hong kong.

A necessary visa run gave me the chance to escape the mainland for a few days and get a taste of Hong Kong for the first time. Leading up to this adventure, I’ve heard a lot about Hong Kong; varying levels of enthusiasm, awe, and even some disappointment. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

view from the top.

My 48 hours there certainly weren’t enough to draw any conclusions about this thriving metropolis, so close yet so far from the China I’ve experienced for the past year. There are definitely similarities to the mainland, but it is – on first impression- a different world.  There are foreigners everywhere. I ate veal meatballs and fresh mozzarella. I found fresh-baked lemon poppyseed muffins and green olive and crushed almond tapenade. I marveled at the immaculate public bathrooms. The cashier at Pret A Manger gave me a free latte because I was just so grateful for the warm carrot muffin he sold me. Starbucks made me the iced soy chai latte I haven’t had in a year (hasn’t made it to the mainland quite yet). The woman across the table from me openly said a prayer before eating her sausage roll. It was a trip.

prosciutto and wild figs. yes please.

Poppyseed muffins and prosciutto aside, I also attribute my positive impressions of HK to my hosts – family friends who live and work in Hong Kong. They were amazing and I was very lucky to stay in their gorgeous apartment at mid-level rather than spending an arm and a leg on a shoebox of a hotel room. They also gave me great HK advice, delicious meals, and adorable kids to hang out with, which was a nice bonus.

victoria peak. with a light saber.

Finally, HK rocked because I had the privilege of attending the first annual China Wine Awards, where I spent my Thursday tasting glass after glass of entrants from across the world. The Awards were organized by Kelly England of Kelly England publishing, the leading independent publishing house in HK and a generally gorgeous / super sweet person. The Awards are the first of their kind – catering specifically to the Chinese palate, focusing on what the Chinese consumer and major wine buyers across China actually want in a bottle. I’ve also gotten used to attending events in Chengdu for which my expectations are high, and misguided. This was not the case for the CWA, which I think speaks to the way things work in HK, and also to the organizers of this particular event. The entire day was meticulously planned and everything was considered. I drank well, ate well,  and met a lot of interesting people.

wine!

It’s strange returning to Chengdu with the acquired awareness of all that Hong Kong is. The city, it’s inhabitants and lifestyle, blend Eastern culture with Westernized notions of time, manners, openness, efficiency, not to mention Hong Kong exudes a genuinely globalized, cosmopolitan feel that I haven’t found elsewhere in China. It’s pretty ideal transition point between life in the West and the East; a place to dip your toes before jumping into the deep end. Unprepared and unaware, we did a cannonball into the frontier of mainland China a year ago, which doesn’t stop sounding crazy whenever I answer that frequently-asked-question “What are you doing here? Why Chengdu?”

For the record – still figuring out the right answer to that question :)

gaffe!

I received a lesson in humility yesterday (after watching gaffe-prone Biden deliver a pretty gaffe-free speech, but more on that later) while sitting on my stoop with Jeff and a few friends enjoying some sunday afternoon beers.

One of the best things about our new apartment complex is the huge courtyard around which the buildings are set. It is one of the larger patches of grass I’ve seen in Chengdu (other than some amazing parks) and is kept perfectly landscaped and unusually green. In other words, we finally have a lovely spot to sit outside right on our doorstep. It’s nice.

A middle-aged chinese man walked by us with a beautiful golden retriever and an equally beautiful husky (unusual sight, most Chinese prefer small dogs). Said husky decided to do his business on the stone pathway directly in front of where we were sitting, so he got started, right as I was thinking how lovely the afternoon was. In alcohol induced irritation and disgust I declared “That man BETTER pick up that dog’s shit or I am going to ….” (fill in the blank). I said this because I frequently watch people watch their dogs (or kids, which is certainly worse) go to the bathroom on our communal property (and every street / sidewalk, ever) and not do anything about it. It’s gross. Unfortunately, this particular man turned around and said “I can understand what you’re saying. I’m from Texas, and I always clean up after my dogs. So, are you still going to kick my ass?”

Foot In Mouth.

Being called out in this way has surprisingly never happened to me before, and was a useful lesson for someone who has gotten quite comfortable complaining in English about what is going on around me. It doesn’t matter that I had a point (my friend accurately pointed out that although he said he “always” cleaned up after his dogs, he was carrying no bag and in fact asked me to hold their leashes while he went to retrieve some newspaper), it mattered that my response was belligerent BECAUSE I did not expect it to be understood. Bad move! At a time where every Chinese kid learns English in school, and in a city that is rapidly developing and increasing it’s numbers of foreigners and elsewhere-born Chinese, it’s good to realize that I’m not always safe talking smack in English. I was obviously mortified and spent the next 10 minutes oogling over his dogs and being overly enthusiastic in my conversation with him so as to reverse the embarrassing damage I had done. He was a pretty nice guy, and probably a good neighbor to not have offended/threatened on first impression. I’m pretty sure I successfully redeemed and explained myself,  but I still blush just thinking about it. I’m awkward, what else is new.

our sacred lawn.

the 1 year mark.

Happy 1 Year Anniversary to me , and Jeff, and Chengdu. It’s been an amazing year, and it’s crazy to reflect on the ways I’ve developed as a person, an ex-pat, a student, a wanderlust-er, etc.  Our adventure has unfolded in so many interesting ways.

Of course there have been seemingly insurmountable obstacles (a bone-freezing winter, eternal traffic chaos, routine stomachaches, a language barrier, the general bureaucracy of accomplishing normal things like renting an apartment or paying a bill, questionable sanitation practices and lots of baby pee, air quality not conducive to clean, pink lungs, etc, etc ) but the year has also been a series of lessons and blessings (an amazing appreciation for local cuisine, hospitable and generous new friends, the gratification of progress learning a beautiful and challenging language, a once in a lifetime road trip across China, an insane month on the beaches of Thailand, the connections to new people and places that result from life as an ex-pat, the improvement in my baking skills to compensate for lack of real cookies-muffins-cakes-bread, introduction to the art of “hashing“, hour long reflexology treatments for $5, etc, etc).

Most of all, I’ve learned (read: am still trying to learn) to live in the moment, appreciate what I’ve got, and above all – just be patient. More than anything else, patience is a critical requirement of living in China, and a virtue I haven’t always had much of. I have no idea if I’ll still be here a year from now, or even a month from now (here’s hoping I can extend my visa) but making it through our first year here is worth celebrating.

first night in chengdu. first fapiao victory.

beginning of our love affair with late night bbq.

first china boat ride ... hangzhou

first chinese new year!

rabbit + tiger <3

mahjong, puppies, and pains in the ass

This week has been FILLED with excitement, as I am faced with an enviable array of challenges: uncertain employment, the termination of our current lease, the securing of a new apartment (the collateral pain of packing up and moving buildings) and of course the ever-present headache of accomplishing all tasks with a gigantic language barrier. Although I must admit, I have surprised myself with the amount of Chinese I’ve been able to employ in the past 5 days – getting all my basic points across: “too expensive,” “too dirty,” “too loud,” “no, i won’t pay an entire year up front,” “no, i cannot only have a squat toilet,” etc. I have no doubt annoyed and impressed many a Century 21 real estate agent; I believe I’ve toured at least 20 apartments with at least 6 different agents. It’s been intense.

At least there have been moments of amusement thrown in. Like the most recent canine additions to our street –  3 TINY, squinting puppies stumbling around on wobbly legs under the watchful eye of the mama dog. They’re “owned” by a man who runs two businesses out of his small street shop – pirated DVD’s, and real estate.  He offered to throw one in as a bonus if we got an apartment through him, but I’m pretty sure the free puppy offer still stands (and my resistence is waning).  Another highlight was my mahjong lesson tuesday afternoon; a skill I’ve had a slothful desire to acquire all year and so was more than happy to be included in my friend Ashley’s final Chengdu mahjong session before she heads off for Bangkok on Monday. Our friend Ivy, the resident mahjong queen,  is a sassy combination of typical Chengdu-ren and the kind of local you become after spending most of your waking hours surrounded by foreigners…. in other words she is an expert on all things Chengdu and a very, very useful friend to have. We played a couple open hands before diving into the real deal. I will gloat that I had some pretty legit beginners luck and won 2 rounds my first afternoon. Of course, Ashley and Ivy were most likely humoring me. I fully intend to keep practicing until I can someday throw down a challenge on an unsuspecting elderly Mahjong-pro in one of the underground gambling parlors that seem to occupy at least one level of every other building on every street; unmistakable by the relentless click, click, click of the tiles hitting the table. Ivy mentioned that death by mahjong-induced-heart-attack has been known to occur amongst the overexcited elderly of Chengdu. One more noteworthy moment occurred tonight, when a random Chinese dude approached asking me – in complete awkward sincerity – whether I like China or Japan. My answer of “um, both” befuddled him so he inquired “but why?”

Life here is not always easy, but it’s almost always easy to be amused.

mahjong!

yum.

precious.

24 hours.

ashley has long promised me “moroccan night,” as a follow up to “thai night” months ago when JordaNusa ( malawithafork ) had us over for curries and nam sod galore.  i went over early to watch and learn and hope some of her skills would rub off on me …. i can now brag that i baked that homemade pita to fluffy, browned perfection.

moroccan night at ashley's.

 

catching up with kari, and baby christine. every single Starbuck’s patron forgot about their coffee and ONLY paid attention to christine. she is also the first baby i’ve known who seems to actually enjoy wearing sunglasses. a young fashionista.

starbucks session

 

afternoon trip to the market. produce-wise, the market is where it’s at. slabs-of-freshly-slaughtered-meat-dangling-on-hooks-wise, i just can’t get cool with. this is no stop and shop.

mm... fresh meat.

there are lots of funny things about my evening runs through Chengdu, the funniest part being the looks of awe / fear / confusion on people’s faces as they stop in their tracks to watch the sweaty, ginger laowai jog by them. but little naked babies strutting around in red aprons? Completely normal.

i'm not the only one worth starting at.

 

back!

My solo re-entry into China has been kind of thrilling, kind of maddening, and very obvious. Touching down in Beijing I began to cross the threshold, slowly. Teenagers at the airport crowded my computer as I tried to check my email, unaffected by my “move-the-hell-back” glare. My flight from Beijing to Chengdu was delayed 2 hours; “severe” thunderstorms held us back and continued to crash around us as we lifted off after midnight. Disembarking in Chengdu completed the transition: an old lady in the airport bathroom, pushing her way into the stall I was exiting before I’d actually made my way out; my taxi driver running every single red light that tried to slow us down on the way home; the wet, tropical haze that settled on my body as I lugged my suitcases through my deserted apartment complex; the relentless stares that followed me the next morning as I made my way through the streets – I was just starting to get used to not being stared at!

Everything feels so simultaneously familiar and foreign; leaving one home for another. Several of my ex-pat friends’ warned me before I left that returning to America after a long break and some global perspective might be disappointing; like removing the blinders from your eyes and seeing things a little clearer. But while it was interesting to observe America in a new light – from the way people behave to the way the system operates – I wasn’t appalled or disillusioned, I was thrilled to be back (and grateful to be armed with some good stories and bizarre lessons). No one felt more patriotic than me watching the 4th of July fireworks explode over a preppy-speckled polo field on the North shore of Long Island, and I’m pretty sure it’s not normal to tear up with joy walking the aisles of a grocery store.  Still, I missed the sense of adventure inherent in the simplest things over here – like trying to pay my internet bill in a chaotic, sweaty office where no one speaks English; or figuring out why the doorways to my apartment were covered in tiny, dead gnats.  There’s something gratifying about everyday life, as though I always am accomplishing something even if it’s not actually accomplishing much. That being said, there are certain things about home that are just not transferable in a suitcase like my yogurt covered pretzels or tubes of polenta were. I was in no way ready to leave Italian food, sorbet, sushi, Trader Joe’s, my family or my friends. I’m more than certain I’d happily return home if it meant starting a new adventure there. But for now I’m back – to the noodles, the noise, the senseless traffic patterns, the perennially happy locals whose excitement to see and talk to you is one of the more sincere displays of emotion I’ve encountered in my life. It’s a bittersweet transition, but I’m trying to just soak it up.

little bro catching up on celeb gossip… can’t get this in China.

deserted beach + sunshine + family … can’t get this in China.

NYC skyline … nope, not in China. 

eat this up

My 6 weeks stateside involved food – lots, and lots of food. Luckily, reconnecting with the friends and family I haven’t seen in a year involved plenty of excuses for dinners, lunches, gelatos, drinks, etc. After a year in Chengdu – a city with incredible food but limited variety beyond Sichuan cuisine – I realize I completely took for granted the fact that most nights in college I couldn’t decide between takeout Thai, delivery sushi, customizable salads, or the endless possibilities within Trader Joe’s aisles. In Chengdu it takes me a whole afternoon to feel like I’ve soaked and washed lettuce enough to use it.  I love what I am able to eat over here, and I love what exploring the food has taught me about Chinese culture, but when it comes to variety, convenience, and being health conscious, – you really can’t beat the culinary melting pot of America.

I won’t recount every bagel that blew my mind (although I’ll mention Glen Cove bagel, a lunch that officially made me stop making fun of Long Island), or overlook the fact that most of the best meals I had while home were put together by my parents, Jeff’s parents, or the culinary (and kombucha brewing) skills of my girlfriends. But when it comes to dropping dough on meals in these fiscally tough times, below are some spots that are worth the bill:

NYC

Ayada Thai – Jeff stumbled upon this gem looking up BYOB joints in the city. It requires a small trek to Queens (Jackson Heights) but is completely worth the trip. Aside from the awesomeness of bringing your own booze, this unassuming spot tucked in a residential neighborhood turns out the most authentic Thai food I’ve ever had outside of Thailand (at extremely reasonable prices).  The shredded papaya salad and the curries (so far we’ve tried the Massaman with chicken/beef and the green with vegetables) were highlights. check it out here. 

Fiat Cafe – I give full credit to my Dad for this own: a tiny LES cafe that has bottles of wine starting at $18, and the majority of salads, appetizers, and pastas for under $10. This could make for a very cheap date (or an expensive one, if I’m your girlfriend and decide to order 2 appetizers, sorry Jeff). On my last visit I ordered a special seafood linguini in tomato sauce- chalk full of mussels, clams, and flaky white fish atop perfectly al dente linguini. check it out here. 

Fig & Olive – Jeff’s parents took us to the Lexington avenue location (1 of 5  branches) and Jeff aptly pointed out that the menu looked like it was built from my imagination …. entirely in line with my ideal dining experience, with a focus on the best olive oils and inventive Mediterranean cuisine. Not unusually, I could not decide what I wanted the most. In the end we ordered the beef carpaccio and jamon iberico plate for starters, which I followed with the fig and olive salad topped with grilled shrimp. It was literally the best salad I’ve had in my whole life. And don’t even get me started on their wine list. check it out here.

DC

Urbana –  My endorsement is limited to their bottomless mimosa brunch, as I haven’t tested out their lunch or dinner menu.  But brunch is worth mentioning- for $16 you get unlimited access to a bar of juices and purees (from grapefruit to strawberry to blood orange) and non-stop champagne delivery by the bottle to your table. Throw in girlfriends you haven’t seen since college graduation and you officially have the best brunch of life, no matter what you order (although my frittata with manchego cheese was pretty awesome.) check it out here. 

Kushi – New, trendy izakaya/sushi spot in Chinatown. Points off for not accepting my friend’s fake ID so we could both enjoy their delicious lychee martinis. Points for the tuna box and the grilled okra. check it out here. 

Taqueria Distrito Federal – Finally made it to the spot where I have long been told serves the best tacos in DC (and maybe anywhere). Up 14th street past the Columbia Heights metro, not officially BYOB but they did not protest the case of Modelo we brought along. Plates of amazing corn tortilla tacos with a wide assortment of both typical and unusual fillings – like fatty pork skin in green sauce (the one taco I would not recommend) or crumbled chorizo (which I would highly recommend) and the BEST guacamole I’ve ever had, outdoor seating, and a $35 check for 4 people. check it out here. 

Fairfield

Safita – This relatively new Syrian restaurant seems to be maintaining a crowd; rightfully so as their prices are reasonable, the service is excellent, the presentation is beautiful, and the baba ghanoush was the best I’ve had in a while. My only criticism falls on their pita bread-  a fairly flat and bland version of what I prefer to be fluffy and sturdy enough to withstand excessive dipping.  But their assortment of Middle Eastern salads are delicious and generously portioned, and twice we ordered a sea bass special with red beet salad that was worth returning for. check it out here. 

Osianna – We’ve never had a bad meal here, and it appears to be a restaurant with staying power (a tough gig in fairfield where the turnover is quite high, often to my dismay). My mom and I have done some damage eating our way through the fairly extensive dinner menu, and I’m yet to order something I don’t love. My farewell dinner on Thursday was particularly delicious – greek sausage with white bean salad; tomato, cucumber, kalamata, and feta salad; followed by cod over a lemon artichoke risotto. And greek walnut cake with coconut sorbet for desert. check it out here.