Morgan Hill Mushroom Mardi Gras Festival

On Sunday, May 30, 2010, I drove down to Morgan Hill, a town of sunny plains bracketed by rolling hills, for its Mushroom Mardi Gras festival. The town is well past San Jose, a small town in otherwise fairly rural countryside.

The festival felt like main street U.S.A., a more typical street fair than I see in the bay area. That is, it felt more like it could be a street festival anywhere in America than one of the many bay area festivals I've attended. Also, I wonder if this is related, but I noticed more overweight and obese people than I usually see in the bay area itself.

It was a big festival. It had two stages, including one in an outside amphitheater. The festival booths had everything, even two shops selling totem poles. Even the kids play area was larger than usual. Indeed, this area was more like a carnival merged with a street festival than a typical street festival play-and-ride area.

I explored part of the festival, ate, explored more, ate, took a break, and explored more. For my break, I managed to find a shaded spot--this wasn't easy--and sat and read. It was actually rather pleasant once out of the sun (though hot when in it). A testimony to the power of the sun and a perfectly clear sky: I returned with a sunburn despite only being there for three hours and change, some of which was in the shade.

I took some pictures at the festival. As you can see, I stuck with the theme, seeking out dishes with mushrooms rather than the typical festival fare (which was certainly present). This served me well.

Incidentally, I felt funny driving to the festival: although the festival was next to a Caltrain station, I couldn't take the Caltrain because it doesn't travel this far south on the weekends.

Rancho San Antonio

On Saturday, May 29, 2010, I and a coworker, Ak, hiked through Rancho San Antonio to the top of Black Mountain. I love living in the bay area, where a twenty minute drive can bring one to a trail with forests and mountains and with great views of valleys and water. Though we saw the best, most expansive vistas on the way up, where one could see down into and across the bay, I feel I should mention that from the top we could see the Pacific Ocean.

It was a fairly strenuous hike: 9 miles round trip and over two thousand feet elevation gain. Most of that gain came in two major steep sections.

We spotted a number of small lizards (which were well camouflaged when they stopped moving), a deer, and, of course, various squirrels and birds.

Sorry, no pictures.

Interesting Articles: Q1 2010

Food, Deception (by the Government):
* The Chemist's War: The little-told story of how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition with deadly consequences. (Slate). Okay, I admit this isn't news; it's history. Nevertheless, it's a tale I didn't know and I don't think many other people do. I think people should know it. Perhaps those people who worry about fluoride have a leg to stand on...

Food, Deception (by Corporations):
* FDA pressured to combat rising 'food fraud' (The Washington Post). The examples cited in the article are interesting. By the way, the title is misleading: it's not clear that 'food fraud' is increasing but rather that improved detection techniques (especially DNA analysis) makes it easier to detect the amount of fraud out there.

The techniques have become so accessible that two New York City high school students, working with scientists at the Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History last year, discovered after analyzing DNA in 11 of 66 foods -- including the sheep's milk cheese and caviar -- bought randomly at markets in Manhattan were mislabeled.
John Spink, an expert on food and packaging fraud at Michigan State University, estimates that 5 to 7 percent of the U.S. food supply is affected but acknowledges the number could be greater. "We know what we seized at the border, but we have no idea what we didn't seize," he said.

Technology & Culture:
* Don't Touch That Dial! A history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook (Slate). A story about how we're always afraid of and overwhelmed by new things, technology in this case.
* Search and Destroy (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). A story about how social norms are enforced (even online) in China: if a behavior is egregious enough, people get together, find the individual's real identity, and threaten or embarrass him or her. Sometimes this can go too far and become a form of mob rule, but it nevertheless does seem effective at making people more careful about what they say online, even under what they think is an anonymous id.

Technology, Psychology, and Media:
* The Uncanny Valley (WNYC's On The Media via NPR). While I subconsciously always knew about this phenomenon, it's interesting to hear it discussed at an intellectual level, and even hear about how its effects are seen at the box office.

Parents: Farmers Markets, Art Show, and Hiking

My parents came to the bay area to visit me from Friday, May 14, 2010, to Monday, May 24. It was a lot of fun.

On Saturday, I took them to the San Mateo farmers market in the morning. They got to try the best bakery in the bay area (in my opinion) and got to meet the soup guy. I enjoyed walking through the market with them because I could tell them stories about many of the stands. (I was a regular for years.) I also tried to teach them that sampling is acceptable. We left with a ton of stuff, including soup and rolls (for lunch), roasted chicken (from the rotisserie chicken van) and spinach afghani flatbread and carrots (for dinner), and fruit for whenever. This was the only day we ate mainly at home.

We ate almost all our meals outside the apartment. I'd made a list of local restaurants that I thought were exceptionally notable; we hit many of them. I won't describe these outings here. In addition to these outings, some of which introduced my parents to new cuisines (South Indian, ramen, Sichuan, Singaporean/Malaysian, and California-style Chicago pizza), I also got my parents to try some new-to-them dishes at home: red bean bread, mochi ice cream, and zongzi. Plus, they ate at my company's cafe. I think they enjoyed this plethora of dining experiences.

On Sunday, in the afternoon we went to Los Altos to walk around its cute downtown. There, we saw a sign for the Los Altos (rotary club) Art Show, which was happening that weekend in Lincoln Park adjacent to downtown. We walked over and spent a while browsing the art show, which was typical for a high-quality art show in the bay area. There were tons of artists covering every imaginable style. It was impressive, though, like many large art shows, exhausting. (By the time I made it through two-thirds of the show, I lacked the energy to appreciate the amazing art.)

The following Saturday, we walked around my old neighborhood in San Mateo. I got to show them Central Park and its attached Japanese Garden and Rose Garden, and also the plethora of restaurants downtown. On the way home, I drove through the wealthy part of San Mateo/Hillsborough along the route I used to go running.

In the morning of our final Sunday together, we went to the Mountain View farmers market, a market I've only visited a couple of times in the past (though am likely to visit more now because it's my closest market). It's a nice market. I was disappointed no one there served pastries appropriate for breakfast, but at least was intrigued by some booths that I don't see at the San Mateo market such as a sorbet specialist with many unusual flavors.

Incidentally, my dad noticed the bike racks at the Mountain View caltrain station are shaped like old-style bicycles: one big wheel, one small wheel. It's witty and subtle. Kudos to the designer.

We ate lunch at home (a smoothie I made, plus spinach ravioli from the farmers market), then drove north to Huddart Park to hike. The drive there was pretty. Somewhere along King's Mountain Road near the park, the trees open to a remarkably impressive view of the valley. I thought I was accustomed to bay area vistas, but this was something special. As for Huddart Park itself, we had a pleasant, shaded hike through forests and along streams. We didn't meet any mountain lions, though we did spot a large deer. Though cool (as it had been all week), it was a comfortable temperature for hiking.

Dinner was again at home. This time I warmed up some zongzi I've bought earlier and roasted some cauliflower.

I did not take any pictures using my camera during their visit.

Shanghai Expat: Final Thoughts

During my last few days in Shanghai and my first few weeks back in California, I reflected on how my life would be and is changing. I found myself in thorough agreement with the sentiment of a friend of mine, B, who spent about a year overseas at various places: he says he came away with a greater appreciation for life overseas but also a greater appreciation for life back home.

I knew as I left that I would miss the food in Shanghai.

I'd miss the soup-filled dumplings: xiao long bao (steamed) (best from Jia Jia Tang Bao) and sheng jian bao (pan-fried) (best from Yang's or Shucaiji). I'd miss the flavorful food, most especially the Sichuan at How Way Restaurant, but also the Shanghainese at Jishi (Jesse), the Hunanese at Di Shui Dong, the Hong Kong food at Bo Do One, and even the casual vegetarian comfort food at Godly. I'd also miss the home-made meals at Di Yin's family friends' houses.

I'd miss picking up fried/roasted breads or steamed buns in the morning for breakfast. The breads I liked the most are thousand-layer pancakes, the rolls stuffed with Chinese cabbage or turnips, and sweet, flaky, layered rolls often cooked in a cylindrical oven. As for steamed buns, I think shepherds purse was my default standby.

I'd miss the nearly endless surprise of Chinese takes on American baked goods. I'll particularly miss the good ones (the "blueberry muffins" with an empty space inside that's filled with a layer of something that's a cross between cream cheese and ricotta and embedded with a few blueberries; and the giant wedge-shaped piece of "French toast") but I'll also miss the novelty of the others, such as the squid-ink roll or the sesame layered bread. I won't miss the baked goods with hot dogs inside or with pork "floss" (finely shredded dried pork). Red bean bread doesn't go in my miss list because I can find it in the states. By the way, I tried most of these at 85 Degrees, a bakery chain.

I'd miss certain ingredients Di Yin cooked with that we don't get in the states. What come to mind right now are certain fish, fresh bamboo shoots, and a type of bean that looks like an overly-large lima bean. I also learned to appreciate the different varieties and widely different qualities of various soy sauces. (Our apartment had four on the shelf when we arrived, I could clearly taste the difference and know which would be appropriate for which dishes.) Near the end of the trip, Di Yin discovered a soy sauce she liked so much that she imported two large bottles of it into the states.

Once back, I noticed I ended up often eating salads--things we couldn't get in Shanghai or couldn't trust if we could get--and also Mexican food.

Anticipating my return to California, I looked forward to eating at my company's cafes in California; I often wasn't excited by the Chinese food served at my company's cafeteria in Shanghai. Even if I ignored the tripe and the meat dishes with twice as much fat as meat, I generally wasn't excited by the dishes with more ordinary (to me) ingredients. During my first month back in California, I reveled in lunch at work.

Weather, Climate, and Pollution
I also reveled in the bay area climate, fixed as it is at a comfortable temperature, a temperature that lasted perhaps a week or two in Shanghai between the cold winter and hot summer. In California, I ate lunch outside every day in May. In contrast, in Shanghai one didn't want to eat outside because, beside the weather, the pollution made it less than pleasant. Eating outside just isn't done.

I also exuberantly started playing ultimate frisbee / exercising again, something I never managed to do in Shanghai.

Oddly, I found my language skills decreased as I lived in Shanghai. I studied a lot before my trip and for my first month, but then my vocabulary shrank to the little that I needed in day-to-day life (basically, just to read menus and order food). I'm sad and embarrassed that I became one of those people I don't like, those people who move to another country and didn't seriously attempt to learn the language (or make much progress doing so).

On the other hand, the trip made me realize that it is reasonable to move to another country without knowing the language. There aren't many interactions that need to happen in order to live somewhere (buy transportation tickets, buy groceries, order food, maybe go shopping, not much else). These can be be done while knowing nearly nothing.

I got sick often during my stay in Shanghai, perhaps every one or two months. Di Yin got sick every month. These bouts were not food poisoning; I assume they must be germs our bodies aren't used to. In contrast, I get sick maybe once a year in the states.

The Internet
The Chinese internet is just as developed as the English one. In fact, there are Chinese equivalents to every major English site you can think of. Some equivalents look so alike that I think the Chinese ones directly copied the English ones' user interface. Examples of these equivalents are dianping for yelp (very handy!), tudou (or sogou) for youtube, taobao for ebay, alipay for paypal, and fanfou for twitter.

Friends from the states always asked how I dealt with the internet in China -- i.e., what happens with the great firewall. Very few of the sites I tried to visit were blocked, and none that felt like a great loss. The internet was perfectly usable. The only blocked sites I noticed were facebook, youtube, twitter, blogspot, and wordpress. (The last two I noticed mainly because they sometimes appear as search results.) Perhaps the biggest annoyance was that I couldn't view youtube videos that friends sent me links to.

Being Tall
I hadn't thought about this at all, but upon returning to California I found I missed being tall. In Shanghai, I could usually see where I was going and push my way through crowded subway cars to the exit. (People would notice me because I was their size or larger.) In California, it's harder to see over people's heads at talks, for instance, and also harder to get noticed and get around people at, say, grocery stores.

Returning to China, Shanghai Expo
When I left for California in May, I thought I would be returning to Shanghai for four to six weeks in late June or July.

One thing I definitely planned to visit upon my return was the Shanghai Expo. I wanted to see the event that caused Shanghai to pull out all the stops and intensely develop the city and transportation network. I even made a list of the pavilions in the expo that I wanted to see.

The best, most comprehensive article about the World Expo, what it did to Shanghai, and the context around it is this one, China: Futuristic yet fruitful, published in the Financial Times. (The link I provided allows you to click through using Google; the direct link requires registration.) This article discusses more of the issues surrounding the expo than I've seen mentioned in any other single article.

Incidentally, I'm amused by the intellectual-property controversy surrounding some aspects of the expo. In particular, it seems both the Expo's theme song infringed (The Times) on another song and the Expo's mascot is a copy (Associated Press) of the logo of the Xinxiang Haibao Electrical Appliance company.

I didn't end up returning to Shanghai during the summer. As I planned the summer trip in fits and starts, Di Yin kept warning me how unpleasantly hot it was getting. She avoided going outside between 10am and 4pm because it was so unpleasant. Eventually I decided to heed these warnings and abandoned plans for my return trip.

Destinations in China I Missed
There are some major tourist destinations in China that I missed seeing during my stay. The ones I most regret missing are Beijing (the day-and-a-half I spent there doesn't count), especially the Great Wall, the Huangshan Mountains (Yellow Mountains) (if you see pictures from China of a sea of clouds, they were probably taken either there or by Mount Hua), and Yangshuo & Guilin (noted for the countryside's pretty, karst landscape of countless limestone hills). I also regret missing the Shanghai Expo. Incidentally, I missed the Harbin Ice Festival (see these incredible pictures) but don't regret it much (because it's insanely cold!).

Shanghai Expat: May 2010

I had only five days in Shanghai in May before I was to return to the states. These five days were actually all a holiday in Shanghai. Beside the weekend (two days), one was labor day, and two were to celebrate the opening of the latest World's Fair: the Shanghai Expo.

Di Yin and I kept thinking about traveling elsewhere in China during our last few weeks in Shanghai (late April and especially this long weekend right before I left). I wanted to exploit my location (China) to see more of the country's highlights (without having to fly across an ocean to do it). Yet, we didn't manage to put together a trip. There was one place we almost went to but found train tickets were sold out. :( Instead, rather risking travel right before taking an international flight, I ended up working most of those five days in May. Incidentally, I'll list my remaining China places to visit in the next post.

At the beginning of May, it got warm all of a sudden. By the fourth day, it was downright hot.

Sorry, I just didn't feel like taking pictures this month. Di Yin claims, likely rightly, that it's simply because I was ready to go home.

During these five days, I ended up playing a bit more of the expat lifestyle. We went twice to a cafe/bakery, Paul's, the Shanghai outpost of an international French chain. One day we went for breakfast goods. Another day we went for lunch. I had a decent sandwich made with flute bread (longer, narrower than a baguette). Along the way we stopped by another bakery, selecting a potato curry roll from that one. The highlight of the day, however, was joining one of Di Yin's family friends to visit a local art gallery. The gallery was showing paintings of local buildings, buildings that I've walked by every day. (Recall that we lived in an older part of town, the French Concession, so some buildings have history and/or character.)

One evening, we had a generally mediocre dinner with Di Yin's family friends, wishing us off.

The next day we had to venture out from work for lunch (recall our offices were officially closed); we had a meal of similarly merely okay Japanese food.

Sometime in late April, I realized I'd been in Shanghai for many months but hadn't sampled its jazz club scene. Hence, I grabbed some friends (A and B) and we went to JZ Club, one of the supposedly better ones and one which happens to be not far from our apartment. It had a nice atmosphere; we relaxed, chatting and listening to the Spanish guitarist. I sipped a lychee margarita.

One day I returned to one of the Hong-Kong style joints that I like and tried a mixed dish with BBQ pork, roasted duck, fried clam meat, vegetables, and a thin Chinese pancake.

On May 4, Di Yin and I went for xiao long bao (soup dumplings) at the ever-dependable Jia Jia Tang Bao, the best place for them (in my opinion) in Shanghai. They were great, and a wonderful meal for my last day in Shanghai for now. In addition to the dumplings, we also had a good seaweed-based soup.

Leaving Shanghai was stressful. First, I had to get to the airport in the rain. It took forever to find a taxi; we eventually gave up and took a bus to Japanese mall and then the airport bus to the airport. (Di Yin accompanied me to the airport.) Once at the airport, I learned my bag was overweight. I managed to repack it successfully. Then, after I did so, one of my bags needed to be inspected by hand.

On the plus side, once I boarded my flight to California, it felt like the flight went fast.

China manages security for travel well. All bags on trains get x-rayed, which never happens in the states. In the last couple of months I was in China, in preparation for the expo they also started x-raying all bags in the subway. Furthermore, airport security is also laid out well. Like in the states, you go through a passport/id check and then security. Unlike in the states, the id check is the bottleneck. This means the long line is for passport control. Because the passport control is orderly and regularly paced, you always feel like you're making progress (compared to the states, where you're waiting in the security line for a long time and it's haphazardly and unpredictably paced). Then, in China, because the id control happens at a slow rate, there's little or no line for security. It's a much more pleasant, less chaotic experience than security in other countries.