impossible to significantly raise the tasty threshold of the sugar-flour-butter trifecta.

It is, however, possible to inflate rhetoric. Leite’s CCC encomium employs vocabulary like “chocolate strata,” “texture rings,” “perfection,” “ultimate.” Take a look at this excerpt that describes the conclusion to his CCC research:

The result was a recipe for a consummate cookie, if you will: one built upon decades of acquired knowledge, experience and secrets; one that, quite frankly, would have Mrs. Wakefield [the chocolate chip cookie’s accidental creator] worshipping at its altar.

It’s extremely compelling and quasi-religious; Leite draws readers into an veritable paradisiac Willy Wonkian (allow me this neologism) garden, one that was found after a “quest” (his word, not mine) that sounds parallel to that of the Holy Grail.

But because the cookie is, well, pretty good, and because the Internet can create viral sensations, this pretty good cookie turned into a phenomenal one. In fact, the outer and inner texture rings are no more noteworthy than those of your average chocolate chip cookie, and the touted “second ring” is imperceptible. The “chocolate strata” by the specialty chocolate discs are unremarkable and not wholly different from the effect of typical chocolate chip distribution. The 12 to 36-hour waiting period does add something — but that something is just a subtly more developed flavor.

I have no idea who were the first bakers to try the cookie. I don’t know if they were professional bakers or noted food bloggers or SAHMs or what. However, I can’t help but wonder if the speed of information dissemination played a key role in the recipe’s popularity, if only because it created an “Emperor has no clothes” effect. Briefly, the number of NYT CCC fans hit a critical mass — either in level of authority or number — that was facilitated by the rapidity of information exchange, and that created a sufficiently large group of people (i.e., group 1) to counter anyone who didn’t notice the cookie’s purported special traits.

Moreover — and I think I run the risk of sounding extremely Marxist, here — the cookie’s got class. It doesn’t just use all purpose flour, but a combination of bread and cake flour that supposedly gives it a “much better texture” (again, imperceptible to possibly Philistine me). Semi-sweet chocolate chips are ditched for chocolate discs with an at least 60% cacao content. The recipe calls not for table salt, but coarse salt and sea salt. These are not your typical staple home ingredients. That said, the Toll House cookie is your Home-Spun American Cookie. The NYT chocolate chip cookie is your Cosmopolitan Yuppie Cookie.

And maybe “you are what you eat” may not totally ring true, but in today’s society, I’d say that “you try to be what you eat.” This deserves some background: the recent-ish introduction of cooking programs like Top Chef, Iron Chef, and Ace of Cakes, as well as the proliferation of food blogs have led to an interesting trend. For one thing, food preparation seems more accessible than ever before, thanks to the visual quality and recorded preparation steps given by such media. One effect of this is, I think, the increased enrollment at culinary schools. Second, popular shows and blogs do not focus on layman’s comfort foods, but on foods with at least 5 words in their titles.

Pearl (aka Israeli) couscous, simmered with mushrooms, bacon and spinach. Like risotto, but healthier.
Brussels sprouts pan roasted in brown butter then tossed with sweet potato gnocchi and walnuts.

Delicious coconut rice with candied ginger and cauliflower.

(All of these are from the front page of, as of 12:46 AM.)

These foods are elegant and far removed from your general eater, if only because they use specialty ingredients that are often both expensive and foreign. For example, take the couscous description, which uses an uncommon food (i.e., couscous) and mentions two foreign countries (i.e., Israel and Italy — the latter albeit somewhat obliquely with the risotto reference).

This is all to say that by buying the NYT CCC ingredients and adding one’s commentary to the food blog community, a person marks (or, at least, tries to mark) himself or herself with some level of status. Further, making the cookie takes a lot of time, which itself can be a luxury commodity. I get the sense that those who make the cookie enjoy the fact of, or even take a special pride in, having made it. I guess that last bit has double meaning, and I’m already at risk of walking too far deep into murky classist territory.

In short, I liked the cookie. But the NYT CCC represents so much more than a cookie. Its special ingredients and the atypical amount of time needed to make it grant it a mystique, which increases and is increased by the number and type of people who rally around it, as well as the effect of the inflated vocabulary used to describe it.

Note 1: It’s possible that my criticism is invalid. There’s always the off-chance that unbeknownst to me, I have only been handed perfect chocolate chip cookies all my life, a fact that has blinded me to the indeed true perfection of the NYT chocolate chip cookie.

Note 2: After writing about 3/4 of this post, I recalled an essay by Roland Barthes in his book, Mythologies (1957). Some of my later thoughts in this gargantuan entry are influenced by his essay “Ornamental Cookery” (“La cuisine ornementale”), a translated version of which you can find quite easily here.

Edit: I just posted the Barthes essay beyond the jump.

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