Two Kinds of Chee

“Chee” is one of those concepts that floats around in the English-speaking world, but is rarely understood outside of its cultural context. I’ve written about this before in Ginseng and Ginger posts. There are loads of potential benefits to your health if you consider Qi in your daily life. But, first we need to get an understanding of the meaning of the word “Qi” and then we can drape more layers of meaning on top of that.  After all, language defines culture and allows it to breath, which is not too far away from the literal meaning of Qi.

气 [qì]

氣 (traditional character)

Qi Gong Pose

Meanings: Air, gas, breath, mood, smell, manner, anger, etc.

The more familiar of the two Qis (mmmm, cheese…) is something called “Qi Gong”  气功 – literally “air” + “results/success”,and known as “a system of deep breathing exercises,”[*] it is a form of meditation and has been used by martial artists and common people for hundreds of years. The image to the right shows the flow of Qi through the body, with the 3 “elixir fields.” These are basically places where energy is stored. The arrows show how energy flows point-to-point through the body, although it is not always in this direction.

Dantian Energy Flow

Trivia time! Where is the center of the human body? When I was first asked this question I pointed to my naval/waist area. Where did you point? In fact, according to Qi Gong, the center of your body is at your upper lip. Yep, its in your face! This comes from the idea that energy is draped over your body from the top.

Combining body movements and breathing exercises are key to this practice and can have great health benefits, similar to Tai Ji or “Tie Chee”. Due to better blood circulation, relaxed breathing, and reduced stress, these exercises are used for health maintenance by millions of people around the world. As you can imagine, the field of Qi Gong is extremely deep and could take a lifetime to understand fully. Continue reading Two Kinds of Chee

Great Proverbs for a Rough Day

Some days are tough; personally, socially, professionally… the easy out bubbles to the surface <just QUIT> But, I’ve had enough experience with quitting to know that it doesn’t help.  That is why I’ve written the following proverbs on post-its and kept them next to my computer screen. They are an eye-opening, fresh breath of air for me. I’ve also shared them with my students and people I care about.

“If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.”

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

“You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.”

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

(Hindu Prince Gautama Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism, 563-483 B.C.)

The Oily Chinese Food Debate: Healthy or Not?

Oily Dumplings

As the world turns its eyes on China, and all parts of developing Asia, increasing numbers of Westerners are traveling here and getting a taste of it for themselves, literally. As tasty as the dishes may be, foreign guests have started deciding for themselves that Chinese food might just be “a little too oily to be healthy.” I’m personally biased and in favor of Asian food traditions, but I do think the argument deserves a fair bout!

Round 1, Ding!

When friends visit China their #1 concern about the food is sanitation, but also the oiliness. The picture to the right is one rather oily example. To satisfy their curiosity, and mine, I decided to ask some Chinese friends what their take is on this matter. I’ve listed their responses to common concerns that are voiced by Westerners (American friends, specifically):

1. There is simply too much oil in the food. How can this be healthy? The initial response to this question is:  Yes, there is oil on the food, but we don’t eat it. It just sits in the dish. Its not like a soup you drink or a gravy that you might put on potatoes.

2. How do you avoid eating much of the oil? People here use chopsticks for food that is sitting in broth or oil. We just let most of the oil drip off of the food first. The portion of rice you eat is important too. The combination of  roughly 30% staple and 50% main dish and 20% liquid (soup or water) are important to note here.

3. Doesn’t the oil get on your rice too? The oil can sometimes drip on the rice, but that is not how rice is consumed here. Normally people take pure, white, cooked rice with their food. This soaks up oil or other strong flavors from the food and protects your stomach. Fried rice is not a substitute for white rice either; and spooning the sauce of any dish into your rice is never done.

A case of misunderstanding: I remember making green beans with sausage bits and a simple cabbage dish for my family last Christmas. I also made white rice to go with it, of course. The salty/oily sauce that went in the green beans dish was irresistible to my grandmother, who is an amazing cook of Mediterranean food. But when I explained that “the rice soaks up the sauce”, she immediately tested my claim; she took a spoon and proceeded to pour the sauce over her rice… moments later… “Mmmm, it is sure does!” she said.

Chinese Green Beans

4. My friend went to China and gained weight. Why? The major reason Westerners gain weight in China is because of mixing food habits. We all try to assimilate to the local food culture at first, but we soon begin missing the dishes from home. Some people go back to convenient eating habits, like sandwiches for lunch. Others miss cheese and butter and other processed foods, so they might visit the foreign food store every few weeks or so. These actions have inescapable consequences.

Ben’s Opinion: Food culture is special and synergistic: more than the some of its parts. Using our own (American) nutritional logic to understand how on earth the Chinese (Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, etc.) could be so healthy would be a mistake. We shouldn’t use a microscope to look at how a system works. We should be looking at the big picture here. From that perspective, I would say, whatever these food cultures are doing… they are doing it right!

Please add your thoughts, comments, and rebuttals below. Thanks!

Compost Pile = Healthy Eating

Compost Bowl

Do you have a compost pile? If you aren’t sure what this is, don’t worry; I’m willing to bet that most people don’t have one.

Eating properly will yield dead leaves, peelings, and leftover stalks. You can also include coffee grinds and tea leaves. (See right pic from Sustainable Suburban Gardening) Anything that comes from nature and is not used should go into your compost pile. If you don’t have a compost pile then you most likely eat most vegetables and meats from a can or other packaging. Frozen foods create paper and plastic waste, rather than natural waste.

When you eat healthy meals, or someone else prepares them for you, a compost pile is bound to appear. Prepare for it by using a large reusable container with a cover. If you come from my hometown, Weare, NH, you’ve probably got a proper place to dispose of your compost once it is created: the forest, a field, or even your own garden. Mixing compost with recyclables is lazy and leads to the overflowing of landfills. Take a minute and consider what is leaving your household on a daily basis. Then, you’ll be one step closer to living a healthier life.

Are you Outsourcing your Kitchen?

Outsourcing our Insides

Whenever eating, we should always consider where it was prepared. Look in your kitchen and imagine all the missing ingredients that are in half the food you eat on a daily basis. Anytime you eat something that could be advertised on TV or is sold in a jar/box/wrapper, you can be sure that part of this snack was developed in a laboratory far, far away. Companies are using substances that you would never cook with and would never expose your family to under any circumstance. But, we still buy these products… why is that?

The witty TV commercials and catchy slogans? The FDA seal of approval? The brand awareness of large corporations like Frito-Lays? Each one of these reasons has major flaws and need to be questioned by consumers locally and, increasingly, abroad:

#1 If you believe something because it is on TV, then you are already making a huge mistake. Food on TV is a big No-No and just means that money has been spent to market it because the “benefits” of the product wouldn’t be accepted by consumers otherwise.

#2 The FDA has approved products that are known to cause heart attacks in a percentage of those who consume them.[*Fox News, 2010] And, in order to stay legal, most TV advertised super-drugs often list severe side effects. At the same time we are aware that well-paid lobbyists are twisting the arm of federal agencies to approve ingredients and drugs. Yet, we still believe that FDA approvals are some kind of safe, hand shake from God.

#3 The “food” comes from well-branded companies that make “products that people want”, but at the same time we don’t know why we crave their products so much. (Marlboro makes products like this too…) The flavors find a way to make our taste buds dance! But what is going on back in the kitchen? We don’t know exactly… we just accept it and carry on with our lives.

Prepared food is convenient. We don’t have time to cook. Or we simply don’t care to cook regularly… This is the state of our food choices today. Instead of cleverly hiring a chef, we outsource our kitchen in hopes of squeezing out that last drop of efficiency from our day. We marvel at our productiveness and the short term gain which comes from it.

But rather than asking ourselves if we can do it, we should be asking ourselves should we do it?

Reductions in Life = True Happiness

A Life Less Noisy

Even if we were as wealthy as Bill Gates, we still wouldn’t be happy. I guarantee it. We are human beings and, for most people, need heartache, uneasiness, and discontent in our lives. I know it sounds wrong at first but I believe it is mostly true (It is also one of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, called “Dukkha“). Dukkha includes, but is not limited to, the English-language concepts of stress, pain, impermanence/change, and conditioning by others (dependence).

“Keeping up with the Jones'” is one natural byproduct of Dukkha. Once we get what we want, we start thinking about the next thing we want. Our cup is never full…. this is consumerism at its finest. Of course, the love of owning stuff is a modern past-time out here in Asia too and everyone is doing it. But what I’ve realized in recent years is that ALL of us, fundamentally, are human beings; even super stars like Madonna. We all eat, sleep, wake up, brush our teeth, cry, and lose loved ones. We all deal with the same trials and tribulations in life. Nobody escapes the realities bound to flesh.

So, what I propose is to simplify life, rather than complicate it with over-consumption. Money, when it comes, should help you reduce the loads in life, not cast you deeper into a black hole of owning stuff. Buy less, eat less, waste less, argue less… Because, and I’m sure we’ve all heard it before, less is truly “more”. More relaxation, more adventure, more love….more of whatever you enjoy. Because where we all go, someday, does not allow carry-ons.

If you have a quotation or word-to-the-wise you’d like to share, please leave a comment below:

Western vs Eastern Food Choices

A colleague recently asked me what the difference was between Chinese and American cuisine, besides our bread staples. I told her our general attitude toward eating is different; Americans trust science, Chinese trust tradition. I told this young, thirty-something English professor that we often make healthy choices based on what science reports tell us is healthy. (The media often attempts to play the “honest” broker… which is equally damaging.)

She replied, “But isn’t science better?” To which I replied, “when children born after 2000 have a 1 in 3 chance of developing childhood diabetes, then we are doing something wrong.” In fact, its also a matter of household income. If you are a minority born after 2000, you’re likelihood of getting Western diseases diabetes increases. Watch Food Inc here, which is a documentary explaining this problem in more depth.

Although we owe a lot of advances in society to science, the use of science as a general method of dictating food choices to the mass audience has been a failure. When the PR of Frito-Lays defends consumers’ right to enjoy “fun” food, it starts to define us as a nation. There’s nothing fun about diabetes and heart failure, which has touched every single family in America.

Traditional Food Choices and Bitter Gourds

Ku Gua
Ku Gua "Bitter Gourd"

Have you tried “Bitter Melon” (苦瓜, Ku Gwa in Chinese)? Probably not. After the first bite you’ll say “What the… How can people eat this stuff on a regular basis??” And I agree, it is bitter and rough to get down. But many vegetables which have rather potent flavors in nature are full of great nutrients for our bodies. Think of it like a bank protecting its vault. The more valuable the contents, the more heavy-duty the lock! An appreciation for such vegetables is often steeped in the food culture of the local people where these mini-banks grow naturally.

Why don’t we make these choices too? Well, somewhere along the way of building our commerce-driven empire, we began allowing business to dictate what we should eat rather than carry forward traditions from the Old World. And after years of recalibration to the new norm, it is not going to be easy to switch back. We believe that healthy food isn’t delicious food because our preferred tastes have led us to diets full of sweet and salty “food-like substances,” a term I’ve borrowed from Michael Pollan’s book, In Defense of Food. If our parents, friends, and coworkers began to redevelop the habit of traditional, ethnic cooking, we would certainly notice a difference in our waistlines and overall health.

Dish made with Ku Gua
A dish made with Ku Gua

My  last thought: If Korean children are stating publicly that their favorite food is Kimchi (a spicy, pickled cabbage dish), and not ice cream, then there is a lot we can learn from the survival of traditional food values in a small but very modernized country.

Food Inc. and our Meat System

In America, we are the proud kings of industrialized processes in all industries. We have achieved economies greater than any human beings who ever came before us. (“Economies” refers to economies of scale, by making production extremely cost-effective.) It is capitalism at its finest. We can also proudly say, “there is enough food to feed the world.”

But when we apply new science to food we start getting undesirable byproducts. “Food Inc.” is a 2008 documentary directed by Robert Kenner, which investigates the very unfortunate side-effects, including: E.coli growth in cows that are fed cheap corn rather than grass, the massive recalls of tainted meat which have led to avoidable deaths (often children), and poor treatment of workers (often illegal) in meat-packing facilities.

In order to live healthier lives there should be a push to consume “free range” animals, which are raised on the natural diets they’ve consumed for thousands of years. As shown in the investigative reporting, the highly mechanized way we raise animals has caused unnatural side-effects. We allow meat-packers to keep producing because our meat prices stay low. The USDA approves all the meat you see on the market shelves, but we still saw the largest meat recall in history on February 18, 2008, when a California meat company ordered the recall of over 143 million pounds of meat. 11 recalls were ordered in 2009, and we’ve already seen 100s of thousands of pounds recalled in 2010. We should all inform ourselves about where our food comes from, because the “greater good” in society is usually trumped by the greatest profits.

This report is important for all to see. Watch it here via Youku.

Great Food for $1

Cauliflower, Carrots, and Spicy Chicken
Cauliflower, Carrots, and Spicy Chicken

I would be lying if I said that eating well in China requires more than $3 or  $4 per day. In fact, the more processed the food, the more expensive it is here; which is completely opposite in my country (America). Also, to make my life easier, I choose the campus canteen options which usually vary between 8-12 options. The picture to the right is two options + rice for about $1. (The rice serving is only about 10 cents.)

Today, I ate cauliflower and carrots with thin sausage slices and spicy chicken chunks (辣子鸡 La zi Ji). La zi Ji is one of the most famous dishes from Si Chuan province. This meal was a little on the meaty side …. but,  I usually get a single meat and a single vege (or toufu) dish together with white rice. Other days it is fish and veges and toufu. Most days I’ll also order a soup which contains peanuts, kelp, eggs, and chicken bones.

My canteen meals are quite varied and I get inspiration for new recipes from there. Best of all, I can eat lots of great food for little money. Paying $1-2 for a bag of chips just doesn’t make sense anymore.