Sep 2, 2012

Easy like Sunday morning

Your table is ready

Noodles for breakfast

This morning we woke up on the early side — early for us, anyway — and, after weeks of rain, the sun was shining. It was a morning that said: Go get brunch!

Of course, the nearest diner is thousands of miles away. But the noodle house is just down the block. And here in China, often breakfast is a spicy noodle soup. We got a prime table outside — there isn’t really an inside — and watched the Sunday strollers as the cook prepared my regular. (Peter had an apple.) The bodega next door to the noodle house has six coin-operated kiddie rides out front, and we watched the babies bounce up and down in their rocket ships and race cars. Returning students stopped to chat with us. And, the sun, oh, the sun!

The food may have been different, but it was exactly the meal we wanted.

Aug 18, 2012

Word of the day: 筷子

That’s chopsticks

Chuan Chuan Chengdu

Of all my Chinese language resources, this word came courtesy of a “learn Chinese!” section of a menu in a restaurant here that caters to ex-pats. 筷子 (pronounced “kuai zi”) is chopsticks! I had the opportunity to put it into practice this week at a restaurant, when they forgot to put chopsticks on our table. I was delighted to realize that I could use words to ask for them, instead of doing a silly little pantomime. And then we were struck by the fact that it took almost 11 months for the word “chopsticks” to come up.

Some things you know about China are true: Chopsticks are the default utensil. And at every meal I’ve been to with a Chinese person, they always compliment me on my ability to use them. “When did you learn to eat with chopsticks?” they’ll ask. And I say that I don’t really remember, and that Chinese food in America is served with chopsticks. “Americans eat Chinese food?!” They’re always impressed by this fact. “Yes,” I say, “though American Chinese food is pretty different from what you actually eat over here.”

One friend’s reply to this: That makes sense. That soup [I think she meant “Sweet and Sour soup”] that they always order on “Big Bang Theory” is not a real Chinese dish.

Jul 1, 2012

Replace your passport: Cocktail hour

Take a break with some bloody Marys on the patio

Drinks are on us

After dinner, we retired to the patio for a round of Bloody Marys.

Jun 30, 2012

Replace your passport: Eating freshly

It’s sandwich time

A real, live Subway sandwich

☆ Side Quest: Subway

Objective 1: Put it all together: This trip, occasioned by a visit to “American Soil,” has become a total western long weekend
Objective 2: Don’t feel guilty about it; You’ve given China its due, and you just miss some things from home. That’s OK!
Objective 3: Have a sandwich

It was a hot and humid afternoon, we were a little lost and a little hungry when Subway the Sandwich Chain hewed into view. We were curious (and, don’t forget, hungry), so we decided to take a break from being lost and try out a Chinese Subway sandwich.

Subway in China? Is exactly the same, down to the smell, as every other Subway in the world. They’re even on the lookout for good “Sandwich Artists” or potential franchisees. (We took a flyer, just in case we get bored of this teaching thing.)

It was totally surreal. Outside the window was China, but inside was always and only Subway. This is where we realized that the occasion of our “trip back to America, sort of” had unconsciously triggered a sort of west-stravaganza for us. All week, we’d been hunting down cheese, English-language TV, felafel, scotch, new books, olives

Part of the reason we moved to Luzhou, rather than a bigger city, was so that we could fully immerse ourselves in Chinese culture, without being tempted by the ease and comfort of, say, taco nights, or ex-pat Scrabble groups, or whatever. Not that these things are bad, and I’m sure that plenty of ex-pats live fulfilled Chinese lives with them, but for us, having access to them would mean that we’d still be saying to each other, “One of these days we’ll get to learning Chinese, making Chinese friends, venturing out from our comfortable English-language hidey-holes …”

But cutting ourselves off from our home culture completely and forever was never part of the plan. So when we’re on vacation, we have some cheese!

And, realizing what we were doing - indulging in western goodies - cast the crappy theft and replacement of my passport in a totally different light: That crook did us a favor!

And the sandwich was pretty good, too.

Jun 28, 2012

Replace your passport: Back to the Consulate

I can almost prove my identity in an international context

Should you try a hot dog?
No hot dogs for me

New to Passport Quest? Follow the adventure from the beginning here.

☆ Side Quest: 7-Eleven

Objective: Have a snack

We were about an hour from having the best tacos in China, so Peter talked me out of the 7-Eleven hot dog, though he did take a photo of it. That’s for you, dad! (Coincidentally, we later read a small write up of 7-Eleven in Chengdoo. About the hot dog, they said: “It’s depressing to look at. … All I taste is ketchup and soggy bread.”)

Instead we got some juice and a Snickers. We sat at the counter to eat our snack, because 7-Eleven has a dine-in option here. A nearby school let out while we were there, and the place flooded with junior students on break. You may already suspect this, but I can tell you for sure: being a 12-year-old boy involves a lot of punching and shouting, wherever you are.

☆ Side Quest: The Lazy Pug

Objective: Mexican food!

Part of the reason that we planned our return trip to Chengdu the way we did was so that we’d be able to hit up Taco Night at the Pug. We’ve been salivating for these tacos since the last time we were there in January.

And they did not disappoint. What’s more, our delirious memories of cheese and tortillas had overshadowed what was a superb drinks menu, so we were pleasantly surprised all over again. They had bitters! And ice cubes! And mint! And ginger ale! And … wait for it … GREEN OLIVES! They were big and meaty and stuffed with peppers.

Giddy with delight over the meal we had just had (OK, and the drinks may have played a role in this too), I went to pay the bill while Peter went to the washroom. I struck up a conversation with the bartender/half-owner:

Me: Where do you find olives here? Do you have to have them delivered?

Bartender: No. They’re just at the grocery store. At Carrefour. [He seemed a little surprised that I wouldn’t know this, I think.] Though they can be hit-and-miss.

Me: Really! I’m living in Luzhou. We don’t have olives there.

Olivetender: Oh! Where is Luzhou?

Me: Four hours south of here. We don’t get a lot of western things there - like olives, and olives - so we’re excited to be here for a short trip. So we can have olives.

Oliver: What do you do in Luzhou?

Me: We’re ESL teachers. We never get olives! OLIVES!!!

Here's where the tacos happen
Tacos and martinis make me awkward with strangers.

There’s no official transcript of our conversation, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it went. On first analysis, I thought the awkwardness came from the fact that I hadn’t small-talked anyone in English in ten months, but now I think that each of us just thought the conversation was about something different; he was having a nice back-and-forth about a Chinese city near to his own, and I could not be swayed from my single-minded pursuit of olives.

Regardless of the awkwardness, the takeaway was that the Case of the Olives in China was back open!

(Actually, the literal takeaway was a couple of extra tacos that we enjoyed back in the hotel room later that night.)

Chapter 5: The Consulate

Objective: Pick up your new passport

When we got to the consulate on Friday afternoon, the line for Chinese nationals wrapped around the block. And there were a ton of school groups (we could tell by the uniforms) on line; our guess was that summer study abroad programs were starting soon. Being American, I got to jump to the front of the line - which felt like fair play; at the Chinese Consulate in New York last August, we waited forever while Chinese nationals just cruised right upstairs.

I presented my receipt and paperwork, and received my shiny, new, visa-less passport.

The main quest beckons us back to Luzhou, but there’s still plenty to do in Chengdu before departing …

Jun 27, 2012

Replace your passport: Return to Chengdu

More eating

☆ Side Quest: The Sultan and The Shamrock

Objective: Eat something delicious

The Sultan front doorA delicious Middle Eastern meal

Back at Bookworm, we had picked up a flier for a Middle Eastern restaurant called The Sultan. They prominently touted their vegetarian options, and the word online was good, so we figured it was worth a try.

And it was delicious. In an attempt to try everything on the menu, we ordered way too much food. Beautiful hummus, felafel, shawarma (for the meat eater), peppers stuffed with homemade cottage cheese, Turkish naan (made with real butter!) … It was too good to leave anything behind, so we ate it all with the intention of walking it off.

Rolling up on the ShamrockDrinks

Along our walk, we passed by The Shamrock, an Irish bar that we had checked out in the winter. We actually didn’t really like it in the wintertime - it was smokey and they played horrible music really loudly - but they had an outdoor area that looked palatable, for one drink, at least.

And it was pleasant. Some European soccer tournament was on, so all the seats facing the TVs were taken. But as non-sports fans we were happy to sit at an obstructed-view table. The place still had kind of an impersonal super-pub vibe, but a martini under the stars provides its own atmosphere.

And, green olives! Back in the fall, when there was no sign of them in the grocery stores in Luzhou, I tried to order some from an ex-pat grocery delivery service. They told me that to deliver to our small city would cost around $200, so, dead end. Occasionally we see “martinis” on a bar menu, but they’re usually served with black olives, which isn’t quite the same. We’d came to accept that living in southern Sichuan meant no green olives. Which is really not a bad trade-off for everything wonderful that we’ve experienced.

But, at Shamrock, these magnificent libations had our precious green olives. We were so psyched we even briefly considered buying a jar or two from the bar. (Though we both realized that that was the gin talking.)

The world tour continues …

Jun 25, 2012

Replace your passport: Time for fun

Book shopping is the best

☆ Side Quest: Bookworm and Le Sud

Objective: Have some big city fun (and possibly a pizza) before catching the bus back to Luzhou

Reading and drinking is pretty much the best
By the way, the mint candy soda at the Loft is tops!

We were finished at the consulate by noon, but both Peter and I agreed that it was just too soon to get back on the bus to go back to Luzhou. Also, the silver lining of the passport mess was that we got to revisit a city that we really liked. So we agreed to stay another night, and set about enjoying Chengdu.

First thing: We were in need of lunch and new books, and The Bookworm is only a short walk from the consulate. It was a no brainer.

After lunch, we wandered around the city, soaking up the cosmopolitan atmosphere until our feet started to complain. We retired to the Loft courtyard to enjoy some minty refreshments while we read our new books.

For dinner, we had our sights set on pizza. You may have noticed that people love to argue about things on the internet, especially food. So the search for “Best Pizza in Chengdu” turned up many conflicting results. But French-Mediterranean restaurant Le Sud kept coming up as well-liked, and they had very few detractors.

And, just to put this out in the aether: There seems to be a little confusion online about whether the restaurant is closed, be it for renovations or permanently. But a man answered the phone when I called, and was really excited that we might be coming in for dinner later.

So, the restaurant was empty, but the meal was delicious enough

When we got there, the restaurant was empty. It would remain so for the duration of our dinner. So, for the record, Le Sud is open, and it’s delicious! The pizza had a delicate, thin crust with just the right amount of tomato sauce (that’s an issue with Chinese pizza), and cheese, lovely cheese.

After dinner, we retired back to the Loft for a healing sleep, and then it was back on the bus for us.

The action resumes in back in Luzhou …

Jun 24, 2012

Dinner with the bosses

A Chinese western meal

This is a full table

About once a month, our bosses like to take us out to dinner. We chat about how work is going, how Peter and I are doing in China, if the apartment is falling apart or not. The basics. Their management style is pretty hands-off — there are times that we have gone weeks without talking to them — so it’s nice to reconnect at these dinners.

The past couple of times we’ve gone out, they’ve taken us to some local “Western Restaurants.” We’ve gone to a couple of these on our own, and they each do a varying job on recreating American-ish food. But this last one, called the 3-D Coffee Bar (“Coffee Bar” means “Western Restaurant” in Luzhou), was actually pretty good. The funny thing, though, is that they serve western food, we still ordered Chinese style - meaning we got several entrees to share among the four of us. Which is really more fun. I do want a little bit of everything, thank you.

May 10, 2012

Cold beer

It’s very refreshing

A nice cold beer on a hot day

The temperature is in the 90s already, and it’s soooo humid. And, as the summer tends to do, it’s only going to get hotter. Our head teacher is very concerned that we have never experienced a Luzhou summer before, and she’s looking out for us. In fact, at our request, she found us some teaching work for July and because it’s going to be so hot, she’s making them pay us more. Even though the classrooms will be air conditioned. I am not complaining about either fact.

Tonight, we figured out something that should make the hot, hot heat a little more enjoyable: I figured out how to ask for cold beer! We’ve been getting served room-temperature beer no matter the room temperature since we arrived, and we figured that would continue forever. But, last night at sticks, when we asked for another beer about halfway into our meal (you generally order all the beers you’re going to drink at the start of the meal), our waitress said something like “Ping-ah” to which I said yes. And then she brought us a refrigerated beer!

So tonight at sticks … well, first: Because we’re regulars they just bring us three beers and the vinegar Peter likes without us asking. So tonight, before they brought anything out, I said “Pijiu, bing-ah.” (The word stuck in my head mostly because the second part sounds like “Ahhhh!”) And this resulted in three deliciously cold beers. What a happy ending!

Apr 22, 2012


Just a little

On one of the ways we walk to the city center, we pass a vendor selling delicious snacks: Different types of vegetables and meats that are breaded, fried and then coated in spices and tomato sauce. We’ve been enjoying his wares about once a week since the middle of the winter, and as you can see above, I can accomplish this transaction with no words in any language. He speaks a bit of English, however, and I’ve been trying out some of the few Chinese phrases I’ve learned on him.

We visited him yesterday, and as we were wrapping up our transaction he said to me, “Your Chinese is getting better and better.” (Of course, he said it in Chinese first, to which I replied 我不说汉语, so he then said it in English.) It was such a nice compliment!

So, I’m very proud of me! … Although before you gauge how proud you are of me, too, here’s what I said that elicited the compliment: When he pointed at the spice mix, asking if I wanted any, I said, “一点儿,” which means “A little bit.” Hardly a treatise on world peace. But little by little I am able to communicate, and that’s very exciting.