Thursday, December 31, 2009

On the Eighth Day, He Created Potato Chips...

Lonely God

Yes, I’m again violating my policy of not posting any Chinglish to share with you this package of “Lonely God” potato wafer snack thingies. Chinglish is everywhere you look here, and I try not to post it, because, hey, my Chinese is much much much worse. Sometimes, however, the translations are so poetic (or strangely philosophical) that I just have to pass them on. Plus, this little cherub looks just a little like the the baby New Year, so I thought it would be seasonably appropriate. Happy 2010, everyone!!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What do we eat in China? Day 2

Who cares? Dinner is what mattered tonight. (And I forgot to take a picture of it beforehand, it being: stir-fried green beans, thinly-sliced, stir-fried turnips and pickled veggies, stir-fried napa cabbage, and white rice.)

It began with asking two students during their final exam, an oral interview, what her favorite food around here is. She talked about it: xiao kao (so it rhymes with "cow," pronounced "shao cow"). Bar-b-que! On long, thin, bamboo skewers! All the veggie goodness choices of the world, plus different kinds of tofu, and quail eggs! (Can get meat, too, but I'm not doing that any more.)

I hurried from exams to yoga class, where I sat in a calm lotus pose, thinking xiao kao, standing tall tree thinking xiao kao, reaching to heaven and xiao kao. After class, fellow teacher Jessie agreed to go out to xiao kao with me, bless her:

Not a drop of alcohol did I have. China has a very strict zero-blood-alcohol-content law, and I wasn't about to enjoy some wine or beer alone. However, I felt so tipsy-happy drunk off of that meal!

Note the corn. Corn exists in practice here, but it's only a vague shadow of its sweet, crispy goodness as exists in the U.S., especially when you get it day-old from your organic farmer. But now! I know of xiao kao korn. Roasted, salted, sprinkled with powdered Sichuan-famous numbing spice - heaven on earth, I tell you!

Note the mushrooms.

Note my happiness. Long live xiao kao!

Monday, December 28, 2009

What was up on campus, late December


Every college campus has tons of posters advertising student events, and Xihua University is no exception. Here, they take the form of big hand painted posters on large metal stands outside the main classroom buildings. Oh, and no surprise, I have very little idea of what most of them say. On my way back from canceling my Thursday classes on Christmas Eve, I stopped and snapped some photos of a few, which I just made into this set on Flickr. I'm a big fan of folk art in all forms, and I think these qualify. Enjoy!

Dave's cool things from Christmas


Over the weekend, I started a bit of a post in my charming (translation: lazy) "make another list" style about our Christmas in China. Jane then completed and posted a much more detailed and superior version (see below), but I thought that I'd post my list as well, for posterity's sake.

Cool things about Christmas, which was, gosh, only last Friday as I'm writing this:

  • Listening to the Santa Land Diaries from David Sedaris twice as we were getting presents ready until two.
  • Breakin’ out the granola (we’d been saving since mid-October) for breakfast.
  • Watching the kids tear into the loot! (yeah, okay, this Christmas was a bit more toy-filled than most. Blame it on the low RMB if you must...)
  • Carrot muffins with ginger and star anise.
  • People coming over! We didn’t really leave the apartment for the whole day.
  • A healthy two-hour nap with Ysa from 3 to 5 while the boys played without arguing (as far as we know).
  • Hearing Jose Feciliano sing “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” on the iPod and not wanting to gag. How did that happen?
  • Delivering sugar cookies with homemade kiwi and pomegranate frosting to a few select neighbors from 8 till 9:30. Felt like trick or treating in reverse.
  • Jane writing out a more detailed version of what we did so that I don't have to...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

What do we eat in China? Day 1

Okay, so this isn't inspired by my loyal readership abroad; rather, it stems from the ubiquitous question lobbed at me so often it hurts: What do you eat here in China, Teacher Jane? Well, here's the answer. Though my students might not actually see this, this should be interesting to chronicle what we do, indeed, eat in China.

Breakfast (oops, missed a picture of that meal today):
Oatmeal with golden raisins soaking in sweetened jasmine tea, soaking since Christmas Day and "red dates" and "red sugar" (that's what they call brown sugar)



Left-overs: fish soup with brown rice; a bunch of some sort of greens from our organic farmer who delivers to us (cooked with Planters mixed nuts sent to me by Mom and black sesame seeds); left-over pasta and veggies (pasta purchased at one of the major big-box stores over in Chengdu).

Zekey sat for a half-hour after everyone else left and devoured every last bit of the greens, sighing happily and asking me if I could cook so well every day, pleeeeeeease?



Tonight was the first night we implemented "Cook with Dad" night. It was lucky Xander's turn to go first. They used an amazing loaf of whole-wheat bread I'd just baked using my own, home-grown sourdough starter. This bread was sliced, topped with a delicious, well-seasoned tomato sauce ala bruschetta, sliced, boiled yellow potatoes and a bit of cheese. Xander was at one point putting his nose to the steam coming form the pot, inhaling deeply, saying, "Ahhhh... Every time you add another vegetable, I need to smell it more. It smells more and more! Ahhhhh!"

Here's our oven! Notice the brown melted-plastic, steam-vent-escape-area(?) stains on either side of the face of it. But hey! It gets the job done nicely:


The family loved it:


Voila! Day 1.

Jane's notes from Christmas

jiaozi, originally uploaded by zawelski.

We made at least 100 jiaozi! Jiang Ayi (the one who helps my fam cook and clean every day) and Zhou Jing (a grad student here, my jogging partner) were the jiaozi masters, with Zhou Jing teaching us the special way to fold and make them up in the northeastern part of China, where she’s from. They were so beautiful! We had four different kinds of fillings:

soft white tofu and chive
smoked tofu cubes and shitake mushrooms
shredded cabbage and carrot and home-pickled vegetables
pumpkin, ginger and sesame seed - a surprising note of sweetness, and absolutely delicious.

I had hunted on the internet for recipes using star anise, since I’ve always seen it at the market, but never used it. My search revealed this: baked apples with one star anise on top, infusing the whole thing with a rich savory flavor. The apples were stuffed with golden raisins (the only kind available around here) that had been soaked in sweetened jasmine tea. Here’s the link:

I also came upon a recipe for five-spice carrot muffins. Five spice uses star anise in it, and we’ve had a container full of it here since we arrived (from previous residents, but it still smelled great). Think your traditional pumpkin pie spice, with a hint of anise. I also fortified them with lots of sunflower seeds and chopped walnuts. These muffins rocked. The 2 other Americans in attendance were so pleased to have a taste of home with muffins, and such tasty ones at that. Here’s the link:

Rounding it out were mulled wine - I just spied whole cloves and dried orange peels at the market, dark beer and M&M cookies (go, Mom!). Here’s what completed the scene: country Christmas music, bits of Handel’s “Messiah” from our Ipod speaker, the whole house decked out with strewn wrapping paper (Go, Ikea in Chengdu!), piles of gifts, the Christmas tree, stockings, Christmas cards from students and ourselves, our huge home-made Advent calendar, plus 3 chocolate ones from a sweet friend in the States, and lots of attention to the many jiaozi and other dishes being crafted.

One of my Facebook friends summed it up pretty well when he said, “I swear, doing a big Christmas "event" with family and friends in one's home is like opening a show. You've got to have costumes, set decoration, music, props, etc. PLUS FOOD, of course! We're exhausted and the curtain isn't even up yet.”
I love to entertain in my home, but we sure do expend a lot of effort. Staying up late to wrap last-minute gifts and do food prep for the next day surely also contributed to a certain sense of, well, I just had this really aching back.

Maybe it was also the intense week of jogging, sit-ups and yoga, but my body was tuckered out after lunch! After the guests left, I hit the sack for a good hour-and-a-half.

Woke up and couldn’t even move! But after a few minutes, I recovered fully from the yoga stiffness. Ready for round 2 of the day.

After eating leftover fish soup and jiaozi, Zekey announced, “I can’t wait for Christmas to end!” What? He meant that he didn’t want the day to end. We settled on leaving the 2 boxes in the mail from Babcia unopened, as well as the grow-in-water Christmas tree, for the next day, to extend the celebrations. But it sure was cute how he sighed and batted his eyelashes, in love with Christmas.

Next, we made cut-out cookies from dough I’d made and refrigerated on Christmas Eve. Previous residents had left the traditional Christmas-shaped cookie cutters: angel, trees, stars, little gingerbread men and a candy cane. Our Western-style countertop oven comes in handy so often.

Who knocked on the door but the boys’ teacher, Chi Laoshi, whom they adore. She came bearing a gift of a little plastic tree-shaped container filled with candies. She stayed and helped decorate cookies.

I made frosting using powdered sugar from the Western-goods bakery in Chengdu. Food coloring? Not in these parts. We succeeded in making pink - not red, but close - with a pomegranate squeezed by mine own bare hands. Green was not achieved, as the kiwi juice was apparently not green enough. But it wasn’t pure white, so it stood out from the third bowl of pure white frosting. We chopped up Skittles (thanks again, Mom!), and decorated to our hearts’ content.

Then we spent an hour-and-a-half delivering cut-out cookies to 8 of our good neighbor friends. The boys’ teacher came with us, much to their delight. Up and down we went, in different stairwells, being let in, staying at the threshold, so as to not have to change into slippers at each place. Many neighbors gave us oranges or candy as we departed. But the cutest was when Zekey shouted out (and his speaking voice is already pretty darn loud), “I LOVE YOU!” to the favorite of these, our favorite neighbors. It began with Luo Bo, our foreign affairs office assistant, and continued with Ivy and Sicily, Liang Tao’s wife and daughter, Rao Bin and Lang Lang, and of course, Chi Laoshi, their teacher.

There are great perks being in a row of apartment buildings. Let’s see, there are 5 entrances in our row, and each entrance has 12 apartments. That’s 60 homes. Across from us is another apartment building, same size. That’s 120 homes within a span of 300 feet!

Wow, it was 9:30 p.m. when we finished, so the kids headed straight to bed. Dave and I somehow mustered the energy to do bunches of dishes and put away lots of food. The previous night, Christmas Eve, we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves listening to David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries.”

We pulled off a great Christmas celebration in China! Yay, us! New traditions - Christmas Jiaozi, David Sedaris, and cookie delivery. I’m pretty happy with all this.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Off to da big city...

IMG_4535, originally uploaded by zawelski.

We're off today to Chengdu with the whole family for not one but two (count them, two) Christmas dinners! One with our MPC country reps for lunch, and one with the American teachers on campus and our ever-helpful director of the foreign affairs department for dinner. Of course, lunch will be Indian food and dinner will be Chinese, but hey, you gotta take traditions where they come, right?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My mission here is nearly complete...

Dave and Leksvik, originally uploaded by zawelski.

(posted by - well, guess...)

Yes, after only four months here, I have realized one of my major goals - to have an IKEA product named after me in China. Now if I can just track down this Leksvik guy and figure out why his table is worth almost five times as much as my chair...

Friday, December 11, 2009


Jane and I bit the bullet last week and signed up for a VPN, which, as we all know*, is a Virtual Private Network. Meaning that our computer thinks it's a part of a network in San Francisco right now instead of in a network in China, meaning that we can now get around the Great Firewall a whole lot more freely. Also meaning that we'll be spending lots of time on the computer this weekend checking out Facebook and other stuff we've missed out on.

Who knows, I might even get around to getting the blog spruced up a bit, now that we can actually post to it without having to go through a third party site. Any votes on a new color scheme? I'm thinking greens and purples, except that it would clash with our bright red couch...

*As we all know, it is considered proper academic form in China to say "as we all know" when referring to common knowledge, even if it isn't shared by everyone in the audience. Makes everybody feel a little more valued, don't you think?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Steel and economic power

IMG_6211, originally uploaded by zawelski.

This article is full of facts and figures that are just so interesting! I never knew, really, where nails come from, and now I know more about them and China’s steel industry than before. Check it out!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Purple Fries

IMG_5910, originally uploaded by zawelski.

(posted by Dave)
Okay, sorry all you vegetarians and vegans out there - this post should come as a bit of a palate cleanser for you. I have the great fortune to be married to the one woman who can find the only organic farm offering CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) shares in all of Southwest China within three months of moving here.

Since it never really dips much below freezing here in Sichuan, the growing season is year-round. We thus get a big bagful of fresh organic veggies twice a week, delivered to us every Tuesday and Friday by farmer Gao right to the university gate, a minute’s walk away from our apartment.

One thing that happens when you join a CSA is that you immediately notice your diet start to change. Instead of choosing what you would like to eat and then picking out groceries, your food chooses you instead. You tend to eat fewer elaborately prepared concoctions, and instead, make more simply prepared dishes with the vegetables that the season has given to you.

In China, this gets more interesting, because the “what the heck is this vegetable?” factor is even bigger. Every day, we eat a big huge batch of greens that we don’t know the name of. Jane is also now pickling radishes and garlic and many other yummy things. (If you ask her really nice, maybe she’ll write you a blog post about it.)

Another example is purple yams, which, as you can see above, are like sweet potatoes, but, yes, bright purple. So, what do we eat? Purple fries! Simply chop up your purple yams into strips, heat up some oil to smoking on your industrial-strength kitchen burner, throw the yam strips in with a bit of salt, stir like crazy, and five minutes later, you’ve got a dish featuring purple vegetables that your kids will beg for. (Okay, having ketchup also helps a bit here.)

Sichuan Sausage Season

IMG_6035, originally uploaded by zawelski.

(posted by Dave)
Ah, December, when the air turns deliciously crisp, you can see your breath outside (and in), and people’s thoughts turn to ... hanging long ropes of sausage outside their windows. (Vegetarians, my sincere apologies. You can skip to the next post now.)

Yes, up and down the streets of our campus, entire apartment blocks are festooned with hanging meat products of all sorts. Mostly sausages, but also what looks to be hunks of bacon, fatty pork, and at least one lower leg and hoof that I spied yesterday.

As we may have mentioned, our family is pretty much vegetarian at this point. Ysa and I are the late adapters, still eating some meat on occasion, so it was up to me to go out and try some for the record. I went out with Johnny and Owen, two other American teachers on our campus, and am happy to report that Chinese sausage tastes like - bacon. Or more specifically, very good Canadian bacon crossed with pepperoni. I was halfway through a dish of it stir-fried with fresh greens before I realized that that’s what I had been eating. Silly me, I had been expecting links or something, but around here, sausage is sliced almost paper thin and fried up with veggies. The sausage with hot green pepper was the best - started up some really good eyeball sweat.

This might be a good time to insert a thought or two I’ve had about meat in China. In many ways, the way the Chinese prepare it makes much more sense (if eating meat does indeed make sense, which is, of course, up for debate) than the way meat is prepared in the States and elsewhere.

Portion size, for starters. A “normal-sized” American single serving of pork, say, will here be sliced or diced or chopped into a dish that, in combination with rice and fresh vegetables, will easily feed six people. Parts are also more important here. Everything is used, not much is wasted. Entrails, feet, brains, tongues - all the stuff that is ground up into budget-brand hot dogs, or worse, fed back to feedlot cattle in the States goes straight onto the menu here.

Most noticeably, here the is meat often staring back at you. Upon reflection, I think is a good thing. You can’t keep the common American illusion that meat comes from neatly wrapped packages at the supermarket. “Throw away the head? How could you - that’s the best part!” (Did I blog about the time that I ate a big chunk of chicken only to notice that there was a beak poking into my cheek?)

Thanks for tremella!

IMG_6305, originally uploaded by zawelski.

Tremella: fungi with yellowish gelatinous sporophores having convolutions resembling those of the brain. That dubious-sounding dish is what our neighbors told us this afternoon they would make for us at “Chinese corner” tonight. Fortunately, what we encountered was a soup made of a mucous-y sort of broth with the long yellow soft strands of tremella, goji berries, and a sort of date thing floating all around.

And we enjoyed our Chinese corner, the second of what we hope are many to come! Last week, it was at our house, and I’d made an apple pie.

The topic tonight was how to say, “First, second, then, next and last:”

We also talked about Xander’s fever, cough and runny nose. He woke up today with a fever, slept 3 hours mid-day, and is back in bed at 8:15 p.m. Who knows if it’s a flu or that shall-remain-unnamed type of special flu, or another bug... Point is, we actually had a good, mellow day together. He learned to draw airplanes in different ways. He watched a video. He ate boiled pear. We engaged in our nightly ritual of reading a chapter from the Chronicles of Narnia.

And at Chinese corner tonight (I went first, then came back to watch X while Dave headed over), I learned that I should stir fry orange for Xander. Well, I’ll give it a go first thing in the morning! Thanks for friends and tremella.


We went to Xi'an...

IMG_6165, originally uploaded by zawelski.

...for the weekend. We had a conference. We saw the Terracotta warriors. We did other things. We came back.

We taught all day today. I planned on blogging. We spent fifty minutes on Skype with our credit card company trying to resolve a billing issue. This warrior is now going to bed - details later!
(posted by Dave)

Jane here! I’ll add: We flew on an airplane! We stayed in a nice hotele! We shopped! We bargained! I invoked making a Chinese salary, living in China, in order to justify paying close to what I found out was the price Chinese people pay for cute hand-stitched fabrics.

We balanced out all the warrior stuff with our retreat on peace. Here’s a story: A long time ago, there lived a tailor who was also a great sage. The king wanted to present him with a gift, one that hearkened to his tailor craft. He presented the tailor-sage with a pair of diamond-studded scissors. The sage said, “I cannot accept these.” “Why not?” cried the king. The sage replied that a scissors divides. He asked for a needle instead. Why? Because a needle binds fabric together. Yes, it jolts at first when joining the two different elements. But it passes through, unites and is, in fact, often forgotten once the product is finished. But it is the needle that can bring peace by uniting.

Okay, that’s my story, one of the two aspects of hand-stitched fabrics from this past weekend.