Archive for the ‘China’ Category

My First Chinese New Year

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

The fireworks have stopped.
All but one of my favorite noodle shops has reopened.
The old man barber down the street has started to cut people’s hair again.
I got a letter in the mail that was sent over two months ago.
The new teaching semester at school has begun.
Is the New Year celebration finally over?
Let’s hope.

I’ve had quite an eventful couple of weeks and I’m glad to be back to the normal routine, whatever that is. The week before the Chinese New Year, I got invited over to a family’s home. And I wasn’t even trying! I was just at work, minding my own business, when my boss asked me what I was planning to do to usher in the Year of the Tiger. I told her that I didn’t have any plans and was just going to lay low and stay inside to avoid the craziness I anticipated outside. Well, she wouldn’t hear of it! She started calling around asking her friends if they had room for a large foreigner to join them. Sure enough, after class was over, she cornered me as I was sneaking out and told me that I had agreed to go to her friend’s house for the party! I really don’t remember agreeing to this?

The afternoon of New Year’s Eve arrived, and I hopped in a taxi to Chloe’s house – my Chinese boss’s Chinese friend and her extended family. Let the awkwardness begin!

Little did I know, but there were three daughters in the family: all cousins, all in their 20s and all spoke perfect English. One minor problem: two of them already had American boyfriends. Another minor problem: the aforementioned American boyfriends were also at the get-together. One more minor problem: I didn’t realize what was going on until it was too late.

The extravaganza began with food and lots of it. (My kind of party!) It was one of those meals where the entire table was filled with delicious dishes, and those were just the appetizers. Once one dish was finished, they’d bring another out! Chloe taught me how to eat crab, and I think I ate about six, 4 females and 2 males. The dumplings were homemade and seemingly bottomless. The Chinese ladies were almost having as much fun watching me as I was having eating. The Chinese men just gave toasts to each other the whole time. Oh, and the American guys were talking about politics.

After hours of dinner, we moved to the living room and they turned the TV on. The CCTV New Year’s Gala was on, of course! Imagine a four-hour long performance of song, dance, acrobatics, xiangsheng comedy, and magic shows. Besides being completely in Mandarin, the show was actually pretty entertaining. I even recognized one of the singers. And there’s a huge controversy around the illusion during the magic section, or so I’m told.

This did get old after a while, considering I understood next to nothing. So I decided to throw my two cents into the politics conversation. Big mistake. Before I could give my opinion on the current President or the previous one, they turned to me and said, “So, aren’t Chinese girlfriends awesome!?” Hmm. I like to think that I’m a smart guy, but this took a while to sink in. When I finally figured out the grand scheme of my boss trying to set me up with Chloe, I had already made myself endearing to her father and her uncles. I’d have to make a clean break before it got out of hand and start talking about my secret wife in Italy.

After hours of TV, we moved outside for fireworks. Words cannot describe how insane they were. So I’m not even gonna try… watch the video!

And the fireworks didn’t end on New Year’s Eve… they continued for weeks.

For the rest of the Spring Festival, pretty much everything was shut down except places to go shopping. I got to play some basketball indoors and I actually looked pretty good. I think I went to KTV three or four times. And I got a new roommate. Dangit! I hear more fireworks! When will these little demons stop!? Seriously.

Chinese Caption Contest #453

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Chinese Caption Contest #453

“Global warming: destroying penguins’ earth-shaped umbrellas for centuries…”
What do YOU think it means?

The Beijing – Tianjin Bullet Train

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

The Beijing - Tianjin Bullet TrainRemind me to tell you this awesome train story from Italy some day! It involves 20 teenagers, 20+ American-sized luggages, a closed train bathroom, and a 6 hour train ride. Actually, don’t remind me of that. Never ever remind me of that.

Feel free to remind me of the bullet train I took from Tianjin to Beijing (and back), though! Thirty minutes and about ten dollars later, I had successfully taken this modern feat of Chinese engineering. The names of the train translates to “Harmony” and that’s exactly what I was thinking the entire trip. Travelling 120 kilometers has never been so easy! For all my Minnesota readers, this would be like travelling from St. Cloud to downtown Minneapolis in half an hour! For my Texas readers, this is like going from Garden Valley to Dallas in that same amount of time.

At top speeds of 350 km/h, it’s revolutionized the way middle-class Chinese travel and was very useful during the Olympics last year when most of the soccer events were held in Tianjin. I’ve heard stories of people that live in Tianjin but commute to Beijing every day for work. Maybe I should do that?

The one I took only got up to 329 km/h… I was only slightly disappointed.

Second class = 58 RMB (be sure that you’re given a seat number, or you’ll be standing)
First class = 69 RMB
Deluxe class = 99 RMB (only 8 seats per trip)

You can easily purchase your ticket at the station the day of your trip; they also take reservations up to 20 days before your trip.

From Tianjin: Trains leave every half hour from 6:25 in the morning to 10:45 at night
From Beijing: Trains leave every half hour from 6:35 in the morning to 11:00 at night
(subject to change, obviously)
(and I think it’s closed during the major holiday weeks) (EDIT: Nope, it’s open during the holidays.)

I’d recommend getting to the station about an hour before your intended departure.

Chinese Food 101: Basic Ingredients

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

“Never eat Chinese food in Oklahoma.” – Bryan Miller

Agreed. I would add Wisconsin to that statement as well. To get the best, most authentic Chinese food, you need to know what you’re looking for. If you’re not from China and you’ve never been to China or Chinatown you might lack this ability, but not always. The local buffet down the street may be tasty, but it’s likely to not be very bona fide. For instance, in the entire Minneapolis/St. Paul area there’s less than a handful of genuine joints.

My first post in this series listed the Basic Cooking Utensils and for this second edition, I’ve decided to list some of the rudimentary fixins’ you’ll need to have around the kitchen to provide the best, most legitimate Chinese meal. OK?

1. The Rice
Back in the day, people in China only ate rice. Many Chinese people that I’ve asked around Tianjin say that rice is their main course when they eat at home. And they buy it by the bag-full here. It’s quite easy! I have a nice little outdoor market on the way home from work. I haven’t figured out the measure word for rice yet, but the rice lady always smiles and asks me if the amount is okay after she puts in a load. I wouldn’t even know how to buy rice in America! The grocery store? In a box? Costco?

Relative Links:
How to Cook Rice
Ancient Chinese Food

2. The Fresh Fruits & Veggies
Note, I said “fresh.” Over the next few months, I might start taking for granted the fact that I can walk a half a block away from my apartment and buy the cheapest, most delicious fruits and vegetables I’ve ever bought or eaten. Hopefully not. I noticed, though, that one stand was selling some Red Delicious with the Washington sticker on it. That made me suspicious! Until I can adequately communicate and ask where those apples came from, I’ll keep assuming they were locally grown by the person who sold it to me.

In addition to what’s in this picture, make sure to have tomatoes, cucumbers, and eggplant around too; they were absent for the photo shoot.

Relative Links:
Pictures of Chinese Vegetables
Made In China Fruit

3. The Eggs
Whether you want chicken, duck, or goose eggs, you can get them at the market. I think I’ve only been getting chicken eggs, but who can really tell anyways? (Especially an ignorant foreigner like myself.) Oh, and if you see some chickens running around the KFC on the corner, assume they’re only being used for the eggs. (wink)

By the way, eggs are essential. Some of my favorite dishes, so far, all have plenty of eggs in them.

Relative Links:
The Century Egg
Eggs in Chinese cooking

4. The Cooking Oil
I think there are different kinds of oil, but I’m unable to translate them all. I just got the biggest tub of oil I could lug back so it would last a long time. It’s not lasting long at all. Oil must be its own food group here. Oh, and be careful when you heat this stuff up. Not that I’ve burned myself or anything. The pros make it look so simple!

Relative Links:
What kind of oil?
Cooking with Oil

5. The Soy Sauce, Vinegar, Peanut Something, and MSG. (Lots of MSG.)
Ah, the condiments. Admit it, no one really knows how to correctly use soy sauce, right? Well, neither do I, that’s why we’re starting with the basics here. I just know it tastes good and a requirement for authentic Chinese cooking. In the market here, there’s an entire row of different sauces. It’s like the cereal or toothpaste aisle in America. I just picked the one that had an English translation on it.

MSG may have a bad rap, but I think it contributes a lot to the enhancing of neurotoxic flavors in Chinese food! If it’s supposed to cause health problems, why are Chinese people generally pretty healthy? I have no answers on this one, just questions. Leave your lawyers at home.

Relative Links:
Soy Sauce Secrets
Monosodium Glutamate

Meat, tofu, and chicken feet will all be addressed later. That is all.

Chinese Caption Contest #449

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Chinese Caption Contest #449

What the crap is this!? I know it doesn’t have any Chinese characters to help try to figure it out, but I still can’t even imagine…
This is all I came up with: “Santa’s New Pet of Choice” or “The Big C Gov’t has finally banned reindeers”
What do YOU think it’s for?

My Favorite Songs, Albums, and Live Shows from 2009

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

If you couldn’t tell, I love music. And I’ve only come to really love it in the past few years… way too late in the game, I tell you. In my opinion, appreciating and enjoying music is an art that can help you in numerous ways. For example – music increases brain function. It relieves stress. It could possibly start a revolution too. When I was younger I took music lessons but must’ve lost interest somewhere along the way. I wish I hadn’t given up on them, but this is something that can change! Maybe with all my free time here in China, I can pick up an instrument again and not just my iPod.

Do you think it’d be possible to go all of next year only listening to music made before my lifetime? It’s a nice thought but probably not. I have this dilemma that I keep “discovering” “new” music only to find out it came out in the 90s or something. I’m getting better at keeping up with current music coming out, but then there’s this Bob Dylan guy I discovered… … alas – it keeps me busy.

This year did wonders for my music collection! Lots of good tunes, and hopefully my vinyls will stay in tact as they wait until I find a cheap way to get them and a record player to China.

My Favorite Songs:
Animal Collective – My Girls
– The song I listened to 20 times in a row the first time I heard it
The Temper Trap – Sweet Disposition
– From 500 Days of Summer, I think
La Roux – Bulletproof
– The song I listen to every time I meet a new girl here in China
Phoenix – Listzomania
– The song that introduced me to the The Breakfast Club
The Lonely Island – I’m On A Boat
– The best SNL song ever written and the best use of T-Pain
The Phenomenal Handclap Band – 15 to 20
– Redundant but memorable
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Heads Will Roll
– The song I dance to down GuangDong Road
Amadou & Miriam – Sabali
– The first time I heard this song on the radio, I txted all my music-loving friends about it
We Are The Willows – A Funeral Dressed As A Birthday
– Best song when you miss Minneapolis
Andrew Bird – Oh No
– This reminds me of the roadtrip for some reason, probably the whistling

My Favorite Albums:
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
Derek Webb – Stockholm Syndrome
The Swell Season – Strict Joy
Mute Math – Armistice
Haley Bonar – Sing With Me (album cover art pictured)
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeaus Phoenix
Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You
The Temper Trap – Conditions
Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk

My Favorite Live Shows:
Lykke Li @ The Varsity
– Up front and close to the stage, this Swedish songstress impressed (pictured above); I heard it wasn’t so good from the back, though?
White Ghost Shivers @ Lee’s
– Possibly the best live show I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t even realize it
A Night In The Box @ Kitty Cat Klub
– All 11 times I saw these guys (truth) was a great show
Caroline Smith & The Goodnight Sleeps @ The Varsity
– My friend and I weren’t even there to see them, but new fans were created
The Tallest Man On Earth @ Turf Club
– I saw him here twice this spring… he’s not tall at all, it’s a metaphor
Haley Bonar @ The Walker’s Sculpture Garden
– Haley has long been the favorite part of my Minneapolis summers
Fleet Foxes @ First Avenue
– Hearing these harmonies come together live, is an amazing experience; and to think, I almost overslept this one
Phoenix @ First Avenue
– My last show in Minneapolis
Mute Math @ The Majestic
– So electric, so creative, so worth it… Mute Math continues to impress with their live shows
Au Revoir Simone @ Beijing’s Yu Gong Yi Shan
– First live show in China! And it was awesome…

Any thoughts? Am I totally off my rocker? What were some of your favorites this year?

And then it was Christmas…

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

It’s Christmas night, and there I sat… in my apartment, by myself, watching The Muppets Christmas Carol. I had worked all day (teaching about Christmas to Chinese kids), went to a grand dinner with a Chinese friend (more on that later), and had a nice long Skype conversation with my family back home (who was all snowed in). It was different than any other “Christmas” I’ve had before, but I think I can get used to it. Different, but awesome.

Some people wish for a White Christmas, but I knew I’d be lucky if I didn’t get a pollution-filled Smoggy Christmas. And it turned out to be a very nice day! No snow, but I wasn’t expecting it.

(Interesting article: Why Christmas is increasingly popular [in China])

So yeah, now the holidays are almost over and I’ll have a new year in a new country… I kind of like it! I didn’t get a day off of work for Christmas, but I do get a day off for New Year’s Day this week. Ironically, I finally found someone to let me use their oven, so it looks like I’ll be baking New Year’s Cookies instead of Christmas cookies this week!

About Christmas dinner: I’ll choose to only write about dinner on the 25th because dinner on the 24th was a waste of money and left me hungry afterwards. One of my Chinese friends had backed out on plans, so I contacted a different friend to see if he was available. He was! I’d have some company, at least, on Christmas night. We went to the amazing restaurant/buffet that is Golden Hans. In China, I think it’d be classified as “western” food, but it’s not like those horribly-tasting, misspelled ones down the street. Golden Hans is the real deal. The best general way to describe it would be a huge Brazilian BBQ and microbrewery with a Germanic Amish feel. I’ll get pictures of it someday, I promise. Remember, we were going on Christmas Day night in China and I had no idea what to expect. We made our way up to the fourth floor of this strip mall and oodles of people were lined up to get in. Good thing I brought a Chinese friend! He was able to put our name down and we waited for a table. The place was packed. They were hauling in new tables and stools for people to sit on. Since there was only 2 of us, I think we got in sooner than expected – it only took about 30 minutes.

After sitting down and paying, the waiters dressed as German yodelers come around with huge skewers of meat and brush them off to your plate. They mark a sheet when they bring it, so you sort of know what you’re eating. Don’t worry, they’ll come around again if you liked it! They gave me honey-basted ham, lamb, beef, and pork. They had sausage. They had chicken heart and ox tongue. I had barbecued chicken and fried banana. Needless to say, this meal was amazing. The buffet left me wanting, but the meat skewers that kept coming around were quite fulfilling.

And to top that, one of my English students and her family was sitting in the table next to me! (In a city of over 10 million people, how does this happen!?) Her father was so excited to meet me and kept toasting me with his soda every few minutes and saying, “Sheng dan kuai le!”, the Chinese equivalent of Merry Christmas. It was wonderful.

A truly memorable Christmastime for me… I wish you all could have been here!

My Christmas presents from afar:
An awesome drawing from my niece (and an awkward magnet from a friend)
A sweet Hannah Montana Puzzle (complete with Miley charm)
LEGOs from my family (exactly what I wanted, actually)

My Job in China, Explained

Monday, December 21st, 2009

Well, I can definitely answer the question “What’s your job going to be like?” better now than I was able to a few months ago. Honestly, it’s not all it was cracked up to be. Don’t get me wrong, it got me to China and I’m surviving just fine. It’s just… that it’s still a job. I’m not on vacation. I’m not on a short-term summer trip. I live here now and that requires going to work every day, etc.

I work for a consulting company called ACES, American China Exchange Society. It’s an American company with offices in China. My office has all Chinese people working at it. I hastily discovered that the contract I signed back in August meant little more than a hill of beans once I finally arrived here. And when you’re a new foreigner in town, there’s literally no way to negotiate! Ha! Every time I try to point something out (like my contract says I’d have the day off for Christmas Day, but no – I’m working… and probably on Christmas Eve too) they reply, “This is China! That’s how it works here…”

Their website says that they interact and consult with businesses, government agencies and individuals to teach practical and relational English in everyday life. One-on-one teaching will help students improve their skills… blah blah blah. The American lady I talked to before accepting the position said my main job responsibility would be to “build relationships with Chinese people.” I feel like that’s the furthest thing from what I’m doing this semester.

To sum up my job placement this semester: I’m a Foreign English Teacher at two different middle schools here in town, Tianjin Yaohua Binhai School (a well-known boarding-type school around China) and Tianjin #4 Middle School (the 4th best school in Tianjin, obviously)(come on, it makes sense to Chinese people). Middle schools here are usually for Grades 7-12. The word for “high school” would translate as university, I think. At these two schools, I have about 24, 45-minute classes per week; each of those classes has 40-50 students in them. Can you do the math? That’s about 1000 Chinese youngsters under my tutelage every week. Whatever happened to one-on-one?

Most of the time, these youngsters could care less about learning English. Most all of my students come from very wealthy families and they’ll get good jobs no matter what their English skills are like. There are, though, one or two students in every class with whom I’m starting to slowly build relationships. These high school students are so busy and stressed out with their homework, it’s ridiculous!

In my opinion, this is a very easy job because all I need to do is prepare one lesson plan each week on whatever topic I want and blather on about that topic for a few minutes then have the kids practice it. If you also did the math on how much I’m working, I’m only in front of a class for 18 hours or so. The rest of the time on the job, I read my few books or study Chinese. Oh yeah – this week, I’m talking about the real story of Christmas.

On the other hand, though, this gets extremely boring for me by the tenth class. I’m used to having jobs that I can grow in personally and professionally. Maybe I’m learning public-speaking skills? Maybe I’m learning how to better deal with teenagers? I don’t know.

At least I’m in China.

Chinese Food 101: Basic Cooking Utensils

Friday, December 18th, 2009

The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table. – Confucius

Disregarding Confucius’ advice on keeping well away from the kitchen, I decided to chronicle my cooking adventures here in China with an ongoing series of blog posts on Chinese food. Starting with the basics, obviously, like the utensils and ingredients needed, I’ll slowly progress to rice then fried rice then maybe some meat dishes down the road. Sound good? Feel free to follow along and join in! Comments and feedback is appreciated.

For this first Chinese Food 101 post, I list the basic cooking utensils that I’ve purchased and used so far. These are must-needs if you want to start cooking Chinese food, so if you don’t have ‘em, hit up your local thrift store right away!

1. The Wok
Essential to every stir-fried, pan-fried, or deep-fried dish in China! And it takes a master to master the wok. I’ve already had my fair share of spills and burns, but I love using it! I also enjoy watching the street vendors (read: masters) use their woks. True artists at work. Mine is made out of iron and has a handle for easy moving. PS I never knew how to properly clean a wok till I arrived here in China! My one in Minneapolis always had oil stains on it.

Relevant links:
How to Choose the Right Type of Wok
Cleaning a Wok


2. The Cleaver
A big knife for the big task of cutting the plethora of veggies and meat in every meal. We’re not talkin’ about the cute little pre-cut vegetables that you can buy in the foreign supermarkets… we’re talkin’ ’bout the freshly picked ones that you buy at the outdoor market as you walk home from work. And we’re not talking the packaged, frozen meat either. I absolutely love the cleaver. Its heavy blade can cut through anything from the smallest clove of garlic to chicken bones. Don’t get all Swedish Chef up in here, though, it takes practice to use it fast and safely. For my immature readers, this is not a toy! Did you know there’s a proper way to hold it? Don’t hold it like you’d hold a ping pong paddle – place your index finger over the top of the blade and place your thumb and middle finger knuckle on the blade’s two sides. I assume this is a given, but please use a cutting board with your cleaver.

Relevant links:
Before You Buy a Chinese Cleaver
Cutting Food with a Chinese Cleaver
Cooking with a Chinese Cleaver (video)


3. The Rice Cooker
Note to self: before you move to China, learn how to use a rice cooker. I wish I had made that note months ago! It took a while to learn how to use this, but that’ll be for a future blog post. Mine came with a measuring cup (140 ml, I think) and a little scoop. The instructions were all in Chinese, of course, so I had to turn to my friends for help. Humbling, but necessary.

Relevant links:
What is a Rice Cooker?
How to Choose the Best Rice Cooker


4. The Chopsticks
Not to be confused with the famous piano-based tune, these are eating utensils. I had a complete stranger say to me tonight, “You use chopsticks very well!” Oh? Thanks for noticing. (Apparently, people are watching me eat…) Used for most every meal, these little white bowls are filled with rice in front of you and the main dishes are set in the middle for everyone to share. A third of the world’s population use chopsticks to eat, and it’s not any less dignified than forks, knives, and spoons. If you don’t know how to use them, start practicing!

Relevant links:
History of, etc.
How to Eat with Chopsticks
How to Use Chopsticks (video)


Chinese Caption Contest #445

Sunday, December 13th, 2009

Chinese Caption Contest #445

This is another obvious one… “Don’t kick ugly dogs!”

What do YOU think it means?