Wednesday, April 17, 2013

data collection, take 2

Data collection again. After dinner, we walked into the village. We’re only 45 minutes from Shanghai, and yet we could be in a different world. Out the hospital window I can see farm fields, and a man cycling by. I am struck by the absence of human sound. Here, the void of noise—the incessant honking, hacking, ringing, and chatter of Shanghai—almost takes on a life of its own. It is 4:30 and the streets are filled with small children, green kerchiefs tied around their necks, and awash with a soft, buttery light. We visit a fruit vendor: a group of three chatty ladies who delight in feeding us raw sugar cane and winter melon. I am such a novelty here, and I get extra fruit for being meiguoren (American).  

my coworker/roomie  munching on some sugar cane

An old man, who thinks I am German because of my yellow hair, invites me to try his erhu, a traditional two-stringed instrument that looks like a combination of violin and banjo. With a simple sweep of his bow, my new friend produces a delicate, almost weeping melody. Of course, when I try, it sounds like a creaky door swinging shut. He’s a recent retiree, it turns out, and he is learning how to play the instrument while a puppy plays at his feet. The store shops are all open air, and their wares spill on to the street: fruit, tools, appliances, clothes. Half of the vendors are taking a siesta, and the other half are chatting to each other. Above the shops, clotheslines wave gently in the breeze, and through some open windows I can see women beginning to prepare the evening meal.
my new pal and his lil' pal

Even here, sugary beverages abound: every third shop is part-convenience store, stocked with an array of packaged drinks from plum juice to sugared coffee to Coke. Processed snacks are everywhere: bags of dried chicken feet, tofu strips, candied fruit and chocolates; instant noodles galore, seaweed-flavored pringles, what appear to be hot dogs glistening under a heat lamp.

sugary bevs galore

I have trouble understanding why people would want to eat the processed, packaged stuff when there is an abundance of fresh, hot snacks and meals prepared on the streets: steamed buns, meat skewers, grilled sweet potatoes, and fruit galore. Fresh food seems so much more accessible than in the US, where “fast” usually means a trip through a drive through, vending machine, or heating up a frozen meal. Maybe it’s because everything is new and therefore novel to me, but China’s food culture goes to show that food that is fast doesn’t need to be “fast food.” I would hate to see that disappear in favor of green-tea flavored Oreos and KFC.

In any case, we stroll back to the hospital, carrying between us a basket of strawberries, and sharing hot xiaobing (a slightly sweet flat bread made on the street). I tear off a steaming piece with my hands and savor it, grateful at least for now that, some snacks are package-free.

gratuitous dog shot

Thursday, April 11, 2013

and we're off!

Today, data collection began. We were rushed into a van at 12:30, after our standard cafeteria lunch: a Styrofoam takeout container of oily veggies, steamed rice, egg soup, and fried seafood or meat chunks. We drove out of Shanghai, past the high rises, past the half-completed roller coaster, past the Ikea, and past a pickup trucking carrying a half-dozen snoozing construction workers and into a countryside blooming yellow with canola.

We’re recruiting the participants at a local community health clinic, and again I am in awe of the dichotomy of this country. Here, drinking tap water is out of the question, as it is polluted (or contaminated with the remnants of thousands of dead pigs, as the case may be). Internet access is unreliable at best.  Yet, everyone—even in the countryside—has a smartphone souped up with all the apps imaginable. There are LCD TVs adorning most rooms of this small community clinic, broadcasting cartoons, the news, and ads every waking minute. [Incidentally, today they kept showing images of North Korea and a giant nuclear warhead. Pretty frightening imagery to see, especially when I can’t understand the accompanying audio).

Collecting data is controlled chaos. The participants start arriving, and there are children and interviewers and participants all talking and yelling over top one another. It’s odd yet exciting, after having planned and poured over every last detail for months, to relinquish this study to the interviewers and participants, most of whom I can’t even speak to. To let go, both literally and metaphorically.  

food models for the interviewer training...
my favorite are the unfortunate-loooking dumplings on the right
controlled chaos during participant registration.
looks like this guy is giving me the ol' NU   "Go Cats!" wave!
I’m excited to see what we get back. I’m also quite grateful, for numerous reasons. The first is that the CDC staff is both capable and experienced, so I can be confident things are going the way they’re supposed to without knowing each detail.  The second is that this district is where the current outbreak of the avian flu is happening, and for a tense moment we weren’t sure we would have enough interviewers for the study. Luckily, we seem to be all set.  I’m also grateful this study is on beverages not food, as the cessation of poultry products would cause significant bias in a dietary assessment study. In any case, I’m more grateful than ever to be a vegetarian! 

sign in the community hospital: don't touch dead birds!
public health campaigning at its finest...

at least we knew the hospital cafeteria was good to go


seeing shanghai

*post from 3/27/2013. had to switch to tumblr due to issues w/old blogspot address…

So far as I can tell, Shanghai is a city of gray. Gray streets, gray  buildings, gray skies. Not even a glimpse of green to be found anywhere. Granted, all I’ve seen so far is about a block, as our flat is across (a busy highway) from the CDC.

Yesterday’s main task of securing the apartment proved to be highly entertaining. We showed up to the place and met three real estate agents, who, with their black leather, constant pecking at smartphones and strident tones seemed like something out of the Chinese version of “The Wire.” Getting the apartment required two hours of negotiations, lots of yelling (from what I could tell), angered phone calls to the landlord and insults. We were told that we were stingy, when we tried to bring the price down, and lazy, when we said the apartment was dirty.

As laowai (outsider) and especially as one who doesn’t speak or understand the language, I am more or less exempt from these wheeling and dealing. Most of the time, I just look on bemusedly as I can’t even tell from their wild gestures and laughter whether they are pissed or making pleasantries.

In some ways, I relish being an outsider. My silence opens up a whole world, often unnoticed during conversations, when I am so concerned with what someone else is saying, or what I might say next. I notice the mottled grey-green of the Platane trees lining the streets, the smell of chou dofu (stinky tofu) from the wizened old street vendor, the dumpling-cheeked child. I revel in the luxury of these details, and wish I could carry this awareness with me when I am back in the land of English.
As for the apartment, we’ve settled in quite nicely. After hiring an ayi (housekeeper) at the going rate of 20RMB/hour ($3.50), the place has been cleaned up, we have fresh sheets on the beds, and enough cooking gear to make soup, stir-fry and coffee. What more could a girl ask for?