Hello Uncle Foreigner

May 12, 2013

清明节: Two dinners

An adventure for the face

Hot pot in Zigong

The double-whammy of it all is that not only is Chinese really difficult, but my natural tendencies toward introversion mean that every conversation with a stranger is one I don’t want to have. The other night at dinner, I told Peter that if I could just have someone else order beers for us — something that I’ve had more than a year of practice doing — I would do anything for that. Anything but ask, that is.

Given this reality, it’s really very easy for us to fall into a rut. When we order the same thing at the same restaurant every night, they bring us what we want without anyone having to say anything! It’s so comfortable … but also so limiting. Enduring a little social discomfort opens up exciting new worlds of food and vocabulary for us every time. So this Anglophone introvert has to keep pushing herself.

Travel is the obvious way to shake things up. In Zigong, of course we wanted to try the hot pot. There is intense regional competition regarding whose food is the best/freshest/spiciest, and we want to judge them all.

After a meander through the narrow market streets near our hotel, we found a clean, well-lit little place with the tell-tale burners sunk into the tables. “You want the spicy broth?” the server asked, I think. Whatever she said, I said yes. We also ordered cukes, lotus root, winter melon, cauliflower and potatoes. Delicious, and a whole different spice than our Luzhou usual. Hot, but we could handle it.

A new kind of pot in Luzhou

The night of our return from Zigong, emboldened by our recent, we set out to try out one of the Pot Pot restaurants by the river. We had no idea what 锅锅香 was, beyond the fact that a meal seemed to consist of a shallow pot of food atop a bucket holding a heat source. But we had been curious about it since we’ve arrived here, and we were feeling brave.

One of the hostesses beckoned us to her restaurant — there’s a cluster of about five or so in this particular area— and we obeyed. I picked at random one of eight options, and ordered up the beer: 4 bottles, cold please. They brought us out a bucket containing a red hot brick (yes!) and a small pot of pork belly (OK!). It also came with sprouts, cabbage, winter melon, potatoes and glass noodles. This dish, for a change, was not spicy, but more like a hearty pork and beans stew.

This place … is not yet a favorite. The broth and fixins we got were fine, but pork belly is so fatty and I just don’t have a taste for it. I left behind an embarrassing pile of blubber.

But, we went back a second time. This time I ordered spare ribs, which were fantastic for me … but that soup didn’t really come with enough vegetation for Peter. When we’re not Jack Sprat and his wife, sometimes I think we might be Goldilocks.

We’re determined to keep going back, however, in search of the perfect dish for both of us. There are six more things to try. And they already know how we like our beer.

May 12, 2013

清明节: At long last, Zigong

Our arrival in the big city is heralded by bugs and rain

Outside our hotel window
The bed in the room
Our hotel room wasn’t much larger than the bed, but it was a place to stay out of the rain.

Sarah was baffled that we were going to stay on in Zigong for not one but two more nights — “I’ve already shown you everything!” — but she helped us check into the Rongguang Business Hotel anyway. Our accommodations were basic and small, but cheap and clean. And the TV had CCTV-News. Luxury!

Nestled in the elbow of the Fuxi River, we were ideally situated for tourism Emily and Peter-style, which involves wandering around until we get lost and/or find something interesting, and then seeing what we could find to drink. Our plans were thwarted, however, by the unrelenting swarms of bugs that were everywhere. Seriously, Peter was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt, and every couple of seconds it was completely covered in black. It was almost Biblical.

Out in the marketZigong sceneryPeter found a Spider-Man toy at the bookstore
We found many treasures at the bookstore, including this Spider-Man puzzle!

The problem was, the aforementioned river was running quite low, and the marshy exposed banks were a fertile breeding ground for these icky little guys. The whole region, including Luzhou, had had quite a dry spell, and for weeks the cities had been trying to seed the clouds for rain, our boss Linda had told us.

We took cover from the bugs in a western restaurant, and while we were testing the bartender’s ability to make every cocktail pictured in the menu, the rain finally came. And did not stop until we caught a cab for the bus station out of town two days later.

But, damn the rain! We came here to see Zigong. We grabbed umbrellas and got walking.

The small hill in front of our hotel led up into a pedestrian path lined by small shops. This eventually tapered off into a small market street. Taking a zag up to the main road, we walked by the bigger chain stores that you see pretty much everywhere: Spider King (shoes), Aiyaya (make-up), Septwolves (men’s clothes), KFC (chicken) … All in all, slightly different scenery but pretty similar to Luzhou.

On the way back to the hotel our first evening, a young man greeted us in English. It turned out that this young Zigonger attended the Luzhou Teachers College, where I taught a course this summer. (He wasn’t my student.) We asked him what he thought of Luzhou. “The buses are very crowded,” he said.

Just after we exchanged numbers with our representative of This Small World, we got a flurry of text messages and calls from different Chinese friends. Melody sent a text asking about dinner plans. Young Jane called demanding to know where we were. (For the life of me, I could not get her to understand the word “Zigong.” When I saw her later that week, she told me that she thought I was saying the Chinese for “fish pond.” Also back in Luzhou, Tina told us that one of her classmates had seen us cavorting around the city.) It was a fun moment, to be on the road and realize that we’ve actually made a home in China. And that it missed us.

Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Fushun County breakfast

Wake up with bean curd and rice

Spicy tofu for breakfast

Every place in China seems to have a claim on something they do best. (Maybe this is true of every place in the world.) Usually it’s food related. And in Fushun County, according to Sarah, it’s the bean curd and rice breakfast. You can find it other places, but it won’t be as good, she said. It’s something in the water. (Hmm … this is sounding a lot like New Yorkers and their bagels, or Sicilians and their pizza … )

We’re still a little baffled by Chinese breakfast, and we weren’t sure of what to expect from tofu for morning meal, but it was actually pretty good. It came with a spicy dipping sauce that had hints of anise, and extra bean curd juice served up hot as a beverage. Sarah scolded us for our cold Vitamin Water that we had brought with us … but soup is not a drink!

Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Celebration time

Holiday dinner with a family

Sarah showed us around her hometown
Sarah, above, shows us around her hometown; some guys in the background do a double take at the foreigners.

So the actual reason we were on vacation, the Qingming Festival, dates back thousands of years. It’s a day to pay homage to your ancestors — sweeping graves, burning spirit money, pouring out a little wine. A very solemn Confucian holiday in a country that is officially atheist.

Holiday traffic

Qingming Festival has only been a public holiday on the Mainland since 2008. And while some families do observe the holiday by visiting the gravesides of their elders — news broadcasts warned of the risk of fire from people burning incense and such in rain-deprived areas — a lot of the holiday traffic (and there is a lot of it; when a billion people go on vacation, there’s going to be traffic) is people using the time to travel and sit down to a meal with their living relatives. Actually, no matter what the traditions are, this is what a lot of holidays in China seem to be for: dinner with the fam.

As our families are so far away, there’s not a whole lot of celebrating we can get up to by ourselves. We celebrated Spring Festival this year in a closing restaurant, for goodness’ sake! Occasionally, though, we have friends to include us in their fun. And, for Qingming Festival, in addition to being our tour guide extraordinaire, Sarah was also a gracious and welcoming holiday host.

The business hotel
Business hotels in China are cheap and functional, but lack the charm of youth hostels.

After showing us around her Fushun County hometown, she set us up in a business hotel down the block from where we’d be having dinner that night. Mr. Wang picked us up at 6, and drove us the few hundred feet to Thousand Spices, Hundred Taste, the soon to be site of our hot pot dreams.

The family had a private room in the back of the restaurant, and Sarah’s parents and sister were already there. More of Sarah’s siblings would join us as the night went on, as would relatives of Mr. Wang. They were a close, happy family, Sarah told us. Her parents, who are in their eighties, still cook together and walk together every day. They’re very much in love, she said.

Sarah invited us to dinner with her family
We found the xiang dofu
After more than a year, we found the delicious and cheese-like Sweet Tofu, nestled right in between the imitation crab and pork dumplings.
The spice bar
First timers at the spice bar, we may have gone a little overboard mixing up our dipping sauces, but each of our mixes were fantastic.

Brief introductions made, Sarah sent us out to pick out what dishes we wanted. Usually, the host makes all the decisions, but thinking of our American paletes and half-vegetarianism, she wanted us to make sure to have food we liked. Out in the main dining hall, there was a row of refrigerated cases full of delicacies. On Sarah’s prompting, I grabbed a big tray, which was immediately taken from me by a server who accompanied Peter and I down the row of food. We grabbed so many plates of vegetables and tofu, and a few meaty dumplings for me … and Sarah encouraged us to get even more.

While we waited for the pots to boil, we all sampled some of Sarah’s father’s homemade grape wine. It was really nice, like a sweet liqueur. Mr. Wang brought out a bottle of baijiu, and they got some beers for us. Throughout the meal, there would be much ganbei-ing.

Oh, but before we started eating, we needed to prepare our spice bowls. When you eat hot pot, you get a small bowl of oil, peanuts, scallions, red peppers, etc., in which to dip each piece of food before you eat it. In most places we eat, these are prepared ahead of time, or you mix your own from a small number of ingredients. At Thousand Spices, they had a whole spice bar where you could assemble your bowl. There were peppers, pickled peppers, smashed peppers, sesame seeds, sesame paste, sesame oil, peanuts, garlic, pickled garlic, infused garlic, vinegar … so many choices. Everything looked and smelled so good. And this was just the garnish.

Back in our room, the pots were starting to boil. Each pot had a center bowl with a mushroom and chicken broth set inside an outer ring of red-hot spicy pepper broth. Peter and I alternated between the two, because the red broth burned our faces off but we wanted to eat as much of it as we could.

Our lavish spread

The mood was jovial and festive at the table, and the whole family was so welcoming and attentive to us outsiders who didn’t even speak Chinese. Mr. Wang made sure to toast us if it looked like we were getting too quiet, and Sarah’s mother offered us more and more food, as if we weren’t gorging ourselves already. The evening reminded me of holidays spent with my family and the happy chaos of a full table.

Food-wise, everything was fantastic, but the big star was the sweet tofu. Soft and textured almost like fresh mozzarella cheese, we had had it once before — more than a year ago — and it blew our minds. We hadn’t been able to find it since. Huzzah!

Before returning us to the hotel, Sarah took us to see her Fushun home. Her place is a few floors above where her parents live with her sister. Both apartments were big and open, with four bedrooms each, and spacious, jealousy-inducing kitchens. “Chinese people like to be comfortable,” Sarah told us.

I tried hard not to compliment everything we saw, because we’ve heard that if you admire something in a Chinese home, manners dictate they offer it to you, and it’s impolite to refuse. But I managed to say I liked a piece of art that one of Mr. Wang’s students had made for him, without incident.

We sat for a while and had some flower tea in Sarah’s parents’ apartment. They turned on CCTV News for us, the English-language channel. And then Sarah and Mr. Wang walked us home. It wasn’t my family, but it was nice to spend holiday time with a family nonetheless.

Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Detour — Cultural sights ahead

Watch out for temples

A statue

And so it was, on Wednesday, April 3, we were about to hit the road for our most spontaneous road trip to date. We were looking forward to bumming around in a new city for a couple of days, and, having been underwhelmed by much of the tourist must-dos in China, we were giving ourselves a break on the culture stuff. Basically, the idea was to find a Zigong beer and 火锅 place and relax.

We lucked into a ride when we asked our boss Sarah for help making hotel reservations, because she’s from Zigong, and Qingming is a major holiday and of course she was going home. When we met her at the car on Wednesday afternoon, she had an idea that she was really excited about. On the way to Zigong, she and Mr. Wang — her husband — could show us a couple of sights. And we could stop in her hometown Fushun County for dinner. And … we could stay the night and she’d take us to Zigong the next morning!

And I said, “Why not! Let’s see what will happen.”

What happened was we kind of got stuck in a loop of hospitality and politeness. But we definitely saw things that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Longchang Ancient Town

Longchang Ancient TownCandy with a hammer

This was our on-the-way stop, a recreated ancient city of Ming- and Qing-style architecture, much like Chengdu’s wide and narrow alleys. At it’s center, however, were 18 original stone gates built in 1696-1887. Each archway commemorated a different thing: A man who lived to be 100 (at a time when the average life span was 40), filial piety, chastity, and so on.

After viewing the gates, Sarah stopped to buy us a snack. The man chiseled off some bits from a big beige pillow covered in sesame seeds and bagged it up for us. We each sampled a small piece — it was sticky and chewy and way better than it looked. “Do you have this in America?” Sarah asked. Peter explained about taffy: that you twist and you pull and pull and twist, demonstrating the action with his hands. Sarah said that was how this was made, with sticky rice. We each took another piece. And another.

Confucius Museum and Buddhist Temple, Fushun County

Outside the Confucius MuseumThe great Kong FuA Buddhist temple in Fushun CountyThe Buddha

Fushun is about a half hour outside Zigong, and “county” in the Chinese sense refers to an area that is smaller than a city, but larger than a village.

In the old part of the county, there is a Confucius museum, that at one time was a real working temple. Faded English placards gave information about the various buildings and halls, some of which were built as early as 1291. It was all very Chinese looking.

The highlight of the museum is the small statue of a naked boy perched atop the Chongsheng Hall. A telescope is set up for viewing, next to a card explaining that the statue was discovered during restoration in 1986, this sort of thing is not traditional and no one really knows why he’s there. Archeological mystery!

Outside the museum, Sarah gave us a quiz: “This building is painted red. Do you know what that means?” We didn’t. “Power,” she said.

We took a taxi over to the Fushun Buddhist temple, which was under construction. We bought tickets and went inside.

This temple evidently receives a lot more love and care. The painting and woodwork are in much better condition than they were at the Confucius museum. The main temple was at the top of the hill — closer to heaven — and housed a Buddha with a thousand arms. There were many monks scuttling around, and there was some significant bell tolling and drumming while we were there. Sarah said that the county’s Buddhists fill the courtyard on holy days.

Zigong Dinosaur Museum

Dinosaur museumThe robot dinos outside the museum

We continued our very thorough tour the next morning. Zigong’s main claim to fame is that it has a ground full of dinosaur fossils. The Zigong Dinosaur Museum is listed in the guidebooks as the thing to do. We had planned on skipping it, but Sarah thought we should go. She and Mr. Wang waited for us outside; they’d seen it many, many times.

The museum is actually a small compound, with a few buildings — one of them itself shaped like a dinosaur — and some outdoor garden spots. One of the latter is filled with large, animatronic dinosaur replicas. They jerk and sway and roar in an endless loop.

All of the most museummy stuff is in one building that also offers dinosaur rides. The coolest thing, however, is the basement replica of an actual fossil excavation.

Sarah was a little surprised that we finished up so quickly — meanwhile, the fact that she and Mr. Wang were sitting outside by the highway never left our minds. “We think it might be for kids,” was Peter’s diplomatic answer when she asked why we were so fast. She smiled and nodded.

Sanghai Salt Well, Zigong

Mining for salt

Zigong’s other big deal is salt. From ancient times, the traders traveled from all over to get some of this valuable mineral. And these days, there are not one but two different institutions wherein one may learn about its production.

Mercifully, we only stopped at the Sanghai Well, which is still in operation. It’s old and it’s deep, and while we were there we watched two sweaty guys shoveling crude salt into boiling tanks and pulling it back out. That has to be the worst job in all museum-dom.

If you like, you can buy some Zigong salt on your way out. We didn’t.

Apr 20, 2013

清明节: Hey, let’s go to Zigong!

A last-minute holiday announcement leads to impromptu travel

Map To Zigong

On April 1, a Monday, our boss Linda gave us the news: We had a school holiday starting Wednesday afternoon and continuing through Saturday! (Sunday, we’d have to teach Friday’s classes to make up some of the time; that’s just how it works sometimes.) This wasn’t a total surprise to us. We knew that the Qingming Festival, or the national tomb sweeping holiday, was April 4, and we were just waiting for word on which days we had off.

So informed, we put in motion our plan to visit Zigong. Zigong is a Luzhou-sized city about an hour and a half from us, and many of our students are from there, as is our boss Sarah. “They have dragons there,” she told us proudly long ago when she was giving us our initial tour of Luzhou. “Not dragons … dinosaurs,” she corrected herself.

Sarah helped us with our hotel reservations on Tuesday — Zigong’s not high on your average international traveler’s China list, and they don’t have an anglophone-staffed youth hostel there — and offered us a ride with her and her husband the following day.

Wednesday morning, you could feel the pre-vacation excitement; our students were practically buzzing. When that last bell rang, kids and teachers flooded out of the school’s doors. We joined the mass exodus, and it was Dinosaur City, here we come!

Apr 20, 2013

Snaps: Peter in the wall

Abandoned riverside cafe

I don't think this business is open anymore

Last summer’s flood left behind some strange rubble, some of which still hasn’t been reclaimed.

Apr 8, 2013

We can fly … mostly

Tianfu Middle School Kite Festival 2013

The Tianfu Middle School kite festival

Last week, the whole school was atwitter about the upcoming kite festival set for Easter Sunday. (Well, they just called it Sunday). The Monday afternoon prior, my class 24 taught me 风筝, the Chinese word for kite, and all week different students asked if we would attend. “It starts at 8,” our boss Linda told us, which, of course it did.

Sunday morning, we hauled ourselves out of bed at 8, hoping to miss any opening Kite Festival speeches and arrive fashionably late. When we got to the sports field, the students were already loaded into the bleachers, but there were a bunch of kids at the field level making their last-minute preparations.

Last minute repairs on a kiteThe students speak English with meHiding from the sun

The way it worked, a student filled us in, was that each class was to have made two kites. There would be prizes for the most beautiful, highest flying, etc. Some classes had spent days and days on theirs — though some were starting from scratch right then and there — and we saw some beautifully decorated specimens. My favorites were the few that were made from plain newspaper with hand-painted Chinese characters; gorgeous in their simplicity. Phoenixes, the school’s mascot, were popular, as were other birds. One class took it even further and did an Angry Birds kite.

Fish and snakes rounded out the animalia theme. There were a couple Chinese flags, and a 100RMB bill. One kite looked like an angel or a ghost. She didn’t fly very well, sadly, though it would have been cool if she did.

We chose a seat high up in the center of the bleachers, which happened to be where Peter’s gifted classes had been placed. There was a lot of homework and reading going on among these kids while they waited for the event to begin.

A couple of students asked us if American schools hosted kite festivals. No, we told them, Americans kind of think of kite flying as an old-fashioned pastime. When we turned the question around on them — Do you fly kites often? — most of the students said that it was something they did when they were little, but not anymore. “I am from the countryside,” one boy said, “I don’t have time to fly kites.”

After about an hour, the event began in earnest. Groups of 10 or so lined up at one end of the field and showed their stuff. There was little wind to speak of, so the kids had to run hard to get their kites aloft. The students in the stands cheered on their classmates, though as far as competitive sports go, kite flying is awesomely nonsensical.

Peter chatted with one of his boy students, while I spoke to a few of his girls. This is definitely a recurring pattern, and possibly one of the reasons that the school prefers to hire couples as foreign teachers. One of the girls told me that she prefers physics to English … this in pretty decent English; I’m pretty envious of Peter’s gifted classes sometimes.

One of the most impressive kites was a gigantic snake that cast a large shadow over the field as it undulated across the sky. The kids traded off flying it, because they had to run like the dickens to keep it in the air.

After the last competitors left the field, the wind finally picked up. Taking advantage of this, a kite free-for-all broke out. It must be said that the store-bought kites did fly better than their homemade counterparts, but as Peter’s student pointed out, the students do feel proud when something they made flies.

Mar 31, 2013

A picnic in the park

A plan comes together, Chinese-style

This park is still under construction, but come on in!

A few weeks ago, our boss pointed out a new park that is very near to our countryside campus. A perfect place for an American-style picnic, we thought. We invited our friend Alex along, as he loves all things American.

The date was set for yesterday, but Peter started work Thursday afternoon, boiling some potatoes and some eggs for a potato salad. Friday evening, we shopped for more provisions, including chips, veggies for crudité, cheese and bread for sandwiches, and Peter assembled the potato salad to set overnight. We woke up early Saturday morning to put everything else together. And then we waited at the bus stop for Alex …

… who had thought we meant Sunday, not Saturday. Bad news! He had class and couldn’t make it. But the show must go on.

The park entrance
Hard at work, building the park paths
The road down to the river

The front gate to the park was big and impressive, like most park entrances we’ve seen. But, we noticed a lot of men and women in construction wear, carrying big piles of stuff around. Our boss wouldn’t have sent us to a park that was still being built, would she? Of course she would.

But, in China, just because something is under construction, it doesn’t mean that civilians can’t wander around. No one batted an eye as we walked down the dirt/concrete roadway into the future park. At one point, the path was blocked by an excavator moving dirt from here to there, but the operator ceased his work so that we could scoot by.

As we got closer to the river, there was a small foresty area, with funkily shaped rock pieces scattered about, ready to be installed as park sculpture/benches. There was also one fake stump that was flanked by two smaller fake stumps, as if it were set out just for us to have our picnic.

As we sat and ate, we watched pleasure bikers traverse the path. (We also saw them all turn around when they got to the excavator.) The funny thing was, with just trees and a simple paved road, the partially completed park felt a lot more European or American than other Chinese parks we’ve been to. You could forget that you were anywhere. Despite the distant noise of construction, which is pretty much a constant in our lives anyway, the whole world was a cheese sandwich. And potato salad.

Our American picnicIt's lovely to eat under a tree

Mar 30, 2013

The chickens of Luzhou

Didn’t have to pay to get it in

To the chickens!
Click on the photo above for 6 pictures of chickens!

Pork is the preferred protein in our part of the world, but I’d say that chickens are a close second. People raise ‘em and sell ‘em all over the city. Sometimes we even see live chickens taking the bus.