Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas shopping blues

I have wasted every spare moment of the past 5 or 6 days shopping for various bits and pieces that I felt were necessary to a proper Christmas.

Things like sticky tape, for example. Imported brands never seem to be available here. Locally-made ones very seldom are (you'd think they'd be a regular item in any place selling office stationery, but NO); and, of course, they just don't stick. If any of my friends feels like sending me a seasonal package of goodies this time next year, one or two big rolls of Sellotape would be top of my request list.

However, the main object of my quest these last few days has been parsnips - my favourite winter vegetable. I'm fairly sure I have seen them here in the past: certainly in foreign chain supermarkets like Walmart and Carrefour (although here in Beijing, these are mainly targeted at the local Chinese market, and so don't carry very much in the way of exotic overseas foodstuffs), and even occasionally in Chinese stores and street markets. Or so I thought. Anyway, I've been to every darn place I can think of this year, and not a sign of them - not even in the covered market on Shunyuan Lu, a place where many of the city's foreign restaurants buy their produce: if they haven't got them, I figure no-one has. Alas.

To help in my quest, an English friend who speaks rather good Chinese sent me a text message with the name of the vegetable in Chinese characters and pinyin; at least, she said, this was what two separate dictionaries had told her was supposedly the name: 欧州放风 (ou zhou fang feng). I haven't been able to verify this from the online dictionary I usually use. [Brendan, can you offer any help??] None of the Chinese people I showed this to evinced any sign of recognition at all, not even a couple who are in the bar/restaurant business; though quite a few of them laughed.

The problem is that these characters correspond to something like European Union break wind (thing). Well, that final feng, apparently, can mean 'rumour' or 'news' as well as wind, and I am unable to determine whether it is also used of intestinal gas; so, maybe it has to do with breaking news? But how does that make any sense as the name for a vegetable? However, as I am now developing some alertness to the Chinese sense of humour, it seems entirely plausible to me that they would name an unfamiliar foodstuff something like "Makes foreigners fart". I'm stumped, though, as to why they would do that to the dear old parsnip: in my experience, it is one of the least flatus-inducing foods.

Anyway, it looks as though - despite the semi-coordinated efforts of four people scouring the city and comparing notes via text message - we face a parsnipless Christmas tomorrow. Swedeless and turnipless, too (and again, these are vegetables that I have seen here in past years; the ubiquitous luobu - the Chinese 'white radish' - wouldn't quite work as a substitute, I don't think). Brussels sprouts were also looking a lost cause, until I finally turned up some in the Sanlitun Jenny Lou's yesterday afternoon (having already come up blank in two other branches of this foreigner-oriented Chinese supermarket chain!). Now, if ever there were a vegetable that deserved to be dubbed European fart-inducer, sprouts would be it! I suspect, though, that the Chinese for this is just 'very small cabbage' - it's a very literal-minded language, most of the time.

Anyway, a Happy Christmas to all of my readers! I hope you have parsnips, if parsnips are a thing you like.


Brendan said...

My dictionary gives "欧洲防风根" ('European windproof root') for "parsnip," but I suspect this will just generate blank stares, sort of like requests for "越橘," as my dictionary once defined "cranberries." Note that the 'fang' there is 防, "prevent," not 放 "release."

Froog said...

Excellent. Thank you, Brendan.

Only Chinese, I feel, would have (near-)homonyms for 'prevent' and 'release'.

And surely all roots are 'windproof', being below the ground??

'Tis a queer language, to be sure.