Archive for Culture

Goodbye, Anus Hospital


Photo courtesy of eychao

I’m sure the Beijing landscape has changed vastly since I left there in December, but the New York Times confirms at least one transformation that saddens me deeply. Around the corner from my first apartment in Beijing, on Dongdaqiao Lu near Chaoyangmenwai Dajie, stands a hospital that specializes in proctology. Their sign used to read, “Dongda Hospital for Anus and Intestine Disease.” Apparently, that is not the case any longer, as Beijing strives to put on its best face for the Olympics.

Mr. Tool said he spent his weekends visiting different businesses as if he were a detective in a linguistic vice squad. “I go in and I say the Olympics are coming and this sign is wrong,” Mr. Tool said. He then sends an e-mail message with a correct translation or has a printout delivered.

He is writing a book on the subject, and no wonder: regular blunders include typos on menus in which the ‘b’ in crab becomes a ‘p.’ Some translations are trickier, like describing pullet, which is a hen less than a year old but appears on some menus as Sexually Inexperienced Chicken. Mr. Tool said one prominent sign had become a regular photo op for foreigners: the Dongda Anus Hospital.

Mr. Tool intervened. It is now the Dongda Proctology Hospital. Score another gold medal for Beijing’s self-improvement campaign.

Posted by on April 20th, 2007

Cooking in Luang Prabang

Eggs - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang
Barbecue Fish - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang

My best day in Luang Prabang was spent taking a cooking class, taught by a young Hmong man named Ning who was accomplished and sure in the kitchen. Along with three other students (a couple from Heidelberg and a guy from Belgium who works for EUROPOL), I paid $25 for the chance to immerse myself in Lao cuisine from 10am to 6pm. We began with a trip to Phousy Market, the central shopping location for all of Luang Prabang’s residents (excluding the hordes of tourists), where we bought some necessary ingredients and snacks for break-time munching and, more importantly, had a quick but thorough lesson in some of the crucial components of Lao cooking. After a half-hour tour, we boarded a tuk tuk and headed back to the hut that acts as the classroom for the Three Elephants Cafe cooking school.

Woman selling blood - Phousy Market - Luang Prabang
Palm sugar sweets

Back at the school, we started off with some palm-sugar sweets and Lao coffee while Ning and his assistant did some prep work. When the mise-en-place was set, the four of us came inside for a demonstration of the two dishes we were to cook that morning for our lunch. We began with a dish that required more composition than cooking, per se: a Luang Prabang Salad, which consisted of cucumber, tomato, hard-boiled eggs, pork and cilantro arranged over a mound of mixed lettuce greens and dressed with an intriguing mayonnaise made by pulverizing hard-boiled yolks as opposed to the traditional raw-egg base. The salad was quite refreshing, though I picked around the eggs, as the hard-boiled variety have never appealed to me–although as a child I often made my mom cook them for me just so I’d have the chance to play with our egg slicer.

Luang Prabang Salad
Fried noodles with chicken, egg, and vegetables

The other dish that was to serve as lunch was one that I anticipate making at home not infrequently: Fried Noodles with chicken, egg, and green vegetables. This dish was not only both simple and quick to prepare but also quite delicious and distinctly more authentic than just about any Asian noodles available in New York.

Longan fruit
Frying jaew bong chili paste

After lunch we watched Ning show us how to make five more dishes, of which we were to choose three to replicate ourselves, in addition to the proper techniques for steaming sticky rice (the Lao staple food) and jaew bong chili paste, the variety of that omnipresent condiment native to the region around Luang Prabang.

Frying massive amounts of garlic
Purple sticky rice

We came to a consensus on two of the choices, but the other three students all agreed on the third dish, while I dissented, hoping to perfect the green bean salad that can so easily be transformed–using cucumber, green papaya, or mango–into a healthy, tasty, and versatile standby. Since everyone else wanted to make the pork and egg stew, however, and since we were snacking on longan fruit while trying to make this decision (and that after an unusually hearty lunch!), I just went with the flow.

Banana flowers, lemongrass, and limes
Green bean salad

There is a reason that we all concurred about the other two dishes–chicken laap and eggplant with minced pork are some of the most typical Lao dishes, and certainly among the most toothsome. The laap is invigorating on a hot day, and evokes the jungle with all its wild greenery, while the pork and eggplant satisfy with their savory bath of oyster sauce.

Eggplant and pork
Dinner at cooking class

Recipes upon request–considering these photos, I’m expecting to hear from you!

Ingredients for jaew bong chili paste
Chicken laap


Posted by on November 27th, 2006

Two great meals in Laos

So far I’ve had, among many memorable meals, two unbelievable ones. The first was on my last night in Luang Namtha, on the outskirts of town near the old airport, at a restaurant called the Boat Landing, which happens to share its name with the most upscale lodgings in town (rooms go for about $20 a night). I hired a tuk tuk to take me out there after I’d showered upon returning from my kayaking adventure, since from what I’d read in brochures around town and from what the staff at Green Discovery had told me when I’d asked, this was the place to try well prepared traditional Lao food in a relaxed and somewhat upscale atmosphere. I asked the waiter for some recommendations, since the set meals were all designed for 2-3 people, and despite my desire to try a lot of dishes, that seemed slightly excessive.

Dinner - Rice, fish laap, and pork jeow chili paste - Boat Landing Restaurant - Luang Namtha
Pork jeow chili paste - Boat Landing Restaurant - Luang Namtha

I went with his vote for the fish laap, accompanied by the nam pik awng chili paste with pork, steamed rice (since I was a bit tired of sticky rice after eating it four meals straight), and a lemon-mint shake, concocted by the chef himself. None of these choices could have been better. The fish laap was green as the jungle, with finely minced river fish happily overwhelmed by chopped leaves of various herbs, like mint and cilantro, as well as garlic, chiles, scallions, ground roasted sticky rice, and crescents of shredded banana flower. The nam pik awng tasted surprisingly like a spicy, umami Bolognese ragu, and was delicious spread on top of the crisp cucumber rounds and parboiled carrots that accompanied it. The Boat House offers some of their recipes online here, and I’m fairly certain the one for tofu laap could easily be adapted to recreate the properly piscine version I had the fortune to consume.

The second meal was the dinner I ate last night, after my first real day in Luang Prabang, the third-largest city in Laos (with a population of only 16,000!). I ventured down the peninsula toward where the Kham River meets the Mekong to check out the 3 Nagas restaurant (website currently under construction). One of four eateries in town run by a pair of enterprising business partners, 3 Nagas was written up in the food section of the Times two summers ago, and it was that article (by Amanda Hesser, of whose writing I’m usually not a fan) that fanned my eagerness to travel to Laos, and especially Luang Prabang. (Since the article is only available to subscribers like myself, who may or may not have filched their mothers’ delivery account numbers to access archived articles for free, I’ll paste the full text of it below.)

Crispy rice cake with jaew maklen - 3 Nagas
Fried coconut sticky rice with sour pork - 3 Nagas

The restaurant appealed from the moment I walked by, with real wine glasses, tablecloths, and what Amanda Hesser described somewhat overdramatically in her Times piece as a floor the color of ox blood. The real star, however, was the menu, and the food that issued from it. When I first sat down, an amuse bouche–of jaew maklen chili paste on a crispy rice cake–appeared, as if by magic I’d been transported from Laos to New York or Paris. Again on the waiter’s recommendation, I started with the salad of fried coconut sticky rice and sour pork, which was one of the subtlest and most delicious dishes I’ve eaten in my entire life. The flavors were so quiet but persistent at the same time, I almost had to order a second helping to take home with me for later…though I managed some restraint. The pork with eggplant was good but not resplendent, though the jaew bong chili paste, the traditional Luang Prabang variety, shined with its dark undertones of dried buffalo skin and roasted garlic.

Jaew bong chili paste - 3 Nagas
Bamboo rice steamer - 3 Nagas

Eating these chili pastes always feels somehow verboten, as if they contained the blood of Christian children or a secret alchemical elixir of life. This food is dangerous, stuff not for sunny days but for consumption in some coven’s cavern, scooped up with fingers and placed on the tongue to facilitate communion with some dark governor.

Stir-fried pork and eggplant - 3 Nagas
Tamarind sorbet - 3 Nagas

Safer fare was to be found in the dessert section of the menu, where a tamarind sorbet tempted even my bulging belly. I washed it down with the last of my half-carafe of the house white–a sprightly cuvee snagged for just $7–and made my way back to my guesthouse, where I passed out in a gourmand’s reverie.

Full text of the New York Times article, “To Eat in Laos,” by Amanda Hesser, published July 13, 2005, follows. Click on “Read the rest of this entry” to see it.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted by on November 18th, 2006

Khmu can do….

…but Sartre is smart-re, as Homer Simpson would say, if he knew that Khmu is pronounced like Camus, and that it’s the name of a tribe indigenous to the area around the Nam Ha river in Luang Namtha province here in Laos. I’ve just returned from an amazing two days of kayaking along that tributary of the Nam Tha river (itself a tributary of the mighty Mekong), during which we stopped at a number of villages, inhabited by such groups as the Khmu and the Lanten (close relatives of the Hmong).

Driver unloading kayaks from the tuk tuk - Nam Ha River
Women in a Lanten village - Nam Ha River

We left from the office of Green Discovery at 9am, after leaving our backpacks in storage there and stuffing bare essentials into dry sacks for transport in our inflatable two-person kayaks. Together we were four: a friendly Danish couple P. and S., myself, and our guide Ket (pronounced something like Get crossed with Ed). We boarded a tuk tuk and headed for the highway, on which we drove for about an hour before we reached the flooded iron-rich paths that will form the base of a new road once construction is finished. We jerked and bumped our way down toward a village for another 20 minutes or so until we reached the Nam Ha River, inflated our red kayaks, donned orange lifejackets and yellow helmets, and pushed off into the muddy water. We made our way through some minor rapids, P. and S. in one boat, me providing the engine power in front of the other while Ket maneuvered us down the course as if it were a video game.

Hut in a rice field - Nam Ha River

As we entered the Southeast Asian jungle, propelled by our own force down the chocolate river, I couldn’t help but think I was floating down the “Irriwaddy,” as the simulacrum river that flows through the Bronx Zoo, surrounded on either side by free-ranging tapirs and bathing elepants, is known, at least within the borders of the zoo (outside, it transforms back into the slightly less exotic Bronx River). Fluorescent blue birds swooped from bank to bank, while smaller aviators with black-and-white striped tails seemed to skip across the surface, pursuing some subaquatic prey, perhaps. Branches overhung the river, and I pushed them out of my face with my paddle as we passed, wary of the gigantic spiderwebs that spread among their crevices.

Sticky rice in the field - Nam Ha River
Sesame seed pods - Nam Ha River

After a while, we stopped on the right bank for lunch. Ket took a kayak to the other side to climb a banana tree and cut down some of its huge leaves with his knife, to use as both table and chairs, of a sort, back where the three of us hovered helplessly waiting for our leader to return. At this point, I was still a bit afraid to take out my camera, so lunch, like just about every other meal during the trip, passed unrecorded, except in my memory. The company staff had prepared a bountiful lunch of pork stir-fried with green beans and cauliflower, the smallest, freshest peanuts I’ve ever tasted, an omelet with dill and other, unidentified herbs, sticky rice in a bamboo basket, and wonderfully spicy chili paste, pounded with jungle-green herbs, into which we dipped our balled-up rice. After eating, I abandoned my fear and took my camera out of the dry sack, and we walked up the hill to the rice fields that soared above the river along this stretch of shore. There, we saw a hut used by the locals for resting and eating while they’re working the fields, and Ket explained to us what many of the plants would yield in a few weeks’ or months’ time: sticky rice (grown not in flooded paddies like the more common variety, but in dry fields), eggplant, cucumber, pumpkin, sesame seeds, thai basil, and ginger, among a number of others for which he didn’t know the English name. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t identify the vegetables from the plants either.

Dinnertime for the piglets in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River
Houses in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River

After lunch we resumed paddling until we noticed some huts rising above the river on the left. We had reached Ban Nalan, home to some 400-odd members of the Khmu tribe. Ket showed us around the village, pointing out the school, which was built by an NGO about eight years ago, the source of running water, in place for only a year, and the solar panels, another gift of some development agency. My favorite part was all the farm animals running around, particularly the piglets, some of which were as young as five days old. I wanted to take one home, but I figured that might be a problem at Customs (disregarding the problem it would be when my mom saw it jump out of my backpack).

Rooster by a door in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River
Pig in Nalan Khmu village - Nam Ha River

Once we’d had our fill of Ban Nalan, we pushed back into the river and headed another hour or so downstream to Ban Nalan Tai, or the southern village of the same name, also inhabited by Khmu people. It was here that we were to spend the night.

Tubercular woman gathering water in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Houses near our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

First, we changed out of our wet suits and shorts (and I realized that my legs were lightly seared, like good steaks should be) into warmer and drier outfits. Then we explored the village, saying hello to the women and children hanging listlessly around outside (the men were still in the rice fields, and many of them would stay there overnight, as the fields were well over an hour away from the village), soaking each other in. As the light began to fade and the mist move in (around 5pm), some of the village women came over to our hut and started preparing our festive meal. One of them slaughtered a chicken and threw it in a boiling pot of water on the fire stove inside our hut. A young girl joined in, cutting dozens of small water squash into slices, to be made into squash soup and squash curry. Later, when the cooking moved definitively inside (as the sun had certainly sunk behind the mountains), the same girl mashed up chilies with a fragrant herb called lemon balm, to make a distinctive and delicious jeow redolent of lime juice, with the nice crunch of salt to balance the sour and spicy flavors. Through Ket, who speaks not just Lao and English but also the Khmu language and that of a few other hill tribes, we found out about the culture of the Khmu, and some details of the lives of the women who had prepared our meal for us, and whom we had asked to share it with us as well.

Pet monkey in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Close-up of chicken slaughtered for our dinner in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Then, no later than 9pm, with the sky pitch dark, our bellies full, and our tongues burning, we strung mosquito nets from the ceiling and crawled inside them on the mattresses that had been laid on the rattan and bamboo floor. While it had still been light, I’d inspected my set-up for scary creatures and rated it okay, and the mosquito net instilled a sadly false sense of comfort in me. I was zonked out within five minutes of lying down. However, in a couple of hours I woke up, jerked from sleep by the sensation that things were crawling on my face and back and, lo and behold, they were. I had ants on my face, on my neck, and, yes, in my pants! They were tiny ants, nothing to be frightened of, but I was still petrified, and spent most of the night turning from side to side and swatting myself with my sleeve. It’s not like there was anywhere else to go, so I just snoozed and swatted alternately until 7am or so, when I got up, made my way to the surprisingly modern toilet, and literally shook as many of the insects off me as I could. I was ecstatic when, after a breakfast of fresh-laid eggs and sticky rice, swallowed down with two cups of Lao coffee (sweetened with condensed milk but happily likeable), I was able to jump partway in the water as I climbed back into my kayak. Ants can’t swim, can they?

Ket smoking out the bees from our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
Our hut in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Today, we visited a village that the Lanten people call home, though this cluster of huts was in sorrier shape than the other villages we’d seen on the trip. Ket said that the Lanten people, especially in this village, have a huge problem with opium addiction, and that the addiction was at the root of their relative poverty. Even here, most people seemed to have enough to eat, what with subsistence agriculture and all, but a woman came up to us and held out her baby, whose head was a gaping, oozing, wound, and asked us (Ket translated) for money to take him to the hospital. Ket told us that his company sometimes helps the people here get medical attention, that part of the fees we’d paid go toward helping the inhabitants of the villages we visit, and that we shouldn’t give them money because they would spend it on opium. Sadly, we agreed with him and walked away. We didn’t spend too much time in this village, though each of us did buy a little handmade bracelet woven with a traditional Lanten pattern of multi-pronged asterisks.

Cows in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River
High-class facilities in Nalan Tai Khmu Village - Nam Ha River

Upon leaving the Lanten village, we made our way over the largest rapids we would encounter, though even they were nothing much in the dry season (Ket said they were probably only class 2 right now, though in the rainy season the same rapids can be class 3 or even 4). Then we stopped a bit further down on the left bank, sat down on some more banana leaves cut from the tree by Ket, and devoured our lunch, another chicken from Ban Nalan Tai, which they’d barbecued over a spit for about three hours before we left this morning, accompanied by more sticky rice and perhaps the best jeow yet–very salty and sour, and not quite as hot. After lunch, we only had a short way to go before the Nam Ha joined the Nam Tha and we pulled our boats out of the river, at yet another Khmu village, this one just a tiny agglomeration of homes overlooking the broad and muddy Nam Tha. We waited there for a bit until a tuk tuk came for us, and then we clambered back to town, climbing all the way over a rocky road mirroring the turns and dips of the Nam Tha.

Posted by on November 16th, 2006

Spicy Shangzhi

Last weekend was the start of China’s National Day holiday, one of three so-called Golden Weeks during which business throughout the country comes to a stand-still as trains cart urban yuppies and migrant workers out of the bustling metropolises of the eastern and southern coasts and back to their small cities and farm towns in the country’s vast interior. My friend (and co-worker), E., was heading home to her hometown in the northernmost province, Heilongjiang, which borders Siberia and North Korea, and she graciously invited me to join her there for a long weekend of exploring a very different part of China–and of eating lots of spicy food with her Korean-Chinese family.

Red peppers drying - Shangzhi
Crescent moons with red-bean filling  - Shangzhi

Since the trains are always crammed full at these officially sanctioned vacation periods, and since regulations limit purchases of train tickets to the five days preceding a journey, we were blocked from buying seats on a sleeper train heading to her town, Shangzhi, via Harbin, on Friday evening. Instead, we paid 900 kuai each (about 500 kuai or $60 more than hard sleeper tickets on the train) to fly from Beijing to Harbin, from where we would take an airport shuttle to the center of town and then a two-hour bus ride to her city. E. had never flown before, and she was a bit nervous (I can only imagine how much I would freak out if I didn’t have hundreds of flights under my belt by now–I still quiver a little when turbulence rocks the plane or we sway a bit on take off). However, the 1.5-hour flight passed quickly enough when we started talking, and I don’t even really think she noticed we were in the air. I think it was pretty disconcerting for her to land in Harbin before the train would have left the outskirts of Beijing, though. It must be strange to experience that compression of distance for the first time. In any case, the trip was uneventful, and when we reached the center of the city, her friend J. met us in his friend’s van, and the two of them drove us through the mid-day traffic jam to the bus station. After two hours of zooming along the highway through shimmering fields of wheat, we finally arrived in Shangzhi, and had the bus driver pull up in front of E.’s parents’ hotel.

White porridge with carrots - Shangzhi
Purple rice - Shangzhi

From the minute we arrived until 10 minutes before we left that Monday, I don’t think more than an hour passed without my being expected and encouraged to eat something. It was tough, let me tell you, but everything was so incredibly delicious and fresh that I somehow managed to summon up the appetite. That first afternoon E. requested pork ribs cooked with delicious local long beans, which we were served along with homemade kimchi, sweetly pickled (but still fiery) peppers, and the first of many bowls of teasingly purple rice, which tasted just like regular white rice, if a bit softer, but which instantly won me over with its regal hue. The two of us then headed down the street to her parents’ apartment and looked at some old family photos and her middle school yearbook until it was time to join her parents for dinner.

Jing fish grilling at Korean barbecue - Shangzhi
Grilled mantou buns at Korean barbecue - Shangzhi

That night, we went to one of the two restaurants that E. had described to me before we left Beijing, a version of the typical Korean barbecue spot, made more exciting by the fact that it wasn’t just marinated meat you were grilling but your very own kebabs. The grill-your-own-chuanr (chuanr being the Chinese word for kebab–the character, 串, even looks like two chunks of meat on a skewer!) included such delicacies as liver, kidney, and tendons, but I stuck to lamb, small whole fish, bone marrow (a first for me), and delicious mantou, doughy Chinese buns, brushed with oil and spices and placed over the fire. As we removed the meat from the flames, we dipped it in a mixture of dry spices and seasonings including chili pepper, cumin, sesame seeds, ground peanuts, among others. We washed it all down with tea and beer, and I managed a veritable feast, even though at the end of it her mother didn’t quite believe that I was full.

Glutinous rice sweets - Shangzhi
Assorted homemade baozi - Shangzhi
We awoke relatively early the next morning, at nine, though that was late compared to the schedule that people in the region usually keep. Her parents had been up since around six, since they had to head over to the hotel that they run and prepare for a Korean wedding that was to be held that morning in the banquet hall on the first floor. E. and I meandered over there in time to catch the couple saying their vows, though she couldn’t
Flower girl at a Korean wedding - Shangzhi

translate as her parents never really taught her Korean. We watched them pledge their love, if that’s what they were saying, and saw the bride appear three times in different clothes–a Korean dress, a Chinese one, and a white Western one. Then, they ducked into a limo bound for Harbin, the provincial capital, where the groom’s parents were holding a separate wedding for their friends and family. The bride’s parents stayed behind in Shangzhi to host the celebration for their loved ones. By 11 in the morning, the entire room was drunk on baijiu (noxious Chinese liquor), and E. and I decided to walk over to her middle school. When we returned around noon, the dregs of the party were still there, dancing in a typical Korean style in the middle of the room, and I received my share of dance invitations in broken Russian. None of them could even conceive of the fact that I might have come from farther away than Siberia–though I guess I do look quite a bit Russian.

Crispy pancakes filled with egg and scallion  - Shangzhi
Spicy cabbage soup  - Shangzhi

We ate lunch that day with her parents in the foyer of the hotel, slurping down a tomatoey cabbage soup and devouring crispy crepes filled with scrambled egg and scallions, this after the homemade baozi (stuffed buns), porridge, and sweets made for the wedding downstairs that had magically appeared before us when we arrived at the hotel only a few hours earlier.

Shizui Mountain - Shangzhi
Red flowers at Shizui Mountain - Shangzhi

After lunch, E. convinced her dad to take us out into a countryside, up to a mountain called Shizuishan (Stone Mouth Mountain), that a friend of his had bought a few years ago. He and his brother-in-law, E.’s mother’s brother, borrowed a three-wheeled car, which seemed to be the most popular form of transportation in this city, from a friend, and we set out. As long as the road remained flat, we sailed (well, sputtered) along, but as soon as we reached the slight incline of the path heading up to the mountain, the tri-wheeler died. E.’s uncle had an amusing spot of trouble trying to start it from an uphill position, and the three passengers ended up getting out to make it easier for him. After this happened for the third time, E. and I came to the realization that her uncle probably hadn’t driven before, since her father took over driving and had no problem with the car. It seems this had all been a learning opportunity for her uncle, and she and I were happy to be entertained by his education. It’s not like we were in a rush–we were surrounded by the golden autumn countryside–so what did it matter if he couldn’t get the car past first gear? Finally we made it to the mountain, which, though far from unspoiled by Coney Island-style amusements and games of chance, was still a gorgeous refuge to anyone accustomed to the grit and grayness of Beijing. The sky was a clear cobalt above us, and wildflowers lined the stone steps that we ascended to the summit.

Fish with spicy tofu - Shangzhi
Our fish - Shangzhi

Once we had explored the mountain’s various paths, E.’s father decided we should head to the fields on the other side of the city for some fishing, and we hopped back in the little, lime-green car. Fifteen minutes later, we turned off the main thoroughfare onto a rough dirt road, which led to a large pond where local men were fishing like their dinner depended on it. Half an hour later, we understood what all the fuss was about, as we yanked a five-pound fish out of the water (well, after E.’s father did, she and I both having failed to tug hard enough on the reel-less rod). Her dad paid 25 kuai ($3) or so to take home our catch, and then we drove back to the hotel and eased it into a tub on the kitchen floor, which had already become home to a giant catfish, presumably for the restaurant patrons. From our bounty, though, we got four different dishes an hour later: deep-fried fish, fish with spicy tofu, fish-head soup, and fish jiaozi (boiled dumplings). I had never before caught a fish and kept it, let alone ate it. It made me feel a little more at-one with my food, which was definitely interesting–plus everything was delicious, especially the spicy fish and tofu dish that her dad had made himself. After dinner, E. and I walked off some of the fullness and headed home, where we talked for a few hours before going to sleep.

Deep-fried fish - Shangzhi
Spicy pork, watercress, potato and sweet potato stew - Shangzhi

On Sunday morning, we avoided notice and thereby skipped breakfast, since her parents were busy organizing yet another wedding in their banquet hall, this time of a Chinese couple. Instead, we headed fifteen minutes up the street to Shangzhi’s small but bustling downtown, where ancient farm women were selling wine-dark grapes, bloody pomegranates, and small yellow fruits that looked like tomatillos (I later determined that they were “Chinese lanterns”, and, yes, a close relative of the tomatillo). After checking out some cell phones for E. and looking up and down a couple of streets, we made our way back to the hotel, where her mom had set out some deliciously soft small pears, which we munched on while she prepared her signature dish for us. The family-favorite, a stew of pork, watercress, potato, and sweet potato, was steeped in a more-liquid form of the spicy Korean paste that always accompanies bibimbap at restaurants both in the States and in China (and therefore, I imagine, in Korea as well). It was as good as E. had promised me, and thankfully she’s lived up to her other promise regarding it, that she would learn how to make it before she came back to Beijing. Sometime later this week or next week she’s going to teach me how to make it too.

Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi
Chicken feet kebabs at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi

By that afternoon, we had pretty much exhausted the sights to see and things to do in Shangzhi, so we just went back to her apartment, watched TV, read, and dozed for a bit. That night, however, proved to be the highlight of the weekend. E. had been trying to convince her parents since we arrived that they should take me to her favorite restaurant, which is basically a trailer parked in the street housing a dingy barbecue joint. They seemed to think it wasn’t right to take their foreign guest to dinner there, but E. did a great job persuading them that this was exactly the type of place in which I wanted to eat, and from the moment I walked in there with a huge grin plastered on my salivating mouth, I think they finally believed her. The chuanr there was incredible: the lamb taking on an entirely new taste, the hot-pepper skewers piercingly spicy, the chicken feet kebabs smothered in a tempting-enough sauce that I actually tried one for the first time–and thoroughly enjoyed it! The other tables were full of locals out enjoying a hearty meal together, we swatted flies between bites of spicy meat, the trailer seemed to rust noticeably in the time it took to eat our dinner, but all those things made it one of the most perfect meals I’ve had in China. I’d highly recommend that everyone eat in a Korean barbecue trailer if the opportunity ever presents itself.

Super spicy pepper kebabs at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi
Spicy pickled vegetables at the Korean barbecue trailer - Shangzhi

After dinner, the four of us walked abreast back from downtown toward their house. Passersby continued to stare at me even on the third day there, despite the fact that I’m sure the entire city had heard there was a white girl roaming their town. E.’s parents decided to stop for roasted corn when we were halfway back, and we sat down on little stools on the side of the street, while men and women crouched in the half-light of the fire they had built to roast the just-picked corn. One of the men, his face eerily illuminated by the flames, asked E.’s father what I was doing here, and told us that he’d seen me walking around the night before. When they told the crowd that I was their daughter’s coworker in Beijing, that I was from the States and I was staying at their house for the National Day holiday, there was an appreciable gasp of awe. My visit gave some clear cachet to her family, made them seem more worldly in the eyes of their neighbors, which was something I hadn’t quite foreseen, even though I knew beforehand that my presence in this city would certainly be an unusual occurrence. As for the late-night treat itself, I’d never before had corn that was roasted without having first been boiled, and the kernels took on a completely new texture, juicy inside and lightly charred without. We hooked arms and gnawed on the cobs the rest of the way home.

If you want to see the rest of my photos from Shangzhi and Harbin, you can check them out here on flickr.

Posted by on October 8th, 2006

Thick into paper

One last excerpt from my book–I posted briefly about this experience, but not at all about the details…and it was pretty cool.

Along with gunpowder, clocks, and noodles, the Chinese are said to have invented paper. As is the case with many similar generalizations, a great deal of truth actually stands behind that notion: while the Mediterranean world was still drawing on papyrus and etching with styluses on wax tablets and the Incas were conveying messages with knotted ropes, the Chinese had a fifteen-hundred-year head start writing on the cheap and versatile medium of paper—and even printing on it.

Less than an hour southwest of Hangzhou, fifteen minutes shy of the city of Fuyang, an organization still produces paper the same way it has been made for millennia in the region just south of the Yangtze River, and prints hand-bound books of ancient texts on it in the traditional manner. I’ve always been fascinated by the artifacts of writing and printing, and so I jumped at the chance to visit this ancient papermaking village, as the place is known, and see what’s behind this historically and artistically important art form.

A guide led me around the village, which is laid out in the style of the Ming Dynasty (although it has certainly been reconstructed to some degree), and she walked me through the process of making paper from pulp to poetry. The first steps take place outside the village itself, in the bamboo forests up on the hills that line the banks of the nearby Fuchun River. There, sturdy men fell clumps of bamboo and hack it into serviceable pieces, after which it is transported to the village to be transformed. This is one of the few ways in which the modern process diverges from the ancient one: today trucks carry the bamboo from the forests to the village, but in years past it was carried on the backs of animals, or of men, and sometimes it was floated down the river.

Once it arrives at the village, machines of antique construction reduce the bamboo to a woody pulp. This pulp is then transferred into giant vats, which are filled to the top with cold water. The entire production line is located in buildings sheltered by roofs but open in the front to the elements, which makes this a chilling process even in early fall, let alone in winter. Men with chapped but cold-hardened hands wield giant frames over the vats, on which is suspended a fine metal netting. They lower these wooden frames into the freezing vats slowly, rest them beneath the surface of the pulpy water for a moment, and carefully lift them back up and behind them, all in one smooth motion. The guide insisted I try this for myself, and, though I feigned disinterest, I was secretly glad to have the chance to imitate these actions—it had seemed too easy to be interesting when I watched the men at work, but dipping wire into water and coming up with paper was much more difficult than it appeared.

Once the pulp rests perfectly on the netting stretched across the frame, the artisan places it on a pile until dozens of layers have accumulated. It takes twenty or more layers to make one of these outsized sheets of paper. The sheets then make their way to the next station, where women work actively to dry them evenly. The worker takes a sheet and sticks it onto a slate-black wall, which is heated from the inside by a roaring furnace. She brushes down the length of the sheet until the color starts to change from muddy gray to a brighter white. When the paper is dry, she stacks it by the door for easy access. From there it is taken to be cut down to the proper size and moved over to the next set of small buildings, where the printers keep their shop.

There, using ancient wooden blocks of characters borrowed from museums and archives, women work to print traditional texts by China’s renowned historians and beloved poets. Each block of writing is enough to print a page, and the wooden blocks, black from use over the centuries, must be coated perfectly by brush with thick ink in order to create a good print. Again, I was encouraged to have a go myself at what seemed like a mindless task, using a block engraved with a drawing of a phoenix, and again I proved myself foolish. The lines that resulted on my paper were splotchy in some regions and barely visible in others, the head was a giant blur of ink, and black specks dotted the white background. I carefully placed my embarrassment in my bag and moved on to the shop. It was months before I threw away the travesty—for a while it served as a nice reminder that things aren’t always as easy as they look, especially when the thing in question is the hard work of someone else.

The other souvenir I acquired, however, is something to cherish. In the wood-beamed shop at the end of the production line, I browsed through the shelves of books bound in blue or yellow cloth until I found the perfect gift for my friend, a casual scholar of classical Chinese poetry: an edition of the collected works of the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, constructed from scratch entirely on site and bound accordion-style, in the traditional fashion. Looking at the gorgeous volumes of lyrical observations, military histories, and philosophical ruminations, it was hard to believe that these had all started out as the cold mixture of pulp and water into which I’d dipped my hands just a while before. It seemed impossible that every page was made of dozens of thin sheets interlaced and compressed, that each character of every poem was printed with the care required not to smudge the fine calligraphy, that these books had begun as bamboo groves up on the hills behind the village, and, by extension, as ideas in the heads of long-dead writers.

Posted by on March 1st, 2006

It’s a dog-eat-dog-year world

I spotted this ad in the classified section on the That’s Beijing website, and I couldn’t get over how weird it was. Why wouldn’t they want someone born in the year of the dog? Is it really that unlucky to have been born under the same zodiac as the current year? Or is it just a way of discriminating against applicants that are too young or too old? The subject was “Urgent: Film Production Company Need an Assistant,” and the text went like this, seemingly normal and justified until the end:

Position: Office Assistant
Requirements:
-native Chinese male or female
-love film and drama
– Ability to co-ordinate, organize and follow-up with tasks
– Ability to prioritize projects and tasks
– Open-minded attitude and willing to learn
– Strong ability to problem solve, delegate, multi-task, plan and organize
– Confidence in communication with a direct and open style
– Enthusiasm and motivation with evidence of going the extra mile
– An essential high degree of confidentiality
– Ability to research and collect data
– Patient and thoughtful
– Phone contact and meeting attendance

Responsibilities:
– General administrative duties
– Communicate, organize and co-ordinate
– Research and collect information to draft reports
– Preparation of documents, reports and answering of email

Computer Experience:
Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Powerpoint , Macromedia-Dreamwaver.

NOT BEEN BORN IN A DOG YEAR (NEITHER 1982 NOR 1970)

Isn’t that strange?

Posted by on February 21st, 2006

A pilgrimage to Tianzhu

The Tianzhu temples caught my eye despite being out of the way—not only were they hidden at the end of a list of Hangzhou’s attractions, their names buttressed by little description or practical information, but their actual position is a bit off the beaten track as well. Never one to listen to a list or let geographic inconvenience deter me, however, I was certain that my time in Hangzhou wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt out past Lingyin Temple to Tianzhu Road, where it seems as if gods have set three temples like jewels into the mountainside. It was only an inkling I had, based on years of experience that have taught me to value my own instincts over the recommendations of any tourist board or guide book. Still, I’ve also learned that sometimes travelers avoid places for a reason, so when intuition sends me off into the tourist wilderness, where locals roam free, impervious to attack from the point-and-shooting hordes, I try not to let my expectations run away with me.

As I hiked up the road toward the topmost temple one perfect autumn morning, I reveled in the fullness of the forest on either side, a verdant surprise that already justified the cab fare from the city center. So absent from my home in Beijing, a dry, gray, and dusty city that seems to sprawl almost to the grasslands of Mongolia, the lushness of this scenery overwhelmed me. To find a place still embraced by nature is sadly rare in urban China, yet unspoiled green tracts surround Hangzhou, a fitting frame for the artful expanse of water at its heart. A few cars whizzed close to me on the paved mountain road, but I paid them no mind, wrapped up as I was in my meditation on unchecked development and the cultural and political challenges of conservation.

When I reached Faxi Si, the Buddhist abbey at the top, however, after a walk of three-quarters of an hour or so, my train of thought turned more personally meditative. Should I buy a bundle of incense from one of the women selling candles at the temple gate to attempt the proper ritual once inside? Or would it be better to fumble around in my relative ignorance, taking photographs and sticking out like the foreign devil they likely assumed I was, but also not pretending to knowledge or beliefs I didn’t really possess?

I ruled that since my intentions were in the right place—I wanted to try to fit in with the few faithful adherents I saw milling around and gain a sense of how they experienced the place, rather than imposing the interpretations of my own mindset on it—I should do what pilgrims do and buy some scent to burn as communication with the heavens. The few extra kuai my purchase would add to the vendor’s pocket couldn’t hurt either, a certainty reinforced by the speed with which she stopped counting the beads on her mala, the Buddhist rosary she draped around her wrist to help her focus on the mouthed but silent recitations of her mantras, to tell me how much my attempt at partial participation was going to cost me.

It was, then, clutching eight powdery, fuchsia sticks in my hand, which itself would remain stained pink for much of the day, that I passed through the threshold of the temple. In the main courtyard, uphill from the gate, I took in the gold and crimson buildings devoted to the lord of compassion, the Buddha whom the Chinese call Guanyin, a female deity known in Tibet and India as Avalokitesvara.

The name of this trio of temples itself evokes that spiritual place of origin: Tianzhu, which literally translates as Master of Heaven, is the ancient Chinese name for India, from which Buddhism trekked over the Himalayas more than 2,000 years ago. The religion spread over the whole of China, eventually nestling its way into Hangzhou and putting down roots so strong that, despite the passing of millennia and the cultural crusades of the past century, the people of this city still climb Tianzhu Road to reach these temples, even if most of those who pass by the old women selling joss sticks are themselves grandmothers, or at least mothers, or daughters.

I felt like a daughter of Hangzhou myself as I clumsily imitated the motions of the older women in the center of the courtyard. I stuck my incense into a large bronze vessel filled with fire, until the sticks smoldered and then smoked at their rounded tips. The pilgrims bowed at the waist toward the temple at the top of the steps, shook the spicy smoke up into the air with both hands in front of them, and turned to their right, repeating the motions until their prayers were ascending to all four corners of the sky. With my thin magenta wands, I followed them as fluidly as possible, repeated their movements and tried to ingratiate my mind with their thoughts. I was not just performing empty gesticulations there on the stage before an audience of these believers and their deities, but I couldn’t fill my mind with the same resonances I knew these gestures held for them.

Like my unwitting (though seemingly not unwilling) tutors, I pushed my still-smoking joss sticks down into a bed of ash behind the censer and entered the convent’s main hall, where the Buddhas of the past and future flanked their present-minded avatar. Standing before these magnificent symbols, given form as gorgeous statues, I reflected on my history, the past that had brought me before this pacific triad; I considered my present, allowed my breath to slow until my mind could not detect it, and worked to still my mind so it wouldn’t even try; and I contemplated moving on into the future, following my thoughts of the life ahead of me into the experience of living it.

When I stumbled back out into the crisp air of early fall, which pixelates the sunlight to sharpen and saturate life as if it were a photo, I knew I couldn’t hope to understand the experience of those visitors to which the temple and its inhabitants are more accustomed. Still, I’d had revelations of my own, and I meditated on them as I made my way along the side of the road to the next bead in Tianzhu’s mala. Buddhist monks say that the mind is as random and thoughts as spontaneous as a monkey jumping through the branches of a tree. As I meandered down the mountain, however, my mind was focused and my thoughts purposeful, the monkey sitting still upon a single branch, peeling a banana.

Posted by on February 13th, 2006

Happy New Year

And again, sadly, it’s been a while, but things in Beijing have been as hectic as ever. I started a new job two weeks ago, as the Managing Editor of a new digital travel guide company that’s about to launch this month. It’s called Schmap, and I’m enjoying my work there so far, even though it means I have a schedule like the rest of the world and have to be in the office at 9 each morning, and I usually don’t get out at night until after 7. I’ve also been busy finishing my Hangzhou guide project–and watching the fireworks. Yes, it’s with noise and light that the Chinese celebrate their New Year, which in practical terms translates to three weeks of nonstop fireworks and firecrackers.

From my aerie on the 22nd floor, I’ve had a great view of all the artful gunpowder, which has been more exciting and interesting than annoying, even though at times it’s sounded like Dresden must have on Valentine’s Day in 1945. According to R., who was around last year for Spring Festival–the name for the two-plus weeks of festivities surrounding the actual lunar new year–the government banned the setting off of fireworks in Beijing last year, and the ruckus wasn’t close to a match for this year. Apparently, the people weren’t happy about losing a chance to celebrate life. I can understand that–until now it hadn’t really seemed like the people here took life by the throat at all, but these two weeks have given me some new insight–Spring Festival seems like the only real chance they have to let loose. What’s most interesting to me, though, is the notion that they must have been celebrating like this for centuries: warding off the dark and cold that characterize north China this time of year with colored lights and echoing booms.

Posted by on February 5th, 2006

The death of Cantonese in America

I’m sorry I haven’t posted in the last three weeks, but I was home in New York, having an uneventful but welcome vacation, seeing friends and family, and experiencing a lovely bout of bronchitis despite the unusually terrific weather there. Now that I’m back in Beijing (as of yesterday), I expect to be back to posting here as well, despite a looming deadline next week for my book! Of course, now that I’m in China, I came across an interesting article in the LA Times about the pressures on the American Cantonese community to learn Mandarin: business, politics, entertainment have all moved toward Mandarin as the dominant language since the onslaught of immigration from parts of China beyond Guangdong began twenty-five or thirty years ago. It’s an interesting look at the culture of chinatowns and the cultural differences contingent on this language divide.

Posted by on January 8th, 2006