25 May 2007

Parlez-vous 中文?

I was in Florence last summer for a film program. One late afternoon, after a long day of filming, the three people in my group and I were standing on the side of the road waiting for the bus, or a cab, or something to take us back to our hostel. While we were waiting, a girl rode by on her bicycle, grinning like an idiot. One of the (male, unsurprisingly) members of my group said: “There's only one thing that can make a girl smile like that: getting laid.”

Clearly, he is totally wrong. I just spent the entire night grinning like an idiot, too. You know what else can make a girl smile like that? A fantastic, spectacular meal.

Throughout our adventure-meals in China, Annetta, Jason, and I have perservered on the never-ending quest for good food. How do we know we've found it? Our after-food glow. The name is pretty self-explanitory, but Annetta and I glow like hazardous waste after we've had a tasty, satisfying meal of epic serving sizes. And that was tonight.

Last week, Annetta and I drew up a calendar, listing out our final three weeks in China and where we would eat dinner each of those nights. Clearly the calendar must be subject to changes, but it was important to us to make sure to hit the restaurants we love one last time. The only problem: we wanted to try some new ones. It's a tragedy that for us, there aren't enough calories, nor meals, in a day.

Let's start with Monday: we went to a restaurant called Bellagio's. Despite the rather off-putting name, it supposed to be one of the best Taiwanese restaurants in Beijing. Before then, I'd never eaten Taiwanese food. Boy was I deprived. Let's keep in mind that there were four of us as I list for you our ordered (and entirely eaten) items:

Beef with greens:

Dumplings (though nothing special):

Bitter melon (pretty boring):

Tofu (glorious):

Chicken (I'm-moving-to-Taiwan good):

You will notice that five dishes for four people is exercising considerable restraint and reason. However, Bellagio's is also well known for it's desserts, one of which is a huge mountain of ice topped with beans and sweet syrupy goodies. It would have been enough for all four of us:

But then, the mango sticky rice with ice looked good. I got that:

Annetta wanted a mango slushy thing with coconut milk and sago:

Victoria wanted purple rice sweet hot soup thing:

Jason wanted coffee peanut ice thing:

And then, when we had all shared and finished off every dessert in it's entirety, Annetta decided that perhaps she wasn't totally satisfied, so she called the waiter over and ordered another dessert. You should have seen the look on that waiter's face. She was pretty stunned that we managed to eat what could easily have been a nice dessert for ten people.

Tuesday we went to a Yunnan restaurant. It was alright, but not worth spending time to upload the pictures.

These people own a small store right next to school. I buy Coke Light from them every day:

Wednesday I went to have dinner with the son and girlfriend of my grandparents' friends. He works at the US Embassy here, so I took a little trip to the waiguo ren central of Beijing, though I must confess it's an area with which I am quite familiar, as the Tibetan restaurant is literally down the street from their apartment. I'm so jealous.

Their apartment is fabulous. Anywhere in the world, their apartment would be great, but in Beijing, it's pretty top-notch. They certainly aren't ignorant, quite the opposite in fact; they know they're lucky. The Embassy provides some pretty nice living conditions. Their living room is the size of Tianqi's entire apartment. They have three bedrooms, an office, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a washer, and a drier. Do not misunderstand me and think that I'm trying to criticize the way they live, because I'm absolutely not. I just think it's interesting to see, firsthand, the difference in living conditions. Tianqi's family is not struggling for money, nor are they rich; they're average, and probably a little above. But it's pretty notable what different standards of living exist. I know that even bigger gaps exist, but let's face it: I'm 21, and I'm just starting to grasp the concrete differences that exist between the world's citizens. That's the point of my coming here.

So they took me out to dinner, and it was quite enjoyable. The restaurant was pretty good too; there was a chicken curry served in a bread bowl which was my favorite. It's too bad that I only have two weeks left here; I don't know if I'll have a chance to see them again. I hope I can.

Afterwards, when I was walking myself from the metro back to school, I had some time to myself just to think and reflect. I felt like I was watching myself from the tops of the buildings, seeing Ellis In China from the outside. Mentally stepping outside of myself, I realized just how sad I will be to leave Beijing. In many ways, I feel like I've just started here: with Chinese, understanding the city, eating, understanding a little slice of the world. But in two weeks, I'll have to abandon my progress. This isn't to say that it will never come back, but it won't be the same, and it will probably be slower in coming. It really frustrates me that it takes an end to make me understand how far I've come and appreciate just how I've changed. One one hand, I'm angry that time is so short; on the other had, I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to come here AND that I reached some important realizations at all. Some of the people in the program here seem to be living a rather ignorant existence; I like to think that I try to maximize new opportunities, step outside myself, and be adventurous. Perhaps this is why, at my core, I don't consider myself a waiguo ren.

Tonight during dinner (which I will momentarily extoll), I was telling Annetta and Jason how, though I love my independence and would never give it up, sometimes I wish I had been born into a culture with a close-knit community just so I would have somewhere to belong to. Annetta pointed out that it's lucky that I was born an American. If I were a pineapple seller's daughter in China, I likely wouldn't have the opportunity to travel the world, let alone eat different kinds of foods. Point: Annetta. She also pointed out that belonging to a community could also leave me feeling more lonely, as if I were me, I probably wouldn't fit in and feel like I didn't belong anywhere.

But here's my problem: I feel like I belong everywhere. Everywhere I've gone, I feel like that's where I could live the rest of my life, or where I should have been born. My problem is I want to be everywhere and everyone at once. Therefore, I feel left out when I can't be. I have my own culture. I suppose it's appropriate that no one in China can guess where I'm from. I look like I'm from Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Canada-- very few guess the US.

Which, slightly awkwardly, brings me to tonights dinner. We were originally scheduled ( according to the aforementioned calendar) to eat Xinjiang food (Xinjiang is a region in northwestern China, right next to/above Tibet). But we changed it a little and went instead for Muslim food. You may or may not recall that in Tibet, we happened upon one of the world's most fabulous restaurants, which was also a Muslim restaurant. So when the menu arrived, we were unable to contain ourselves. Not only were we not at all hungry (due to a fabulous, greasy lunch), but we were hoping to recapture some of the Tibetan magic.

And boy did we. First, each person got his/her own bowl of perfect yogurt:

Then roast beef buns, flaky baked bread with meat in the middle:

Then Chuar, or sticks of fatty, tender, juicy, perfectly spiced meat:

Then long, chewy noodles in a slightly spicy beef sauce:

Then some chewy, dense bread:

Then stewed beef and carrots served on top of the bread (which soaked up all the sauce and grease—spectacular):

This was already more than enough. But then came our chicken dish, a huge bowl full of chicken, potatoes, and peppers in a slightly spicy sauce:

This was utterly fabulousness. That's how the after-food glow comes about, folks. The food made us really thirsty, so we were chugging tea, but the tea was hot and so is the weather, so we were sweating. Leave it to us to make eating the equivalent of a sport.

Afterwards, I bought a nice-sized tub of strawberry ice cream. And then we had a mini candy party in Jason's room. The one good thing about leaving in two weeks is that we have a new excuse to justify eating so much: we have two weeks left, so we better eat as much as we can. I think that's a good reason.

The other day, I went for a walk in the park and sat by the lake to be pensive, as lakes are generally good places to be pensive. By the lake was a rather rotund waiguo ren. He came up to me and asked me where I was from. He was French, and his English wasn't too good. I told him, in French, that I spoke a little French (I studied for four years). The thing is, every time I tried to speak to him in French, Chinese came out. Even when I spoke English to him, Chinese kept slipping out. Ha. Whoops.

This weekend we are going to a rural suburb. On Sunday we're going to a high school, and each one of us has to give a report in Chinese to the students about some aspect of American life. Mine is about how American students can study abroad. Let's see if they understand a word I say.

And so, stomach full, aura aglow, I bid you adieu/ wanan/ goodnight/

21 May 2007

Brace yourselves, it's a long one.

Last weekend we went camping and hiking on the Great Wall. Naturally, Annetta and I bought a ton of food in anticipation, mostly candy and junk. I'd been to the Great Wall before, so what I was looking forward to most was going camping again. I think the last time I went camping was when I was 16. Since I'm someone who needs to be in nature, five years was far too long.

I certainly got some nature. Gorgeous, no?

The weather was mercifully fantastic despite the frequent, strong gusts of wind. Tianqi remarked a few times about how clean the air was, but when I looked around, I still saw walls of smog on the horizon. Our ideas of clean or polluted air clearly differ a lot. I always think it's a little ironic when, in Beijing, she'll remark on how clear the air is, because it's so not. But at the same time, I catch myself doing the same thing. It's all relative, because in Beijing, the air cannot be clean, just less smoggy.

The hike was only about two hours long, and while not easy, it certainly allowed me to look at the scenery. There are some parts of the wall are in such disrepair that I had to get off the wall and hike around, and there are other parts that have been so restored that it looks like the Ming Dynasty came after the Cultural Revolution. Personally, I rather liked seeing the effects of time; it gives more of a perspective.

We hiked from Simatai to Jinshanling, though most people go the other way. At Jinshanling, there's a hotel and a few small shops. CET divided everyone into groups of seven, then arranged one hotel room for each group so that we'd have a place to put our stuff, shower, and/or sleep if the weather got bad. Good thing we didn't have to try sleeping seven people in there. Two of us would have ended up sleeping on the bathroom floor.

CET also bought us dinner and breakfast at the hotel restaurant. I always love it when CET buys us meals at restaurants, because each time, they never fail to order far too much than even Annetta and I can eat, so basically Annetta and I feel obligated to help as much as we can to prevent needless waste.

After an evening bonfire, we hauled up the wall to pick out our sleeping spots. By then it was a little cold, so by the time we hiked up, set up the tents and got situated, I refused to leave my sleeping bag. I opted not to sleep in the tent, which, though a colder option, was much more rewarding. Since we were out of the city, the stars were plentiful and bright. Since I hardly ever get to see so many stars so clearly, I'm always surprised when I rediscover just how many of them there are, and how peaceful they make me feel.

That peace lasted until 3:30 or 4 in the morning. As soon as the sunlight starts to peek out, people start hiking the wall. They're mostly the vendors who, everyday, sell water bottles, T-shirts, Coke, beer and postcards (for obscene prices) to tourists strolling the wall. That would be a pretty lonely, low-profit job. The wall can only be great for so long.

I woke up around 4:30 and, still in my sleeping bag, made my way up to a tower to watch the sunrise. It was pretty, but not so romantic as the movies would have you believe. It's like the sunset in reverse and far too early in the morning.

After stuffing our faces at breakfast (see fabulous sweet corn pancakes above), Annetta and I decided that due to the obscene amount of carbs in our stomachs, we should hike the wall again. Towards the end of our two-hour excursion, we came across a a film crew filming a movie! Alas, I did not have my camera, but they had maybe ten or fifteen guys out there working with a nice camera, tripod, and crane. I'm jealous.

Last week was rather unremarkable save our various food exploits, the highlight of which was this:

Yes,that is tortise, and it is delicious, a tender, delectable yet bony version of chicken in a shell.

As Annetta is doing a thesis about Confucius (Chinese name: kongzi, as he will from now on be referred to), she wanted to go to the town of Qufu in the Shandong province to visit his home, tomb, and temple. I agreed to go with her and, after a little convincing, Jason did too. So after buying foodstuffs and a few more pounds of candy to add to our already bulging collection, the three of us set off on Friday for the city of Jinan.

Our train left Friday afternoon. This guy got really enthusiastic about Jason's camera. He yelled at Jason to take his picture, took Jason's camera and showed it to all his buddies, took pictures, and then, insisted on taking a picture with me.

She's interesting:

When it was time to board the train, we joined with the rushing mass of people to shove our way out to the tracks. However, Annetta couldn't find her ticket, so the attendant wouldn't let her through. It was one of those moments that the nagging “Do you have your ticket?” tries to avoid, and even though I was the nagger and asked in the taxi, poor Annetta was ticketless.

The attendant was rather merciless as well. Annetta ran to the ticket counter to see if she could by another one, but the train was full. We then ran back to the ticket attendant. If we couoldn't get on the train, were were stuck with a major let down and ten pounds of food that just taste better when you're traveling. Annetta tried to buy tickets off a couple people, which unsurprisingly didn't work. Finally, the evil ticket attendant finally called over some other guy, who told Annetta that she would have to buy another ticket in Jinan (they double-check tickets here), and then let us on the train.

And so we were off. A fast, comfortable, junk-food-packed three-hour train ride later, we were in Jinan. After checking in at our ping-pong themed hotel, we went out walking around the Jinan backstreets in search of a good meal.

We found it quick. A little family-run restaurant, where the only other diners were the owners. We ordered huiguo rou (though it had nothing on the Tibetan version):

Tofu noodle mushroom soup thing:

Small bird of unknown species cooked with peppers in a smoky sauce:

Tasty eggplant with seafood:

Even though we were very not hungry (see aforementioned train ride), we ate it all. It's not every day you get to eat authentic Shandong food. And then we walked around, got ice cream, went to the grocery store, bought more food we didn't need, and went back to the hotel to eat candy and play cards.

The next day we rented a car and driver to take us to Qufu, kongzi's hometown and pretty much the place's only claim to fame. We started out first in the konglin, or woods around kongzi's tomb. The place also has the tombs of tons of other people, who I believe are his relatives. I don't really know much about kongzi other than his name and that he was famous, so I just enjoyed the scenery. The place was filled with lush, thick greenery and trees, almost like being in real nature (until you realize where you are and that you can hear the traffic).

We arrived early in the morning, so there were very few tourists. Though as we were leaving around 11, hoards of Chinese tour groups wearing matching hats, shirts, backpacks or all three were starting to stream in.

And we couldn't get rid of them. They were in kongzi's house and his temple. His house was really pretty, a standard Chinese-style place with corridors, courtyards and gardens. It was really pretty and very conducive to thinking. No wonder he was famous.

His home was also filled with tourists who wanted to take my picture. Only they didn't ask me first, they just whipped out their cell phones or cameras and took a picture of me standing with my friends. A little uncomfortable. You're seeing kongzi's home and you want a picture of the waiguo ren? Oy.

A small tangent: Friday at dinner, Annetta told me that, though she loves my blog, she feels I sometimes focus too much on the waiguo ren thing, that it separates us is into me and them. A conversation ensued about the differences between cultures, and how everyone is the same but at the same time different. Am I really all that different from every Chinese person I pass on the street? Aren't we all the same. While I agree, I think there's a big catch. It's true, inside we're all human and citizens of the same planet. But my physical differences create a mental barrier for me and them. Because I look different, I am treated differently. Because it is apparent that I have grown up outside of China, my ideals and thought processes are entirely different. We could be the same; I could try to stop picturing myself as such an outsider, but I'm afraid I would be deluding myself. Part of the challenge of being in China is overcoming the outsider status and proving that maybe I'm not so different.

Not that that totally worked in kongzi's temple. Two people asked for pictures with me and Annetta.

The woman in the pink sweater was so excited to see us. She said it was hard to find people like us around there. And that's true-- I spotted a grand total of 4 other waiguo ren there. She is also from Qingdao, where the three of us and Victoria are hoping to go in two weekends. She gave us her card and invited us to her house. I hope we go.

Other than that, the temple was, sadly, like most every other Chinese temple in existence, though pretty nonetheless.

Don't think I forgot about yesterday's lunch, though. We found a little hole in the wall restaurant (we used sanitary wipes on the spoons before we used them) and ordered special Shandong food.

We got these neat little nut/bean things in a sweet oily sauce with cucumber and tomato:

Smoky, salty tofu with green peppers:

Small bony chicken with clear noodles in a salty broth:

Salty pork with mushrooms, onions and a few green things:

As we returned to Jinan, we toyed with the idea of extending our stay a day, missing a day of class, buying new train tickets and hiking Taishan, Shandong's famous mountain. But since time was tight, expenses would be incurred and the mafan (trouble) would be too big, we decided to stick with out original plan.

The driver dropped us off at a hotel restaurant where, supposedly, Mao had dined.

The place was really nice, and given the aforementioned Mao-ness, we though it would be a little too expensive. Instead of a menu, they have a back room filled with unprepared versions of all the dishes they have, plus some animals swimming around in tanks.

In the end, the prices were actually good. We ended up picking this bread-y thing served with shrimp meat:

Beef cooked with spicy green peppers:

A cold dish with tofu, assorted meets, lotus, and peanuts:

Oily mushrooms and peppers:

And the best, fresh corn and dates stuffed with sticky rice in a sweet oily sauce:

So so good. I love that Chinese dishes use dates.

Then we went out walking, got ice cream, and came across this portrait artist on the street. We walked over to look at the picture he was sketching of a little boy, and he said he wanted to draw us. For roughly fifteen minutes, I sat in a tiny little chair while he sketched me.

Obviously, the waiguo ren drew quite a crowd. It was so intimidating. What was maybe fifteen or twenty minutes felt like a lifetime. All those people were staring at me; some would walk in, look over his shoulder, look at me, say something, and then leave. Others stayed for the entire process. It made me so self-conscious with that many people so close and so closely looking at me.

I have something that I must confess to you all: I have fallen in love. I didn't plan for this; it was a chance meeting. Total luck, or, perhaps fate, if you believe in that. He's not that much to look at; rather plain-looking, actually. Not an eye-catcher. But that doesn't matter, because on the inside he's the sweetest thing ever, and it pains me that once I leave China, there's almost no chance that we will be together. Here we are together. I think we make a good couple. Here we are with Annetta:

His name is mantou, and he is fabulous. I think we're soulmates. Mantou is a Chinese version of bread. It is somehow made from rice and then steamed into fabulousness. Its flavor is very plain; some would say that there is no flavor. It's a dense, chewy texture; not at all crumbly. Big buns of mantou are really good, it's true, but why is this mantou different from all other mantous?

I'll tell you why. Because it's a slab of mantou folded around a center filled with pure sugar. I had one version that was filled with pure white sugar and another version (of which I ate two) that had a brown sugar/molasses/maple syrup filling. These things are neither small nor light. I ate three (in addition to lots of other junk) and was so full I couldn't eat dinner. Three in a day is overkill, you say? Well think of it this way. I'm pretty sure I can only find them in Jinan, Shandong, China. Maybe I could find some plain mantou in Chinatown. But this sugary bun of pastry-like heaven is a China thing. Maybe I ate three in a day, but really, it's more like I'll only eat three in my life.

And so now I'm back in Beijing. Tonight Annetta, Jason, Victoria and I bought tickets to go to Qingdao (think Tsingtao beer spelled differently) in two weeks. I'm so excited; not for the beer, but for the beaches and the company, and probably, more food.