If you’re like me, this is true of you, but you can’t really explain why. So when my dinner companions asked me this the other day, I wasn’t really sure what to say. In China, pork is probably the most common meat. It’s the fallback meat–the meat you turn to when you don’t have anything particularly meaningful for it to do. For you, it might be ground beef, but for me it’s always been chicken.
I was a little surprised that they’d even ask. So, I simply confessed my ignorance and shifted over to why we don’t really eat much mutton in America.1
Then I went shopping. For the first time in months (literally), I bought meat to prepare. Chicken.
Perhaps it was curiosity I’ve been fostering during this holiday. Perhaps it was excess time being domestic (i.e., sitting at home). Perhaps it was hunger. I decided to cook.
Saturday night, I made plum chicken and rice–a personal creation inspired by the common availability of plum juice here and my rather uncommon taste for it. I should have replaced the rice with mashed potatoes, but I didn’t feel like going back out to the store. And the rice was pretty good too, I must say.
Sunday night, I made a sort of chicken and brocolli risotto. Sort of. While the concept is common enough, the method is personal.
Monday night, I made chicken parmesan. Drawing upon vast experience in eating it, none in making it, I created my own version, starting with crumbing my own bread (don’t get too excited–I had canned spaghetti sauce).
All from scratch. Without recipes. With nothing more than a hot plate, a microwave, and a rice cooker. I just did what seemed appropriate. None of them was perfect, but each of them was worth eating.
Now, those of you with cooking experience are waiting for the point. Those without it are rather proud of me.
I’m just grateful to the chickens, without whom none of this would have been possible.
I’m glad I’ve been abroad enough to find out that mutton is good. Also, lizard. ↩
I’m looking at a blank post page and finding myself unsure of how to proceed.
It’s been a while since I’ve done this, but that’s not the problem.
The problem is that I’ve had all these ideas over the past several weeks. I have scraps of potential posts littering notebooks, backs of homework papers and emails. But now that I have a chance to use them, I’m not sure that I can.
I’m not sure what will make the bang that will reinstate my blogging career, so I guess I’ll go for the whimper and hope someone notices.
I moved since our last conversation. I’m in Haerbin now. It’s the northernmost big city in China, I’m told. Those aren’t the most common comments I’ve gotten, though.
Just before I moved here, I took a trip to see a little more of this vast country, and managed to improve my Mandarin a little in the process. A common question was ‘Where are you from?’, which was a little hard to answer. I had lived in Changchun for two years, but all of my belongings were either in my backpack or in boxes a moving company had just delivered to an empty apartment in Haerbin. So I learned how to say, “I’m moving to Haerbin next week.” The second most common response was ‘Have you ever been there?’ immediately followed with ‘It’s very cold.’
But by far, the most common response to my mention of Haerbin was ‘The girls are very beautiful there.’
I’m not here to comment on that notion, but if you’re going to build a reputation for your city, that’s a pretty good start, I’d say.
Perhaps I’ll tell you more about Haerbin later. And more about that trip.
Working Ourselves Up
Once we were checked into our hotel, the urge to check out of our adventure loomed its head. The relief of solving all immediate problems and the joy of a comfortable room, combined, managed to simulate the experience of sharing a joint (according to what I’m told) without the smell or legal ramifications. Hence, Andrew and I sat on our couch and springy bed (respectively) for about a half hour with no clear indication of any purpose or intended action. Our map sprawled on the floor along with various documents and papers demonstrating our sightseeing intent. It was a rather photogenic mix I was just too unmotivated to stand up and record. Eventually, though, the fog lifted and we headed out to see where we were.
Experience points: -.5
Looking Up and Around
We had already seen the commercial walking street while finding a hotel that would except our white faces, so we didn’t feel like heading that way again. Instead, we noticed a couple of lit steeple-like towers and thought we’d check try to find out what they were. So we struck out at the brisk clip of non-shopping tourists in commercial district. Before long, we’d walked past the shiny surfaces and crowds to the little-known parts of the city that have earned their anonymity. We eventually reached the lit towers and found they were relatively pointless decorations on various buildings. Of course, they probably had some meaning, but we were out to see, not learn.
At this point, we pulled out our cameras and took various night shots while striking out in another direction. It didn’t take long to reach Zhongshan Guangchang. I was lining up my first picture of the dancers in front of the Giant Mao when the little girl at my left elbow asked, ‘Where are you from?’ It wasn’t the first time (that night) I’d been a basic question in English by a young learner, so I smiled, answered and went back to capturing the scene recorded only a thousand other times. Her next, ‘Why are you here?’ was a little more surprising. It was no match for the follow-up: ‘Do you have any religious beliefs?’ Gina was in Grade 3 and about as fluent as anyone I’ve met in China. Before long, her cousin, parents and a few friends had assembled, while Andrew gathered some older curious linguists. I smiled to watch over the heads of my audience while other foreigners took their pictures and walked on. I was glad to be in my position instead of theirs.
Gina was a great translator for our impromptu English corner. She waited patiently while others asked more basic questions, but kept interest enough to follow her own more advanced line of questioning when appropriate. She didn’t control the conversation, but was ready to translate when I and her parents had exhausted our store of second-language knowledge. I don’t know how long the discussion would have developed, but Andrew and I were still moderately lost and without dinner. A little coaxing earned me a picture of a few of my learner/teachers. Before we left, Gina approached with a ‘Teacher, this is for you,’ and handed me a pink plastic bead identical to those on the bracelet she was wearing. It didn’t get a bracelet, but it made it back to Changchun with me.
[I would later learn interested parties often assemble in Mao’s shadow to practice their English and hit up foreigners for practice. Savor the irony.]
Experience points: .5
Revelry points: 1
Feeding a Habit
We gradually found our way back toward the hotel and decided it was time to eat. After scouring the walking street, we decided to enjoy the urban development. Thus began a series of dining experiences that managed to avoid all native Chinese food in Shenyang. It wasn’t planned, but it was the happy result of joining holiday spirit and modern development.
Pizza Hut in China could easily get its own post. Maybe it will. For now, I’ll just say it has to exert a little effort to keep from turning into a red-hatted stepchild. It is billed as fine dining. It does serve real pizza, but that doesn’t interest most Chinese, as the lack of cheese in their normal diet renders pizza only moderately enjoyable. Andrew and I enjoyed the unconcealed shock of our waitress when we ordered a thirteen-incher for the two of us (it was labeled as serving four or five). Pizza. Pepsi. It was nice.
The result of eating quite a bit of pizza after living on a Chinese diet for more than a year could easily get its own post. It definitely won’t. For now, I’ll just say I will never again downplay a Chinese friend’s reluctance to eat so much cheese.
Experience points: .5
Revelry points: -3
I know you’re wondering when it will end. Don’t worry, the first half of the trip makes for a good story, the second made for good pictures. There’s not much more to say.
We timed our arrival at the palace the next morning to coincide with the published opening time, which meant our morning at Starbucks had to start a little early. It wasn’t going to get cut short.
Before administering their government from Beijing, the Qing emperors made Shenyang their capital. When they made the move, they left behind a palace that is basically a smaller Forbidden City. Perfect weather. Spare camera batteries. It was a good visit.
We checked the map to guide our walk to a pagoda in the city. Our path fortuitously crossed the street a few blocks away from the Mao statue. Pictures ensued.
Beiling Park (North Tomb) was an eleven-yuan taxi ride from the pagoda, and it was worth it. Despite an attempt to rip us off at the ticket booth (selling us extra tickets we didn’t want), the park was a great stop. For a minimal fee, visitors can enjoy quite a few acres (if my numbers are right) of relatively peaceful grass around two large lakes. A slightly more hefty fee got us into the tomb complex. I’m not sure it was worth the extra time to see tomb itself, as it looked like, well, a little white hill, but it was why we were there. We did the right thing.
We re-entered the train station about twenty-four hours after leaving it and with plenty of time to spare. The ride home was less eventful. Neither of us really felt like practicing our Chinese, and our benchmates had their hands and backs and shoulders and laps full with an energetic five-year old. I did try to listen in to the children’s book she read to him at one point. It was about, um, stuff.
I’ve had a mantra over the last couple of months: It’s fun to be a foreigner in China. I decided to test that claim last week with a trip to a different part of China.
Last week was a break from the routine of classes because of the National Day holiday, which, after making up a couple of days of school on Saturday and Sunday, turned into a week-long holiday. I’d been wanting to see more of China for some time now, so I grabbed Andrew (another teacher in town), and we headed off to Shenyang. Now, Andrew has studied some Chinese, but he’s not a native speaker yet. I can order food. It was going to be a challenge.
Getting Tickets The first challenge up for grabs? Tickets. Some other friends were leaving for a trip of their own earlier in the week, so I got help from a native speaker to secure a ticket to Shenyang, but it was too early to get one back, so our initial test was a rather important one. It was easy. Wave a little money, flash the ticket beginning the process we hoped to conclude, and we had two train tickets and two little pieces of paper that cost 5元 each but no one could tell us what they were for.
Experience points: .5
We hadn’t even gotten on the train yet when the communication game started. When you’re as conspicuous as an American in the Changchun train station, you begin to interpret stares fairly accurately, so I wasn’t surprised when the young man that had been watching us in the waiting room was waiting for us just after the gate. I was surprised when it turned out he could barely speak any English. He apparently was just interested in foreigners and willing to decelerate, standardize and simplify his Mandarin enough for us to understand him. His standing ticket didn’t restrict him to any particular location on the train, so he followed us to our seats and even managed to secure an open seat for most of his short ride. And the party started.
We spent the next four hours engaging, more or less, in Chinese conversation. First with our new friend, then the woman next to me, and finally a businessman who decided he liked us. Each had their own conversation style. The young guy was careful with his Chinese and willing to work through our limited understanding. After hearing us talk for a while, the woman decided she had a few questions, so she chimed in. The unfortunate part was that her Chinese was more like the average person’s Chinese, meaning it sounded to me more or less as if she were talking through a vacuum hose—with the vacuum turned on. She seemed a little disappointed with our blank stares, but our friend came to the rescue and translated her questions from real Chinese to foreigner Chinese. This led to a happy conversation about our home and family and love life. At this point, our young friend had reached his destination, and a businessman who had been enjoying the show decided to get in on the action. He had realized that we understood better when things were slow, so he dropped the speed down to about six words per minute and cranked the volume up to just below vocal chord shredding. The rest of the car had pretty much gotten over the foreigners at this point, but all the commotion reinvigorated them to stare some more. He eventually settled into a more naturally communicative speech pattern and we discussed our lives. We even learned we had our Christian faith in common, and he promised to call and invite us to visit his church some weekend.
As for the Chinese factor, I was able to follow some of what was being said, but Andrew’s comprehension was better. I, however, seemed to generate more interest (I assume because I was closer to them), so I generally understood and answered as well as I could, got some help from Andrew when possible, checked my mini-dictionary a few times, and played a rather hearty game of charades. It was not the most effective communication, but it was interesting and enjoyable, and fueled my desire to learn the language.
Experience points: 2
So far, I hadn’t done anything new, but that was about to change. I arrived in a new city armed only with a phrasebook and a hotel reservation. We stopped in for a little bit of home at Yoshinoya (I meant Andrew’s home) to prepare ourselves physically, mentally, and emotionally to get to the hotel. The first taxi driver we spotted knew the hotel, took us there, and had nice standard Chinese so we could chat about his family back in Heilongjiang.
I was feeling pretty good as I popped out of the taxi and pulled my reservation voucher from my bag. It could have been hard to get a good hotel on our own, so I was glad to have done my research online. The place looked nice and was pretty well located. The receptionist stepped on my toes pretty hard during the happy dance, though, by informing me they had no reservation for me and no available rooms. I kindly informed her they did have a reservation for me—I had the confirmation number on the form for her to check out. She still denied it. So Andrew politely informed her of our reservation, as indicated by the reservation voucher we had given her. Yet another rejection. And our Chinese was better than her English, so communication was not exactly profuse.
At this point, she started making phone calls and clicking buttons on the computer while her associate went back to browsing her magazine. Less than encouraging. Our requests for information or someone with more information yielded an exhortation to wait. Fifteen minutes later, she called me over and, without a word, handed me the phone. Through the phone, an English-speaking Chinese man apologized for the problem, told me he would sort it out, and asked to speak to the receptionist again. She took the phone, said goodbye and hung up. More waiting.
Andrew and I were starting to worry a little. A brief mental review of my conversation enlightened me to the fact that the man I had spoken to had called me by name, so he must have been with the agency I used to make the reservation. Another round of charades, and we had the number our receptionist had used to reach him. Conveniently, the number is busy. After a few tries, I managed to get through to a lady who used her minimal English to tell me she was working on the problem, and that she would call me back with a solution in a few minutes.
Another half-hour, and we decided to solve the problem ourselves.
Andrew got a hotel recommendation from the receptionist and wisely asked her to call and check for vacancies before we went. She found they did, indeed, have a room they could reserve for us. It would only cost 580元 (my ‘reserved’ room was 177元). We then explained that we would like a room more in the price range of the one we had selected, and she pointed out a hotel a few blocks away that could accommodate us.
We made it to the hotel and found they had available rooms. But we couldn’t have one. When asked why, the receptionist told us foreigners didn’t stay there. We smiled and said we understood, but we would be happy with their rooms. She responded by shaking her head and refusing to communicate further. Fortunately a maintenance woman standing by happened to have great English and explained everything the girl had said in English. We asked why we couldn’t stay there, and the maintenance woman looked confused. After several minutes of conversation, she explained the hotel was only a three-star hotel. We assured her that we were fine with that as she ushered us out the front door and told us where we could find another affordable hotel. I have been in hotels that implied I wasn’t good enough to stay there. I have been in hotels that I didn’t feel good enough to stay there. It was the first time I’d been in a hotel that told me it wasn’t good enough for me to stay there.
We wandered in the direction our rubber gloved guide had pointed, but couldn’t find the hotel. It was a nice walk, though. We had made our way onto one of Shenyang’s walking streets, with plenty of activity, overpriced shopping and Western food. Finally, we spotted some hotels. I recognized the first one from my online hotel research as the Shenyang branch of the Shangri La. We knew prices were rising, but we were about fed up enough to pay them anyway. Bracing ourselves against the potential wallet weight-loss, we headed into the Golden Triangle hotel and priced a room. They had one available for 300元. I don’t know about you, but I have moments when I know I’ve made a decision even though I’m going to go through the motions of considering it. I was staying in that hotel.
Fortunately, Andrew had the insight to ask if they had something cheaper. They offered us a room for 280元. Looking back, I realized it was the same room and they were beginning to bargain. Unfortunately, our Americanism had kicked in and we didn’t realize that then. So, for 100元, we had upgraded the hotel and location.
I realized, though, that we still had not resolved our reservation issue. I tried the number a few more times before getting through to the woman who told me she was working on it before we got cut off. My phone rang seconds later, and it was the gentleman I could talk to. I almost would rather not have understood him. It would have been easier to maintain a good attitude. He informed me that they had not bothered to actually make the reservation they had charged me for, but that they had worked hard to ‘solve the problem’. If we would go back to the original hotel, he would make arrangements for us at another hotel and get a taxi to take us there. Informing him that we had already found another hotel, I asked if he could make arrangements where we were (with our paying the 100元 difference). He sputtered that he couldn’t. His staff had spent time making a reservation for us elsewhere and as we had a reservation with him from the beginning he had the right to make other arrangements for us. I reminded him he’d had the right to make the reservation I had requested in the first place and that by waiving that right, he had cost me precious time and money.
I really wasn’t interested in trekking back to the original hotel to wait and see if they could start getting things right. I canceled my reservation, signed on the dotted line and went up to enjoy our couch, soft beds, plush carpet, clean bathroom and complimentary bath robes.
Ripoff: 177元 (They had managed to charge my credit card despite the inability to reserve a room. No refund. Yet.)
Lesson learned: Never use Agoda Travel.
Experience points: 1
We were finally ready to see the place we were visiting, but the hotel fiasco had eaten too much time to make it to any of the sights. Similarly, it has blocked off enough space on the blog to earn it its own post.
Thus concludes a series of notes about my recent travels. I didn’t post them earlier because they were mostly written as notes or based on notes scribbled in free moments in cafés, restaurants, train stations and buses. I have tried to modify them only enough to make sense of them, not to make them read-worthy.
Exertion encourages sociability. I met more foreigners on the Wall today than downtown yesterday. Only the rare exception didn’t meet my gaze. I got a few nods, and one guy even managed a ‘Hey’ between pants. I’m crediting the difficulty of the climb with the difference. It could be the commercial nature of downtown that caused the withdrawal, but I don’t think so.
And the wall hike was certainly exerting. Anyone who has been to the wall or talked to someone who has been knows it’s more than just walking.
A successful climb means mounting countless indefinitely spaced steps and uncomfortably pitched ramps.
[Refill jasmine tea here] Add snow, then have people walk all over it to pack it down and glaze it over. I hoisted myself by the handrail as much as I walked. The sun and traffic had melted it down by the time I made my return trip, but I got up in time to catch frost on the trees at the top.
I didn’t really feel bad dismissing the vendors with a bu yao and a hand wave, and I was ready to help a few English speakers learn the art, but they weren’t overly receptive. Dan paid the full price to get his name engraved on a bronze plate despite my warning. The Chinese man next to me agreed with my estimation that it was too expensive, but Dan didn’t believe either of us. Or didn’t understand the local’s concurrence with my evaluation. Or didn’t care. I didn’t when I first came. Too bad the exchange rate only favors those who understand economics.
Another lesson learned: Know the names of the places you want to go. Then, when you lose your original directions and no one at the tea house has an English map of Beijing, you can still get there.
To be fair, I wasn’t stranded. I could get to various places and find my way from there, by taxi or by memory of the previous day’s events. But that was hardly ideal when I was trying to get to a specific new place.
My good choice? Looking for the directions in the tea house before I tried to get on the bus. And having a cell phone and English speaking friends.