My husband and I hosted a dinner party for two other Western couples last night, and I think it reminded us both how much cooking and hosting brings us joy. We grilled chicken legs and Korean ribs, and feasted on potato and cucumber salad, brownies, and my dark chocolate cake. We talked about culture, siblings, and played the award-winning game, Dixit.
I got home late Thursday night from a quick trip to the countryside to visit foster families. This coming week is Qingming jie or the tomb-sweeping festival in China when people all over the country will return home to honor the dead. However, the Zhuang people often do tomb-sweeping a bit earlier, so it was interesting to drive through Guangxi and see the graves adorned with mounds of perfectly formed dirt and white cloths waving in the wind.
My friend and I talked in the car about the various customs and traditions we have when someone dies. When we entered the little village where families are fostering, a person had passed away and everyone was sitting out and eating in the streets, and as we walked by they slaughtered ducks and laid them out to bleed so everyone could take one home.
This weekend my husband has make-up class because of days off for the festival next week, and with all my foster kids in school, I’m left with a lovely Saturday morning to myself. I picked up a bushel of bananas by the side of the road on the way back from the countryside on Thursday, so I may make banana bread in the crockpot today.
Right now I’m enjoying the NYTimes online, the lovely weather out on the balcony, and the prospect of skying with some friends around lunchtime. My husband and I are still trying to decide whether we want to take a little getaway next week during the holiday to Hainan, to the beach, or somewhere else? Any China folks got any two-four day get-out-of-town suggestions? Or maybe we’ll just enjoy the scenery here in Nanning and the lovely weather that’s finally rolled in.
So this is kind of how my day went. And this is how I know God not only knows me better than I know myself, but also has some sense of humor.
7:30 am Wake up, make coffee, put in some email work, and shove oatmeal in my mouth while I talk to my sister and my parents in Arizona on skype, listen to the plans for their trip to China, and begin to ache and miss something of home.
10:15 am Meet with my tutor, intending to study the newspaper, but the conversation inevitably drifts to faith and life. She tells me about how she is so self-reliant that others often assume she doesn’t need anyone (sound familiar?), and tells me this verse gave her to conviction and the courage to share her weaknesses with others:
On behalf of such a one I will not boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my own weaknesses. –2 Corinthians 12:5
I remember being awe of her boldness and God’s work in her life, rather speechless, and feeling a bit far away from God myself.
2:00 pm Meet with a friend from Hong Kong who is moving away for a few months. We talk about disabled kids and she tells me about a group of families who are living in community and supporting one another- I can’t wait to meet them! She compliments me on my Mandarin, and as I order us two cups of Vietnamese coffee, I think, I’m not so bad at this.
4:00 pm I meet with a reporter to speak about my life as a foreign scholar in China, and I feel at a total loss for words. I speak completely un-eloquently about our life here, it all comes out in flat landscapes, stereotypes, and childlike sentences. I’m so embarassed and defeated. I call up my husband and complain that after a year and a half here I’m a total failure.
5:30 pm I jump in the shower with tears in my eyes, and wait for the bus for twenty minutes. Finally, I take a rickshaw to go meet my friend in the height of heavy traffic. The disabled woman driving chatters on with a thick bai hua accent about how excellent my Mandarin is, and though I’ve just experienced a complete lack of confidence, I find her joy genuine and contagious. When I step out on the curb, I want to give her a hug.
6:30 pm Because I’m emotionally exhausted, my poor friend gets to hear all my worries and fears and frustrations come out as we walk block after block to go visit a foster family. She doesn’t give me false praise, though, she just listens patiently and encourages me, and before long we’re laughing together, and I’m wondering why I have such a love/hate relationship with this China lately.
7:30 pm We head out to the local park with the foster family and as we sit there, the music blaring, go-karts wizzing and the girls hanging on the monkey bars, the foster mom talks about what it means for these kids to have a family.
9:30 pm Once home, I grab my notebook and begin scribbling while shoving huge chopstick-fulls of liangpi into my mouth. And I realize that in spite of myself, the verse my friend shared with me this morning led me through the day.
I realize that it’s in those moments where I’ve felt truly helpless, defeated, and weak, but I’ve admitted it to friends here that I’ve felt such a true sense of fellowship and understanding. And I have a sinking feeling that it’s busy, exhausting days like this that I will cherish someday when I leave China.
And I think about how helpful the one-down position is as an anthropologist, and how important it is that we sinners get used to that identity, for it’s only when we realize our own weaknesses and admit them to others that we can be loved, and in turn love.
And I sigh, I head outside to the balcony to grab the clothes off the line and pack for yet another adventure tomorrow. And this time, I resolve to trust God just a little bit more with this life, because it turns out God really knows what God’s doing.
It is a gorgeous, brisk sunny morning here in South China.
Because the cool winds had powered back into our region these past few days, my husband I decided to make the most of the chilly weather and slurp down some delicious hot pot last night.
Today, it’s all about foster visits, wherein I’m challenged to get wiggly little girls to practice some English, share with me their fears and hopes about being adopted, and somehow encourage the older ladies who take care of them.
I’ve been having crazy dreams lately, the other night my family came to China and we took a boat down the Yong River into the wee hours of the morning, and last night I lay awake planning lectures for future courses in my head–I’m just that dorky. Speaking of dorky, look who Obama’s put in charge of the World Bank: Jim Yong Kim is the creator of Partners in Health, a physician, AND an anthropologist!
On the docket for this weekend: my husband’s planning to go down to the riverbanks and take some photos of Nanning (I’ll try to share some later). Speaking of picturesque sites, we were both enthralled with this article, which brought back great memories of our Southeast Asia trip last summer. We’re so excited to head back to Vietnam with friends in May, but are scheming for how we can fit in another trip to Laos somewhere in the near future!
…Jesus then teaches them one more lesson. He asks Peter, ‘Do you love me more than you love these fish? Don’t you remember? I called you away from the safety of fishing for fish to fishing for God’s dangerous dreams and dreamers on the earth. Though you feel like quitting, don’t quit. Though you will surely suffer for it, don’t quit. Others will get rich financially and you won’t, but don’t quit. Keep loving through the mystery of uncertainty to experience a sustaining abundance of Divine joy…just don’t quit.
It all started when a friend of mine posted something on facebook about having a down and depressed day and how while her usual impulse would be to withdraw this was her way of putting herself out there instead.
And that resonated me, because I’ve had those days when for some reason I wanted to run as far away from my life here in China as my legs could take me, when while I wanted so badly at 4pm in the afternoon to phone a friend and hear a familiar voice that’s 4am EST and everyone else is sleeping, and when I just wanted an inkling of comfort and peace about the unknowns in my life.
But at that particular moment, I didn’t go there. Instead in my head I replayed the words a wise friend has spoken to me about how she would be worried about me if this–all this despair, fear, anger, anxiety, and helplessness–were my normal, but it’s not. It’s just something that’s happening to me, but it’s not me, it’s not my entire life, it’s not who I am, and so it’s okay.
Her words mean so much to me not only because they echo the promise that this too shall pass, that the sun will indeed rise the next morning, but also that having these moments of doubt and despair, like the disciples, like all human beings, don’t define me, and they don’t make me a quitter.
When I think about the urging above not to quit, and the way the disciples, the saints, and the martyrs suffered for it, I feel a tad guilty at first, but then (when I get over my own vanity) I’m mostly just encouraged that if they can stick out this life of faith, this whole living radially into who God is calling us to be and that uncertainty, than so can I, so can you.
Because is it not the definition of grace that those who truly love and know us don’t judge us by our bad days, but who we become in spite of them? So if you were feeling down today, take heart, don’t quit, God’s got too many plans for you…and me.
I’m turning Chinese, I think I’m turning Chinese, I really think so…
Or at least that’s how I feel when I find my mouth watering at some of these exotic delicacies after only about a year and a half of living in China. Ah, the subliminal power of culture: you think you’re immune, but over a billion people is some powerful group-think.
Read on to hear how my palate has changed since I’ve been here. I hardly recognize myself sometimes!!
Suan cai (Read: anything, and I mean ANYTHING pickled)
When we first arrived in South China, my husband and I would turn up our noses at the smell of sour peppers, beans, and the pickling stands by the side of the road. Nanning people love what they call suan cai, or sour vegetables, and they add them liberally to bowls of rice noodles, and sprinkle sour peppers and beans throughout their stir-fried dishes.
The problem was, we couldn’t stand them.
But while my husband still has an aversion to the stuff, I realized when I was handed a vacuum-sealed pack of pickled vegetables on a Chinese flight last summer that my heart sort of leapt. I squeezed the sour stuff all over my rice and gobbled it up. I’ve just adapted to love that sour flavor, so much so that I appreciated the slightly pickled vegetables in Egypt, I’m now elated when a restaurant puts some of their homemade pickled cabbage on the table as an appetizer, and I even love luo si fen (see below).
What can I say? My taste buds have changed to appreciate the sour side of life.
And the bitter side? Well there’s another set of taste buds that have turned Chinese! Many Chinese people will tell you that eating bitter melon is definitely an acquired taste. It’s associated with a personality that can really endure the rough side of life, an endurance and a willingness to literally ‘eat bitterness.’
So bitter melon, with its bright green, ripply appearance and its exceedingly pungent taste is an iconic food in Chinese culture. While it’s something that most Westerners avoid, it turns out we love the stuff!
Traditionally it’s stir-fried with beef or eggs, but my husband also fries it. When we had some Chinese friends over to our house one evening to try his fried kugua, they marveled, “you’ve innovated our cuisine! I’ve never eaten it like this, it’s amazing!” Suffice it to say my hubby-chef was pretty proud of how seamlessly we’ve acclimated to this new culture of cuisine.
It’s one of those classic East/West divides: here they drink their yogurt, while in the West we eat it with a spoon. And I’m not talking go-gurt, people. I’m talking runny yogurt in a carton, where you cram the straw through the foil and slurp until it’s all gone.
I have to admit I do prefer to buy the more Western, solid variety, but when I’m on the go, in Yunnan or other places, you can’t really beat a tart fresh yogurt in a glass jar with a straw to go with. It’s an acquired texture, and it’s really quite refreshing once you get used to it.
Ma la (or tingling peppercorns)
If you’ve never tasted these peppercorns, which are a mainstay of Sichuanese cooking, you really should before you die. Otherwise you may not believe me that these little peppercorns can induce their seductive spice powers to literally numb your mouth!
But the flavor is also a distinct, earthy spicy one, and we love it in hot pot or rubbed on pork or beef. There’s never a dull moment when you order up a dish with mala spice or sauce, and you’ll never forget that tingling feeling either. You may even (like me) come back for more.
Soy milk on a hot day
It’s a staple of breakfast here in China, that is, a steamed bun and a bag or a little carton of dou jiang, the sweet soy milk. Now some of the stuff is no more than powdered sugar and water, but a nice robust gulp of soy milk on a hot morning in China is pretty sublime. Like other treats, I used to always turn this one down and opt for a safe bottle of water, but I’ve changed. Give me a soy milk with my morning bun and you’ll see one happy girl!
Porridge with preserved egg
When you get to China and you’re the guest of honor, along with the fish’s head, and the chicken’s feet, you’ll probably generously be offered a bite of the purplish-black century egg. Never fear, despite its namesake, it’s not actually (well, usually, hehe) one hundred years old, but merely preserved through a process that only takes several months.
And yes it’s stinky, and no, I try not to eat it alone unless I’m forced, but cooked up in a nice bowl of porridge, it’s a perfect salty complement. Porridge was something else that I never ate before I came to China; it sounded like something children in orphanages with hard lives slurped down because it’s all they had (and it is still in some cases, I’m sorry to say), but in China it’s also the ultimate comfort food. My husband is a porridge enthusiast. I myself only appreciate it on a cold day, and with some preserved egg, of course.
Bai jiu or rice wine liquor
Many Westerners compare it to rubbing alcohol, the type of drink that burns your throat on the way down, leaves a terrible afterbite, and turns your face red immediately.
And to be fair, Chinese rice wine liquor often does do all those things, but it’s also the sign of hospitality, festiveness, and revelry in China. While tea has its place, the Chinese bond over tiny thimbles of the pungent elixor, and until you’ve shot back gulps of the stuff with an old man and a side of spicy duck neck, you haven’t really experienced the real China.
Well, maybe that last line’s a tad bit dramatic.
In short, it’s not really about the quality of the bai jiu (although to the Chinese it certainly is), but about the experience of fine wining and dining, followed by boisterous carousing that makes an evening memorable in China.
All things tofu
Until we came to China, my husband and I had tried to cook some tofu ourselves, but no matter how long we pressed it between towels, marinated it, or fried it, it came out tasteless and limp. The Chinese simply know how to do tofu–and in so many varieties!
We love tofu skin “noodles” cold, tossed with some garlic and cilantro, dried or smoked tofu stir-fried with vegetables, or tofu soaked in spicy hot pot oil. My Dad hates tofu so I’m eager to treat him to the stuff this summer only later to reveal he’s been bitten by the tofu bug. We’ll have to wait a few months to see if he’s a convert.
Jack fruit and durian
It’s that time of year when the slightly pungent, sweet smell of jack fruit and durian flood the streets, and vendors, whose carts are weighed down by the giant fruits dissect their spiny and spiky outsides to reveal morsels of yellow fruit inside. The two are slightly different, of course, but when I arrived they were both alien to my palate.
Luo si fen (or river snail rice noodles)
I blogged about this final conversion and my epiphany over a bowl of these a few months ago, but I still can’t believe I like something so exotic, so different from the pot roasts and casseroles of my Midwest upbringing. I guess it just goes to show that anything is possible, that when you become enchanted by a people and a culture, you warm up to bowls of snails and preserved eggs and even sour soup with snails!
I think the experience of trying new cuisine is one of the most earnest and refreshing, because the person sitting beside you wants so much for you to share this carnal appreciation for something so genuinely a part of them and their culture. And I guess in my experience if you just give it a try (and maybe a few months or years), often you’ll find you really can share their appreciation it.
What about you? What are some of the weirdest things you’ve tried only to find out you genuinely like the taste?
Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, none could cure her. She had come up behind [Jesus] and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped… –Luke 8:43-44
I remember sitting in Sunday school and hearing about the mysterious woman with these issues of blood and great faith, the one who thought to herself, if I only touch the hem of his garment I will be healed, and it was. And I remember knowing about the power and the compassion of Jesus before I understood the pain and the shame of this woman’s disease.
Sometimes when we see disabled kids at the orphanage and in foster homes, Chinese friends will ask me if I’m afraid to touch and hold the kids, and it seems such an alien question, because I have not only been taught from a young age that these children are just like me, that I can’t get sick from touching them or playing with them or even kissing or cuddling them, but also that they are also children of God, worthy of love and compassion.
But simply because I know these things, I can comprehend them with my mind, doesn’t mean it’s easy to live by them, or to believe them in my heart of hearts. I remember hearing from missionaries to the DR Congo about women there who (many who are victims of rape) suffer from obstetric fistulas which often cause them to live as outcasts from their communities, and even their families. Someone who has a fistula often feels perpetually unclean, the smell is overwhelming, and many women would prefer to die than go on living in such shame and pain.
But these missionaries help train doctors who perform surgeries that repair the damage done to these women’s bodies, so that they can be healed not only physically, but also socially, so that they can go back to living a normal life. In many ways, though, it’s not these women who are only in need of healing, but we who call ourselves healthy, we as a society who view them as unclean, and cast them off.
Jesus told the woman who touched the fringe of his garment that her faith had made her well, but would he say the same to any of us? Even if we know what is right, do we believe that Jesus is calling us to touch those whom no one wants to touch, to live among those whom no one wants to live with?
It’s so important for us to continue to seek to know Jesus and to live like him, not because we gain power by doing so, or so that we can perform miracles, but so that miracles can be performed within our hearts so that we can see others as Jesus did, so that we can be a society that isn’t sick with the diseases of pride and discrimination, but alive with the compassion and grace.
For the first time in a long time our cupboards are chocked full and bursting with items we imported ourselves from our recent trips to Egypt, Abu Dhabi, and Hong Kong. We’ve got basmati rice, risotto, and bags of good coffee–all hard to come by on the mainland. It’s opens a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to (comfort) cuisine!
Since this weekend will be a working one, I’m enjoying some blogs, coffee, and blueberry pancakes this Saturday morning. I only just noticed it’s Saint Patrick’s Day (not too popular in China!).
What are your plans?
I would make these lime bars if I had an oven…you can let me know how they turn out. Despite the weather here, I’m inspired by Jen and her friends’ health challenge, thinking of asking some of my friends abroad to join in on one with me. We had delicious Korean barbecue last night; if you’ve never been, I totally recommend it!
The weather was almost as miserable as spring on the mainland, but let me tell you, we made the best of it! Hong Kong will forever be one of our favorite cities to get away to, and here’s a few suggestions for how to spend 72 hours there if you get the chance.
After some lunch with students and professors on the campus, we headed downtown to the famous Simpson Sin Tailors where my husband got himself all measured up for a two-piece suit. He settled on a grey, two-button, and they set about measuring his skinny frame and scheduling us for a first fitting the next day around noon.
Grab a pint and a good plate of fish and chips
We did some window-shopping on our way toward Central, finally settling on The Pickled Pelican where we drank tall happy-hour priced pints and feasted on fish and chips. I’d read about their fish and chips on one of my favorite Hong Kong blogs, Sassy Hong Kong, and they certainly were good. My only suggestion would be to split the huge plate, unless you’re really hungry because we were stuffed! The vibe in pub was great, and some Irish guy stopped by our table to ask how the fish and chips tasted, because in his words, “it looks lovely.” I got a kick out of that!
End the evening with some fine wine
We then made our way up Wyndham Street to California Vintage Wine Bar, snagged a table on the street, and were greeted by the owner Susan. When we admitted we were totally unfamiliar with CA wines, she brought out one of her favorite pinot noirs. The bottle was a bit acidic for our tastes, but the rustic, yet classy atmosphere, and friendly staff made the evening a real treat.
SATURDAY, 11 am
Late Morning Coffee
On our way back to the tailor’s the next morning, we stopped in at agnes b. cafe for a quiet cup of tea, muffin, mug of coffee, and a little truffle, of course! The free-standing cafe in central is lovely, with tiled floors, marble tables, a tufted soft bench, and they serve illy coffee and fabulous teas. My husband had the americano and a truffle and I got their Casablanca tea (mint and bergamot) with a muffin. The weather was a bit dreary outside, but inside, it was quite cozy!
We’d stumbled upon one of these the night before and resolved to go back for lunch- we were dying for a good burger (can’t get that in Nanning!) Things were quite dead after another crazy Friday night, but they loaded up some burgers and cheese fries for us. The toppings were actually more impressive than the burgers themselves: you can build your own or opt for one of their specials.
Lantau Island and the Giant Buddha
We were disappointed to find that the cable car leading up to the peak on Lantau Island was under repairs, so we took a steep bus ride up and down the picturesque hills and along the beaches, until we reached the giant buddha. We climbed up and took in the lovely, albeit slightly foggy, view. And it was cold!
Eat a Fancy, Schmancy Dinner on Saturday Night
My husband, who is a big foodie, had made reservations to do the tasting menu at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon on Saturday night, and it was a very lovely, memorable meal. Our favorite course was the asparagus veloute (a creamy soup) with chicken oysters and crispy garlic, but the beef cheeks and scallops were good, too. The restaurant is supposedly among one of the fifty best in the world, and we certainly enjoyed it!
We stepped in and felt like we were just off the streets of New York with the checkered floors, pickles, and extensive deli menu. My husband had a love affair with his reuben. The sandwiches were huge, and so was the bill, but I’d recommend it overall- quite tasty!
Pick up the suit, head back to the mainland
I will have to take some photos of my man in this suit, because it turned out quite well, and we picked it up at 1pm, just in time to get to the airport, and head back to our normal lives on the mainland.
Hope you enjoyed our highlights from our weekend in Hong Kong! Feel free to contact me for any details, and photo credits (except for the California Vintage photo, which is from their website) all go to my husband, Evan Schneider.
Since we moved to China, I’ve had the good fortune of studying Mandarin in just about every aspect of life (classroom, private tutoring, research–in terms of reading and speaking, and social life). One would assume that this type of immersion would lead to increasing competence in the area of language, especially of the oral variety.
Indeed, especially in the first year we were here I could track my progress fairly easily: I remember how quickly, out of necessity, really, I had to get over my anxiety about speaking over the phone, and how rapidly my vocabulary expanded to the demands of daily life in China. In short, the on-the-ground learning curve (despite the previous two years of classroom study I had under belt) was quite steep and measurable.
But over the last year, I’ve hit that language-learning plateau.
An article I read on the topic published by Cambridge University Press describes my experience in five succinct points, e.g. “you know you’ve hit a plateau when:”
There is a gap between receptive and productive competence (i.e. you can understand far more than you can speak or express).
Fluency may have progressed at the expense of complexity (you use simple grammar patterns to express your thoughts despite the fact that you’ve actually learned much more complex patterns of speech).
Learners have a limited vocabulary range (pretty self-explanatory…).
Language production may be adequate but often lacks the characteristics of natural speech (I still don’t speak like a native!).
There are persistent, fossilized language errors (you make the same mistakes over and over again).
The article exactly highlights my frustrations, but only provides abstract suggestions for how to tackle them. Recently my tutor and I have discussed the necessity of finding a new approach to language-learning.
So I’ve been trying everything, making my way through the dictionary and making flashcards for words I don’t know or frequently mix (see #3). I’m thinking of reading the newspaper and scripture aloud with my tutor: those are both places where I frequently encounter a lot of words I don’t know, and I end up getting dejected and giving up. And I’m trying to focus more on my oral speech, giving short presentations about my research, trying to articulate some of those more complex ideas (#1 and 2).
How have you addressed plateaus (especially of the above variety) in your own language-learning? I’d love some suggestions!
It’s been one of those days for me, when I just feel a little down, a little blah. The persistently rainy grey weather here certainly doesn’t help.
But I’m going to experiment with another banana bread in the crockpot this afternoon, go for a jog in the rain if it kills me (and it really might as those Chinese marble sidewalks get pretty slippery in this mist), and send some love out to a few other bloggers whose thoughts often cheer me up on days like these.
I used to be a mere blog-writer, but now I’m also a blog-reader!
It’s sort of an acquired taste. But once you get bitten, you’re always on the hunt for new fun blogs (here were a few from awhile back), and here are a few of my recent faves, who all happen to be fellow lady bloggers (hollah):
Home. Spice. Life: I don’t remember how I stumbled onto this delightful blog, but my only complaint is that its twenty-something chef, decorator, and generally interesting muse doesn’t post more often! She’s one of those bloggers with a great eye for decor, and tons of class (check out these cakestands–I would never think to post on cakestands, but I love reading about them!). She’s a fellow planner, goal-setter, and list-maker: what’s not to love?!