Friday, January 11, 2008

jell-o 101

Perhaps this story would fit better under the title Jell-o 911… (Or 999, if you live in Hong Kong)…

I’m teaching the Thursday morning Ladies’ Bible Study this week on the passage in Romans 12, which states, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world…” Because I’m dealing with an English-as-a-second-language group of women, I thought an object lesson would be appropriate. Hmmm… what could adequately portray the concept of conformity… how about Jell-o? (Or, jelly, as they call it in this culture.)

Despite wanting to stay home yesterday (it was my day off), I trekked off to the store in search of Jell-o. I picked up one box of strawberry Jell-o, and then thought to myself that I should probably prepare two boxes in case more women than usual showed up. (Of course, I wanted to make enough for them to sample.) I stepped away from the gelatin section, then remembered past cooking experiences of mine, and went back for a third box… just in case.

Now, you must understand that I don’t even like Jell-o. In my mind, it’s right up there with applesauce, Sprite and chicken noodle soup. (What are… things my mother fed me when I had a stomach virus?) Nonetheless, I was willing to prepare it for its spiritual value; and since I haven’t eaten any Jell-o in at least seven years, perhaps I might even like it now.

So, armed with three boxes of strawberry Jell-o and a kettle of boiling water, I embark on the project. After much debate and a full survey of my entire collection of dishes, I chose three ice trays with Texas-shaped cutouts, thinking this would amuse the ladies and provide an opportunity for a geography lesson. (Yes, I own three “Tex-ice” trays in varying colors.)

The next step in the project is choosing a recipe. Each Jell-o box contains approximately five variations on this standard snack: regular Jell-o, fast-set Jell-o, Jell-o with fruit, Jell-o in layers with whipped cream, Jell-o Jigglers…

Choosing the “regular” instructions, I proceeded to pour the powder into the bowl, run out of the kitchen in a sneezing fit (the next time I blew my nose, there were strawberry particles on the Kleenex) and stir in the boiling water. After successfully completing the recipe instructions, I began pouring the red liquid into the tiny cavities of the ice cube tray with minimal spillage. I felt pleased with my accomplishment and was glad to see the red dye didn’t stain the counters permanently.

Four hours later, I decide to test out my spiritual object lesson. You see, I wanted to have a visual teaching moment in the middle of the Bible study class: a powerful retelling of the Jell-o-making process, followed by a dramatic unveiling of the ice cube trays, complete with a perfectly-formed, Texas-shaped Jell-o bite which had conformed to the shape of the container.

Since I’m taking the time to write this story, you’ve probably already guessed that things didn’t turn out as planned…

I had no idea that the properties of Jell-o cause it to conform so much to the container so as to prevent easy removal. For ten minutes, I shook that ice tray so hard that bits of red gelatin flew off in every corner of my kitchen, and yet, the bulk of the shape stayed glued to the plastic tray. Next, I tried soaking the bottom of the tray in hot water for several seconds. This did in fact release one Jell-o bit, but it had so disintegrated in the heat, it was unrecognizable. The last resort was to use a sharp kitchen knife to gently cut the Jell-o away from the sides of the tray… a nightmare which left me wishing I was a Colorado native rather than a Texan.

I finally resigned myself to the fact that there would be no Lone Star State Jell-o bites for the ladies to enjoy, but I still wanted to salvage the conformity concept. So, pulling out the third and final box of Jell-o, I studied the recipe for Jell-o Jigglers and concluded that that was the proper way to prepare what I had in mind. Unfortunately, it called for four boxes of Jell-o, so I was forced to quarter the recipe. Fractions have never been a comfortable subject for me, so I cleverly converted the fractional recipe to decimals. This proved problematic though when I tried to divide 2 ½ cups of boiling water into four parts (i.e. how do I measure .625 cups of water?).

Fudging a bit, I mixed the water with the gelatin powder (carefully, this time) and debated about which mold to use. No longer feeling it necessary to remain loyal to my home state (plus, I didn’t feel like cleaning out the ice cube trays at that moment), I chose a flat baking dish. The hot liquid barely covered the bottom of the pan, but I thought it was sufficient for my project. I planned to wake up early the next morning and set out to work with a cookie cutter, in keeping with the theme of conformity.

This morning, however, I discovered that the shelves in my refrigerator are not level, and I now have a thin—and extremely uneven—layer of Jell-o covering half the baking dish. Having already eaten some of my mistakes last night, I realized that my Jell-o taste-buds have not changed, and I am now hopelessly stuck with a refrigerator full of various shapes of strawberry gelatin, too ugly to serve, and completely unsuitable for an object lesson.

Or is it…

Perhaps this more-than-adequately shows the pitfalls of conformity. The Jell-o had permanently conformed to the sides of the ice cube trays; even when it was released, it bore the scars of conformity. Realizing it was too early in the morning for a mental theological debate, and considering that I was too lazy to haul multiple containers of this wretched red substance down the hill, I gave up.

A nice picture of a sheep on the PowerPoint screen conveyed the spiritual concept of conformity very well…and it was much less sticky.

a chinese dinner

Tonight I had dinner with a local Hong Kong couple in a Chinese restaurant. They picked me up at my flat and we drove to Kowloon City where this restaurant is located. Though this restaurant specializes in hot pot, we opted for “ordinary dishes,” as they called them. We sat in a corner booth overlooking the street and they studied the menus, which were all in Chinese.

The usual protocol in such situations is that the “host(s)” asks what foods you like and he/she begins to choose dishes in an attempt to order a balanced meal. “Do you like pork or seafood?” Asking if I like seafood is a loaded question. I love seafood in the States, but here… it’s a different story. Shrimp is delicious, but it comes with a price: you have to cut off the heads, antennas, tail, legs, etc. yourself. (Once, I was trying to pick out a minute bite of tasteful meat, and I inadvertently squished the shrimp and the guts flew across the table like a stream of grapefruit juice.) Fish is great, but it usually contains the bones, head, tail, fins and eyeballs. Then there are the “mixed seafood” dishes which are basically a wildcard plate or bowl of various shellfish, scallops, shrimp bits, eel nuggets, rubbery squid portions and anything else that lives in saltwater. Other types of meat are often on the menu: something called “tripe” (which I’d rather not investigate), pig knuckles (who knew swine had bendable appendages?), lamb (I once saw this listed on a menu as “braised lamp”), chicken feet and wings (what happened to the rest of the chicken?), duck, goose or other fowl (head and beak included), and so forth.

Next, the various veggies (pronounced “wedgies” by the good people of Hong Kong) are discussed. Often, the Chinese cannot remember the exact English translation so they describe how it grows, what color it is, etc. Green vegetables are bountiful in this part of the world, and I’m usually thankful for the consistent and dependable taste of fiber in the midst of an otherwise uncertain meal.

Rice and noodles are a must, and some amount of carbs is always present. The thing is, you never know what might be mixed in with the noodles, or hiding under a clump of rice… that tripe always finds its way into the meal somehow.

Once the food has been ordered, the dishes must be properly “rinsed.” This procedure begins by pouring boiling water from a teapot into each bowl, cup and plate, and then dipping all utensils (spoons, chopsticks) therein. Once properly rinsed, the now-soiled boiling water is poured into a large bowl, which is quickly removed by the waiter.

All food is shared by all diners of the table, regardless of who ordered what. Members of the party may take personal offense if you decline a particular dish or fail to eat adequate amounts of the feast. Moreover, the people on either side of you (or—let’s face it—anyone within arm’s reach) will presumptuously place food on your plate without regard for your polite refusals or adamant protests. Community chopsticks are always used when handling any food prior to being placed on your own plate (a post-SARS development).

Napkins are rarely offered. At times, a box of thin, cheap tissue will be placed on the table; or, in street-side food stalls, a roll of toilet paper. (Appetizing.) Traditionally, women carry their own Kleenex packets with them and offer a tissue to everyone at the table. Yet, the Chinese are surprisingly neat in their eating habits; it’s the Westerners that consistently need something to wipe their gravy-laden chins.

Tea is provided in abundance, usually free of charge. At least two teapots are present on the table: one containing strong tea and the other containing boiling water. Diners get frequent refills of either or both in any amount or succession. Tapping two fingers on the table signifies thanks to the pourer.

Dessert frequently consists of sliced fruit and/or sweetened soup (chestnut soup, water chestnut soup, peanut soup, red bean soup). Hardly a crowning touch to a meal, in my opinion.

When everyone is stuffed and the grazing slows down, there is inevitably food left on the table. As serving platters or dim sum baskets grow empty, the remaining food morsels are combined onto other serving dishes with more food left. Diners firmly urge one other to eat the last shrimp ball or pork bun, until the food is finally gone or neatly packaged into carry-out containers.

The two hour affair begins to wind down, with everyone exclaiming “hoe bow” (“I’m full”) to one another. As in most other countries, the bill is properly haggled over, with everyone offering to pay and only one person actually forking over the cash.

At last, I can go home and satisfy my stomach with a handful of Cheetos or a bowl of Honey Bunches of Oats.

bein' green

November 2007

Something I’ve thought about lately, and which I find interesting about the people of Hong Kong, is their environmental awareness. Recycling and conserving resources are major issues here, perhaps out of necessity (large numbers of people living on a small land mass). Here are few examples:
• Once a month, most large retail stores have a “green day” where customers are urged not to use plastic bags. (Stores advertise this with slogans such as “BYOB—Bring Your Own Bag.”)
• Many people bring their own reusable bags to carry merchandise home from shopping.
• Some stores offer a small rebate if you bring your own bag.
• McDonald’s has a “no-straw day” once a month, in which customers are encouraged to decline using lids and straws in their cups.
• Some HK folks complain that restaurants use too many disposable chopsticks.
• A few people in our congregation have commented on our use of weekly paper bulletins, urging us to cut down on printed materials.
• Alternate fuel sources are used for taxis and buses.
• Because few people have dryers, most hang their laundry outdoors, using special window clothesline. (This is perhaps due to space limitations in the home as much as environmental reasons.)
• Napkins are rarely available at restaurants, though one might be offered a box of very thin tissue. In fact, it’s wise to always carry tissue which can be used not only as Kleenex but as a napkin or toilet paper too.

I find it difficult to articulate clearly the resourcefulness of HK people, and yet I observe evidence of it each day. Each time I take out my garbage, I’m keenly aware of how much more trash I generate than my neighbors. At the base of skyscrapers, I see street sweepers using homemade bamboo brooms and dustbins made from half a large tin can. Whereas we Americans buy and use special gift-bags, here I’ve often received a gift wrapped in the paper bag from a grocery store or local department store. Function and practicality always trump aesthetic appearance. This seems to be a way of life, a cultural norm, a mindset—not related to wealth or necessity. As a typical, perhaps wasteful, American, I find this both refreshing and frustrating. Yet, I’m trying to adapt and increase my own awareness of the environment, realizing that this earth is a generous gift from God. Meanwhile, my plastic bag collection is overtaking my home…

by the numbers

September 2007

A different look at Hong Kong… by the numbers:

• 1—Tropical Cyclone Signal today (Each time a tropical storm or cyclone comes within 800 km of HK, the #1 signal is hoisted. If the storm intensifies or comes closer, signals #5 and #8 may be raised, giving various degrees of warning to the public.)

• 3—number of cross-harbor tunnels in HK (In other words, they figured out how to build a road under the water, and there are now three of them, which connect HK Island to the Kowloon-side.)

• 7—percentage of HK population considered Christian, including Catholics and Protestants (Approximately 90% of the population practices some form of Buddhism.)

• 7.78—exchange rate of HK dollars to one US dollar (This figure fluctuates relatively little, usually remaining between 7.7 and 7.8.)

• 40—number of years from now until HK is fully returned to China

• 65—number of Starbucks coffee shops in HK (While enjoying a cup of java recently, I was offered a free sample of “Red Bean Frappuccino,” a concoction created especially for Hong Kongers, and which I politely declined.)

• 87—average percentage of relative humidity in the daytime during the months between April and August (Number of AC window units I have in my home: 3, for which I am extremely grateful.)

• 88—number of floors in the tallest skyscraper in HK (The International Finance Centre building was completed in 2003 and contains 62 elevators.)

• 200—approximate number of McDonald’s restaurants in HK (The first McDonald’s in HK opened in 1975 and paved the way for more American culture to seep into this Asian society. McDonald’s has also opened several “McCafĂ©s” here, which are Starbucks-type coffee shops attached to the typical McDonald’s restaurant.)

• 220—voltage used in HK outlets

• 262—number of islands that comprise the country of HK

• 426.4—number of square miles of land that HK occupies

• 747—number of 7-11 stores in HK (There are also many Circle-K stores, though these are generally referred to as “o-kay” rather than “circle-kay.” They are rarely connected to gas stations, but one can find an assortment of goods there, including newspapers, soft drinks, chips, calling cards, chewing gum, or even a can of corn.)

• 2,624.67—length, in feet, of the Mid-levels escalator (This escalator is actually a series of 20 escalators and 3 moving sidewalks, which is situated on the side of mountain on HK Island in an area called the Mid-levels. It climbs almost 450 vertical feet and is considered the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world.)

• 6,200—number of people per square kilometer (HK is the third most densely populated nation in the world.)

• 18,138—number of taxis in HK (Taxi licenses and fares are regulated by the government, and taxis are color-coded according to region and base fare. Taxis need a license to operate in Hong Kong, but the government stopped issuing them in 1998. Existing licenses are transferable, and are traded on the open market, usually for about HK$3 million, or $385,604 USD, each. Taxis use “autogas”—sometimes called liquefied petroleum gas or propane—rather than regular gasoline. I don’t actually know what I’m talking about—I just looked this up!)

• 517,000—approximate number of registered vehicles in HK (About 64% of these are privately owned passenger cars. Interestingly, HK is known as having the most Rolls-Royce cars per capita in the world. Perhaps materialism should be listed as the most common religion…)

• 570,000—number of square meters in the HK International Airport (HKIA is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the world's largest airport terminal building.)

• 2,400,000—number of people who use the MTR each weekday (The MTR is HK’s mass transit rail system, which has six different lines and 51 stations. Despite being one of the most heavily utilized mass transit systems in the world, it remains efficient, extremely clean and very reliable.)

• 6,921,700—estimated population of HK (Approximately 95% of Hong Kong residents are of Chinese descent.)

Number of reasons HK is such a great place to live… unlimited.