Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Tale of Two "Homes"

Since I now have lived here almost two full months, I feel fully qualified to do an in-depth comparison of China and the last place foreign country I really felt at home, Kazakhstan.

Sentimental Similarities

1. I get scolded for not wearing warm enough clothing by concerned older woman.

Now that the weather is getting colder, I have found that, similar to Kazakhstan, the Warm Clothing Patrol (WCP) is out in full force. Thousands if not millions of slightly older woman whose official jobs range from the tea shop owner to the street sweeper have taken it upon themselves to berate any person they deem to not be dressed warm enough. Even if the sun is shining or I have just come back from a run, I invariably get asked in a concerned yet scolding tone where is my jacket! 
This is how Ben and I feel when people tell us how to dress

2. The shops and restaurants play 80s and 90s pop music that nobody in the West listens to anymore. 

I love listening to songs that I have not heard anywhere but Russia and Kazakhstan on the streets here! I honestly believe that developing countries are solely responsible for keeping aging US, UK, and Aussie pop stars fed and clothed these days (provided that people actually buy the copies legally....ha).
The kids are also obsessed with all things Michael (yes, they are on a first name basis with Michael Jackson. If I ask my students to think of a celebrity, I can usually guess it in three tries without any hints: Kobe [Bryant], Michael, or Yao Ming. 

Only God knows...

 3. The smells are markedly similar in both of my "homes." 

Only in certain special places on earth does your nose pick up the unique combination of car exhaust, cigarette smoke, b.o., and greasy foods on the streets with the occasional whiff of sewage. Autumn here similarly brings the familiar burning crops like many rual parts in Kaz, and I hear we can look forward to oh-so-comforting smell of coal burning to heat homes in the winter.
Despite the snarkiness, I do (mostly) enjoy the variety of smells here. America seems largely devoid of odors of any kind. Or we rely so heavily on the artificial sprays and scents like deodorant, febreze®, glade®, and candles (seriously, I feel like every 3rd commercial on TV deals with some sort of fake odor "freshener") that one would think we perpetually live in field of lilacs or something.

Drastic Differences

1. Trying to learn languages in each place.

Obviously, the languages (Russian and Mandarin) are very different from each other, but I was not fully prepared for how difficult it would be for me to communicate or even get around. I think I learned how to read in Russian in under a week (oh, my young brain), so even though I had no clue what words meant, I could sound them out and remember them for next time. Since I am a visual learner, this worked out great, and I gradually improved my speaking and listening skills. 

Some beautiful (fake) foliage (from Jan Beal)
However, with about 80,000 Chinese characters in existence, I will probably never be able to read Chinese character with much (any) fluency. Thus, I have been struggling to remember any words at all especially with the correct tones for each sound. Thankfully most students know how to write pinyin, which is a weird romanization of Chinese characters, so that has been helping some. For example, instead of writing my name like 瑞秋, I can cheat and write it like this Rui Qiu. This, believe it or not, when pronounced correctly, sounds similar to Rachel and means Good fortune Autumn :) 

2. The joys and challenges of ex-paticity.

As many expats already know, being white often brings stares, shouts, photographs, and even marriage proposals from strangers. However, I was very lucky in Kaz because I was mostly able to pass myself off as a short, slightly dull-witted Russian and rarely draw any attention to myself. Sadly, this blissful anonymity is gone, and whenever we venture off campus, we are greeted with stares, stage whispers of Lǎowài (foreigner), and more photographs than I care to think about (seriously, what do the  Chinese do with the millions of photographs of weird, lost-looking white people? 
In addition to our conspicuousness, we are also treated like celebrities or fauxlebrities as I like to call us. This means not only are we stopped for pictures whenever we go out, we also get some pretty cool swag. For example, a month ago, we all got invited to attend the Governor's National Day Banquet, and this weekend, we got free tickets to see the The 9th Zheng Zhou International Martial Arts Festival Opening Ceremony, which was spectacular. The tickets are normally very pricy, and the kung fu performances were some of the best I have ever seen. With thousands of performers (including pigeons) and athletes from almost 100 countries, we were super impressed. Although not quite Beijing Opening Ceremony calibre, it was at least as good as Salt Lake's! 
You all better watch this because it took me 2 hours to upload!

3. The local and un-local food

I was not prepared for the drastically different food we would be experiencing on a daily basis here. It was only when we moved to China that I realized how much my diet consisted of cheese, bread, and salads. My, did we pick the wrong place to move! Not only is cheese very expensive and difficult to buy (don't worry, the withdraw symptoms are mostly gone) but so is cereal and many other "staples" like tortillas, hummus, and did I mention cheese. Fortunately our foreign faculty cafeteria provides us with peanut butter and homemade bread, so our weight loss hasn't been too dramatic. I do miss a lot more home-y food than I thought I would, and my stomach isn't always sure how to handle the rather greasy, meat-y foods they provide us. 
In Kazakhstan, cheeses, milk (from the lowfat 3.5% to the delicious 10%), ice creams, cereals and so much more was just a quick taxi ride away! In addition, the flavors of the local foods were much more "Western." On the other hand, whether it's banana toothpaste or green tea Oreos, mostly everything we buy here is just a little strange. I guess we will just have to get used to it!

The food here is generally super delicious though!
Ok, people from Kazakhstan, am I remembering things correctly or romanticizing things a bit? Granted, I haven't been back in about 4 years, so feel free to comment on any discrepancies or just add your $0.02!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Wacky Cakes, Extravagant Teas, and Everything Else

Is your birthday coming up? Maybe a special occasion?

Why not special order one of these extraordinary, exquisite, and possibly slightly awkward fish cakes? Despite its ornate fishy look, it is supposed to be quite the pleasing, luscious dessert. Please don't fight over who gets the slice with the delicate fish-rider. :)

My lovely wife. (Click to read fine print.)

Husbands: Forgot it was your anniversary? Forgot to get her something? Need to make it up to her?

Why not start with gifting her with a delightfully flaky Super Wife Cake? You know she'll love being called a "super wife"! Gents, they really do deserve the title! I know mine does!

And then there is the decorative Chinese Mooncake! Last Saturday was Mid-Autumn Festival here in China. One of the ways this holiday is celebrated is by getting together with friends and family and eating delicious mooncakes. They come in many different flavors from meat to sweet egg to nuts and fruits and even beans-- have I convinced you yet? As much as Rachel and I loved them they were dense enough to be too much for one person to consume. Don't tell anybody, but majority of our students dislike mooncakes; so, I might not be telling the whole truth about how much "we" loved them...just sayin'. I'm sure when we are older we will love them for reals!

A friend of ours bought us four boxes of these.
We had no clue what to do with 16 mooncakes-- paperweights maybe?

Enjoying my very first Chinese Mooncake!

During the week long Mid-Autumn and National Day holiday, Rachel and I, along with other foreigners, went to the famous Muslim quarter (also called Islamic Street) in Xi'an, Shaanxi province (post coming soon). One of the fascinating things about this place was all the stunning tea one could buy.

(Bz Herms...this one's for you, my friend. Miss ya, pal.)
One kind we bought was the stunning Blooming Jasmine Flower Tea. One may relieve headaches and indigestion by drinking this and also avoid wrinkles and blemishes by applying its leaves. Best of both worlds, no?

Starts out as a ball...

...slowly begins to blossom...

...into a beautiful, fragrant flower!
You can buy these flower balls for a whopping 5 yuan...or $0.79 USD. It'll be enough tea for you and five of your best friends to sip on (and once they leave, you can give yourself a rather cheap facial)! 

Lastly, you may be wondering what we eat here in China. 

To my surprise, we haven't really seen any of the Chinese food here (in Henan province) that we would typically eat back home. 

Here are a few pictures of what we eat here. Some are fancy and others are not so fancy.  Most restaurants we have been to are family style. All platters are meant to be shared between 4-6 people.

Also, so far in China, we have not been able to get a cold glass of water with our meals. Culturally speaking, hot water is highly preferred over cold water. Cold water will get you sick, didn't you know?

This is something I hadn't ever seen before:

Hairy Crab.

Dumplings galore... 

Dumplings! All this for $3.80 (USD).
We love our jiaozi 

Seafood (octopus?) Dumplings 
We hope this wasn't a Lion Dumpling we just ate!
Veggie Dumplings
Free meals at our foreign teacher's cafeteria...

Biannual treat for Sias foreign teachers. Loaded with all sorts of western treats!
Local restaurants...
You make a wrap with these ingredients-- like a Chinese taco

Grilled peppers...quite hot
Grilled green beans and asparagus
Chicken with a flower!

Western restaurants...
Pizza Hut in China does not equal Pizza Hut in America (expensive + weird cheese)!

Not a common practice in the USA but very popular in China 
"Life tastes better with KFC" -according to some Ming dynasty warriors!!
Fine dining...

Tofu, mushrooms, and bok choy

Lotus Salad...has quickly become one of our favorites
Presentation like this is very rare
Left side of a chicken. See the head?
I hope you enjoyed reading this food post. As you can probably tell, we are really enjoying our stay in China.

Look forward to a post on "Street Food" in the near future. You don't want to miss it!