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Archive for December, 2013

Shortbread

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This is a somewhat recycled blog from New York in 2010, but, like many holiday traditions, it is still all true even on the West Coast, where fitness and yoga pants are obligatory. Here goes….

There was a great Leon Russell song, “Sliding into Christmas”, that was one of my favorites; it was a sad song about being alone for the season, and seemed to sum up my ambivalence about this time of the year. High expectations tinged with the sadness that they will never be met.

I don’t need to reiterate all the issues and stresses about how this holiday amplifies and brings into focus the joys and sadness that we experience all the year, but one can easily get a bit weepy and/or silly. For those who have lost loved ones this past year, it is especially difficult, and for those with new arrivals and new friends, it will also be very special.

After this weekend on Mayne Island with 2 daughters (the other is in Sochi, so lots of Skype-ing), I am off to Ontario to visit my son, who is finishing (very slowly) at Brock. It is his turn to stay there with GF Jessica in St. Catherines, so, I must burn a few Aeroplan points, or miss out. There are lots of old friends in Niagara too, and so far I have 5 holiday dinners lined up between December 23 and December 27.

I’ll be back in time to curse the neighbours’ fireworks on New Year’s Eve (because they upset the animals, plus I will be in bed right after 9 pm after watching 2014 come in in New York on a  time-shift TV channel).

In 2010, the CBC asked Canadian celebrities to describe what Christmas means to them, and one just talked about her “annual Christmas canker sore.” I missed the context, but I know what she means: It arises from the intense period of stress coupled with eating really badly, all for the sake of “tradition.”

I am not sure what drives people to dig out recipes that require, as far as I can tell, only three main ingredients: flour, sugar and fat. Sometimes, there’s some chocolate or some flavor added. This is very bad news for me: I am a celiac (so, no wheat flour), a borderline Type 2 diabetic (so, no sugar) and, at my age, concerned about cholesterol (so, no fat). Despite that, I have an obligation to contribute to the general bonhomie and the quality control of all the baked goodies, so I cheat on my diet, put on weight, avoid going to the doctor for a few months (and thus hide from his recrimination), and often get a canker sore from the stress of such worries, and from the lack of enough fresh vegetables.

Interestingly, this need to bake fundamentally unhealthy food at Christmas bears no relation to people’s size or shape. Even the slimmest and trimmest of my friends cook dozens of cookies for the inevitable cookie swaps, and all manner of sweet bars and pies. I have noticed that these compulsive but skinny bakers don’t actually eat anything – they nibble the corners of a few items and then leave the rest on their plates. Have you seen how much food ends up in the waste bin at Christmas parties by those hoping to impress people like me with their patisserie skills, but who don’t actually indulge themselves?

One very slim colleague has given me a bar of chocolate which weighs, I am not kidding, about 5 lbs. And in the School of Business office (which I have to pass through every day) there is a tradition of faculty members bringing in chocolates or some sort of holiday treat for the staff, so the kitchen looks like a display at Walmart. I of course do my best to help out in keeping the pile down. (For those faculty who don’t deliver any goodies, now you know why you always get timetabled with the early morning or late evening classes.)

This “tradition” of unhealthy food manifests itself in its fullest glory with shortbread. Some people brag about their SUVs, or their power boats, or they intensely support their favorite football or hockey teams, and often can’t keep quiet about their children’s achievements, but even the most modest and restrained of my friends cannot resist not only offering me their shortbread, but also will unashamedly insist that it is the best they have ever made, and – implied or plainly stated – it is therefore the best I will have ever tasted.

I am cornered. With that introduction, what am I to say? Denise is part of this blood sport among shortbread artists, so it can be awkward when I am offered some else’s product in front of her.

And I have to say, and maybe I just have a very dull palate, they all taste the same! How special can shortbread possibly taste when the bakers have only three ingredients to play with? Sure, you can burn or undercook them, but aside from that, it’s hard to tell much difference. (I know I’ll get angry responses to this from the shortbread enthusiasts.)

Having got that off my chest, I can now relax and slide into the season somewhat less stressed, and maybe even with some vegetables.

Can someone pass the (chocolate dipped) broccoli please?

Happy holidays.

Asia

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I have been travelling with the BC Government’s Trade Mission to Asia over the last ten days. While ostensibly promoting BC’s natural gas exports, there have been lots of discussions about many aspects of our relationships with China, South Korea and Japan (the 3 countries of focus on this mission).

This is the first such trip I’ve been on and, aside from the obvious benefit of meeting with potential international partners and investors; it is a good opportunity to get some serious face time with government, industry, union and educational colleagues from BC. It is amazing how much work you can get done at a networking event, and I have a long list of people and ideas to follow up on when I get back this week.

It started in Chengdu, which is the last big city going west before you hit the Himalayas.  I visited South West University for Nationalities, which has a mandate to primarily serve 55 minority nations in China (the most well-known to us being the Mongolian, Tibetan, Manchurian and Yi). A lot of effort is being made to preserve cultures and remove barriers to full participation in Chinese society, though I have friends who scoff at any such effort for the Tibetans, declaring it to be tokenism. One does wonder, when visiting the magnificent Tibetan museum on campus, where the sacred texts and artifacts came from and how.

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The faculty in Sociology and Psychology were very engaging, and would not be out of place at KPU where we also work hard to understand and support our many diverse populations.

The food of course is always amazing:

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Then by train to Chongqing, which is huge, and where the mission put on a great show. Here is a shot of old China in front of the 1950s’ style, which in in front of the new China: there are more construction cranes in the skies above the cities than you can count.

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From Chongqing to Beijing, this is where most of the signing of agreements occurred. We signed two agreements.  The first one with the Beijing University for Chinese Medicine, a very large and serious place, and there are lots of opportunities for collaboration in research and programming with them. The second agreement was with Taiyuan University of Technology, where we can see all sorts of possibilities.

From there to Zhengzhou and about an hour outside is a new polytechnic university in Xinxiang, where we shared a draft MOU on professional development for Xinxiang faculty and staff.

The last stop in China was Shanghai, where I stayed in the older, very European influenced area in a former English concession.

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I also sampled a very new, sparkling and rich area of the city on the other side of the Yangtze River: this is the part that everyone focuses on these days, and the wealth and the luxury are overwhelming.

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Finally, for me at any rate, we departed Shanghai and headed to Tokyo, which I love. Despite the doom and gloom we hear a lot about for Japan post-Fukushima Daiichi, things looked pretty good.

Everything works in Japan, and the investment in infrastructure (transportation, education, health, etc.) is evident everywhere. Of course, Japan carries the largest public debt anywhere too, but the debt is its own, and the Japanese certainly get a lot for it.

Aside from the trade mission events, I visited Toyo University, with which we have an agreement for the exchange of students, and the first two students from Toyo joined KPU this year. Here I am with some of the international students in the “English only” zone.

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And with Dr.Takemura, president of Toyo University.

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Every town has a shrine, and here I am with my guide, Mr. Nishimura outside the Hakusan Shrine, where people come to pray for good luck when writing exams,etc. We’ll work on one for KPU……

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