Category Archives: culture

Send Your Stuff

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Remember the previous entry about PostCrossing? Well, how about sending more than just a postcard? That’s the idea behind Gimme Your Stuff. You put together a small package of interesting things from where you live, and trade it by mail with someone in a faraway country. For example, I might send a small box of Californian stuff to someone in Italy, and the person in Italy would send a small box of Italian stuff to me. Right now, there are over 500 participants from 41 countries. (The website and most of the participants use English to communicate; there are also lots of participants in the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia.)

In order to participate, you need to have a website or blog page where you can post a description of the kind of thing you’d like to send and receive. Then you’ll add your information to the Gimme Your Stuff site, and choose someone to trade with. (Here’s their How To page of instructions.)

Check out the website for fun photos of some of the “stuff” that has been sent across the world. People send magazines, postcards, jewelry, candy, toys, stickers, yarn, pasta, recipes, handbags, and even things they’ve made themselves. Many of the exchangers seem to have made friends with each other, too. Here’s a great chance for you to make an English-speaking friend somewhere in the world, and share your culture with someone else, too.

(If you don’t currently live in your home country, you can still participate, of course. A mix of local things and whatever you can find that originates in your home country would be great!)

English practice for food-lovers and movie-lovers

Has it really been two weeks since I posted? I’m sorry! I’ve had car trouble and lots of other things going on. Here are two interesting sites that combine culture, images, sound, and reading:

  • Mercury News Photo: Bite is a collection of audio “slideshows” from the San Jose Mercury News. Each entry has a series of photos, with audio. The person speaking is a restaurant-owner or chef, who will tell you about the restaurant and show you images of their delicious food. Near the bottom right, there is a CAPTIONS button you can click. It won’t show you what the speaker is saying, but it will tell you a little more about the image. You might want to watch the slide show twice: First, watch it with the sound off and just read the captions. Second, turn off the captions and watch the slideshow while listening to the audio. Mmm, looks delicious!
  • English Trailers is a site specifically for English language learners, using movie trailers (sometimes called “previews”). There are several different ways to use this website. Go to the menu under Site Menu and choose “Trailer List.” Pick a movie that you want to use and click on its name. Do the warm-up activities, then watch the trailer. After that, you can click on Activities (a menu between the two moving red arrows) to find more activities to do. This can help you make sure you understood the trailer.

P. S. The new version of my blogging program, WordPress, includes “tags.” I’ll be using tags to list more details about the posts, such as movies, pets, books, etc. I’ll continue to use the broad categories (culture, listening, reading, etc.) as well. It might take me a while to figure out the best way to do it, so please be patient with me. Thanks!

Don’t forget, you can always contact me to suggest what you would like me to write about, too.

Good Words: Genre

Genre: The online Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines this as

a particular type or style of literature, art, film or music that you can recognize because of its special features

This is a pretty good definition. Check the linked word entry for its pronunciation, because this word is still pronounced in a somewhat French way.

The usefulness of this word in ordinary conversations is when you’re talking about your favorite kinds of books and movies. Different cultures have different genres, so it’s useful to know what the categories you like are called in English. In addition, it can be confusing if you don’t realize that what you think of as “romance” is not what someone else thinks of as “romance.”

My favorite fiction genres include science fiction and fantasy. Other common genres include romance, mystery, Western, horror, and historical fiction. My favorite movie genres include historical drama, comedy, and science fiction. Action, romance, horror, fantasy, and thriller are some other film genres. (I’ve linked each genre’s name to its Wikipedia page so that you can see several examples of each genre.)

There are also “sub-genres” (or “subgenres”), which are smaller categories. For example, my favorite sub-genres of fantasy are historical fantasy and contemporary fantasy or urban fantasy. For science fiction, my favorite sub-genre is cyberpunk.

I really don’t like the entire genre of horror books or movies, with a few exceptions. I also don’t like romance books or movies very much, but I have enjoyed a few romantic comedies (that’s another sub-genre). Even though I like some fantasy novels, I find that fantasy movies are often too silly to enjoy. Some exceptions include the film versions of Harry Potter (contemporary fantasy), The Lord of the Rings (high fantasy), and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (a mix of high and contemporary fantasy). I thought all of those were well done.

Genres are interesting because they are different in different countries. For example, Japan has both women’s romance and men’s romance genres within comic books, but the US doesn’t (because there are not enough romance comics in the US to even have such a category). The US has a genre of Western novels (set in the Old West, with cowboys), whereas China has wuxia novels (set in earlier China, with martial artists). When I was writing this post, I found out that in British bookstores, there is a “Crime Fiction” section, which would be called the “Mystery” or “Mystery/Suspense” section in the US.

People within one culture often argue about genres, too. For example, is Star Wars science fiction? Most people agree that science fiction should include speculation about the future, but Star Wars is set in the past and doesn’t really involve thinking about how our society could change. However, it does have high technology and space travel. Because of this, some people place it in the science fiction/fantasy sub-genre of space opera. Some fans will argue about this kind of thing for a long time. Because genres are not officially defined, it sometimes means that a book or movie is not in the section I expect to find it in at the store, and I have to ask.

Sometimes people use the phrase “genre fiction” to refer to books that are highly identified with their genre, such as science fiction and horror. This is to set apart those kinds of books from, mainstream or literary books. Mainstream and literary books are not thought of as being part of a special category. For example, at a Borders bookstore, you’ll find genre sections including Romance, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Horror, and Mystery/Thriller. These are all genre fiction. The books found in the Borders Literature/Fiction sections are considered not to be genre fiction.

What about you? What are your favorite genres? What genres do you avoid? Are there any genres that you like but can’t find in English?

Happy Labor Day!

Monday, September 3, is Labor Day in the United States (and Labour Day in Canada too). Although the idea was originally to celebrate ordinary working people, now it’s usually just another day off. Many Americans enjoy their long weekend by going to the beach, picnicking, having a barbecue, etc. Some cities have parades or other city-wide events. Although summer doesn’t officially end until the autumn equinox, this day feels like the end of summer to many people. Of course, in many parts of North America, hot weather may last until late September, too.

Fashionable and “proper” people used to believe that no one should wear white shoes after Labor Day, because white shoes were thought of as being for spring and summer only. This rule is commonly ignored now, though some older or more traditional people may still think of it.

You can read about the history of Labor Day at the U. S. Department of Labor’s website. Check Flickr for some photos from parades and other events from Canada and the USA.

Listen to news that’s free and up-to-date

The Voice of America (VOA) is a radio project by the United States government. It was started in 1942, and it’s still going. One way it’s changed is that you can now use VOA’s English-studying resources any time you want, thanks to the internet. VOA News: Special English Programs are recorded radio news stories using “special English.” This means that the stories use basic vocabulary, simple sentences, and no idioms. It’s a good way to start confidently understanding spoken English. Best of all, the stories are updated regularly and frequently, so there’s usually something new when you check.

Each episode or program is about 30 minutes long, so they are long enough that it’s worth putting them on your iPod or other mp3 player. They have different themes on different days, so be sure to pick a theme that is interesting to you.

Here are direct links to some of the most useful parts of the project:

If you look around the VOA website, you’ll find lots of other interesting and useful things. I’m glad we have this resource; since it has the support of the government, it can be updated regularly and frequently.

Halloween/Image Test

I’ve recently connected my flickr photo account with this blog account. I’m going to see if posting a photo this way works correctly. If it does, then I can more easily take pictures of daily life topics such as my apartment, cooking, holidays, etc., and share them with you.

You might be thinking “Wait, isn’t this a Halloween picture?” Yes, it is. It’s from last Halloween. Since it’s already late August, though, I’m thinking about this year’s Halloween. We usually have a party, and I’m looking forward to it. I love Halloween, so you’ll hear more from me about that!

If you have additional topics you’d like me to write about, please leave a comment. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to help individual readers on Skype or IM, but I can try to write a blog post on your topic.

Recipe: Lemon Chess Pie

No one is sure where the name or recipe for “chess pie” comes from, but it’s not related to the game of chess. (Read more about the possible origins of chess pie at Wikipedia.) It’s a traditional dessert in the American South. In fact, people outside of the South sometimes haven’t heard of it! It’s really delicious, but extremely sweet. You should make sure to cut the pie into at least 8 pieces, maybe 12, and share with your friends. My favorite kind of chess pie is lemon chess pie, because the lemon flavor makes it taste more balanced. It’s also very pretty–here are some photos of lemon chess pies at Flickr.

These instructions use American measurements, which are not weight-based. (Many American professional chefs use weight-based measurements–e.g., grams–but few home cooks do.) The Metric Kitchen: Conversion Basics explains how to convert the measurements and temperatures to metric systems. If you’re not in the US and you don’t want to do conversions, you may be able to buy American measuring cups and spoons at a specialty cooking store or international store.

If you live outside of North America, some of the ingredients might need to be bought at a specialty grocery store aimed at international residents. In America recipes, “milk” always means cow’s milk unless specified otherwise. “Eggs” means chicken eggs. A “pinch” of something is a very small amount, like if you just took a little bit of salt between your thumb and index finger.

Common American cooking measurement abbreviations:
C = cup (this is a specific amount, not just a drinking cup)
T or tbs = tablespoon (again, a specific amount)
t or tsp = teaspoon (also a specific amount)

Lemon Chess Pie

This recipe is based on one from a friend of my mother-in-law’s. It’s delicious! It has a pretty brown top and is a beautiful yellow inside. The pie is very sweet, so make sure you have something such as tea, coffee, or milk to drink while you eat it.

INGREDIENTS

Filling Ingredients
2 C granulated sugar
1 tbs all-purpose flour
1 tsp cornmeal
4 unbeaten eggs
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup whole milk or 2% milk
1/4 cup lemon juice
Pinch of salt (only if you use unsalted butter)

Pie Crust
1 unbaked pie crust (flour-based, not graham cracker–buy frozen, or make it yourself)

INSTRUCTIONS
Combine all of the filling ingredients in a bowl and stir until evenly mixed. Everything should be one color. Press the unbaked pie crust into a pie pan (if it didn’t come in a pan originally). Pour the filling into the pie crust. Bake the pie in an oven at 375 F about 35 mins, or until filling is set. The filling will be set when the top is brown and the center moves only a little when the pie is moved. When done, the pie filling will be soft, but not liquid. Take the pie out and let it cool for at least twenty minutes. Put it on a trivet, rack, or upside-down plate (not plastic) to cool. After that, you can either chill it in a refrigerator to eat it cold, or slice it and eat it warm right away!

What is American cooking?

Many people have asked me this. The answer is complicated.

The food in many countries is a mix of influences from other cultures. Japanese food includes Chinese influences. Taiwanese food includes influences from different parts of China, Japan, and the South Pacific. Spanish food includes French and North African influences, and so on. However, American food is especially mixed up. Few individual dishes can be said to be 100% American: invented in America and using only ingredients from North and South America. However, we can still think of certain kinds of dishes as being part of “American cuisine” because of their origins, techniques, and flavors, or even simply if something is very popular in the USA. There is definitely more to American food than hamburgers and hot dogs!

Due to request, I will be writing some about American food in the next few weeks. I hope you will enjoy it and that you will comment with any questions you might have. I’m going to include some recipes, too.

First, one note: Much of the cooking vocabulary in English originates from French. This is because since colonial times, Americans have held French cooking in high esteem. (Thomas Jefferson really loved French food.) Words like cuisine, sauté, and braise all come from French. You can look up most ingredients and techniques on Wikipedia; be sure to read the American definition if there is more than one.

If you want to get started reading about American food now, you can visit the Smithsonian museum’s excellent site about 500 Years of American Food. It has lots of short articles on different topics, so click on whatever you’re interested.

Good Words: Comfort food

“There is nothing, absolutely nothing that pleasures me more than a bowl of pasta and tomato sauce. When I want to reach out with all my love to my husband, a dish of pasta and tomatoes is almost always in my hands. When I am worn out and the world isn’t such a nice place to be in, I make tomato sauce and pasta. When time is short but dear friends must be fed with joy and not pressure, I make pasta with tomato sauce.”

–Lynne Rossetto Kasper (Host of “The Splendid Table”),
speaking about comfort food for PBS’ The Meaning of Food

“Comfort food” is a great phrase! Can you guess what kind of food it is?

It’s not any one special food, because it’s different for everyone. It’s the food that comforts you. It might not be your #1 favorite food or the food that you think tastes best in the world. Instead, it’s something that makes you feel better when you are tired, sad, lonely, or sick.

For many people, their comfort foods are things they ate when they were small children, or that were treats when they were growing up. I asked five other Americans what their comfort foods are. Here’s what they said:

Me: macaroni and cheese, biscuits and gravy, flapjacks, hot French bread, royal milk tea, hot chocolate, warm homemade chocolate pudding, warm cinnamon rolls
My husband, Clint: macaroni and cheese, vanilla milk, spaghetti with meat sauce, pecan pie, hot links sausage, rice pudding, sushi (yes, really!)
My roommate and friend, Jenn: apple pie, chicken soup, split pea soup, fresh hot white bread, fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, chicken pot pie, peach cobbler, barbecued ribs
My roommate and friend, Cory: pizza, lasagna, steak, ice cream, spinach and artichoke heart souffle
Cory’s friend, Jesse: meatloaf with twice-baked potatoes and brown gravy, fried okra
My friend, Paul: homemade (not microwaved) popcorn, homemade chocolate chip cookies

As you can see, there’s a variety of answers, but most of the answers aren’t healthy! These are the foods that you eat when you don’t care about the calories. Comfort foods are the ones that you miss when you go overseas for the first time. Sometimes people miss their comfort foods so much that they’ll pay lots of money at an international grocery store to get it, or they’ll ask their family members to mail it to them if possible.

(It’s also possible to gain a new comfort food during your life. When Clint started eating sushi after he moved to California, he just loved it, and he always felt like he was in a better mood after he ate sushi. So now it’s a comfort food for him. Royal milk tea is something I had for the first time in Japan, on the first day of our honeymoon, standing on a bullet train platform in Tokyo.)

If you want to read more about comfort food, visit PBS’ The Meaning of Food: Comfort Food. They asked some famous chefs and others to talk about their own comfort foods. Recipes are even included!

What is one of your comfort foods? Is it healthy or unhealthy? Do you make it or buy it? (Or do you ask a family member to make it?) Why do you think it makes you feel better?


The Complete Idiot's Guide to Comfort Food (Complete Idiot's Guide to)The Big Book of Breakfast: Serious Comfort Food for Any Time of the DayComfort Food (Step-by-step)Betty Crocker Comfort Food: 100 Recipes for the Way You Really Cook (100 Recipes/Way You Cook Today)

(After the health-food craze of the 1980s and 1990s, comfort food became a popular subject for cookbooks in the USA. Some people think it’s because Americans became more stressed out in the late 1990s. I don’t know, but the cookbooks are fun to look at! Please note: clicking on these images takes you away from this page, to the Amazon.com page about each book)


StoryCorps

StoryCorps is an interesting project to record ordinary Americans’ stories. There are booths in various parts of the USA, and people go in to talk about their family or personal histories. Of course, this means there are lots of different accents for you to listen to. There will probably also be a lot of slang and colloquialisms, so take your time finding an interesting story that’s understandable. It’s a good way to practice listening to ordinary, everyday English as spoken in the USA by a variety of Americans, including those who were born in other countries. You’ll also learn about people’s lives and American culture.

You can even subscribe to the free podcast, which can be downloaded onto your mp3 player or hard drive.

If you try listening to these stories, tell me about it. Does anything surprise you about the way people talk or what they say? Are they easy to understand? Which stories are the most interesting?