X and I celebrated the Chinese New Year last weekend with two days of feasting. On Saturday, we took the long train out to Flushing for the first time to see the Chinese community out there. What an excursion – it takes over an hour to reach Flushing on the subway. When we arrived, we checked our info and started walking along Roosevelt Ave, looking for a specific restaurant: Xiao La Jiao (Little Hot Pepper). We walked for like 20 blocks looking for the place in the freezing cold, only to reach the end of the street without finding it. A phone call to the restaurant told us that we had gone all that way in the wrong direction. Sweet.
So we walked all the way back, and it turned out that the restaurant was almost right outside the subway station. Seems that the address X had pulled off the net was wrong – perhaps user-submitted.
Anyway, we sat down and ordered a huge pot of ma la yu – spicy fish. There was enough food there for five or six people, though it was just the two of us. We took it home later, froze it, and X just finished the last of it yesterday.
Sunday we met up with some new friends for lunch in midtown – Sichuan Express. There were four couples in total, all people that passed through Shanghai at one time or another. Some of them we’d met over there, some here. One couple brought their four-month-old baby boy. We shared a big hotpot meal and toasted to good luck in the new year.
All week, we’ve been doing little besides eating, sleeping and reading. I finshed one book and started another. Xianyi has been in a blissful mood for days as she constantly feeds on her mother’s cooking. And this little computer and wireless internet are keeping me from getting too bored in between meals and naps.
One of this year’s blessings has been the weather: Chengdu is pleasantly warm and dry. The first year we visited Xianyi’s parents for Chun Jie (2004) was a cold, wet nightmare. It rained every day. The cold was biting, especially since they don’t have any heat except for an electric blanket. In fact, the following year, they bought a space heater just for me because it was obvious how miserably cold I was the first year. And I used it all the time, though it didn’t help much. But this year, it’s been great.
Despite the warmth, however, Xianyi’s mom still implores me to “Chuan yifu!” (put more clothes on) every chance she gets. And her life comically revolves around food. Her last words before going to bed every night are, “If you get hungry, boil some eggs.” One night, after she had retired and we were still watching TV, she called out from the bedroom, “Are you guys hungry? I can make you some rice.” Her food is delicious, though. And she certainly can’t be blamed for her food-centric ways; as a child, she was poor and food was a constant concern. Not an uncommon thread in China.
The other night we went out to see Dan and Tenzin, though we only caught up with Dan. He has been DJing at a local club, which, as it turns out, was one of Fang Bian Mian’s stops on the infamous Tour. It has been completely re-done since then, however. When we walked in, the first thing we saw was Dan at the controls:
Besides us and about 50 staff, the place was dead. Such is life on the Tour. The manager, Nick, introduced himself and showed us around his very large, very nice, and very empty nightclub. We had a drink, chatted a bit with Dan, and came home.
Last week we had a boys’ night out and went to the seafood market somewhere in northern Shanghai. It’s a bit out of the way, but well worth the trip. It was me, Coley, Adam and Chris – Chris is a chef and posted some of his pictures from the evening on a “foodie website”, to use his term. Check out such delicacies as the “Sausage of the Sea” (pictured above).
We walked around the market buying mostly crabs and then wandered into one of the local restaurants, which cooked all our purchases for us and charged by the pound. These guys had been a few times before and so knew that for maximum effect, one should bring his own butter and ask the waitress to melt it for dipping.
Another interesting part of the evening was that we were in a traffic accident on the way to dinner. Our taxi slammed into the taxi in front of us on the elevated expressway. Being up there without a ride is not one of the more fun places to be in Shanghai. Since there are no available taxis driving on the gaojia we tried to flag down anyone. It didn’t take us long to catch a ride with a young successful Chinese businessman, who was driving a rather plush auto. Not a beamer, but one of the nicer classes of locally produced cars. He was happy to drive us, while extolling the virtues of the American economy (I think). He also proclaimed that it was no bother to help us, that certainly if he were stranded on the road in America, everyone would stop to help him. On that point, I had to politely correct him. As the four of us later agreed amongst ourselves, we would never pick up a stranger on the highway.
This is my piece in this month’s That’s Shanghai about being American in this city.
In for a Grilling
Waving the Star-Spangled Banner in Shanghai
Part of living in a foreign land means people often ask where you’re from. A simple exercise for normal people, but a delicate one for us Americans in China, who learn to take for granted that our nationality will be readily apparent from the moment we open our mouth. We caught on to this after the first thousand times we answered America, only to have the questioner roll his eyes knowingly and say, ”Yeah, but where?” Though we may, in return, feign interest in others’ specific regional origins, rest assured we are merely being polite; we do not recognize any differences between Essex or Sussex, Nice or Lyon, Austria or Australia.
Americans have it tough. As the self-appointed leaders of the civilized world, we have to be sure we are setting a good example. When we’re introducing backward nations to the joys of participatory government or entertaining the throngs with films of monolithic morality, we always strive to ensure our intentions are being perceived in the best manner. But though we are saddled with the burden of global empire, we Americans still have our small pleasures. And one of those is living abroad.
Here in China, Americans are afforded a privileged status among foreigners. When Chinese guess what country we’re from, they always guess right. It must be frustrating for French, British and particularly Canadians to have to repeatedly admit that they do not in fact form part of the planet’s preeminent population. Just the other day I was having lunch with a Kiwi friend at our local canteen and an old Chinese man asked us to join him.
“America!” he said, “Very good!”
And New Zealand? ”It’s OK.”
Kiwis and other non-American English speakers have further reason to complain. While not entirely opposed to their own native tongue fast becoming the world’s linguistic medium, they tend to rue the fact that Americans have engineered this development, as we have taken to abusing the language’s normally benign powers of adaptation to create such colorful phrases as ”I’m so there”, and ”Where you at?” Yet even as greater numbers of Americans are unable to write a coherent sentence, still our words ring out vociferously above those who sing the virtues of proper grammar, as well as those simply trying to eat their breakfast in peace.
America has no cuisine of its own, but rather gets its culinary traditions the same way it acquired its land: by taking what once belonged to others and making it uniquely ours. Thus Italian pasta became our macaroni and cheese, German beefsteak our double bacon cheeseburger, and indigenous maize our microwave popcorn. But there is at least one cooking method that we have pioneered and perfected.
Walking around Shanghai, one could be forgiven for thinking the title belonged to Brazilians; but Americans are the true champions of barbeque. So enamored are we of the charcoal pit that we have demarcated our summer grilling seasons with a beginning, middle and end: three holidays devoted to flying the flag and flipping burgers.
Memorial Day has passed us by and Independence Day is now upon us. Americans everywhere can once again be found outside grilling meat in honor of their country, even here in distant, foreign Shanghai. Whether in the backyards of Hongqiao or the rooftops of Huaihai, there is sure to be smoke rising from an American grill every weekend from now through the season finale on Labor Day - and well beyond. So if you’re craving an enlightening discussion of civics or geography, that is where you can find us at.
We took the train to Beijing Friday night after work, a 12-hour overnight ride that was quite pleasant. We got in around 7:30 and met Eli for brunch at a great Western spot (French toast and eggs all around) and then headed to the hotel to check in. Eli had reserved us a room right across the street from his house at Bei Shi Da (Beijing Normal University) which was large, comfortable and affordable. After getting settled, Eli’s roommate Kro drove us all to his pizzaria, where we enjoyed a fine slice of pie and a pint. Kro, whose real name is Ulaf Kristoff, also has a very large German shepherd named Bakka.
The pizza polished off, we left Kro to tend to his business and headed off to Bei Hai, the North Lake, which is a nice public park. There we saw some nice ladies singing opera and dancing around for fun, and also an old man painting calligraphy with water on the pavement.
The park got boring after 20 minutes so we left and went to Nan Luo Gu Xiang, a hutong (old alley) that has a lot of little cafés where we could sit down, drink coffee, and pass out for a little while.
At this point our old friend Jeff Crosby turned up. Jeff was Eli’s roommate in Kunming, which is where we first him when we moved to that city in early 2003. Jeff is a scholar of the Chinese language and has worked as a translator and interpreter since we’ve known him; he now is a project manager for a tea company and recently led a troupe of minority performers back to the US where they performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and other places. We had a round of White Russians to celebrate our reunion (and the fact that we would be bowling later – a little hat tip to the Big Lebowski).
From the café, we all went to dinner on Gui Jie (Ghost St.), which is full of restaurants, and chose a place specializing in suan tang yu (sour soup fish) which is served in a boiling pot of sour broth. This type of meal is typical in China, where diners can dump in raw meat and vegetables to be cooked in the communal broth, and later picked out with chopsticks and spoons and dunked into personal bowls of sauce. But unfortunately, it is a cuisine in which Shanghai comes up short, and so it was a great treat for she and I to once again enjoy a meal of its character and calibre.
Joining us at dinner were Da Hai and Dave, another old buddy from Kunming, who happened to be in town for two days interviewing for a job. Dave works for a foundation currently and is looking for a similar job with a better salary (which means leaving Kunming).
Next it was time for Baijiu Bowling. It’s just like regular bowling, except those rolling gutterballs have to do a shot of China’s infamous “white liquor”, and those who roll strikes can force others to drink. Guaranteed good times.
When the game was through, and we were all getting pretty buzzed, we split up: She left with Da Hai and another photographer friend they had brought along, to sing karaoke. The rest of us went out to a bar called the Hidden Tree. Except Dave, who wisely went to bed to prepare for his interview (he still woke up smelling like baijiu, never really a good idea when going job-hunting but more power to him!)
Kro and Annie, another friend on the scene, had joined us for the bowling and now we all piled into Kro’s jeep and went out for some real drinking. We hit two bars and ordered a pizza somewhere, which was funny because Eli was outside talking on his cell phone (typical) when the pizza arrived and we ate it all before he came back and then told him that it hadn’t arrived yet. He was asking a waitress where the pizza was and she was like, “I just brought it over here” and we all started laughing. To see how Eli felt about it, view this picture. Later on, we were trying to cheer him up, but it wasn’t really working.
The next day we visited Tiananmen Square for some classic pictures with the Mao portrait, which is, by the way, one of the worst pictures they could have chosen to display. Mao has bags under his eyes and looks like he hasn’t slept for days. It is a fitting picture of a man who for most of his rule was paranoid about people usurping his power.
The weekend was over as quickly as it had begun. It was a whirlwind, but well worth the journey.