Zongzi is popular on Duanwujie
Zongzi is a tasty treat gobbled up on Duanwujie.

My daughter Blysse handed me a note to sign on Friday morning for her school which stated that in celebration of Duanwujie, (Dragon Boat Festival) the students would all get three days off from school: Saturday June 7th; Sunday June 8th; and Monday June 9th. My guard was up immediately. (You can see my thoughts on the unique Chinese method of allocating holidays from a few years back in my article, “What?! School on Sunday?!?!“)

My suspicion aroused, I asked, “OK, if they are specifically stating that you have Saturday and Sunday off, which you already had, does that mean they are going to add extra days next week and make you go to school on Saturday and Sunday?”

“No,” she replied, “But we do get Monday off.”

“Then why are they telling me that you are getting three days off, when in fact, you’re only getting one?” Blysse responded with a shrug that has become typical when I demand an explanation for something about Chinese culture which, from my American perspective, defies description. I brought the subject up with several Chinese acquaintances, and it seems I am not alone in noticing this ironic bequeathing of that which we already had. This year marks the commencement of a new holiday schedule, which saw the shortening of the Golden Week period in early May, and the addition of several shorter holidays throughout the year. The total tally is basically unchanged, but everyone gets more frequent breaks. To accomplish this, they have taken some traditional festivals and elevated them to public holidays. Duanwujie is one such holiday.

The most widely accepted version of the origin of this holiday is that is commemorates the death of poet Qu Yuan, who rose to fame during in the Warring States Period of the Zhou Dynasty. A descendant of Chu royalty, when the king allied with the rival state of Qin, Qu Yuan was banished for his vocal opposition of the alliance. Throughout his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry, and when the Qin eventually conquered his beloved Chu capital, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional lunar calendar, which falls on June 8 this year.

The three most widespread activities for the Duanwu Festival are preparing and eating zongzi, drinking realgar wine, and racing dragon boats. Some also adorn their house with images of guardian Zhong Kui, hang up mugwort and calamus, take long walks, and wear perfumed medicine bags, leading some modern researchers to conclude that the holiday was superimposed upon an ancient traditional holiday designed to ward off summer disease and evil. The festival has certainly been popular for a very long time, and is celebrated in various forms throughout many Asian countries. Now that it is an official holiday, it may rise in significance, though not perhaps for the reasons intended. Reddit Slashdot Digg Facebook Technorati Google StumbleUpon Furl Yahoo Ask Mister Wong China Newsvine Simpy Spurl Wink Rawsugar Squidoo Fark

Please no MSG!!

One of the very first Chinese phrases I learned when I arrived in Beijing 4 years ago was, “Wo bu yao fang wei jing.” or, “Please don’t add MSG.” I’ve avoided MSG as much as possible for years, and the Chinese predilection for liberal doses of the vile additive in all food put me quickly on the offensive. Of course, my request is often outright ignored, as evidenced by the super salty burning taste in the back of my throat and all throughout my sinuses, and sometimes the cook doesn’t see the need to substitute salt for the deleted ingredient, causing the resulting dish to be quite bland, but overall if you ask, they’ll leave it out and Chinese food is … well, simply delightful, even without MSG, or, in my case, especially without MSG.

In the US, as well as most of the developed world, as well as in economies in transition such as China, MSG is an ingredient in nearly every processed food. Even if it not listed as an ingredient, it is usually added to most food products you find on the shelf in a supermarket. As the FDA only requires MSG to be listed as an ingredient when it is 99% pure, it is disguised in many products under the following names: Calcium caseinate; Sodium caseinate; textured protein; natural flavoring; yeast food; autolyzed yeast; hydrolyzed protein; hydrolyzed vegetable protein; yeast extract; hydrolyzed yeast; natural chicken or turkey flavoring; modified food starch; and “other spices.” Although it has no taste or nutritional value in and of itself, free glutamate stimulates the taste buds and excites neurons in the brain, creating the illusion of tastier food.

As a parent, the widespread use of MSG as a food additive is a major concern of mine, as children are far more susceptible to the detrimental effects of MSG, or any other food additive for that matter. Fortunately there are plenty of healthy alternatives available, especially yummy snack food, if you are willing to pay a bit more for organic, although thanks to the lobbying efforts of the major food suppliers, even that label is now suspect. The fact that such products are now available in Beijing is wonderful, but the difference in price between the less harmful imported organic products and the highly suspect locally produced snacks is even more substantial, weighing heavily in the decision making process.

One area we can always opt out of MSG is at restaurants, although some items are prepared in advance and you can never fully escape it. It is often a complete mystery to my Chinese dining companions, and often my Western ones as well, why I would eschew something that adds flavor to food. The best I can usually manage is to say that it is bad for your health. But how exactly is it bad for your health?

Fortunately, there are a lot of great references on the web, including and that outline why MSG should be avoided. Here are some of the primary reasons:

    Research dating back to 1969 conclusively links MSG to gross obesity.
    General reactions include: a burning sensation on different parts of the body; headaches; numbness in the face; chest pain; nausea and vomiting.
    Clinical research has shown that MSG can cause the following allergic reactions, similar to side effects of neurological drugs:


Blurred vision
Difficulty focusing
Pressure around eyes


Atrial fibrillation
Rapid heartbeat
Slow heartbeat
Extreme rise or drop in blood pressure


Stomach cramps
Rectal bleeding


Flu-like achiness
Joint pain


DepressionMood swings
Rage reactions
Migraine headache
Loss of balance
Mental confusion
Panic attacks

Behavioral problems in children

Attention deficit disorders
Numbness or paralysis seizures
Slurred speech
Chills and shakes


Shortness of breath
Chest pain
Tightness in the chest
Runny nose

Urological / Genital

Bladder pain (with frequency)
Swelling of the prostate
Swelling of the vagina
Vaginal spotting
Frequent urination


Hives (may be both ..internal and external)
Mouth lesions
Temporary tightness or partial paralysis (numbness or tingling)
Extreme dryness of the mouth
Face swelling
Tongue swelling
Bags under eyes

[tags] msg, harmful effects, side effects, monosodium glutamate, glutamic acid, food additives, health, healthy living, food [/tags] Reddit Slashdot Digg Facebook Technorati Google StumbleUpon Furl Yahoo Ask Mister Wong China Newsvine Simpy Spurl Wink Rawsugar Squidoo Fark

Today was the first day of a 9 day holiday to celebrate Chinese National Day so the kids were home. During the holidays entertainment becomes a factor. Blysse and Ellie are capable of dressing up, singing, dancing and engaging in general role playing for an entire day, with only begrudged breaks for meals. That said, when they feel the need for inspiration, nothing beats DVDs. And a good supply of games. And, of course, the Internet!

There are plenty of places offering free flash games for kids and some are getting remarkably good. Most actually manage to combine fun with learning. For example, the game Ellie was playing when I left the kids with the ayi and took off for a lunch meeting, . It’s a great improvement on the typical paint program because you have to match letters and numbers to color, thereby developing useful skill sets.

When I came back, however, she was playing something else entirely, , which I must say gets my vote for “most psychologically satisfying marketing effort, ever.” You help CinnaMon safely land in a bowl of Apple Jacks (don’t worry, its mostly milk with a few helpful rings floating nearby) after jumping out of a plane, with his arch-nemesis, Bad Apple close at his heels, accomplishing little in the way of obstruction but helping to evoke a spirit of competition nonetheless. The whole screen fills up with flying rings, in comforable shades of green and orange, somewhat akin to the Eye of Modok colors. At first, I tried to avoid them but they quickly grew too plentiful. Blysse’s voice came from behind, “You’re supposed to eat ‘em.”

Ah. Why, that’s easy. All too easy.

You gobble your way down, the altimeter falling at a leisurely pace. You guide CinnaMon along his ambiguous quest to eat the rings and watch at they disappear with no noticable criteria except that you were recently in that region. If you can stay ahead of the delay, you can help CinnaMon gobble up quite a bit. Things get interesting when the parachute pops out and you catch glimpse of your target below. With an eye on the altimeter I took daring sweeps out from the center of the bowl. I gobbled to the end and safely spashed down! A prompt to enter my name came up, and the results… 9th place! Ahhhhh, how satisfying!

Now damage assessment. I had no way of gaguing how much time they spent playing but I didn’t think it was much. The kids are pretty used to the idea that they are never going to eat Apple Jacks but they do get the organic equivalent, Orangutan O’s, which while not necessarily of much higher nutritional value, are at least far less harmful. We’re really lucky that they started carrying them here! Of course, they do have Apple Jacks, as well. Here’s hoping they stay happy with the status quo. So, we seem to be escaping the draw of the marketing but I have to admire the execution of the strategy. I wonder how effective a campaign this is.

UPDATE: The following morning

How foolish of me to think I had escaped so easily. Not ony did they both ask me for Apple Jacks this morning on their own, when they encountered resistance, they teamed together struck up an impromptu chant, “We want Apple Jacks! Buy it.. toDAY!! We want Apple Jacks! Buy it.. toDAY!!”

Sigh. Reddit Slashdot Digg Facebook Technorati Google StumbleUpon Furl Yahoo Ask Mister Wong China Newsvine Simpy Spurl Wink Rawsugar Squidoo Fark