A day in the life

I wake up in the morning in theory at  6:30 Brush teeth, iron the clothes- got to look good- (you never know when someone will snap your photo) put on clothes, grab a bite for the break between my two hour blocks of teaching. Fill up my thermos with hot water from the water “cooler” and run out the door. And then I run back in to make sure the iron is off. Cruise the 3K on my electric bicycle between the Foreign experts buildings and the School of Foreign Languages. On my way I pass the dorms where the staff of the Dong Hu Hotel live. Compared to the ritz of the three star hotel, the staff dorms are shacks. There must be at least 16 of them sharing living quarters, bathrooms and kitchens. Their uniforms hang to dry across the street on clothes lines stretched between trees.  Past the hotel, I pass the peacock house on my right and farms on my left. And then I go across the bridge that connects East and West Campus. Under and to either side of the bridge lies: a highway, a cemetery, a river, farmland, a park under construction and tennis courts. It is a long bridge.

My students are always lined up at the door even when I am fifteen minutes early for class. I unlock the doors and the students stand gobsmacked for a second mareling at the new desk arrangement- I try to mix it up as often as possible, keeps ’em on their toes.

Mondays and Fridays are my favorites because the classes on those days are the most rambunctious. They are quickest to get out of control but also the only classes that police themselves and thus settle down the quickest too. These are the classes where a horde of students charge my desk after each class to ask me questions. Lots of questions. “What does ‘good for you’ mean? I pronounce ‘singing’ and ‘sinning’ the same way- help! Is American food really sweeter than Chinese food?” and so on and so on… These classes also have a sense of humor which makes my job both easier and rewarding.

Lunchtime sometimes means eating in the third floor of the “Knowledge Canteen” (It’s a poor and simplistic translation. It should something more like “The Place Where People Gather to Discuss Philosophic Ideas” but I guess that takes too long. Mandarin is very useful for taking big, complex ideas and communicating them in a few short characters.) The Knowledge Canteen is restuarant style serving up good quality standard fare Chinese food at University student prices. If the weather is nice and we have adequte pocket change we might go to the West Gate…

The West Gate is a snack street- an integral part of Chinese cultural for at least 1000 years, probably for much longer. A t-intersection with the University’s west gate is home to a community of street vendors, snack shops, fruit stands, running children with ice cream dripping down their chins, old men playing mahjong, domnioes or chess, college students gobbling privincial style fried baozi. It is a wonderful circus of color and noise. Very Chinese. I like it here. Except for the staring…

Every where I go in this city I’m met with the stereotypical stares and excited shouts of “hello!” or the mildly offensive “Laowei!” (“Foreinger!”) The older people look at you blankly or frightenedly until you say “Ni hao!” and smile- they usually smile back. “If you speak my language,” they must be thinking, “then he must be ok.”

Around two o’clock as the students are headed back to class, I get on my bicycle and head home.


Shopping the Chinese Way

Just came back from a short shopping trip. I’ve taken to shopping the Chinese way which means going to the market once a day and picking up the supplies that you need immediately. I used to shop the American way and go downtown to the modern (western style) super market and pick up supplies for the whole week. Now I go to a local grocery designed for the locals by the locals.

The shop ladies are always very friendly and welcoming. I ask them things like “Is this spicy?” (“Zhe shi la ma?”) or “what is this called?” (Zhe shi jiao ma?”). A typical day at the vegetable market:

Me: Is this pepper spicy?

First Vegetable Lady: I don’t know. (turns to other vegetable lady) Is this spicy?

Second Vegetable Lady: It isn’t spicy.

First Vegetable Lady to me: It isn’t spicy. (BTW that whole exchange was in Mandarin)

Today the first vegetable lady tried to sell me some strange vegetable that looked like a head of lettuce that had been frankenstiened onto a daikon radish. I kindly said “bu yao.” (I don’t want [that]). Then she tried to sell me something else that looked like leathery spinach. During the vegetable lady’s tour of Chinese vegetables, the other vegetable lady came up to her and said “ta ting bu dong!” (“He doesn’t understand what you’re saying!” but really “leave the poor boy alone you meshugener!”). My vegetable lady swatted at her friend and pushed her away playfully. I get all of my vegetables from these two ladies now. They are just the right amount of crazy and helpful.  I ended up buying green chili peppers (the vegetable lady told me that they are good with fresh eggs which I also bought), lotus root, something the lady called “suan” (garlic) but clearly is not, the Chinese version of arugula (kuju-“bitter lettuce”) and  Chinese cucumbers which are covered in viscous spikes.

On a sad note, one of the eggs broke on my way home from the grocery store.

I’m currently sitting by the lake enjoying the humidity and eagerly waiting  for the promised thunderstorm.

Mala Doufu

The other day I went to a Sichuan restaurant located in the West Gate area ordered the spiciest thing on the menu in Chinese, Mala Doufu (Spicy and Numbing Tofu). It was after the main lunch rush, so most of the staff had nothing to do but to stare with confused, incredulous faces at the laowei eating a plate of tofu lava. It was  delicious! And made me sweat like I was in the Amazon rain forest wearing a parka and running a marathon. Needless to say, I was doubly proud of myself for ordering the food in Chinese and eating it under the supervision of Sichuan natives.

Brave New Food

The food in China is obviously very different than Chinese food is back in the States. Most of the common strange foods I don’t even think of as strange anymore: Stir-Fried Mu’ar (Wood ear) Black Fungus, Sauced Eggs available in single serving plastic wrap, Salt Boiled Duck Eggs, Pickled Eggs and Soft Dofu, Seaweed (kelp) Soup, shrimp, fish and chicken all served in their entirety- head to tail. “Numbing” used as an accurate way to describe food on a menu. Fish Flavored Pork, Beef, or Eggplant.

Here are some of the stranger things I’ve eaten so far: (these are things that even the locals think are a little strange)

Stirfried Ox Sinew (I think. “it comes from an ox” I was told) Barbecued Cicada. Pig Feet. Chicken Feet. Chicken Heart. Chicken Lung. Goat Bone Essence (marrow). Pig Ear. Cow Stomach. Deep Fried Whole Soft Shell Crab. Deep Fried Chicken Spine.  Chicken “Skeleton” (mostly bones with a little meat served with a !spicy! cumin rub). Bitter Melon. Dragon Heart Fruit. Fire Heart Turnip.  Some strange vegetable that tasted like the love child of zucchini and okra. Winter Melon. Stir Fried Pig Stomach with Green Chile Peppers. Sushi done Chinese style with ham, strawberries, bananas and dried pork. Dragon’s Beard (it’s a sea vegetable of some kind).

More interesting things to come- so you can live vicariously through me- YUM!

Mom and Pop Shop

Around the corner from the Foreign Expert Village there is a steadily growing snack vendor village gathering under the trees outside the south gate of eastern campus. At first there were just a handful of vendors selling fruit or services such as bicycle or shoe repair. Now, since the miserable Liaocheng winter has finally receded for good, the food vendors have arrived. Green Bean noodle vendors, soy milk carts, sauced bread vendors, sausage stands. Vendors with giant pots of boiling who knows what. I made my way through the throng, narrowly avoiding a guy with swept back greased hair, wearing a leather jacket and riding a red motorcycle weaving through the stands. College students gather under the shade to slurp fresh qundun (wonton soup). A vendor shouted at me with a “I know you want to buy one” smile on her face “Dou jian ma?” I consented and bought a cup of fresh soy milk and continued through the small but expanding village on my way to the Dumpling House.

The Dumpling House, usually quiet was bustling today. The restaurant has four tables and sits maybe 12 people comfortably. The eating side of the place is about the size of my bedroom in my apartment- maybe 10×12 feet or so. The clientele seems to be college students, construction workers and drunk business men. And me. Everyone is mostly friendly. I hear people talking about me there but no one stares.

The owners, affectionately known as Mom and Pop to some, are warm, friendly, smiley people who only seem to attract similarly friendly and smiley people to their little establishment. Best dumplings in all of Shandong Province- try the the mutton or egg and chive dumplings- Yummilicious!