A Travellerspoint blog

Russ is en route!

Finally my brother Russ is on the way to China! Tonight after work, I'm taking an overnight train to Kunming with Giulia, Amanda and Karl, where we'll meet Russ and head to Dali the next day. We'll be on the road a lot in the next couple weeks but there'll be lots of photos and updates to come! YAY I'm a happy girl :)

Posted by jhl5006 18:04 Archived in China Comments (0)

Question: Where are all the fortune cookies?

Answer: Only in America

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What do you think of when you think of Chinese food? Fortune cookies? General Tsao's chicken? Egg rolls? Those nasty rib things? Maybe even those cute little white boxes. If you're anything like me, I get the image of disgustingly greasy food which leaves me with nothing but indigestion. Maybe something you crave when you have a horrible hangover, but generally not what you want to include in your daily diet. Because of my associations with the American style Chinese food, the only kind I ever knew, before I came here I thought, "What am I going to eat??" I thought maybe I would even lose weight for lack of interest in the food. But this was definitely not the case. Chinese food is nothing like what we eat in America. And there's certainly no fortune cookies. In fact, fortune cookies were invented in California.

Chinese food is as varied as the people and landscapes of this enormous country so you need to be a bit more specific when referring to it. There are 34 provinces in China, each with a very distinct culinary culture. And I love trying all the different tastes! Isn't that one of the best parts of traveling??

Food is very important to Chinese people. In fact, in Chinese people often say "Have you eaten?" as a basic greeting, like "How are you?". People here love to eat. And who would have thought that such tiny people could fit so much into their bellies? Seriously, I've traveled with Chinese girls that are half my size and I just couldn't compete with their appetites. I'm not sure where it goes, but they must have mega-metabolisms. Especially with all the carbs they eat! Huge bowls of noodles, fried bread, steamed bread, rice, rice made into noodles, rice mashed and made into sticky concoctions, fried rice, fried noodles....you get the picture. China is still a developing country and if you look into the not so distant past, there were some major problems with a majority of the population suffering from starvation. Many kinds of food were just not available for most people, especially meat. You ate what you could get. Maybe that's why the idea of waste not prevails today and you can see it in the cuisine, at least here in Guizhou. There's pig snout, chicken feet, dog butt, cow testicles...you name it. I've had the pleasure of eating out of the same hot pot with pig's brain after my friend ordered it the give the meal a little more kick. I have a few friends here who are vegetarian and when they ask for no meat, people look at them like they're crazy. If you could eat meat, why wouldn't you? It was denied to people for so long because of economic reasons, so they take full advantage of the meat they can get now.

Anyway, I've only experienced a very small percentage of what China has to offer the food lover, but I'll share what I've experienced. My first introduction to China was in the north, in Beijing. As you can imagine, heartier food is more popular there, like dumplings, stews and filling breads. People don't eat rice as much in the north because the climate isn't good for cultivating it. They like their noodles, and of course Peking duck. There's influence from Mongolia so there's a lot more milk from nomadic cows, goats and horses.

Down here in the southwest, people love their spice. La jiao, or chile, is put on everything. My friend Kelly once said that if it isn't spicy, it isn't food. Guizhou people are actually suspicious of non-spicy food. I've grown to love the la jiao, which is a lot different from spice in Indian or Mexican food. There's also suan la, which is like a sour spiciness, made from vinegar, garlic and fresh herbs. Sometimes they put in these little bamboo shoots which are pretty bitter, and in my opinion ruins the taste of the food. Usually you see people buying snacks on the street, like tofu cubes or potatoes, and it's always doused in la jiao. When you eat hot pot, you get a separate dish for your la jiao and dip the food in the chile before each bite. My tolerance for spice has gone way up and I think I'll be bringing a bag of this stuff home with me!

la jiao

la jiao

Of course not all noodles are the same...Here are some rice noodles cooked in a sour soup, famous in Guizhou:
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And sticky rice wrapped in leaves:
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Hot pot Miao-style

In Chongqing and Sichuan (where Chengdu is--I'll be going there in early May) provinces, the spice is kicked up another notch. I went to a Sichuan hot pot place once and the food was cooking in a sea of chile peppers. Just sitting near the pot made me cry and my nose run uncontrollably. I accidentally wiped my nose and got a little spice on it. I thought my brain was going to explode. In Sichuan they have this spice called mala that literally numbs your mouth.

In the northwest, where Xijiang and Gansu are, there's a large population of Muslim ethnic minorities like the Uighurs. I've written about my favorite restaurant in the Muslim quarter here in Guiyang in a previous post. Well, the food there is more like Central Asia. Of course there's no pork so lamb and beef are more popular. They make great kebabs and flat bread, and also laghman noodles. These are the kind that Marco Polo purportedly fell in love with on his travels to China and brought back to Italy to influence spaghetti. So yes, spaghetti is Chinese.

laghman noodles

laghman noodles

There's definitely a lot to try here in China. I have to admit I'm getting a little tired of noodles. And I have to be careful that there's no dog in my dumplings. And that I stay away from grease-drenched snacks on the street. I sometimes miss the Western stuff that I just can't find the ingredients for, like whole wheat bread, decent cheese, cereals, hummus, etc. But every meal out here is a fun experiment. Here are some other things I've tried that I think are really cool...

Jiaozi These are basically what we think of as dumplings. Popular in the North. Can be filled with meat or veggies. Good fried as well.

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Baozi, or steamed bread. I love the barrels they make them in. You can see them on almost every street corner in China.
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These can be made with white flour, or corn or sticky rice. Sometimes they're filled, sometimes not. I think without filling it's a little too bland. I've had them with spicy vegetables, pork and...sweet red beans.

Sweet red beans. Sort of like mashed kidney beans with sugar. Sounds strange but it tastes really good. It's put on bread and inside baozi.

Any kind of tofu you can imagine. In fact, tofu has come to be my default description of food. If I don't know what it is, I say eh, I bet it's tofu (and hopefully it's not cat). There's the jiggly white tofu that we usually think of in the West, there's smoked tofu, fried tofu, tofu skins, tofu balls, green tofu. And it's all delicious. Except for the kind that they put in plastic packages at convenience stores. That tastes like rubber. Bleh!

Lotus. It's a root vegetable that we barely cook with in the West. I'd never seen it before I came to China and I am a vegetable queen. Of course in Guiyang they normally douse it in chile pepper but I've also just had it with a lighter lemony sauce or in hot pot and that's very tasty!

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lotus root

There's an interesting philosophy that many Chinese people have about food. The concept of yin and yang relate to the kitchen as well. Some foods are believed to cool you down and some to heat you up. The idea is to get a balance of the two. Chinese medicines often dictates dietary change to cure illnesses, so as to restore the balance in your body. If you're sick, chances are the balance is off. Some examples of yin (foods that cool you down) are bean sprouts, cabbage, duck, tofu...and some yang foods are bamboo, glutinous rice, sesame oil, chiles.

Well, I think I've written enough about food for today. I'm sure you've already read about my obsession with the fresh fruits and veggies so I'll just leave it at that! I'll definitely miss Chinese food when I leave. I've already spotted a Sichuan hot pot restaurant in NYC on the New York Times restaurant review...who wants to join me when I get back to the US??

Posted by jhl5006 07:10 Archived in China Tagged food Comments (1)

Village hoppin'

in Guizhou

Xijiang

Xijiang

Wow what an amazing two days! I have never seen anything remotely like the Guizhou countryside in my life. Early Monday morning, Sharron, Sandy and I took a train about 3 hours to Kaili, the second largest city in Guizhou province. From there, we caught a bus into the countryside to a village called Xijiang (meaning west of the river). The drive out to Xijiang is absolutely gorgeous. On the way, you pass by loads of rice terraces, farms and tiny villages. Most of the people rely solely on agriculture for a living and since the area is so mountainous, they have to level their crops onto the hillsides. The varying colors of the different sections of crops are quite a visual treat. First, some background about the Miao people, which make up about 99% of the population in the village of Xijiang....

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Me and Sharron

With a population of more than seven million, the Miao people form one of the largest ethnic minorities in southwest China. They are mainly distributed across Guizhou, Yunnan, Hunan and Sichuan provinces and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and a small number live on Hainan Island in Guangdong Province and in southwest Hubei Province. Most of them live in tightly-knit communities, which we definitely witnessed in Xijiang, where people left their doors open for friends and neighbors to come and go as they please. Xijiang is the largest of the Miao villages, with over 1,000 families. They mostly rely on agriculture to make a living, and are completely self-sufficent, growing all their own crops and raising animals. They sell a lot of their handicrafts, like batik or silver goods. They have their own Miao language, although most people can speak Mandarin in the more well-connected villages, but some in the older generations can't. When people were speaking in the Miao language, Sharron and Sandy couldn't understand a word of it! They seem to be very proud of their culture--the women wear bright embroidered clothing, often with their hair in a large bun on top of their head and a big pink flower. Clothes in this area are a huge part of the culture, distinguishing one minority group from the other. Women still weave their own clothes and make their own dyes. I especially love the designs on the baby carriers! You see women doing back-breaking work all while carrying their children (or grandchildren) on their backs. The designs on them are lovely, often including important symbols and references to myths and history.

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Miao handmade baby shoes

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Woman washing her clothes by the bridge

Xijiang is mostly built on the hillside, with lots of beautiful rice paddies. The houses are all wooden, with the first floor built up on pillars so the damp ground doesn't affect the first floor. The Miao people pay quite a lot of attention to the intricately detailed woodwork. It's so much more beautiful than most Chinese towns I've seen, where store fronts are quickly thrown up like cement blocks. There was real charm to this town and the people were extremely hospitable. We found a room at a local family's house.

Views from our guesthouse:
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This was a great experience. We got to eat local food and get great advice from the homeowners. All this for about $2 a night. The bathrooms were outside and there was no heat but the winters are not quite as cold as back home in the northeast and hey, it was part of the experience. We got woken up by roosters, and on the second day....the slaughtering of pigs. At about 5 am I heard the neighbors killing their pigs, and the sounds didn't leave much for the imagination. It went on for a good 2 hours. The next day, I saw the pigs for sale on the road, with just about every part being sold. I could still see the hair on the flesh....

Anyway....We learned about several of the distinct Miao traditions by talking to the locals and going to a small museum about Miao culture.

Recently married women cannot go back to their parent's home for a fixed amount of time after the wedding, sometimes until they have a child. When they do, there's a big celebration where they paint the women's faces with red dye and have a special meal with red dyed eggs and sticky rice. They also chase the men around trying to get them to drink rice wine. We witnessed one of these wine fights and kind of got in the middle of it somehow. One of the men obviously lost, he was totally covered in wine.

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We ended up talking to this man, who was one of the proverbial leaders of the village, and he invited us to his home for dinner. On the way up the hill to his house we got caught in the chant "he jiu, he jiu" (drink wine, drink wine!) and in order to pass the women, we had to drink a glass of rice wine. Man is that stuff strong. Luckily, Sharron warned me that if you touch the cup while drinking, they'll make you chug the whole thing. They still made me drink at least 3 full glasses, even though I didn't touch the glass, probably because I was an easy target.

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At the "village leader's" house with his daughter in law and granddaughter

Another fun tradition is after a woman's baby turns a month old. Again the women paint their faces for this and toss the woman whose child is turning a month old into a wheelbarrow. We saw this happening too.

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The Miao people also have some ceremonies where they make sacrifices, like kill a rooster in order to make a difficult decision. Something about which way the blood flows determines the solution to the problem. There's a large drum hidden away in one of the houses up on the hill, which is only used once every 13 years. The nephew of the "drum leader" showed it to us and also a large altar where you could light incense and say a prayer to some gods. There were some yellow pieces of paper smeared with chickens' blood that is supposed to be an offering to some kind of fertility god. We learned most of this by just walking around the village and being invited into people's houses. Of course, I wouldn't have been able to do this without Sharron and Sandy with me, due to the language barrier. It was great how open people were to sharing their culture with us.

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A painter's house we stumbled upon

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We hiked up through the village and past the houses to the top of the village, with some breathtaking views of the countryside. We passed by several villagers doing their daily chores, like carrying stacks of hay or vegetables on their mules or with a large branch balanced with goods on either end. I felt quite humbled as we were huffing and puffing up the mountain, to see these old men and women doing backbreaking work with relative ease, probably not for the first time that day.

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Some kids we ran into on the way up.

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Me and Sandy (she's always doing the peace sign!)

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In the center square, there were several performances of traditional Miao singing and dancing. We got some pictures with the older members of the "drum group".

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The village lit up at night:

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Beautiful!

Posted by jhl5006 06:01 Archived in China Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

Cake with Chopsticks

Yes it's possible!

In Chinese class yesterday, we learned the word for cake, party, congratulations, happy birthday etc. Also the animals that go with each year. I'm a tiger...and 2010 is the year of the tiger so it looks like it will be a good year for me. The vocabulary was quite fitting since it was Giulia's birthday. I used my new knowledge to buy her a cake, complete with a paper crown (like one of those you could get at Burger King as a kid). We had all intentions of trying that 51st State restaurant again, the one co-owned by an expat but it was closed again. So we ended up at our default place--hot pot! And after dinner there were some bilingual renditions of Happy Birthday and cake with chopsticks!

Speaking of Chinese classes, they are going slowly but surely. I'm getting a hang of the structure of the language but the tones really throw me off. The slightest mistake completely changes the meaning of the word. It's difficult, but rewarding when I can use it to communicate with say, the lady who sells vegetables in my alleyway, or the woman at the bakery, or even asking my students some questions after class. I read an article in the New York Times today about the rise of Chinese foreign language classes being taught in the US now. Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world, and with over 1.3 billion people living in China and the way the country is heading, it wouldn't hurt to learn a little of their language.

Here's the article if you're interested: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/21/education/21chinese.html?em

Sharron, our Chinese teacher, does a good job explaining why the characters are formed the way they are. Chinese is one of the only surviving pictographic languages in the world, and although the written language has been adapted many times, each character is still meant to look like something. For example, the word for good in pinyin (the romanization of the language) is hao. The first part is woman. The second part is son. So basically, woman + son= good.

Here are some more:

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Each character reveals a little about Chinese culture and the way the people think. Here are some examples I like:

The word for grandma is nai nai. The character looks like a breast. So I think of big breasts when I think of grandma. I will also never forget that one.

To say "How many people are in your family?", you say "ni you ji kou ren?" Kou means mouth. Ren means people. Literally, this means "How many mouths are there to feed?"

"Fan" means meal or food. "Fan" also means rice. Since in ancient times...or even in much more recent history... people mostly just ate rice, to say "let's go eat" is synonymous with "let's go eat rice". It was pretty much accepted that that's what you were going to eat.

The characters for pee, poop and fart all have the same character in front, which literally means dead body. Add water to dead body and you get pee. Nice isn't it?

Foreigners are called "laowai" which really is old+foreign. Since in Chinese culture, elders are so highly respected, to call foreigners old is really showing respect.

When you compliment someone, people often say "na li, na li", which means "where, where"? Like someone saying to you "you're so smart" and you responding "where is this smart person?" We Westerners usually accept a compliment with thank you, but Chinese people feel obligated to put themselves down.

I love learning these little idiosyncrasies of the language. It makes it a lot more fun and memorable! Maybe I won't come back fluent but it makes the experience much more worthwhile if I can learn the origins of the language. And feel a little less helpless!

Posted by jhl5006 06:04 Archived in China Tagged educational Comments (1)

How much ya make?

My fruit purchases today (More about that later...)

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How much money do you make? That was the question everyone wanted to ask me today. It's a question that's usually off-limits in the West to people you don't know, or even those you know well. But apparently not here.

I was going a roundabout way home from the store today since the sun was peeking out and people were out enjoying themselves by the river. An older man walking in front of me kept looking back so I finally smiled and waved. He stopped and asked me where I was from (in Chinese of course) and a few other questions I didn't fully understand. He proceeded to tell me about the pagoda by the river, that it's 400 years old and very beautiful. I agreed with him and answered as many questions as I could manage in my broken Chinese. Then another lady with her 7 or 8 year old son came by, forcing the poor boy to say something to me in English. Another old man wanted to impress me with what little English he knew as well, saying things like "America beautiful" and "you good English
teacher."

Pretty soon a crowd started to gather around me, with everyone shooting questions at me at once. They thought I could speak good Chinese since I was talking to the first man. One question that every newcomer to the crowd seemed to want answered was how much money this laowai (foreigner) makes. I was a little taken aback that so many strangers were nonchalantly asking me that but I also didn't want to be rude by not answering. After I told them, there was some heated discussion. I couldn't tell if they were angry that this outsider could come in and make that much (Our salaries are not much when measured in US standards but compared to most people here, I am well off) or if they were just curious. Sometimes the Chinese language sounds angry when it's really not.

Anyway, after I left the crowd I realized that I had been talking to them for about 45 minutes, albeit in little spurts when I could understand what was going on. It's a strange feeling to have so many people talking about you in a foreign language with so little knowledge of it to explain yourself. What I finally managed to communicate to them was: I am from America. The weather in America now is not good It is warmer here now. Yesterday I went to the park and I liked it. I also told them the places in China where I've been. And... the plane is expensive. The buses are cheap. Things like that. One guy gave me a calendar as a present. Two others asked me to get lunch with them but I told them I had to get going. I caused quite the spectacle down by the river today. And I got an intensive Chinese class :)

Before all this happened, I went to the market and stocked up on some fruit. I was just writing about how much I love the fresh fruits and vegetables here. So I bought a bunch of exotic fruits and decided to take pictures. Here's my FRUIT EXTRAVAGANZA:

I didn't buy these but I thought they were strange. Apples with Chinese characters on them...how does that work?
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Horribly smelly durians. These things can easily clear a room.
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I brought home some dragonfruit, pomegranates, lychees, starfruit, clementines, papaya, and some other unknown fruit that looks like a nut.

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The nut-like fruit...

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and when you open it...there's a yummy surprise

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lychees

lychees

lychees

lychees

dragonfruit and starfruit

dragonfruit and starfruit

And I even brought home some coconut to cut up and toast:

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I love all the exotic fruit you can get here for so cheap. Lots of variety and so colorful! I think my roommate and I are set for fruit for a while. Delicious!

Posted by jhl5006 04:31 Archived in China Tagged food Comments (1)

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