Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Sichaun Pao Cai

I loved the little dish of pickled radish we ate with meals in Chongqing, so I made some. I got the recipe from Fuschia Dunlop's Sichuan cook book. (I think these would be more accurately called salted, fermented vegetables, not pickled vegetables, but they translate as pickled.)

In China they use large ceramic pickling jars but the ones I could find are super expensive here (over $100 on Amazon) so I went with this clear glass jar I got for $6 at Target and sterilized with boiling water. (It needs to have a tight lid.) The recipe is salted water (I used kosher salt), Sichuan peppercorns, fresh ginger, a small piece of cinnamon stick, rice wine, a little bit of brown sugar (those last two are for fermentation), dried chilis and a little bit of star anise. I couldn't find whole star anise so I use liquid drops, just 2 or 3. I put in western radishes, Chinese radish (daikon), cabbage and lotus. (Lotus root is one of my favorite new veggies I learned about in China. I can't find it fresh here, but I can get it cut up and packaged. Better than nothing.)

You can keep adding to the brine, turning into a sort of 'mother' brine that gets more flavorful over time.  The veggies are considered 'done' after about a week and in China you just keep adding veggies to the brine as you eat them. My host mom had a huge pickling jar in her kitchen and she threw veggies in it every day. However, they cut them into cubes so you can eat them with chopsticks and I am far too lazy to do that, so I just sliced them.

My students told me that pickled veggies help regulate your blood sugar, which is why you should eat a small amount of them at every meal. I loved this part of a Chinese meal, but I've never seen it at a Chinese American restaurant.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ma La Girl Adventures: Hot Pot At Home

Ma La girls like hot pot. I had a hot pot dinner party at my house this past week, with spices I brought home from Chongqing. (I saved the wrappers and I'll be taking them to the Asian market to see if they can order more for me.)

Here is the food table, next to the eating table. In China the plates of food for hot pot come out on a multi-tiered cart, but because I don't have one of those, I used a card table. There are meatballs, little smokies, lotus, rice sticks, quail's eggs, noodles, squids, and two kinds of tofu. (We also had golden mushrooms and chicken pieces but those were already on the table.)

Here is a shot of the table set up. I bought an induction cooker to use in my apartment, because that's the kind of cooker I had in China and I found I prefer it to the convection cooking more popular here in America. I used it that night for the hot pot; not only is it portable to the table, but inductions don't get hot like convections so no one was going to burn themselves. It worked really well.

Hot pot tables in China are built into the table, like this:

I wonder if they would be considered a fire hazard here in America, due to the open flame below the table? I'll have to ask the next firefighter I see. I'd love to build a hot pot table for my house.

 The small white bowls on my table are filled with the sesame oil/garlic/cilantro/msg mixture you dip the cooked food into before eating. They all loved it!  I was really happy to be able to share this part of Chinese culture with them, and of course eat deeleeciours hot pot.

Just the smells of hot pot brought back so many memories! My most memorable hot pot was when I ate bull penis, and my second most memorable was eating it at 4 AM with friends after leaving a club. I knew I was a real Ma La Chongqing girl when I could eat hot pot at 4 AM.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Girl Who Wanted Her Voice Heard

You might have heard that China doesn't allow people to express their opinions about the government publicly and doesn't allow freedom of speech.

This is all true.

One of my great disappointments in learning Mandarin was realizing no one was saying anything really worth overhearing. People won't express a contrary opinion publicly, so they don't say anything opinionated at all. Casual conversations flow about food, fashion and money and not much else.

Which is why it was so shocking when I was judging a Shanghai Education Press-sponsored, city-wide high school English speech competition, and one of the girls opened her speech in the crowded auditorium by saying, "Our hands built the buildings that fell during the earthquake; our hands made the milk that killed the babies." (Referring to the tens of thousands killed by shoddy building construction and the tainted milk scandal hushed up because of the Olympics.)

I was floored, and shocked, and nervous for her, all at the same time. People in China do not say such things. At least, not publicly. I glanced down the row of judges (I was the only foreign judge) and saw a line of non-responsive, impassive faces. Which meant they were shocked, too.

This was a girl who had to have known she would not win the competition saying such things. It couldn't be done. And she said them anyway. What will happen to this girl, and others like her, who despite being told repeatedly to silence their voices, want their voices heard? I don't know.

But I will never forget that girl.

I have often hoped that if I had any success as a Peace Corps teacher in China, it was in creating a space for my students where they knew they could say anything, any contrary or adverse opinion, with no fear.


Not everyone wants their voice heard. For a long time, I did. I had a chance that girl doesn't have. Maybe for that reason alone, because I could, writing here has been of value.

Here's what I'll be doing in my future: I will love, and be loved, even more than I do and am today. I will reunite with treasured close friends and make new ones and see where life takes us. I will find the place I can settle down and feel at home. I will struggle, as we all inevitably do, and I will find joy. As Robert Frost said: "In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on."

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Chinese Beer Garden Aficionados (Video)

A big part of Chinese culture is sitting at night at a beer garden; this activity starts after dinner and often goes until the early morning hours. The beer gardens are located outside restaurants or sprung up on sidewalks next to food tables and carts. It is common for the sidewalks in my city to be lined with beer gardens.

Beer gardens aren't a weekend thing, they're an everyday activity. As I have mentioned here before, it takes so long to do anything in my part of China, there isn't an expectation to do more than 1 or 2 things per day. For the Chinese in my city, sitting at night at a beer garden with family or friends is a really important part of daily life. Chinese culture is structured around relationships; this is part of building them.

Most volunteers took to this custom quickly and easily. The video below is not only a good example of the atmosphere of these places (notice the blue stools we're sitting on), but also of the amount of free time we had on our hands every day; I mean, do you have this kind of conversation unless you have A LOT of free time?? Or as R. succinctly put it: "We did nothing but sit around and talk nonsense for two years! No wonder readjustment [to America] has been so difficult!"

This beer garden had a mug of swizzle sticks on the table; every time you ordered a round, they removed a swizzle stick for each drink. At the end of the night, they counted up the swizzle sticks for your bill. It was a great, low-tech way to keep track of drinks in a place where tabs don't exist.

(The movie they're talking about is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Hot & Spicy Girls 重庆麻辣女人

I'm taking advantage of the MacBook Pro I use for work and putting together some movies of my pictures and videos from China. Between that and the book, it's one reason I haven't been around here much.

I keep finding treasures in the crevices of my picture files, like this picture of a 'ma la' skirt. In Mandarin, 'ma' 麻 means 'numbing' and 'la' 辣 means 'spicy', and 'ma la' is a phrase commonly used as slang to describe Chongqing girls; the weather and the food are numbingly hot and spicy, and so therefore are the women. This is an adult woman's skirt. As you can see, it's about half my size. I can't imagine getting even my butt in this thing, let alone my legs.

Chongqing style is very ma la: short, tiny, tight, bright, covered in sequins and embellishments. Chongqing is sort of the Rio of China, I guess. I had a girl once tell me, while dressed in tiny panty shorts and a see-through shirt: "I am a traditional girl. But it is very hot here." Indeed.

We still use 'ma la' to describe things, i.e. "That is a very ma la outfit/dress/girl" etc. (One thing I loved about being with my China friends in Boston and NYC was using Chongqing slang with each other. 'Ma la' made several appearances.) Here is another ma la girl:

We are Chongqing girls now. We are ma la. We embrace it. At least, that's the excuse I tell myself for having purchased these shoes (although I am sure it has more to do with my Spanish blood than anything else):

I can't help it. I love them.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Muslim Chinese Lamb Sticks Make Me So Happy

On the street in Flushing; oh man, did these bring back memories. These spicy lamb sticks are sold everywhere on the streets in my part of China, day and night. And joking around in mandarin with the street vendor was almost like being back in China. What a great day so far, and tonight, Washington Heights and night bridge pictures. This day is only getting better!

Friday, February 25, 2011

So This Is Life

After the roller-coaster that was life in China, life back in America can sometimes seem a little...plain.

Not bad. Plain.

So this is life now: work hard, go to bed early, get up early, meditate, read, study, make time for friends, talk over the internet with far-flung well-loved friends, make vacation plans, work on art projects, watch Community, shop for food, do laundry, clean, Netflix in bed, cook, do all of these things many times all over again.

It's a good life. I'm adapting to life here in the American Western desert, but it sure does take some getting used to.

I've met some fun people here and I'm reminded again that 99% of people in this world are good-hearted and kind and worth knowing. I'm now able to accept I liked those not-so-good guys in my past because I didn't believe I was worth more than how they treated me. It's hard to admit that, but overcoming it has made a big difference in my life. Kind and steady beats jerky and exciting any day of the week. This is truth. The guys who have taught me this are decent, as well as sexy and exciting. (Yes, it is possible to be all three.)

Having said that, I don't think I have much else to say these days. Maybe it is the winter blahs. Maybe it is because I have been writing here for four years (!), and probably it is time for me to do something else. Maybe because this week, the volunteer who replaced me at my school died. (Very sad and tragic.) It has made me reflective of what my life has meant so far. And what it will mean in the future. My birthday is this month, a good time for a new start for me. I'll never delete these posts, because people read them and email me for advice about China or the Peace Corps and this makes my day!  I'm not sure what else I'll say here. But these things I've said, they were very important to me. Thanks for listening, and commiserating, and sharing.

Many of you have been silent readers. Thanks to you too, for taking the time to listen.

As we say in China, 再见!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Female Peace Corps Volunteers in China, Plus Cancer (Again)

When I was in China, I was asked to write an article for the Peace Corps China wiki about what it's like being a female volunteer in China. I guess I seemed well-adjusted? Ha, little did they know the hardships I still dealt with on a daily basis. It does get easier over time, but the challenges never fully go away. I forgot about it, but the other day I searched for it and there it is! My name isn't attached, but if you want to read what I had to say about being a female Peace Corps volunteer in China, you can read it here. It was interesting to me to read it again, after being home for these months. Gosh, it wasn't easy to live there.

My grandpa has pancreatic and liver cancer; cancer sucks. I was in denial for a while about this. I think after everything I went through with my dad, I couldn't go through this again. I think I'm still in denial about it. Dealing with cancer never gets easier. He's not doing treatment, but being treated for pain. He's very brave.

Cancer, I shake my fist at you.

Friday, January 28, 2011

"I Am Murdered" aka The Perils of Technology

My Chinese name is Libeisha, which is three words combined: li (丽pretty) bei (蓓 flower bud) sha (莎 no real meaning, just used for the sound). But the word 'sha' with the character 杀  means 'murder.'  I sent an email to a student and was typing too fast and when I hit the keys for 'libeisha' the character string that came up first was the murder-sha 杀, not the sound-name-sha 莎. I chose the murder character, didn't notice, and sent off the email.

Hoo boy, did my student find that amusing! He wrote back immediately, "Are you okay? You have been murdered? Oh no!" And told me he had gathered up his classmates to his dorm room so they could see and laugh at my mistake, too. They love that I study Mandarin, but they got quite a kick out of their teacher calling herself  "murdered." Oops. Sometimes, your language skills are only as good as your typing skills.

I use Google Mandarin for my keyboard conversion program, btw. Google owns so many pieces of my life.

My other favorite Mandarin mistake was my students saying, "I am [name]" when they texted or called me. I told them so many times, "Not 'I am [name].' In English we say 'This is [name].'" But this was hard for them to remember and they made this mistake often. Flash forward to my Mandarin class this past fall, when a student stood up to do a dialogue and said (in Mandarin) "This is [name]." My teacher immediately interrupted: "Not 'This is [name]', in Mandarin we say 'I am [name].'"

It made me smile.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

This Video Is Amaze-Balls

I found this link through Twitter; it's a short animated visual graphing of the rise of the wealth and health of nations over the last two hundred years. The Chinese breakout especially interested me; GuiZhou and the rural parts of China he mentions are where Peace Corps volunteers are mostly assigned; GuiZhou is the province just to the east of Chongqing. And yes, going to Shanghai was like going to Europe as far as wealth, cleanliness and public behavior were concerned.

If you like social science, you will probably love this. If you don't like social science, you will probably love it after watching this.