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. 

homeward bound.

Well, it’s midnight reflections in my Beijing hostel’s bar. I fly home tomorrow after 10 months in what sometimes feels like an alternate universe. Already, I notice the ways this layover in Beijing is offering a more gentle transition – there are foreigners everywhere, so many people speak english, I ate vietnamese spring rolls for dinner, the airport bathroom I used didn’t even have squat toilets. Still, I anticipate re-entry into America will hit me hard. A friend of mine from college just arrived in Chengdu Sunday to visit my friend Walter; observing his reactions to what has become so “normal” to me made me keenly aware of how much my life has changed, and likewise my perspective on life and the big world we live in. A herd of employees doing an aerobic dance workout outside the hair salon or restaurant they work at doesn’t surprise me anymore;  I don’t even notice the way street shops hang fresh cuts of meat on metal hooks all day; I somehow have an unmerited brazen confidence riding my bike into oncoming traffic; I am still grossed out but by no means appalled to see adults helping their small children pee (or worse) right on the sidewalk (or worse). Have I become slightly Chinese? Or have I just chilled out?

There is so much I look forward to in going home – my family, my friends, the food, the law and order, the convenience, and on and on. But I’m aware it’s going to come with it’s fair share of intense reverse culture shock. It’s so strange to reflect on the trepidation of last August – when I was bound for a place I had no connection to and no real knowledge of, besides what I’d learned in school or from the news. While I’ve spent a lot of this year beating myself up for not having things turn out the “way” I wanted them to (whatever that means), I’m starting to realize dwelling on a “way” is a counterproductive exercise, one that prevents you from focusing on what you have done and seen and learned. Which is a lot.

I just spent 5 minutes trying to figure out if “learned” was the right verb tense in the sentence above- I officially need to go speak English for 6 weeks. Farewell for now, China. It’s been real.

the things they carry.

It’s pretty unbelievable what people manage (or just attempt) to carry on their bikes around here. The serious safety hazards come in all forms – from entire families lined up 4 on a bike with their dog (or baby) panting between their feet, to laborers trying to transport metal beams, or glass window frames, strapped to their back or teetering precariously under their arms. The water delivery guys get around on electric bikes fastened with metal contraptions that hold 4 or more giant water-cooler bottles on either side of them.

Surprisingly I’ve never witnessed an accident involving any of these oversized bike loads until the other day – a water delivery man was trying to veer from the divided bike lane (don’t get it twisted – no one actually sticks to their designated lane) into traffic and miscalculated the positioning of the metal divider. The bottles strapped to his right side collided with the beam, knocking the bottles off the bike and causing his bike to slam down on top of him directly in front of oncoming traffic, where luckily the giant SUV who collided into him was paying enough attention to slam on  their brakes. Quite alarmed, I pulled over to the side of the road and was relieved to see the water guy get right up off the street and start re-attaching those giant bottles to his bike. Everyone moved on and the incident seemed to shock no one. I’ve gotten really used to observing this kind of thing, despite spending the past 24 years of my life in places where traffic is regulated and seatbelts are mandatory. But, as my trip home approaches and I’m forced to reunite with traffic laws and general order, I thought one of the most amusing / disturbing issues in the chaos that is Chengdu traffic was worth a blog entry. Below are some pictures of old men carrying way more than they should. And these examples are actually on the reasonable side….

an old man squatting atop 30 foot long sharp metal beams.... in traffic.

ladder under the arm, twice his size.

Old Chengdu Club

On Friday night Jeff and I got the chance to indulge in some amazing massages and a seriously delicious dinner at the Old Chengdu Club. The Club’s website heralds it as combining “the best tradition of service, hospitality, and friendliness,” radiating the “sentiment of yester-years;” up until Friday we only knew it as the place that denied us entrance when we stumbled upon it back in September while exploring the area around Wenshu Monastery. As a foreigner in Chengdu, rejection is an uncommon feeling, so we were mildly put off by the exclusivity (yet intrigued by what the hell could be so great about the place that they were in a position to reject laowai).

Jeff attended a Cinco de Mayo party there 2 weeks ago hosted by the Singapore Chamber of Commerce, and managed to win some vouchers for knowing the answers to some pretty challenging “Mexican” trivia (like what does “cinco de mayo” mean…). Although we experienced a slightly mortifying moment discovering the massage vouchers didn’t actually cover the entire cost of the massage, I was overall blown away by the service and facilities at the Spa of the club – it was quite possibly the nicest massage experience, ever. This was likely because we each had not one but TWO people massaging us at the same time …. a bizarre sensory experience that felt amazing but kept me from my normal tendency to fall asleep mid-massage because it just felt so counterintuitive to have 4 hands symmetrically massaging your body. It was intense, and a little weird, but overall awesome.

After the massages we headed to the Japanese Restaurant at the club (they also have a Chinese, Korean, and Western resataurant) which we were told served up the best Japanese in town. Our gift certificates were for the “japanese barbeque” for 2 people, so we never looked at a menu or made any decisions regarding what we ate. Sometimes, this method works out in your culinary favor and sometimes this does not. Luckily this dinner was an example of  the former – it consisted of about 6 or 7 mini courses ranging from fresh sashimi tuna and salmon on ice to perfectly seared slices of beef to an exquisite miso soup, and a few others in between. The desert was a lovely plate of fresh dragon fruit and watermelon, with a bean curd custard on the side which was fluffy and the perfect palate cleanser. I would particularly commend the restaurant for their fresh ginger (ha, ha) and perfectly head-numbing wasabi, 2 accoutrements I have found completely unsatisfactory at other Japanese restuarants I have visited in Chengdu. My only criticism of the restaurant would be when they brought literal meaning to the phrase “ice cold beer” with several cubes bobbing around in my Asahi. I realize this was only done in attempts to please the bizarre chilled-beverage-loving foreigners, but I mean seriously – why would you ever put ice in a beer. Luckily there was enough delicious food to distract me. We also had the privelage of sharing a cup of sake with the manager of the Club – a very hospitable Austrailian guy who was filling us in on how much the Club has changed the past few months under his management, and how he wants to create an atmosphere that is more accessible and foreigner-friendly. He seems to be accomplishing his goal, as I will whole heartedly recommend a visit to the Old Chengdu Club. There may not be much that’s actually old  about it, but it is a fantastic getaway from the chaos of Chengdu – and the “Duet” massage will actually change your life  - I’d just suggest a price check in advance :)

yumsashimi.

a mighty pretty dessert