Learning How to Speak…and Pick Up Women!

8 Aug

I’ve been studying Chinese with much more consistency lately, and part of that includes listening to Pimsleur’s Mandarin lessons on my computer and iPod.  Similar to Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur uses an all-listening-and-speaking format of teaching through conversations and repetition.  It’s a quite useful supplement to my classes and textbook study.  As well, the lessons adhere to a type of practicality that the classrooms lacks and that I find highly entertaining.  Simply put, it tries to teach the most vital language points very first.

Considering the typical expat living in China, Pimsleur decided to make its Mandarin I lessons based around a conversation between an American man and a Chinese woman.  Therefore, while learning how to ask for directions and order food, I’m also learning the next most practical thing for that demographic: how to pick up women.  I find it hilarious that I may not be able to ask about the weather just yet, but I can rattle out the sentences: “Let’s go to your place for a drink,” “Would you like to eat with me?” and “I’d like to go to a hotel” with practiced ease.

I’m convinced that one day, with enough life experience, I’ll eventually find a very practical use for each of these phrases in my own life.  Until then, I’m quite content knowing how to say 我要一瓶啤酒。(I want a bottle of beer.) with consistent fluency.

中国爱林丹 (China loves Lin Dan)

8 Aug

Every day after work, the first thing I do after entering my apartment, taking off my shoes, throwing down my bags, turning on my AC and opening my computer is turn on my TV.  The Chinese chatter stays mostly tuned out on low volume, and the cable box is always tuned to one of three stations: CCTV1, CCTV5, or CCTV7.  CCTV stands for something related to China, and the 13 or so CCTV channels are all run by the government.  Some of them are quite interesting, such as the all-English, Hong Kong-based CCTV9 that you can even find in generous cable packages in the US.  But right now, CCTV1, 5 and 7 all show, non-stop, the 2012 Olympics.

Watching the Olympics in China is fascinating.  The most fascinating element of watching the best athletes in the world compete is that all of China, as a nation, watches the same three channels, and thus, gets to see the same events broadcasted.  The broadcasting is very nationalistic, as the annoucers (usually a man and a woman together) not only cheer for Chinese players only but comment in the most peculiar ways; when a Chinese competitor does well, you hear applause and praise.  When one does poorly, you hear one of two comments: “The pressure was just too much.” or “He didn’t prepare well enough.”  When another country’s competitor does well, you hear very little commentary, unless the player has made such a grave mistake that he or she is already out of the running.  For example, last night, a gymnist from somewhere else fell off the balance beam, thus earning a deduction that threw her out of the running for a medal.  Once she got back on the beam to finish her routine, you could hear the most laudable comments from the channel’s commentators.  

And, just because an event is happening, doesn’t mean that China will show it.  What China will show is determined by one major question: Is China competing?  The secondary question would be: Will China eventually compete against the winner of this match?  If the answer is yes to either, you can happily find the event aired in real time, on live TV, and, if China does well, replayed a million times, even when other events that do not display Chinese talent are happening.  What China does well is what you see here, and that means a completely different focus from what I’m used to when watching the Olympics in the US.

First of all, the national sports here are badminton and ping pong (of course, correctly referred to as table tennis internationally).  We are currently experiencing a national uproar of celebration because the world’s number two badminton player (as of a few days ago) and national hunk and all-around superstar, Lin Dan, won the men’s singles badminton gold medal after Malaysia’s worldwide champion lost in a very close match to him.  Lin Dan’s very visible tattoo of a Christian cross stood out like a sore thumb, yet no one seemed to care much when he ripped off his shirt and threw it to the crowd after making that final match point.

I’m also developing an appreciation for ping pong, badminton and volleyball, which are much more avidly played and followed here.  There’s simply so much of it airing here; both the women’s gold and silver medalists and the men’s gold and silver medalists in ping pong were Chinese players.  This country simply dominates that sport.  But, if China isn’t really involved, you won’t really see it here.  I’m lucky that Americans put up such fierce competition against the Chinese; that means I get to see quite a few of my fellow countrymen competing.  Once China is out of a sporting event, though, I have to say goodbye to continuing to follow any other team and get ready to see more replays of events in which China DID do espcially well.

For that reason, a funny thing happened last night.  I was watching a volleyball match between China and Japan last night with a friend, and he asked me, “What are you rooting for?”  Having developed a slight affinity for the Japan team for no discernable reason, I said, “Japan. And you?”  “Definitely China. There’s simply no other option. I want to continue watching this sport.”

Alas, Japan won.  Goodbye volleyball.  I’ll be reading the news to see how that one pans out.

Chickpeas, Mushrooms and Italian Sausage

20 May

This was an amazing dish considering I left my home this morning thinking I needed to go grocery shopping and then decided to skip out and graze lazily instead of cooking something I could keep for lunch at work the next day.  This laziness was inexcusable, considering I had just organized an Earth Day event at work, and one of the tips we gave was for people to take their lunches to work instead of ordering.

As it turns out, I had more than enough ingredients at home; I just hadn’t imagined them together before they actually came together in the pan.  Now I can go to sleep tonight without feeling like a hypocrite because I’ve got plenty of leftovers.  I served the dish below over brown rice, but it’s good alone as well.

Ingredients:

1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3-4 cups cherry tomatoes, run through a food processor until minced with juices
15 brown Chinese mushrooms, or shittake mushrooms
1/4 cup diced red onion
2 T. butter
fresh basil
4 links (more or less 1 lb.) Italian sausage
lemon juice from one half a lemon
1 t. cumin
2 T. red wine vinegar
1/4 c. bread crumbs, finely ground 

Directions:

Brown sausage as whole links in pan, cooking covered over a medium-low heat with 1/4 c. water until cooked through. Partially cover, turn up heat and then brown slightly before removing from pan and letting drain.

Add 1/2 butter to a pan and let melt.  Add onion and saute until sweating and then add mushrooms.  When mushrooms begin to wilt, add the rest of the butter and bread crumbs.  Add cumin and red wine vinegar, and mix thoroughly.  Add chickpeas and combine, then add tomatoes.  Heat through for about 3 minutes, then add fresh basil in whole leaves and lemon juice.  Add sausage, cut into 1/2 in. pieces.  Combine and remove from heat.

Note:

That amazingly-talented woman on smittenkitchen.com has a chickpea and garbanzo bean recipe that I adore, and she has a breadcrumb base that I can’t get enough of.  It inspired this dish, and next time I make this dish, I intend to make it more like she does in her recipe.  That means using fresh bread instead of breadcrumbs, browning it as croutons in the pan with oil and adding cumin, then putting through the food processor with garlic and red wine vinegar.  It’s got a much stronger taste when done that way, and the fresh bread instead of breadcrumbs add a hearty and tangy meatiness. 

Organizing a Swap Event in Guangzhou, China

20 May

Today, my small little language company held it’s first ever swap event.  Actually, we called Earth Day Exchange Party, and it’s was a little dippy, but it ended up surprising me a little.

I got inspired to do this for purely selfish and stubborn cultural reasons.  I have said goodbye to well over a dozen close or good friends in my time living in China, and I’ve inherited a lot of things.  I’ve been itching to make my living space more simple, and that’s where the cultural stubbornness comes in.  I simply refuse to just throw away any kind of object that is functioning.  I’m a hoarder in that way.  Or, at least an unwilling hoarder.  I keep those things for what you might call moral reasons, not because I can’t let them go or want to wait until that random, distant day when I’ll need the various items I’ve collected, but because I can’t throw away something that is still useful, that still has function.  I guess you could say that’s the extent of my consistent environmentally-friendly living sense: my refusal to let energy – behind the use of non-renewable resources, the production of them into some shape, and the expenditure of whatever other energy that was used to operate the thing besides kinetic energy – go to waste.  I could easily avoid being a hoarder in the US because there are enough recycle centers, donation centers, and exchange/thrift stores to go around.  You didn’t need to keep things until they could see their usefulness again in your life because there were so many other ways to share things you don’t need with other people who actually need or at least want them.

That kind of thing doesn’t really exist in China.  For one, people are typically afraid of using things that other people owned before.  A few students have told me that it’s even shameful, but I don’t know how many people actually think that, especially considering the attitudes we had today.  I think it’s just not common practice, and I think that people just haven’t had enough time after the development of the middle class and the mass acquirement of useless, unnecessary wants due to increased disposable income to realize the need for second-hand businesses.  It’s nearly impossible to find a thrift shop, a donation center, a true vintage clothing shop or any kind of second-hand-sales business here.  Beats me where all the old stuff even goes but I still I needed any easy solution for my growing pile of stuff.  In the end, I decided to create one.

We advertised online on a popular foreign web site and on the Chinese Twitter, Weibo.  We called all our small community of students and asked them to come.  In the end, almost only students and teachers were there, a small group of a little less than 30 people.  We taught a short culture class about environmentally-friendly living, showed a National Geographic video in English about global warming, and then held a birthday party (although non of our May birthday students showed (but we ate the cake anyway, of course).  During the party, a beginner student read a short essay that his teacher basically wrote for him, some new students gave English speeches about the items they’d brought for the exchange, and then we had the exchange part.  We brought more items than necessary because we wanted students to know it was a regular event.  Some students brought things but didn’t take any home, and some students managed to get away without bringing anything major.  One student of my students (a stoic, adorable, quick-learning 10-year-old named Jim) exhibited his ability with Chinese calligraphy by making some Earth Day banners as a show.  He swapped his results with us for some items, and he took home two of mine, an artistic ceramic flute and a USB light (which I know passed through 3 sets of hands unopened before it found its home with Jim).

Considering all the drawbacks due to poor, hasty planning, mostly on part of a staff who didn’t really understand the concept to begin with, it was a success in a few ways, including the most important – it will happen again.  My boss witnessed it all, got inspired, and likes the concept.  She’s already considering how it can help us promote ourselves to the local and foreign community, while also spreading the kind of message that’s very dear to her personally it seems: environmentally-friendly living.

One surprise was the number of students who brought unique and interesting items.  And, the requirements of types of items was well-understood.  No one brought anything strange or odd or terribly useless.  I brought many things I’d never opened, silly travel nick-nacks that no one actually uses, and almost all of which I’d inherited.  People all had some sort of thing to swap, and no one stole anything when no one was looking, which was lucky considering where we had everything.  One walk-in client had even come while we were preparing for the party, gone home to shower and get more nicely dressed, and then come back to witness the end of the party and talk to our staff.  He liked what he saw and decided to come back tomorrow.  Of course, for sales, this is where I excel because our consultants and even occasionally our director are shy when talking to foreigners, but I’m more comfortable, and this guy happened to be an Armenian guy working for a Russian trading business in Guangzhou.

I organized the event terribly and misjudged or didn’t consider many different aspects of it, especially several cultural ones, but in the end it managed to work out.  That’s the best part of the place I work for – the director and staff are willing to try just about any sort of kooky, odd cultural concept, and the students themselves are a bit of an odd community anyway, with several individual and unique personalities.  I felt like such a hippie today, but in a setting where people don’t even know what a hippie is.  Ironic, and helpful, considering I don’t usually identify myself in that way.

My Out-of-Town Chinese-Italian Wedding Experience

5 May

I spent the last 5 days in Hangzhou, China, home of the famous Xi Hu (West Lake). I went there for the wedding of a friend of a friend who used to live in Hangzhou and knew several of the other attendees. This cultural experience was a gift, something I wouldn’t have stumbled upon on my own, and it entailed many intriguing and even humorous facets, especially as the very mellow, married couple-to-be were from two different countries and had a very international group of friends and supporters that they desired to celebrate with them in the bride’s hometown, a nearby village.

The most genius part of the wedding was that, because it’s difficult to get many people from out of town to gather with successful organization in a village, the bride and groom had everyone meet in Hangzhou, load onto a bus at around noon, and drive to the village, which was only about 90 minutes away. This decorated bus, full of cheerful foreigners and locals, was well-stocked with beer and some sub sandwiches, and it rolled up to a pit stop for a local spectacle of a restroom and smoke break halfway through the drive before finally making it to the bride’s house. It probably completely amazed the neighbors, who gathered to observe the colorful group. Few of the Chinese guests drank beer, while almost all of the foreigners did. Having indulged in the beer myself, I had to pee so badly that when I got there and said hello to a woman who was either the bride’s aunt or mother, she grabbed my arm and frantically rushed me to the nearest bathroom, which was ironically hidden in a space that made it seem looked like you were about to pee in a closet. We gathered in the bride’s house, nearly filling the living room to capacity. It reminded me of some family gatherings in my old home growing up, as every room was carefully made ready for guests; trinkets were packed away, furniture moved, and every inch scrubbed to a polished shine. The mixed-ethnicity couples and their children, the bride’s family’s local friends, and the wedding couple’s friends from many different Chinese cities and foreign countries filled the room with play, laughter and intriguing conversations.  I noticed, a bit shocked, that I was the only white woman attending with a white boyfriend, who even more ironically happens to also be an American, something quite coincidental considering our location and experiences living as expats.

The table contained an almost-overflowing collection of bowls, filled to the brim with pickles and finger foods, and cans of beer, which the foreigners continued the drink gleefully. The guests gathered in circles, chatting happily and meeting each other, while the bride’s family quietly kept order and cleaned up messes.  All the while, the bride got ready in a bedroom; she hadn’t been on the bus, and was unseen by all guests until that point. Then, she called all the women into the room with her, and the wedding traditions began. She stood in the corner, in a dim light in the colorful and cozy old-fashioned room, next to a bed that had very fine quality, bloodred bedsheets and folded up blankets and actually reflected a dim glow onto her brilliantly white dress and veil. She was barely moving but smiling brilliantly, obviously overcome with happiness. The room was packed with many nationalities of women, including the groom’s mother and cousin, some foreign English teachers from a few different countries, and Chinese women from all different cities of China, all brought together, each knowing only a few others in the room. The two Chinese bridesmaids in simple, classic dresses, announced that it was time for the Italian groomsman (whose mother tongue was Italian but who also spoke fluent, natural-sounding Chinese and English and taught English for a living) and his groomsmen to perform some difficult tasks. First he had to come to the locked door and answer questions asked by all the women present. He kept trying to slip his way in, and each almost-successful attempt led to a throng of screamish-squeals from the girls who anxiously tried to prevent him from entering or seeing the bride.

The groom and his groomsmen were a motley crew. They were called to the window overlooking a back balcony, through which the bride and her entourage handed them colorful hula skirts and ordered them to dance to music she played off her phone. They did, and they also followed suit when she pointed her thin, elegant finger, and demanded for them to move their hips more. The groomsmen were good sports, following every command with comedic gusto, being all the more interesting because they were a huge black guy from Kenya who grew up there, the UK and the States and a bald, slick Italian guy who looked a little like he was out of the mafia and who speaks impeccable Mandarin as a resident of Beijing. After the task was performed, they were given a handful of keys on red-ribbon strings, only one of which actually opened the bedroom door. The groomsmen did all of this while a crowd of the men and some older women from the bride’s family and their neighbors stood around and watched in entertained amusement.

When the groom made it in, he was allowed to approach his bride and kiss her. Some little boys (to symbolize a desire for sons, an aspect of the wedding ceremony explained to me by a fellow guest, a Chinese woman who was attending with her foreign English-teaching boyfriend) were called into the room to search for small presents hidden among the folded bed sheets. The bride’s-home rituals were then finished, and the bride and groom were together the rest of the wedding. They left the house to take pictures outside with the family and wedding party, and the guests followed, probably beginning to suffocate in the small apartment that the family was also probably happy to have emptied out. The house visit had included so many smaller cultural exchanges, including a moment I heard about later from the groom, in which the bride’s mother repeatedly hugged the groom’s mother, a beautiful, vivacious Italian woman who had begun learning Mandarin once she heard that her son was marrying a Chinese woman. We stood outside, mingling and drinking more beer, and then we were loaded back onto the bus and driven to the hotel, where we would dine for the main part of the wedding. We spent a decent amount of time figuring out how to go around a bridge that seemed too low for our tall coach, circling the town, and eventually just risking it and slickly making it through, a success which caused the passengers to erupt in victorious applause.

Once we pulled up to the hotel, we got whispered word that we were 2 hours early for dinner, so we dispersed to explore the grounds and hang out. Many of the bus attendees ended up in a guest sitting room which served food and drinks. I found myself at a table with my fellow American date, a Canadian teacher and his Chinese wife and their baby, a British teacher, the groomsmen, and the Chinese wife of the Kenyan-American groomsman. After more beers were ordered, our ensuing conversation covered multiple topics, such as beer, animal cruelty and which cities in China were the best to live in.

After a few hours were killed, we were called in to the dining hall, where we took our seats. I was later told that the pouring of guests into the room angered the bride of another wedding happening in the same hotel, who had to stand and watch her guests look on in awed distraction as this seemingly-random cluster of foreigners and Chinese filed into the Chinese-style wedding next door. Being the guest of a guest, I sat with my date at a table in the middle of the third row of tables, in a large room that contained perhaps 16 tables – 4 rows of 4. Of course, position and table-seating is an important part of the dinner, and the most fascinating part of the arrangement was that the bride’s family not only sat separate from the groom’s family, but also sat in the back of the room, in the row farthest from the stage. The groom’s Italian parents and cousins and their guests sat in the first row, at the table of most important location. The bride and groom entered, and the wedding dinner events began. Led by an MC, as is typical in Chinese weddings, the bride and groom exchanged rings and vows, poured an entire bottle of champagne into a stacked tower of glasses that cleverly allows the champagne to overflow slowly from glass to glass and symbolizes prosperity and abundance as all guests eagerly watched to see how many glasses can be filled by one bottle. They linked arms and drank together before cutting a wedding cake that I don’t remember ever seeing again.

After this, they turned to the audience and toasted them as a unit, and the dinner began. I enjoyed the adventure of eating almost all completely new dishes, new Chinese delicacies and feast staples I hadn’t before savored. Lobster, crab, and an amazing, chicken, simply cooked in salted water and some subtle sweet flavors in a Dutch oven-like pot were extraordinary additions to the new selections of pickles and appetizers I examined and tasted. The toasting alcohols included baijiu (rice wine), red wine and a special, strong-tasting brown Chinese drink that tasted a little like a less-sweet-vermouth-style ginger wine. The bride and groom began their rounds of toasting every individual dinner guest (the wedding party famously never has time to eat at weddings) while everyone else began the meal. The tables were served all the same dishes and in the same order, and each place setting contained not only several glasses for tea, for orange juice, water or soda, and for wine, but also small gifts, including chocolates, nuts and candies in little boxes. As the bride and groom went around, the bridesmaids gave out decorated chopsticks while the groomsmen toasted each guest with the groom and the groom’s mother gave out a traditional red bag containing small red Italian candies of nuts covered in chocolate and a candy shell. The note she hand-wrote in red ink and attached to each one contained: the bride’s Chinese name in characters – that she obviously practiced and wrote in the large fashion typical of people who haven’t been writing characters all their lives – on one side, the groom’s given name on the other side, and the date, written in typical European style, underneath.

Many of the foreign guests slowly and happily got drunk, and the families strove to make everything perfect. The bride, groom and their families all took turns making speeches, and the revelry lasted about two-three hours. Then, the bus was loaded back up, and with half its occupants passed out in drunken sleep, it returned to Hangzhou. The bride and groom came along, and a large group of closer friends and classmates went to a reggae bar to share bottles of tequila, whiskey and beer, play pool and relax with the bride and groom, who were finally relaxing after the long day, now in casual clothes and with very pleased and loving looks on their weary faces.

Creamy and Tangy Pasta

8 Apr

To be honest, the following recipe is quite strange and will probably seem unappetizing to many people.  This was definitely a throw-everything-in-your-pantry-and-fridge-into-a-pot sort of effort.  I was fighting urges when I made this dish – the urge to make a creamy, Italian sort of pasta dish with hearty potato, silky softened red onion, and a lots of French butter and the competing urge to make a tangy, spicy Asian stir-fry inspired by the homemade kimchi in my fridge (thanks to the pure generosity of one of my students).  In the end, I decided to combine them and see how butter and cream paired with kimchi.  Worried that I’d overdone it, I threw in some cheese to make it all gooey because melted cheese rarely detracts from a dish.

Ingredients:

2 T. butter
1 cup whole milk
Italian herbs
3 T. tomato paste
salt and pepper
1 small red onion, cut into thin slices
4 small white potatoes, cut length-wise and then sliced in thin semi-circles
1/2 cup sliced kimchi
3 T. colby-jack cheese, diced into small cubes
1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
4 cups cooked pasta, lightly coated in extra-virgin olive oil

Directions:

Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat.  Add milk, tomato paste, Italian herbs, salt and pepper and whisk to create a thin sauce.  Add onions and potatoes, stir to heart through and then reduce heat to low.  Partially-cover pan and let sit, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are cooked through and onions are soft.   Uncover pan and increase heat until sauce thickens a little.  Remove from heat and combine in a large bowl with pasta, beans, kimchi and cheese cubes.  Serve immediately.

Note:

The sauce base of this recipe alone is great for pasta, and the dish may taste even better without the kimchi and cheese (it will definitely be simpler).  Also, I suggest sauteeing the potatoes and onions in butter and oil after making sauce and then combining them later.  Thinly-sliced potatoes taste great in pasta dishes when they are a little browned.

Me Gusta Migas

4 Apr

Few things in life make me happier than sitting at a comfortable home desk, listening to the news, sipping coffee with milk, and eating some rockin’ home-cooked migas as I slowly poke about, getting ready to go on some adventure on an extra day off.  Today is Qing Ming, a national holiday in China that translates to “Tomb-Sweeping Day.”  As usual, I’m enjoying the day off entirely differently than the people around me; they are visiting ancestors’ tombs, and I’m savoring the combination of a lack of obligations and plentiful sunshine.

Hungry and needing food to start things fresh after a night of margaritas and birthday cheers, I whipped up some migas.  First and foremost, please understand the awesomeness of that statement.  I live in China, where corn tortillas aren’t on every corner.  I have to scrounge through the foreign food stores, checking freezers in high hopes that they might contain more than just one brand of only flour tortillas.  Recently, I got lucky, and the frozen stack of not-very-good-in-Texas corn tortillas in my freezer is heavenly.  Missing Mexican food lately, and inspired by a recent success with cooking eggs, I made up this variation (I am usually wary of making eggs because I so often mess them up – and who messes up eggs?).

Ingredients:

2 eggs
2 corn tortillas, cut into small 1/2-in. squares
1/4 cup milk
salt and pepper
red chili powder
1/4 cup shredded cheddar or colby jack cheese
1/2 T. butter
1/2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
2-3 T. tomatillo salsa

Directions:

Heat butter and oil in pan.  Add tortillas and saute until crispy and beginning to brown.  Meanwhile, whisk eggs, cheese, spices, and milk.  Add to pan and scramble on low heat.  Remove from pan and top with salsa.

Note:

I love the almost dulcet sound of Amy Goodman’s voice as she forces all the inflection from it in an attempt to hide her utter disgust at the news bite she delivered just moments before.  Also, serve these migas in warmed flour tortillas for an even tastier breakfast.