I am back in California now and my adventures in China have officially come to an end. Before I get back to real life, I will post a few of my favorite photos from the last year.
I have recently started reading a new book, When in French by Lauren Collins. Collins is currently a New York Times columnist based in Paris. In this memoir, she catalogues her move New York to London, London to Geneva. She meanwhile has married a Frenchman and is attempting to learn French.
As a fellow language learner, I both laugh aloud and cringe when she lists her linguistic mishaps. These including telling her mother-in-law that she has birthed a coffee maker. Though I have no mother-in-law at present, I have shared many a mishap with Ms. Collins and feel inspired to document some recent ones, before I depart China in July.
At the start of a recent massage, the masseuse asked which part of my body hurt. I replied enthusiastically “wǒ de bēizi!” He snorted: I tried to say “my back,” (which is actually bèi) but instead told him that my cup ached.
At the gym recently, the instructor of the class asked if I could speak Chinese. I said “wǒ kěyǐ,” trying to say that I can. However, Chinese has two similar verbs. One means “I have the ability or skill to.” Which would have been the correct verb. I said the other one. Basically, I said, “I physically can form speech,” but not “I can speak Chinese.” So in protesting my ability, I proved myself to be lying.
I got into the back of the Chinese equivalent of Lyft and the driver asked my cell phone number, which is how you are identified. I told him and we set off. He began chatting, very fast and very much not in standard Mandarin. I panicked, and answered by “hmmph” for a while. This soon became an inappropriate way to respond and he finally craned his neck around. He was shocked and said, “What! You are foreign!” Apparently he at first did not look and assumed from my recitation of four digits that I was Chinese. Then, mercifully, he slowed down his speech to a crawl and we continued the conversation.
Lastly, on Monday I tried to refill my metro card. The card did not refill, but they charged me. So I gathered myself and went to the counter to remedy the matter. I explained (I think) in Chinese that the transaction was not successful, that I would like a refund. The woman behind the counter looked me dead in the eye and without blinking, raised her walkie talkie. She radioed, “Hi, do you speak English? There is a foreigner here.” I responded, “Hi, I can speak Chinese.” She said, “Fine, go to this other counter.” Needless to say, this encounter made me feel confident of my prowess.
Though I did learn the happy news yesterday that I passed my latest HSK exam (汉语水平考试), it is clear that I have a long ways to go on this project! Luckily, I have Lauren Collins’s book for company.
Spring continues to rush by and now we hit May. Nanjing continues to heat up: it is reliably in the 80s now. The flowers have been replaced by abundant green leaves. The sky has been lovely and blue lately, which is delightful.
It is Sunday and I completed my first make-up days ever today. In China, when there is a public holiday, work is not cancelled. It is moved around. May 1st is International Workers’ Day, so there was a public holiday from May 1 to May 4. Wednesday classes were cancelled but Thursday and Friday classes had to be made up over the weekend. I did feel bad for the students, inside on such a perfect day, but I am sure the pleasure and joy of learning was worth the disappointment!
Last weekend and at the start of the week, my flatmates and I dashed off to Malaysia. You may be wondering, why did we go before the holiday? Because the dates of the holiday were recently changed. We purchased our tickets months ago to save money and therefore also accidentally beat the rush of tourists who left for the actual holiday.
Kuala Lumpur is a wonderful city: filled with parks and greenery. We walked mostly and also used Grab, the regional competitor to Uber. KL itself is actually just a few (large) neighborhoods, but it is surrounded by development. These developments used to be separate but grew into Kuala Lumpur. We spent the most time to the southwest of the center, in Petaling Jaya.
While in KL, I greatly enjoyed the chance to learn. I did not know much about Malaysian history or culture and am no expert now, but did learn lots. My flatmates and I went to two wonderful museums: the Islamic Arts Museum and the Textile Museum. We also went to the bird park and a botanical garden, along with a tin factory and several Hindu temples. The most beautiful was just north of the city in the Batu Caves. I will include a photo below.
The food in Kuala Lumpur is a mix of Malay, Indian, and Chinese. Nesi lamak is one of the “national dishes.” It is comprised of coconut rice, dried sardines, peanuts and a pepper sauce. Proteins such as fried chicken are optional. Malaysian coffee is also excellent and very sweet, similar to that iced coffee that I tried in Vietnam. I think both use condensed milk.
Interestingly, KL also a vibrant burger scene. One afternoon I convinced my very patient flatmates to venture to Petaling Jaya with me, to find a burger truck called Jackson’s. I had one address, though the truck of course moves, and we set off. As we drove through the neighborhood, someone spotted the truck in a front yard. We called out, alarming the Grab driver who then stopped. The burgers were excellent! Photos below. Afterwards, we had to walk for miles looking for transport but I think it was very much worth it.
This was the last of our international voyages and it was a wonderful end. With two months left in China, I know the time will fly!
Seoul is a very cool city. My flatmates and I went last weekend, taking advantage of a Chinese festival (清明节/Tomb Sweeping Festival). The flight from Nanjing to Seoul is only two hours, but the cities have very different feels.
I was expecting Seoul to be all high-rises and skyscrapers and it was some of those. However, the city scape was more human in scale than I anticipated. The sidewalks are wide and, because there were no share bikes crowding the pavement, felt more accessible to pedestrians. The city is huge and very busy, but felt quiet because of the dearth of motorbikes. Instead, Seoul has an awesome bus and metro system, with designated bus lines.
But honestly, we didn’t go for the public transit. We went to snack. And the snacking was fantastic! One of the most popular options was kimbap, described to me as a Korean version of sushi and pictured below. It is rice rolled in seaweed with some vegetables, but no seafood.
Other crowd favorites include tteokbokki, glutinous rice cakes. These were usually served drenched in hot sauce and were absolutely delicious. Lastly, we tried kimchee dumplings (kimchee mandu in Korean). Again, very hot but so delicious and totally different from the dumplings we usually eat in China. In China, the 馒头 (mántou) dumplings are close to the Korean style, but are never made with kimchee (in my experience).
Because we enjoyed the food so much, we signed up for a cooking class. It was great fun! We learned to make seafood pancakes and a very hearty seafood and tofu stew. I did not know that stews were such a big part of Korean food. The tofu in this stew was unfermented, white and soft. It is not a kind often used in Chinese cooking, but the chef explained that this kind is most popular in Korean dishes.
As South Korea’s capital, Seoul has a long and vibrant history. We visited Gyeongbok Palace, the former seat of the Joseon dynasty. The imperial style architecture felt similar to that of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Large square courtyards, ringed by one story, beautifully painted buildings with pointed roofs. The differences lay in scale (China’s palace is much larger) and color. The underside of the roofs in Chinese palaces tend to be red and blue. In Seoul, the palace roofs were a very distinctive shade of green. Given that the palace is ringed by mountains, it is a gorgeous combination.
Finally on our last day, we went to the Han River and admired the cherry blossoms. There we picnicked with some friends living in Seoul and they introduced us to chimaek, fried chicken and beer. While picnicking, you can rent blankets, then call for delivery to your area. Crowds of older ladies hand out fliers for delivery places, almost all fried chicken. It was a great day of sunshine, flowers and hot sauce. We absolutely lucked out on the sunshine, the blossoms, and getting to visit Seoul at all!
To my utter delight, spring has come to Nanjing! Gone are the grey, frigid days of winter! Now, it stays light later each day and the cherry and plum trees all over town are blooming. It is wonderful.
Today, I went to a local lake with a friend to see the blooms. Because it was a Sunday, and a sunny Sunday at that, the crowds were formidable. There is an idiom which I recently learned, 人山人海 (“so many people they make-up a mountain or a sea”) that applied perfectly. But because the weather was so lovely, I didn’t mind.
Along with the blossoms, I have also been enjoying a new snack lately, 抓饼 (“grab pancake”). It is a snack whipped up in a few moments on a griddle and meant to be eaten quickly. Chinese pancakes are usually savory. I order an egg, fried, with vegetables and hot peppers. So, so delicious! Aware that my time in China is dwindling, I stop for them often.
I also recently traveled to Taipei (more on that in another post) and there I tried a fantastic scallion pancake (葱油饼). Fried at a hot temperature on a griddle, you again have the option to top with eggs, meats, vegetables and/or hot sauce. I had one with black peppers that was to die for.
Beyond the pancakes and the plum flowers, I would like to draw attention to another one of my favorite things, massages. A traditional Chinese massage is called 推拿 (tuīná). Often administered by a highly trained blind masseuse, it is not the typical spa experience you might expect in the US. The massages are administered while you are fully clothed, and you often share a room with other strangers. It is deeply painful, as the masseuse presses on you, literally digs their elbow into tight spots, forcibly cracks your back. At times you have to take deep breaths and remind yourself that eventually, this will end. However, afterwards, you feel incredible! Everything feels aligned and your posture improves. The massages also tend to be very affordable, 60 rmb for 60 minutes. I go as often as possible. I think of it as language practice as I attempt to describe parts of the body in Chinese!
For the past few years, my siblings and I have been lucky enough to live in some amazing places and get to visit each other. (Though my sister would rightly point out that I have been more often visited than doing the visiting! Looking forward to our 2020 gathering.) This year, the group was gracious enough to come to Asia, and we headed to Vietnam during February.
We went just after Vietnamese and Chinese New Year, known in Vietnam as Tet. This timing was beneficial because stories and sites were open, but it wasn’t the heat of summer. HCMC was hot even in February, 90s and sunny.
We did a day trip to the Mekong Delta, to the top coconut producing region. Called Ben Tre, it was absolutely stunning! This delta area is Vietnam’s fruit basket.
While in HCMC, we visited the War Remnants Museum, which details the French and American wars in Vietnam, and the Reunification Palace. The museum included information about the reasons for and impacts of the wars. It was powerful and very graphic, with a specific exhibition about photo journalism during the Vietnam War, known there as the American War.
The Reunification Palace was the seat of power in independent south Vietnam and has been preserved as it was on the morning of April 30, 1975. On that morning, tanks from the People’s Army of Vietnam broke down barricades and power was transferred. It is a beautiful, spooky building with photos of the rooms in use and explanations of their functions. I am grateful for the chance to learn more about this time in Vietnam (and US) history. Especially as an American tourist in Vietnam, these places are important to see.
From HCMC, we moved north to Hoi An, in the central coast. Hoi An is close to Da Nang and is known for its charming, ancient down town. It is a beautiful town, a bit touristy, but lovely for a few days.
Finally, a part of the group went to Hanoi, the capital. Brendan and I missed MJ and MG, but knew they were having a fab time in Singapore.
Hanoi feels very different from HCMC. In HCMC, the sidewalk was narrow or nonexistent and locals did not seem to walk anywhere. People just motorbike around. In Hanoi, there are also motorbikes, but seem to be more people walking the sidewalks are much wider. This was a bit of a relief. Hanoi also has many lakes strewn throughout the city and though it was more chilly than the south, it was still lovely walking temperature.
The food also differs. In Saigon, street food vendors offered banh mi everywhere. It was so good! Fresh bread, a few chilies, some pate or barbecue and vegetables. In Hanoi, vendors had bun cha, which is BBQ pork and rice/vermicelli noodles. It is a heartier dish, maybe better suited for a colder climate. Pho also comes from the north.
From Hanoi, we took another day trip to Cat Ba Island, La Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay. These are the waters with karsts sticking straight into the sky. It was such beautiful scenery! Among the outcroppings are many tourist boats floating around and some floating fishing villages. According to our guide, himself a former fisherman, families culivate catfish and clams for sale. Many of the enclosures were empty because Tet is a big time for fish consumption.
From Hanoi, we split for our respective homes. Grateful for the opportunity to travel with my family and the chance to see a bit more of another place.
Hainan is the name of a tropical island, situated below mainland China, between Vietnam and Hong Kong. The name in Chinese (海南) literally means “south of the sea” or “south sea.” And it is stunning! Warm weather, palm trees, sandy beaches. The island is volcanic and mountainous inland, with lovely beaches at the edges.
My flatmate and I, anticipating a grey Nanjing winter, booked tickets for a weekend away on a whim a few months ago. We hoped for blue skies and warm weather. I hoped for some hiking and cycling. We got the lovely weather, but I didn’t get my hiking. Once I saw the beach, I realized that actually just staying there would be perfectly fine with me.
Hainan is the home of the world’s first circular, high-speed railway. The capital city, Haikou, is on the north end. The most popular beach town, Sanya, is on the south-west tip. So after a three hour flight and a night in Haikou, we hopped aboard the train and headed to Sanya’s Houhai area for a lovely getaway. Houhai is tiny and stunning; the beach was clean and uncrowded. There were only about five hotels, and a lot more deep green trees. The waves were manageable and the water much warmer than the cold Pacific. At no point did I become numb while swimming, even during our Chinese-language surfing lesson.
The food was as excellent as the scenery. Hainan of course has super fresh seafood. We grabbed lunch with our instructor after the surf lesson. He brought his own fish (caught the day before) and the restaurant prepared them. They were delicious!
The area can also grow amazing fruits, especially mango and coconut. I love mango and probably ate seven to eight over the course of four days. They were very affordable, about seven to ten RMB per mango ($1-2). The folks working the fruit stands would also slice them for you, beautifully and at no charge, then hand you the sliced mango and toothpicks to eat with. Paradise!
A form of sorbet, called 炒冰 (“fried ice”) is also popular. It is easily available at the night markets that pop up after dark. You can select from a range of flavors. I usually got mango or mango and coconut. Sarah was more adventurous and tried kiwi and passion fruit. Another desert called qingbuliang (清补凉, “cool, sweet soup”) is also popular. It consists of a super sweet, thin yogurt with lots of additions including raisins, coconut flesh, corn and others.
The night markets also had savory options, including fried rice, noodles, all kinds of Chinese pancakes (more like crepes than American pancakes), and fried seafood. I wish Nanjing were 20 degrees warmer in winter and also that it had such markets.
Overall, it was a total blast! Lovely to have some time outside, in a different region of China and eating new foods. The dialect in Hainan is also totally different, which was fun to hear. I couldn’t understand Hainanese at all, but people were kind and switched to standard Mandarin with us. Would love to go back and soak up some more sun.
China has really, really good street food. Its restaurants also tend to be more affordable on the whole. This blend of flavor and value hit new heights last weekend. My roommate and I ventured west to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. Sichuan food (sometimes spelled Szechuan in the US) is notoriously spicy and delicious. Sichuan food heavily utilizes the má (麻) spice, which makes your mouth tingle.
Local specialities include dandanmian, a photo of which is below. The noodles look bland when they first arrive, but then you grab some chopsticks and stir. At the bottom of the bowl, there is a puddle of pepper oil which covers the noodle and adds color and spice. Dan (担) means “to carry, or bear.” Apparently the noodles are called dandanmian because they were affordable for laborers. But I got that info from Bing so it might be completely wrong.
Another fun local dish that we tried is called “squirrel-cut eggplant.” There is another dish which I have sampled in Nanjing, called squirrel fish. It involver carefully and intricately slicing a fish into a delicate pattern, then lightly frying. Chengdu does the sample, but using eggplant (it is very far from the sea). We tried the eggplant at the Wenshu Monastery’s lovely vegetarian restaurant.
Outside that restaurant is another fun bit of local flavor: a lively tea house. Chengdu is famous in China for being laid-back, a bit bohemian. Someone once described it as China’s San Francisco to me (no wonder I liked this city). These tea houses are a great expression of that. They are large spaces, indoor and outdoor, with loads of tables and simple wicker chairs. You go and purchase the leaves or flowers for a cup of tea, and then you get unlimited hot water. You can sit all day with friends, and a worker will come by occasionally with a huge, ancient iron kettle and fill you up. It is super affordable, 15-30RMB per cup, and seemed to be a wonderful place especially for older folks to gather. I tried chrysanthemum tea because autumn is when the chrysanthemums bloom and also I panicked and chose a bit randomly because I didn’t want to take too long.
On the whole, Chengdu was a wonderful city and did feel more relaxed than Nanjing. The streets seemed to be a bit wider and the sidewalk less jammed with bikes and motorcycles and construction and people. The scale is also more human. From what I could tell, buildings tended to be more like 3-4 stories, flanked by large trees. It was a wonderful breath of fresh air given that we have hit the midpoint of the term. Both teachers and students are getting tired, so it was nice to get away and explore for a few days. We also joined a tour to a mountain in Chengdu, so I will write more on that later.
It has been about two weeks since I returned from my National Day trip. Since then I have returned to normal life, got ill, recovered, and uploaded all of my photos. So, I am now ready for a longer post.
Being in Yunnan was such an interesting experience. Its capital, Kunming, is growing and developing quickly but is less built up than Nanjing or Shanghai. My region of China is one of the most prosperous ones, which I knew. Jiangsu is a very prosperous province, situated in the delta of the mighty Yangtze River, and right in the middle of China’s highly developed eastern corridor. Much of China’s population lives on or near the east coast, from Beijing and Tianjin to Nanjing, Wuxi and Shanghai to Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Tianjin are China’s largest cities and together have a population of about 80 million people. Nanjing is farther down the list, with about 6 million residents. (This Guardian article has more info: www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/mar/20/china-100-cities-populations-bigger-liverpool).
This trip to Yunnan marked the first time that I have left this belt of eastern cities. Getting around the province was more difficult than Brendan or I expected. It is large and the sights are spread out and we traveled during National Day. This is a week-long holiday, one of China’s only such vacations, and the whole country is on the move. Friends of mine joked that during National Day, you go out to sights just to see other people. And the crowds were formidable. Brendan and I missed a train; the rest of the trains for the next days were already sold out. So, we took a bus. It should have been three-four hours but took nine due to traffic.
This was partly the result of the traffic, but also just part of traveling outside that belt of cities. If I miss a train home from Shanghai to Nanjing, for example, there will be another one in a matter of minutes. But between cities in Yunnan, there just are not as many trains. They still have amazing high-speed rail, but there are simply fewer trains.
The plus sides of being in a less crowded part of the country were many. Tiger Leaping Gorge is still tough to get to, for everyone. So once we arrived and got hiking, it was blissfully quiet, other than the roar of the rapids, and so, so beautiful. The first day that we hiked, it was snowing on the mountains on the other side of the gorge. With one side shrouded in mist, the other was sunny and the contrast was really lovely. The trails were not crowded, though we did get boxed in by some wandering goats and horses as we walked.
Time in the gorge was good for the soul, but because we faced such complications traveling it was also nice to head to Beijing for a few days. They are so used to dealing with large numbers of people that nothing seemed too different. Having been in a different region of China now too, I think I have a slightly better appreciation for how quickly the country is growing and developing. Nanjing feels perennially under construction, and in Kunming it felt like there was a crane every block. I think the China of even 30 years ago would have looked very different, and I am curious to see what the China of the next 30 years will look like. Given that they already have trains going 400 km/hr I think by then people will just fly around on hovercrafts powered by hydroelectricity.