sticks

Dec 25, 2013

The people in our neighborhoods

Making friends of all ages

Blue's birthday party
The birthday boy

So, it’s perfectly OK to bring beer to a 7-year-old’s birthday party, but you should know that the birthday boy himself will want to toast with wine.

Our new friend Snow had invited us ‘round for a dinner party, which turned out to be a celebration for her young neighbor Blue. He was in good spirits, even though he had a big exam the next day. Also in attendance were a few other kids from the building, as well as some of Snow’s adult friends: The young woman from the Luzhou Planning Museum, a doctor who works in a traditional Chinese medicine clinic, and a woman who designs construction sites.

A few of the kids are siblings. Snow says this is tolerated because their parents run their own business. Out in this part of the country, if you violate the one-child stricture, you can just pay a fine and get on with your life; although government workers would probably be fired.

Peter, Snow, and I hung out with the kids while the ladies prepared dinner — as she does not consider herself a chef, Snow’s favorite trick is to invite fantastic cooks to dine on meals of their own preparation. Terrific smells wafted in from the kitchen as Snow coached Blue and his friends to introduce themselves in English. They were pretty good.

Once dinner was served, we all gathered around the table. Snow poured a small measure of wine for each kid, and we toasted Blue’s seventh year. Then we toasted Halloween. And then we toasted Blue’s impending exam. The children gobbled and then split to go play in the next room.

The adults lingered at the table for hours, sharing stories with the help of Snow’s translation. (Though the other women had some English; the doctor, in particular, appeared to understand a lot more than she could speak.)

The partiers say goodbye
Our parting shot, before all the kids went home to crash in bed.

We collectively decided … In south China, men and women share cooking and household duties; In the north it all falls to the ladies. Does geography influence character? A friend of Snow’s had studied in Lincoln, Nebraska, and found the weather and the people cold. Americans eat don’t know the joys of seasonal produce. The Chinese don’t like to travel. Americans should love 串串, and, hey … business idea!

Around midnight, the kids were still throwing themselves around the place with a manic tiredness, but their mothers had arrived to take them home. We took some group photos and wished Blue well one last time.

Maybell and her students
Maybell, the blur on the right, puts together a fine dumpling party.
Let's play a game in English
She also knows how to host an exciting card game.
Peter tunes the guitar to perform
Peter prepares for his performance.

Dumplings are delicious, but work intensive to make, so it’s a common Chinese social event to hold a dumpling party where everyone pitches in. Maybell hosted us to such a party with a few of her top students. Again, we brought beer, and again we were surprised that our fellow guests were so young: 12 years of age. But Maybell’s boyfriend — who now goes by the English name Cloud — was happy to partake with us.

We stuffed and folded our dumplings with Jenny, Snowy, Iris, Lucy, and Bill, who was quite dapper in a camel-colored blazer. Bill was quite comfortable among all the girls; Maybell told us, as a matter of fact, that because of the company he keeps she initially thought that Bill was a girl.

Many hands make light work, and before we knew it, we had a huge pile of dumplings. Maybell and Cloud took them into the kitchen to steam them up. They shuttled back and forth bringing out more and more food, and it was clear that they both had worked hard to prepare a delicious feast. The kids egged each other on to speak to Peter and me in English.

After dinner, we all retired to the living room for songs and games. We played some party card games that had been meticulously prepared by Maybell. During game time, the kids got a lot less shy about speaking to us foreigners, although they occasionally needed some translation help from Maybell and Cloud.

It was actually quite impressive that these 12-year-olds could hang for an entire evening of immersion English. They are some of Maybell’s best students, and it was obvious, interacting with them that they are very eager to learn. Peter and I were also impressed with Cloud, who now seems very confident in his English, as opposed to when we first met him and he was hesitant to say anything at all.

Tai-an alley 1

Sometimes a little change in routine can make a big difference. We’ve been spending a lot of time in the countryside neighborhood of Tai An since the summer, but just recently we added lunchtime to our rotation. We tromped the village like idiots one afternoon, looking for dumplings at tea houses. (“We serve tea here.”) A witness to our bumbling took pity on us and directed us to the restaurant that he was eating at. “It’s cheap,” was roughly his sales pitch, “6 kuai a person.” (This is about US$1.)

We settled into lunch. And then the neighborhood kids started gathering. They hovered at the threshold of the restaurant at first, and then one brave girl approached and asked us for our names. She produced a small piece of paper for me to write them down. And then the avalanche came.

Kids crowded the table with small pieces of paper, and then ripped up pieces of cigarette cartons to get a signature. Peter drew a self portrait for one child, and then everyone wanted one of those, too. All told, there were probably around 40 kids coming and going in the mob around us. Impressively, they were all very patient, and they politely waited their turn.

The initial brave girl stayed on hand, keeping an eye on things and monitoring the kids’ interactions with us. “They’re Americans. They’re from Tianfu Middle School,” she’d explain when another person would ask. As things were winding down, she told me in English, “Your eyes are like stars!”

Signing autographs for the kids of Tai'an

Nov 10, 2013

Exit interview: Suzanne and Jim (aka, Mom and Dad)

Seeing China through fresh eyes

Our flight's on the runway.
Heeere's mom

“The experience was so foreign, I don’t know if it was anything we could have prepared for,” said my dad, Jim.

In August, my parents made the epic voyage across the Pacific Ocean to the Asian continent, placing themselves in my care as their guide for a three week tour through China. After a restful stop in Malaysia, we worked our way from from Kunming — in the far western province of Yunnan — to the east coast megacity of Shanghai.

I hadn’t seen my parents in almost two years at that point — in fact, I hadn’t seen anyone from my old life in almost two years — so I was very excited that they were coming to see us. What’s more, Peter and I were also excited to be able to show off our adopted home country to our first visitors. It’s a different life we lead, and we were eager share the first-hand experience of it with people that we love.

Late last month, I asked Suzanne (mom) and Jim to reflect on their trip. Over the course of our discussion, they spoke fondly and warmly of the people that they met along their way. There were the college students who accompanied them on their Dali bike ride (with whom they still correspond) to the guards at the Jiading museums who proudly pointed out notable parts of different exhibits — “They were so much more smiley than the guards at the Met,” said Suzanne. They made friends with local shopkeepers and exchanged hellos with apartment complex guards all over the country. Little old shop ladies refused their money and hotel clerks brought extra fruit by their room. “People clearly cared about us,” said Suzanne.

Heeere's dad

It made the language barrier a very non-problem, they both said. They knew they could get help if they needed it (and, actually, many young people in the bigger cities can speak at least a little English) and surrendering themselves to the kindness of strangers became “part of the adventure,” said Jim.

An adventure fueled by some amazing food, I must say. Each region of China is fiercely proud of its local cuisine, and from Yunnan to Shanghai we got a great sampling of the China’s great diversity. “[As you travel] the spices affected different parts of the mouth in different areas of the country,” Jim said he likes to tell people at home.

There was a clear winner, however, in our culinary wanderings: “Soup dumplings [a Shanghainese specialty] are the best thing in the world,” said Jim. Soup dumplings are steamed and filled with minced meat or seafood, and … soup! Bite the doughy skin, slurp up the soup and then pop the rest in your mouth. Garnish with ginger sauce for an extra kick. They’re a fantastically savory, salty treat that you’ll gobble right up as soon as they’re cool enough to not burn your lips off. Go find some now.

Dancing in KunmingTo the templeBreakfast at JiuchengBike riding outside DaliHere's a fancy stoneMom and Dad take a rest in Jiading

Over the course of our travels, Jim declared several different meals “the high point of the trip.” Beef hot pot, chuan chuan — Jim is now a member of the sticks club! —, Malaysian banana leaf … He even gamely went in for the frogs legs.

“The food wasn’t like the same country of food as American Chinese food,” said Suzanne. For her, the best meal was the Bai cuisine at Duan’s Kitchen in Dali. It helped that it was her birthday and the owner’s sister crafted a personalized menu just for us. Suzanne’s low light may have been the whole chicken head in her soup at lunch with the teachers in Luzhou. “Food in the parts of China, and Malaysia, we visited … are much less processed than at home,” Jim noted in his travel journal. (For the record, physics teacher Mr. Chen happily plucked the head from Suzanne’s bowl.)

China is all around a land of striking contrasts, where the very traditional exists right along side the ultra-modern. Suzanne saw it in Luzhou, where “just outside [the modern western-style stores] there were people with crates selling rabbits and chickens and ducks. People walked in from the village with yolks over their shoulders, and started selling things on the sidewalk.”

In Dali, on their bike ride, Jim and Suzanne went from the bustling center of an international tourist town to the middle of farm country where farmers worked their fields wearing straw hats and no shoes. And in Jiading, we all watched as a crew of retirement-age workers built a brick plaza by hand just outside the local entrance to the Shanghai metro. “This is a country that is on the move,” said Suzanne.

“When we were first planning the trip, it was just to see you and Peter,” said Jim. “But I had such a blast I would return even if you weren’t here.” I’m taking that as a testament to my travel planning skills (and I am available to lead future excursions — consider this your invitation). But it’s China that’s so impressive. And I am proud that I had the opportunity to share that with my mom and my dad.

Out in the countryside near Dali

Feb 24, 2013

Winter break: Return to China

Leaving is also arriving

Peter on the river
Pete's Tex Mex
With the Lazy Pug on vacation, Peter’s Tex Mex took good care of us.
Jane and her dog
Jane’s dog, Mango. Or Bongo. Each of us heard something different.

Our trip to Penang was our first time outside of China in more than a year. And it was great — everyone spoke English, things weren’t just broken everywhere and always, there was no hoop jumping to get stuff done. Everything was so comfortable and easy!

But, during our last days of warmth and Anglophonics, there was a conspicuous absence of end-of-vacation dread. We were actually missing our difficult Chinese life, and couldn’t wait to get back.

We bookended our travel to and from Malaysia with a stay in Chengdu, and holed up for a few days at our favorite hostel, the Loft. We weren’t yet home, but it was great to be someplace familiar to continue our relaxing.

Of course, when in Chengdu, we have to go for Mexican food. The Pug, alas, was also on a winter break, but we found joy and margaritas at Peter’s Tex Mex. That’s this quarter’s tacos achieved.

Back home in Luzhou, we are immediately greeted with big hellos from all our students on the new campus. (They were finishing up the fall term’s final exams.) We made plans to have dinner with Tina, Sky, et al., later in the week.

And with two apartments, we got to make two returns. On a walk by the old campus, we ran into Young Jane and KOKO!, who were out walking their dogs. We sat on a bench by the river and showed them some photos of our vacation, and then went for ice cream (late January was surprisingly and gloriously warm here this year).

We finally felt like we were truly home when we went for dinner that night at 串串. Peter wore his new Iron Maiden football jersey that had arrived while we were away (“Is that for exercise?” our boss Linda asked), and it just felt like a special occasion. A random passerby even wished us in English, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”

We had a great time traveling, but it’s really nice to be home.

Peter in his new Maiden jerseyBread
Left: Peter in his new footie jersey at Man U. Right: Some delicious Chinese Muslim bread we found while out with Jane and KOKO!

Jan 6, 2013

Dinner with Young Jane

Meet some of our junior friends

At chuan chuan with Alix, Young Jane and KOKO (not pictured)
We go shopping at the stationary store before dinner
Alix and Jane pose together outside of the stationary store. KOKO declined to be photographed.

I have another student named Jane, one of my juniors. And there is very little chance I’d confuse the two. Young Jane is incredibly loud and outgoing. On my first day in her class — when her classmates were shrieking in awe and running away — she strode right up and asked me, “You eat 串串, right? And drink 啤酒?” Apparently her home is near sticks, and she had seen Peter and me there eating dinner and drinking beer.

She can be a bit of a loudmouth sometimes, but in an incredibly endearing way. “Emily, that hat is not fashion,” she told me about my winter toque. “Well then, don’t wear it,” I replied.

A few weeks ago, she invited me to go shopping. And the rule is: Always say yes. So we made a date. The morning of our appointed day, she pointed out about seven students who were going to come with us. Although when it came time to go, we were joined by only Alix (a quiet and incredibly with-it kid; while her mouth is closed her eyes are open) and KOKO (I had to say KOKO’s name about 17 times before I got it right). They chattered away as we walked towards the center of the city. I can tell you that shopping with 12 year old girls in China is much the same as it is in the US. KOKO bought a pen, but it was mostly window shopping and then something to drink.

It was decided that after shopping we’d go to dinner, so I called Peter to meet us at 串串. On the way there, the girls taught me some words in Chinese and in the local dialect. In class, I don’t let the students know that I understand some Chinese, because it’s supposed to be a fully immersive English experience and some of the students are reluctant to participate as it is. But my guideline is that if you’re motivated to seek me out after class, you can probably handle the fact that I do know a tiny bit of the language. So I let the girls become my teachers for our walk. And let me tell you, they were as strict with my pronunciation as I am with theirs. It was really difficult!

Over dinner we chatted some more, and laughed and had general fun. They confirmed for us that the terrible erhu busker is playing bad on purpose so that you’ll pay him to go away. He’s been poking us for money — literally — since we’ve been going to sticks, and we had always suspected that he was just being obnoxious, so we hadn’t given him any money. “He’s so boring,” said Jane.

At the end of the meal, they managed to snake the bill from us. If you’re following along and getting the impression we get a lot of meals paid for by other people, you’re exactly right. It’s pretty remarkable. That’s why we try to do things like the pizza party to try to karmically balance it out.

Dec 27, 2012

And try them fried …

Another kind of sticks are discovered

Our lunch in Bao'en Plaza
Fried up veggies in black vinegar

We find the old apartment very unpleasant, so during our time there — as weather permits — we try to spend as much time out and about in the city as possible. On one of these jaunts, again in the Bao’en Pagoda plaza (where, it turns out, we spend a lot of time!), we came upon a large collection of street food vendors. One of whom was selling sticks.

We went for it, and were delighted that these were different still from both 串串 and BBQ sticks. Bao’en sticks are fried and then doused in this tangy, dark vinegar, and sprinkled with handfuls of dried chili pepper and sesame seeds. So lovely. And puts to bed our assumption that “food on stick” is one specific thing.

Lesson: Never say no to a skewered broccoli.

Dec 22, 2012

Countryside restaurants

Here come the regulars

PIjiu Chicken
A delicious plate of 啤酒鸡
The hottest hot peppers
Wanna burn your face off?

As we’ve said, the countryside campus of our school is completely self-contained — you can even buy toilet paper and dish soap at the school store — and if you didn’t want to, you’d never need to leave. But that’s not our style.

In our first wanderings out to the little town we found a corner restaurant where I managed to order us some beer. It was a bunch of tables and plastic stools underneath a big blue tent, just outside of an open kitchen. We’d visit about once a week, just to get some time off campus. “This is gonna be our place out here,” we said.

Eventually, I got brave enough to ask for some food. On the menu, I recognized the characters 啤酒鸡 — beer chicken. We ordered this, with the hope that it came with some sort of vegetable for Peter to nibble.

It didn’t, unfortunately, but it was delicious for me! Tender chicken in a rich, tangy sauce with just a little bit of spicy punch. We took photos of the menu, intending to translate and come back to try some more.

BBQ

Our next excursion into town, however, we found more food on sticks! “We’ll try this tonight, and then next week go practice more Chinese with Corner Restaurant Lady,” we told each other. But after tasting the food, we had a different tune.

Instead of throwing our skewers into a boiling spicy broth like at 串串, at this place, they grill up the veggies and coat them with a dry spice. It’s magnificent. They also have some fantastic meat-kebabs (of ambiguous provenance) that satisfy my longing for American BBQ. And, if you want to up the ante, they have these crazy hot green peppers that they douse in brown vinegar and salt. We eat them and just stare at each other as our mouths throb and our eyes water from the heat.

The owners were amused when we returned the night after our first time, but now they seem used to us and the frequency of our visits. And besides deliciousness, BBQ Sticks also provides a nice view of the main drag; it’s a great place to see and be seen.

And one of these days, maybe, we’ll finally get back to our restaurant on the corner.

Inside BBQ

Nov 10, 2012

The new digs

A look inside an American-Chinese apartment

The living roomThe kitchenThe bedroom
Our apartment building is just next to the student dorms.

You get little sympathy when you complain about a free apartment, I know, but our old campus apartment was (and still is) a bit of a wreck. Everything that can leak does — shower, ceiling, toilet, sinks, refrigerator, air conditioner — and no one’s really invested in fixing it, because at some undefined point in the future it’s all coming down.

Which is why we were thrilled to move out to a brand new place in the countryside, even though it means that Sticks is no longer a five-minute walk away.

And the apartment itself is really nice. As I said, it’s brand new, so hardly anything is broken yet. (There was an issue when we moved in that the bathroom sink wasn’t connected to any drain so the water just splashed out all over the floor, but workmen were still on the premises and it got fixed right away.) It’s smaller than our other apartment, but that apartment is absurdly large for the two of us; we had three rooms that we never even used. One bedroom and a large living/dining room area is good enough for us.

There was no official moving day. Over the course of two months, we moved in by two backpacks at a time, once- or twice-weekly carting a load of our things across town on the bus. We didn’t stick out too much all turtled up with our stuff, however. For many of the locals, it’s a normal thing to do.

We’re still working on it, but each week, the apartment is getting more and more comfortable, and we spend more and more time here. These days, our old damp box is just a place to crash.

Nov 10, 2012

Remembering the old school

Juniors gotta learn English too

The juniors

Thursdays and Fridays are our “old school” days, when we return to the city center to teach the junior classes. We reward ourselves with dinner at Sticks on those nights.

Nov 1, 2012

串串, the moment of truth

Or, how do you keep a hungry couple in suspense …

Sticks survived the flood!

If you’ll recall, before we left for Qingdao (way back in August), we were still not sure if our beloved sticks had made it through July’s flood.

Well, you can exhale, folks. When we returned to Luzhou (again, way back in August), the tables were out and the broccolis were skewered! It was an almost-Labor Day miracle.

Sep 8, 2012

Flood: Cleaning up

One day later, things get on the road back to “normal”

Cleaning up
Cleaning up
For some, cleaning up was not a priority. This shoe store got straight to the selling. And, many of their customers got straight to the buying.

By July 24, the water had subsided. (And the power came back the day after that.) We suspect it was so fast due to some jiggery pokey with the Three Gorges Dam. So the clean up began.

The whole neighborhood smelled of low tide and bleach. The first thing to do was to get the muck and garbage out of your store. There were huge piles of detritus along the street, and hardworking store owners were covered in mud. Small groups of soldiers went from here to there, wearing life vests and carrying brooms.

Along our Zhongpingyuan Road, the whole process lasted about a day or two; they were soon up and running with the merchandise that they had rescued from before the flood. Some businesses took the opportunity to upgrade or move out or move in.

As you approached the river, however, recovery took a little longer. Many of the KTVs and teahouses immediately adjacent to the river are still rebuilding. (Although some threw open their doors as soon as they were sufficiently dry, thus explaining a heavy mildew smell we found in one of these establishments over Christmas break.)

Cleaning upCleaning up
Furniture from some KTVs still sits in a pile across the street from where it belongs, waiting for repairs and upgrades to be finished.
Cleaning up

The flood waters stripped the river bank of all the (admittedly, somewhat rickety) structures that had been there, and left behind a lot of garbage that has yet to be picked up.

Cleaning upCleaning up
Before the flood, a giant carnival was set up at the water’s edge.
Afterwards, enterprising folk have set up outdoor tea rooms in the newly free space.
Cleaning upCleaning up
This frightening, lakeside swingy ride before the flood …
… and the after.
Cleaning up

We were glad to see a cleaning brigade at sticks on the day after the flood, but in the subsequent days, no one came back. We checked every day! By the time we were ready to leave town a couple of weeks later (summer vacation stories coming soon!), there was still no sign of life. Had the flood wiped out our 串串 for good?