Like many expats in the dog days of Shanghai’s late summer, my thoughts turn to home. In the old days, summer was when expat’s practiced the annual migration known as “home leave.” Years ago, that journey had but one aim: to replenish life’s necessities: chocolate, coffee, deodorant and a decent haircut. In recent years, however, local supplies of the foregoing – at least in Shanghai – are sufficient to keep one fat, wired, handsome and smelling good for several lifetimes.
But now, thoughts of home carry a more existential weight, a centering point for one's identity. I hail from the state of Minnesota in the US, an unassuming little bump on the upper edge of the Midwest, like rough-and-tumble Chicago was too threatening so we ran into the warm embrace of Canada. My state gave birth to Bob Dylan, Prince and Pamela Anderson, but most Minnesotans are neither as talented nor as good looking as these celebrities. That said, many members of our Lutheran choirs do sing in accents similar to Bobby Z, which may be why we are often mistaken for a Sarah Palin tribute band. However, we are far too polite to correct the error.
A large percentage of the Minnesota population are genetically-related to Scandinavians. However, I have been to Sweden and Norway and it seems to me that the best-looking ones were prevented from emigrating. I’m not saying that Minnesotans are bad-looking, just that there is a reason radio broadcasting is a preferred career choice for many of us.
Often, when I tell someone I am from Minnesota, they smile and say, “Hey, I once knew a guy from Minnesota”, but they can never remember his name. They do remember, though, that he was “really nice”. I suppose there are worse things to be remembered for.
In many ways, Minnesota is everything that China is not. The skies are blue, the people are pale and the native food lacks anything that might be misconstrued as “taste”. Humans, cars and mosquitoes in Minnesota are all bigger than they are here, though I don’t doubt they would be annihilated were they transported to Shanghai. You see, Minnesotan society moves a lot slower; in general, we prefer to husband our strength for emergencies. What emergencies? you might well ask. Well, we're not quite sure, but our risk-averse upbringing tells us to be cautious so, as emergencies are few in our placid land, stored energy largely goes to waste…or more often, to “waist”.
Still, there is one Minnesota tradition that shares much with China: The Minnesota State Fair. Like China, Minnesota’s agricultural history has shaped much of our personality and practices, and the Minnesota State Fair is our harvest celebration. Think of it as the Mid-Autumn Festival for the beige-food crowd, or spending a Saturday on the Nanjing Lu walking street but with more livestock and larger people, all in seed caps.
For foodies interested in things like flavor, Minnesota epicurean traditions can leave one feeling a bit empty - our most famous native cuisine, called a "Hot Dish", describes only the temperature of the container and says nothing about the food. And for good reason - how much can anyone really do with a can of cream of mushroom soup, ground beef, a bag of tater tots and an oven set to 350 degrees?
However, come State Fair time, Minnesotans go wild with their food choices, turning into participants in some strange TV programming mash-up of Cooking with Julia Childs and Fear Factor. With reckless abandon we eat Tom Thumb Mini-Donuts (which we feel OK eating by the bucket-full because they are, well, mini and are therefor less fattening, per donut); Pronto Pups (which we are pretty much sure contain no actual pup parts); Sno Cones (a paper cup filled with chipped ice drenched in dyed sugar water for which the consumer is charged $5, thus representing a 99.7% gross margin to the seller); and Foot Long Hot Dogs ... where, true story, a number of years ago some snotty-nosed kid from Edina (the shee-shee part of Minneapolis) just out of law school took a ruler to and forced the seller to rename them "ALMOST A Foot Long Hot Dogs". He got his payback...because now he's forced to work as a lawyer.
But most importantly, the Minnesota State Fair can provide opportunities for flights of existential fantasy resulting in revelations of the same sort that Confucian and Daoist masters experienced when observing life in China’s countryside. In short, spending time at the State Fair can show one The Way. So in humble homage to the Analects, I here present 10 Life Lessons Learned at the Minnesota State Fair:
1. The word “craft” can be broadly interpreted: “Seed Art”, anyone?
2. It is a mystery why Deep Fried Candy Bar on a Stick is not universally loved. I’ll break it down for you…it’s a candy bar, and it is deep-fried, and it is on a stick. What’s not to love?!? I've had Chinese Deep Fried Sparrow on a Stick and it simply cannot compare.
3. Cows smell better than pigs. I don’t know why this is, but if the pigs do not already know this, don’t tell them. I think they are quite sensitive.
4. Grown men do not feel bad about spending thirty bucks on multiple chances to break a plate with a baseball and win a two dollar teddy bear for their date. In fact, they feel pretty good. If we are not already very worried about men ruling the world, we should be.
5. For most city people, sheep are exotic, endlessly fascinating creatures. The sheep, however, do not seem to return the interest.
6. Young children should be encouraged to tour the thrill rides and games of chance on the Midway so that, by the time they reach an employable age, they do not consider “Carny” a viable employment option. It's never to early to start, parents.
7. Unlike disco, bell bottoms and the Bee Gees, the Mullet hair style has not improved with time. Please spread the word because too few people in Minnesota know this.
8. There is a “Best Udder” category in the cattle competition; however, the cows do not seem to find this sexist. Maybe Gloria Steinem should be alerted. Is she still around?
9. Artisans are still selling macramé plant hangers and decoupage picture frames. Those who cannot figure out how to make money in China should be ashamed.
10. Putting food on a stick (see number 2) does not necessarily make it taste better; however, you can charge more for it.
Lastly, I should note the presence of an inordinate number of Minnesotans in China, most of whom seem to be trying to escape Minnesota's high tax rates, the deep-freeze of winter and mosquito infestations of summer, and enjoy China’s raw jour de vive. You can identify these lost souls easily – they are always the first person to say “excuse me” in embarrassing social situations and are forever missing subways because they allow others to board before they do. If you do happen to meet one of us you will likely find that, though we really are nice, if we had to be honest with ourselves, we can be quite dull. So I will leave you with a final culture tip - if you do attempt to engage a Minnesotan in conversation and the dialogue begins to drag, interject a “So what’s this I hear about a Minnesota State Fair…?” Then stand back and wait for the Master to speak.