"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

Dumplings 101
February 8, 2016, 1:25 am
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture, food, holidays

Happy Chinese New Year, everyone! I’m always grateful for a second chance to celebrate the New Year, especially because I was trapped in bed with the flu the first time around.

We stayed up all night watching Chinese news–exciting fluff about people celebrating the New Year, soldiers sending video messages back home, etc.–and made it through half of Chun Wan before falling asleep. Chun Wan is four-hour live show of skits, comedy acts, dancing, singing–the Chinese version of SNL, essentially, and a treasured tradition of modern Chinese. 

By 8am San Francisco time, the New Year had begun. We woke up, said Happy New Year, and went back to sleep.

Later, we got a big group of people together for a New Year’s dinner at a Sichuan restaurant. This has become a tradition for us . . . even though the more Chinese thing to do is to eat dumplings.


At the stroke of the New Year, Chinese families sit down to a second dinner of dumplings (in the north east, at least; in the south I think they eat tangyuan, a dessert worthy of its own blog entry–I WILL get to it, trust me).

But wait! We did make dumplings–two weeks ago, anyway, in honor of my wonderful college Roomie’s visit.

We had made beef, radish, and carrot dumplings. Get ground beef and marinate it with soy sauce for about fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, shred carrots and radish with a microplane, and toss it in. Stir in one egg white, to keep everything sticky.


Our dumplings, not beautiful–yet.

Our dumplings, sadly, were not perfect. We missed a step–you need to boil the radish separately first, so that it cooks longer. We also made the amateur mistake of forgetting salt. Yes, I know, who does that . . . Our dumplings, however, were rescued by simple sauce of vinegar and garlic. With sauce, no dumpling can disappoint.


A big space sprinkled with flour is ideal for wrapping dumplings. On the left are dumpling wrappers we bought from Chinatown . . . as much as we love dumplings, who has time to make the dough from scratch?

While Lipeng’s job is to make the filling, mine is to wrap them in dumpling skins. I hate arts and crafts, I hate using my hands to make things–but I love wrapping dumplings. I love teaching my friends to do it, too.

image1 (2)

Do you know how to wrap dumplings? It’s not as hard as it looks. If I can do it, I’m sure anyone can: growing up, everyone in my family could spot the Christmas gifts from me by the awful wrapping job. Here’s how my mother-in-law taught me:

Once you’ve wrapped them, cook them in boiling water until they float to the surface–then, they’re done!

So if you want to get in the spirit of Chinese New Year, consider a dinner of homemade dumplings–simple to make, and a fun bonding experience with family or friends.

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Jiang, Suan, Cu, Repeat
November 9, 2015, 1:20 am
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture, food | Tags: , ,

If you live in the middle of nowhere but are discontent with Chinese take out, life can be difficult. I’m talking to you, returned expats and overseas Chinese. Even in the Bay Area, a region brimming with Chinese restaurants, it can be hard to find the real deal.

There’s no getting around it: you can either continue the endless search for a good restaurant . . . or make your own food.

Luckily, Chinese food is not that complicated, at least according to my mother-in-law. I used to watch her cook every day, and one thing that surprised me was just how few ingredients she used. In fact, while my pantry is lined with spices like cumin and cayenne pepper and crushed herbs, hers was quite minimal.

As she bustled in the kitchen, stirring the soup, cutting the eggplant, frying the peppercorns, she would repeat the same advice to me, like a mantra: “Jiang, suan, cu.”

Ginger, garlic, vinegar: the trifecta of minimalist Chinese cuisine.

Obviously there’s other oils and spices out there, but even if you have nothing but those three things you’ll still make something more authentic and healthier than the sugar and MSG-laden take out.*

And if there’s an Asian market in your area, I would recommend also looking for numbing peppercorns, which is the first thing that hits the oil in stir-fried dishes.** That’s your edge. Spring onion, or scallion, is also an ever-present ingredient in Chinese food.

chinese cooking staples
So there you have it! That’s the secret to Chinese cooking, according to my mother-in-law. Don’t believe me? Let’s break down the math:

numbing peppercorns + spring onion + eggs + tomatoes = scrambled eggs and tomato (xihonghshi chao jidan)

numbing peppercorns + spring onion + garlic + (ginger) + whatever veggies you like = standard stir fry

garlic + vinegar + (sesame paste) + raw vegetables = cold vegetable side dish (bancai)

garlic + vinegar = basic sauce for your dumplings

Here are some secondary ingredients you will find in Chinese dishes:


oyster sauce

sesame paste (zhimajiang)

soy sauce (jiangyou) (and there’s a range of different kinds)

Sichuan pepper

Numbing oil (mayou)

sesame oil (zhimayou)

various bean pastes

rice wine

star anise


dried chili peppers

*Restaurant tip: At a Chinese restaurant in North America, if you want your food to be more authentic and healthier, ask that the cook does not add sugar.  Most Chinese restaurants load on the sugar, perhaps to accommodate the American palette, but the result is that the food loses its original flavor.

**Always discard the peppercorns after a minute or so of frying. Their flavor gets absorbed into the oil, but they are not meant to be eaten. Otherwise, you’ll be constantly picking out burnt bits of peppercorn while you eat. Talking from first-hand experience here.

Riding in Cars with Aiyi
November 1, 2015, 9:01 pm
Filed under: daily life in china, dalian, the expat life | Tags: ,

To hail a taxi with the attitude of “Ha! This is only two dollars!” is pure economic freedom.

It’s not something I can do in America. In Dalian, though, it’s worth budgeting for even if your earnings are meager, for there will be days when 5 o’clock rolls around and thought of getting hit by a bus actually sounds better than that of having to squeeze into one. Just picture that hot summer’s day, roiling in the stench of humanity . . . and a raw garlic-eating portion of humanity at that.

There’s another bonus attached to taxis, for those expats who are learning Chinese. When I had first moved to China, my principle teachers of Chinese were taxi drivers. (Then I started running out of money, and I sought to learn Chinese from fruit vendors.)

And once you get some basic communication skills, you realize that every taxi driver is different. I re-learned that during this past trip. However, because I was with Lipeng, most of them would ask him all sorts of questions about me–“Where is she from? What’s her job? Does she understand any Chinese? Wow, she’s really white/beautiful!”–as though I were his exotic pet. Once, we shared a cab with an older lady in the early evening. She and the ruddy-faced, accelerator-happy driver cackled as they tested my comprehension of Dalianhua. Oh God, I thought, they’re drunk. They’re drunk and we’re gonna crash and the last thing I hear before I die will be coarse ers and ars and ahs of Dalianhua.

(We did not die.)

My favorite taxi driver of all, however, is a woman who goes by Aiyi. Bless your heart if you get the privilege of riding with her. She will get you where you need to go, and she’ll chat you up in her grade school English, which remarkably she still remembers. She’s a woman cabbie and she’s no pushover.

“Go! Fuck!” Beep beep. “Move! Go, baby!” Another punctuative honk, and the car that had been blocking the intersession moved to let us pass. “Thank you!”

Yet you can hear the warmth, the toughness, even an almost nurturing lilt outlining her thick Dalian accent, even if you can’t speak Chinese. When she speaks English, the thing that comes out is her joy.

“I pick up a Colombian girl at the Shengri Di La hotel. You know? I speak English, she so surprised! She work in the hotel be a singer, and she give me a free concert! In my car!”

As an English learner, Aiyi is an interesting case. She’s one of those people who doesn’t let a limited command over a foreign language get in the way of expressing herself. “I love English,” she told me.  Her dream was to be an English teacher–but she now feels too old to pursue formal study. Because her parents didn’t have a lot of money when she was growing up, she was unable to go to college. That opportunity had gone to her brother, who now works in a multinational corporation and frequently travels to other countries on business.

Like many Chinese, things are turning around for the next generation: her daughter, 23, is finishing her last year of college, and to make that happen Aiyi has taken the night shift while her husband drives a daytime taxi.

And as far as English goes, I think Aiyi seeks out opportunities to practice just because she enjoys it. She pays 150 RMB a month to park outside the foreigner clubs (JD’s, Suzie Wong’s, Shengri Di La). So if you’ve gone out and you’re ready to call it a night, look for a female cabbie–it could be Aiyi!

Eating from the Wild
August 29, 2015, 8:45 am
Filed under: daily life in china, food | Tags:

“Allison! Come out here!” came the shrill command of my mother-in-law. Lipeng had already met her at the front door, but I’d been lagging behind. I shuffled out sleepily in my nightgown, not in the mood for what I anticipated to be another reminder that we should carefully organize our new life together, cook healthy meals, make money, that kind of thing.

I did not expect to see this:

mao haiyen1

Because Lipeng’s parents live near the beach, his mother makes a habit of going swimming every night. She’s not alone–the whole neighborhood is out there enjoying the cool refuge of the ocean. It doesn’t seem to matter that the city is erecting a bridge over the water, and that grime from the construction has been reaching the shore. Rain or shine, pollution or no, every night these Dalianren flock to sea.

So during her swim, she managed to catch wild seaweed–a rarity these days.

“When I found it, I yanked it out from its roots–like this!” She hunched her shoulders together, lifted her leg like a baseball pitcher and yanked the air. 

Filled with the power of her victory, like a hunter enjoying her spoils, she hurried/hopped to the kitchen to dump the tangled mess into a pot and start cooking it. And that’s what we ate for breakfast the next day: fresh seaweed braised in garlic and vinegar.

I’m sorry to say that the seaweed was largely neglected in favor of other, more flavorful dishes. OK, so I’m not the only one, I thought, who doesn’t like seaweed! To be more accurate, I hate seaweed in all its incarnations. Even my love of vinegar and garlic was simply no match for this hate. We did nibble at it out of politeness, but . . . but . . . there was so many other wonderful dishes on the table, like fried fish and eggs with tomato . . . I hope our reluctance to eat didn’t damper her sense of accomplishment!

Back from China Again
August 22, 2015, 12:05 pm
Filed under: the expat life | Tags:

I blinked and my trip was over. I am both sad and relieved — sad to leave China behind yet again, but I can’t deny how good it feels to be back on American soil.

Because we were so busy–too busy, actually, to wait around for WordPress to load, along with every other non-Baidu-searchable website. I will have to add a backlog of posts over the next few weeks. Some may have to appear next week, after Lipeng arrives, because many of the necessary pictures are on his camera.

This particular visit to China was extremely busy because there were a lot of family visits and celebrations of our marriage (which actually happened last year). So there weren’t a lot of boots on the ground-type explorations of China. Still, there were some wonderful moments that would be hard to picture occurring in America, which I can’t wait to relate on the blog.

I must say, this time around, I’ve returned without regrets. I’ve been relishing my daily coffee, the clean, blue skies and the casual conversations that emerge with people that I encounter each day (in China, it’s much rarer to chat with strangers). And I’m relieved to see my plants still alive.

An uncomfortable thought bothered me all throughout the trip, though, which is the question: could I ever expatriate again in the future? Even though I identify as an expat, I realize now how comfortable I’ve gotten in California, thanks to friends, a literary community, fun stuff happening every weekend, good weather and the year-round availability of fresh, organic and surprisingly affordable produce–not to mention the convenience of things like browsing my local library, or being around like-minded people. A year ago, my lack of job security blinded me to these pleasures — and while I’m not exactly on an SF tech job salary, I can at least enjoy my life.

Whereas, as an expat in China, money would not be something to worry about (assuming the Chinese economy does not impact language schools), but the trade-off is to endure the dark side of life in China . . . pollution, corruption, getting ripped off everywhere you go . . . this time around, any time we wanted to buy something Lipeng would have to shoo me away before the salespeople could see my face. This is not a way to live. And of course, there’s the Baidu prison. Baidu is the only functional search engine! Goodbye, Google, Yahoo and just about every website I like to visit. I almost kissed my phone when I got to Korea for my layover. (Helpful hint: the BBC news website is blocked, but the app works. Small mercies, indeed.)

A year ago, two years ago, was my homesickness for China just a knee-jerk reaction to my financial situation? I don’t really want to think that that’s the case. There are so many wonderful people, memories, food, little details that pull me back to Dalian . . . And let’s not forget that getting kicked out meant not leaving on my own terms and feeling that my time there had ended prematurely. Since then, I’ve been back twice and had my fill. On the morning of my departure I did not cry over the dumplings that Lipeng’s mom had made. I hadn’t felt the need to retrace my steps to old haunts, like Olympic Square or Xi’an Lu or Transformers. I’d drunk the cup and had my fill and felt the warm glow of satisfaction.  Have I been cured of homesickness?  To say yes would be speaking too soon: as the queen of homesickness, I’m sure I’ll be humming a different tune in the coming months.

美味周末/Delicious Weekends: Sobo Ramen
June 28, 2015, 8:12 am
Filed under: Asia abroad, 美味周末/Delicious Weekends, food | Tags: ,

Hooray for the first entry of a new series I’m starting, called 美味周末 (meiwei zhoumo), which translates to “Delicious Weekends.” Disclaimer: I’m no cook. My dad was a great cook and used to give me tasks in the kitchen, but unfortunately being his sous chef didn’t impart any great skills in the kitchen onto me. BUT . . . I love food, and I especially love Chinese food, and I know a few things about it that I can pass on to you. And if all else fails, there are restaurants.

It should come as no surprise that the first installment of Delicious Weekends is going to feature a restaurant.

OK, fine, it’s not even a Chinese restaurant. It’s Japanese. It’s RAMEN! And not just any kind of ramen. Savory, flavorful ramen, worthy of every appreciative slurp. Sayonara, Ajisen. Hello, Sobo Ramen!

Sobo Ramen1

We got to Sobo Ramen at five to five to join the queue of people waiting for it to open. That made us realize that, yes, we are hardcore ramen fans. The owners should really consider opening a fan club and offer discounts . . . as it is, we’ve already started a Sobo Ramen budget . . . ahem.

Eating at Sobo Ramen feels like bypassing customs and settling in a little slice of Asia. Everything is graced with an orderly, geometric design. I love that each wooden table is equipped with a glass of chopsticks, also made of wood.

We each ordered the Tonkotsu Ramen with Mayu, a homemade broth of miso and black garlic oil that comes with tea tree mushrooms, half of a boiled egg, sliced pork, bean sprouts, spring onion and sesame seeds. Yum!

Sobo Ramen2

The real fun comes when you adorn your ramen with various delicious accouterments. Quail eggs, a common addition to noodle soups in China, are a must. I’ve yet to find them at other restaurants here in the States. Another recommendation is the fried garlic, which Lipeng chose. Because I’m trying to up my vegetable intake, I added bamboo, baby bok choy, and, to appease my ever-grumbling health conscience, kale. Now, my loathing for kale is legendary among my friends. I’m baffled by all the hype. I once saw a kale restaurant in Manhattan and wondered if I’d entered some kind of Murakami-esque alternate universe. I mean, do they actually get enough customers to pay the rent? What kind of person thinks, Oh boy! A kale restaurant! Yum! But it turns out that, once it’s been soaked in miso and garlic oil, even kale can transcend its own wretched banality.

Anyway . . . Although I haven’t tried the other ramen choices on the menu, they do sound intriguing. One of the specials is lobster ramen. They also have Tsukemen Ramen, in which all parts of the dish are disassembled so that you can dip each item into the broth. Sounds potentially messy, but I’ve heard it’s good. Another time, we also tried their pan fried crab dumplings . . . mmm!

Where is Sobo Ramen, you ask? Japantown? Somewhere supposedly hip, like the Haight? Wrong. It’s in Oakland, a few minutes walk from 12th Street BART. Take that, SF!

To sum up: ramen budget. You’ll need it.

Graduate School!
June 14, 2015, 8:53 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

So this isn’t really so much a post as it is an announcement: I’ll be starting graduate school in the fall! Whee!!!  In two years, I will have (hopefully) earned a Master’s degree in Asia Pacific Studies from the University of San Francisco.

My co-workers said they weren’t sure whether to congratulate me or offer their condolences . . . What have I gotten myself into? I can’t wait to find out! ^____^