Archive for September, 2011

a Couple of False Starts

Some days are just different than most others. Today the bus ride to the university was stopped by a road block only a few stops away from the university where I normally disembark. The bus driver indicated that he would not go any further because of the people in the street. It appeared to be an issue with water in village setting. This is what I gathered from the pictures that this large group of people with some large photos of waterlogged scenes. These images were not entirely surprising, I had heard of mudslides and too much rain last week all over the news. After arriving in the office the graduate students were feverishly cleaning all of their labs and work spaces. Pulling everything out into the hall, including desks and computers, lab tables, etc… in order to clean it all thoroughly. One of the grad students informed us that Dr. Wang, the dean, had told them that their labs were filthy and to clean them at once. This is the Thursday before the one week holiday. Needless to say the office was upside down and the hallway was filled with: plant material, glass bottles and beakers, boxes, etc… Katie and I set up in the coffee shop on campus. It was an unexpected start to a warm and sunny day.

After 3 weeks of working in graduate biology office at the university I have been rewarded with one week of holidays. In 1949 China became a communist country October 1st is the celebration for the new china. Golden Week many return to their hometowns to spend this extended time with their families. Many students will leave the university since classes are suspended. Not sure what I will do with the week.

Likely I will work on some neglected projects, sight see and prepare for the next week when we will be heading to Shangluo City. This next trip into the Chinese countryside will hopefully give us an opportunity to interview more farmers of traditional Chinese medicinal plants as well as to visit a pharmaceutical company involved in the GAP. These pharmaceutical companies purchase medicinal plant materials from farmers, sometimes through a contracts, process the raw drugs and sell the final medicinal products in China and/or internationally. I hope to interview an executive of the pharmaceutical company about their involvement in the GAP as well as their relationship to the government, farmers and to university researchers. This week Katie and I have been perfecting our surveys and beginning our final report for the biology department.


Safely Eating Candied Walnuts

There we were sitting in front of his house on little stools and chairs. Of course the mini chairs were for the white guests. He was the village leader or head. It had taken us most of the morning to arrive there. Driving through the flat agricultural land outside of Xi’an we witnessed the endless plots of maize/corn and other vegetable crops. Lots of red hot peppers. Once we started our ascent into the Taibai mountains the cultivation pattern changed as I looked out the window of our van. The land became more vertical and plots of land were scattered all over the landscape including on the climbing mountains. The air cooled and the proliferation of walnuts was apparent. Corn was still a significant part of growing. At the time we were traveling, farmers were gathering the dried corn kernels and letting them dry on the shoulder of the road, or any other flat pieces of pavement that they could find. The were gathering them up and putting them in to large bags for transport. In our short visual exploration of the area around the van once it stopped in the village of our destination there was an enormous amount of variety in small garden plots in front of the houses in the concrete court yard which made up the public space and walkway. Eggplant grew next to roses and peppers and harvest walnuts were everywhere. They even appeared in our lunch in a roasted and candied form. Delectable!

So, there we were in front of the village leader with rosy red cheeks. The survey that we had prepared for Chinese farmers of traditional medicinal plants and herbs was in the hands of a master’s student navigating her way through the translated questionnaire. She transcribed his answers onto our surveys After completing a couple of surveys we were whisked away to lunch. On one other occasion did an odd thing happen. We were directed, the village leader, three professors, three students and Katie and I, into a separate room at the back of the restaurant. This room was big enough for the round table and the chairs that went around it. It was unclear why we went into the private room. Five courses of lunch took one and a half hours. Green beans with eggplant, rice, soup, a full chicken, tofu, two plates of beef, pork liver, corn kernel soup, etc… Every course came as a complete surprise. The plates were placed on a revolving platter in the middle of the table. In front of each person was saucer sized plate which everyone ate from. The traditional eating practice was a more communal meal which involved turning the large revolving platter in the middle of the table in order for everyone to get their chance to taste and eat every dish. As each new dish came out there was a very rigid hierarchy in which the village leader and the lead professor would be offered first at which point they would defer to Katie and I. And then the other professors would be offered and then the students would be given their opportunity. This even occurred with Chinese tea pouring. The tea is free flowing. As soon as the students saw anyone’s cup less than full they offered to fill it up.

After lunch some mysterious shifts took place. Katie and I were ushered into the van and were told that they needed to do their research and we would go to another village to complete more surveys by ourselves. This seemed very odd since we spoke no Chinese and were left in the charge of our driver who spoke no English. The driver took us out of the mountains and after a long drive and some incoherent conversation took us to a hotel. This seemed like a great idea. Travel exhaustion had set in. Just as we were settling into our rooms, we received a call from the researchers in the mountains telling us that we were to go back to Xi’an for reasons of safety. And off we went. There seemed no imminent danger on our radar but went along with the plan. After our afternoon in the village and the hours of travel back and forth I was able to get a glimpse of the Chinese countryside, a trial run of our questionnaire and to spend some time getting a sense of agriculture in this one village. It was a successful day.

These are two great articles which continue to shine the light on the causes and implications of the global financial crisis and the financialization of the global capital: David McNallyIbrahim Warde

Happy reading!

Taibai Mountains and Rice Subjectivities

I was informed two days ago that a trip was being organized to gather plant specimens in the Taibai Mountains a few hours away and that Katie and I would be hitching a ride with them. This will be a great opportunity to speak with farmers and to see the Chinese countryside. Like I have said in my previous post the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program governs the cultivation of traditional Chinese plants and herbs. What I have gathered is that mountainous regions are characterized as marginal/poor soil and terrain to plant food or grain crops like they do in the lower lying lands. For farmers in these mountainous areas medicinal herbs are a very important income source. The GAP is supposed to be have increased incomes for farmers in these areas. Research in this biology department is conducted on medicinal plants to increase and stabilize the medicinal components of these plants leading to higher prices received from medicinal/pharmaceutical companies. The impact of the GAP on these communities and farmers is what I intend to investigate. So, I look forward to my journey tomorrow.

On a different note related to food, the food has been delicious. Simply eating on the street from vendors has been an excellent way to nourish myself, eating in common inexpensive stalls that serve mostly soup and noodles with a mix of veggies and spices. Haven’t had a dish i didn’t love. The food seems to be agreeing with me well so far but anticipate that eventually I will hit some rough terrain. The university cafeteria has been the most interesting venue to eat. The campus has approx. 50,000 students and four cafeterias that I know about. The cafeterias are large with rows of McD style seating. Chairs with round seats attached to tables of four made of fibreglass and stainless steel. Colourful ads are the table tops with brilliant colors. The food is inexpensive. A meal could cost 50 cents to one dollar with much variety and flavour. I had no problem eating it. Saint Mary’s and Western students would be so very envious of eating on campus here. I had to explain what it was to eat on campus in Canada to our hosts. They were completely surprised and appalled by the thought of spending that much money on food in the school cafeteria and i couldn’t convey the details about the quality and variety (or lack thereof) of food available.

The campus, where my work space/office is, seems to be located in a more suburban area with little access to food within relatively close/walking distance from the university. This means that I eat a considerable amount at the university cafeteria(s). One of the peculiar incidences was a few days ago when a few of us from the biology department were eating lunch together. We had arrived for lunch at the height of lunch hour. I was lining up for a serving of rice. I watched the machine that students swipe their meal cards also displays the purchase price of the food. It seemed odd that the amount charged for rice was varying from student to student. I realized that women were charged .4 yuan (6 cents) while men were charged .6 yuan (10 cents) for what seemed to be an identical portion of rice. After discussing with some of the lunch group it became apparent that the price of food is not the same for everyone and that the server determines the price subjectively. If s/he thinks that you require more rice or seem to be bigger, then you are charged more or less given the servers assessment. This usually has something to do with your gender.

I will post more when I return from the Taibai Mountains. Hopefully, I will have some pictures to share.

Unaffected by Mudslides

This is just a short post to allay any concerns about the mudslides in Xi’an and in the Shaanxi province. Please rest assured that Katie and I are fine. I was unaware until someone emailed me to see if the part of Xi’an that I work and live was affected by the recent torrential rains and mudslides. It seems that a side effect of being in a new place, new culture and in a new job is that my life has become very insulated.

On my arrival to Xi`an the region had received about 2 weeks of rain and since my arrival it has rained the majority of the time. We were informed that it is the rainy season and the region is dealing with excessive rain. I was pretty amazed that the city was able to cope with the excessive amount of rain better than many of the Canadian cities that I know… London and Halifax. Today’s weather: sunny with cloudy periods.

My thoughts are with the victims of the massive mudslides.

If you are interested in information about the mudslides you can find them at:

CCTV is the Chinese state’s English news TV channel, link.

China Daily is the largest English print news in China, link.

CNN is a large American media portal, link.

arrival and introductions

Since this is my first post after one first week in Xi’an I will try to keep it a decent length because there really is so much to say about just arriving, first impressions and starting work.

I survived the voyage and a grueling 14 hour flight from Washington/Dulles to Beijing, China and arrived, with luggage, safely in Xi’an September 9 at 10pm. Yu Cui, a PhD candidate in plant biotechnology at Shaanxi Normal University, found me in the arrivals. Gratefully, she has been put in charge of looking after me by Dr. Wang, the Dean of the biology department and host of the Students for Development internship. After getting acquainted with Yu cui and a friend from the biology department we waited for Katie the other intern from Saint Mary’s University. We arrived at our apartment after an introduction to Xi’an late night food.

The first week has been very successful. I have settled into the apartment and overcome jet-lag, for the most part. The food has been very good and generally agreeing with me. Tuesday I began work at the university where I settled into the biology department very easily. It seems that two Canadians in the department qualify as celebrities. We have met many graduate students as well as profs who were very happy to meet u,s offering any sort of assistance. Many of the profs invited us to work in their offices. Everyone is eager to practice conversing in English. I have set up in one of the biology graduate student offices where our colleagues have made us feel at home, offering tea and eating lunch en masse in the cafeteria.

The challenges in this first week at work has been twofold. Firstly, the assumption that because I am working in the biology department must mean that I am also a biologist conducting experimental research in a laboratory setting. It has taken some time to correct assumptions; plant biotechnology is not my interest but the farmers and their communities who plant them. The second challenge has been getting to know the program that I will be investigating. Resources in English are a little hard to come by, so far. The biology department at the Chinese university is part of the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) for the cultivation, processing and distribution of traditional Chinese medicinal (TCM) plants. The GAP in TCM is supported by the government of China and governs a complex of state policies and financial support, public research institutes (ie. universities), private medicinal companies and farmers or farmer associations. This week was filled by trying to understand the basics of this program through conversations with a variety of helpful profs and ending with a lengthy google scholar search.

Since this internship involves investigation into Chinese food security I leave you with an issue of the Nation which offers a populist food perspective from the leading spokespeople of this perspective. I hope you enjoy it!