"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.

Baseball, Chinese-style
April 22, 2015, 11:37 pm
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture, efl world, teaching | Tags: , ,

Ah, spring time in San Francisco: mornings of cloudy, cold, constipated sky, trying so hard to rain.  Oh wait, it’s like this all year.  Living in the Bay Area, I often lose track of the time. How does one tell that spring has sprung?

From the Giants fans.

It’s more like baseball season has sprung.  In the evenings and on weekends, hordes of people decked in black and orange Giants merchandise cram onto the BART and on the T Line.  In North Beach, every bar lining the streets is imploding with cheers from the fans.

Baseball season is the kind of thing so cultural that its energy seeps into the most curmudgeonly of us–even I get excited by it, and I’m about as sports savvy as Millhouse from The Simpsons.  So it seemed like something I should teach my Chinese students.

Last year, infected with baseball fever myself, I led my students on an expedition to a nearby park, where we would play a game of baseball.  Beforehand, I had explained the game in detail, showed them clips from different Giants games and taught some essential vocabulary.  Some of the boys were eager get onto the field and go, while the rest just sort of blankly looked at my diagram.  “It’s OK,” I said. “Let’s just go play. You’ll pick it up!”

Once at the park, they sorted themselves into teams. They eager boys got to bat first. Unfortunately, they hadn’t watched the video I’d showed them closely enough in class, because they had no idea how to throw the ball or swing the bat. 

My dear students standing around, waiting for somebody to do something.

My dear students standing around, waiting for somebody to do something.

The thing is, in China, baseball is an unplayed game with mysterious rules. Racket sports, however, are all the rage.  Go to any park in the evenings and you’ll see friends, couples and semi-professionals playing badminton, and pretty much everyone is reasonably good. (Further proof that I am sports-challenged: in China, after I played badminton with some students, one of them told me that I looked like a cartoon character. So that’s why a couple of them kept giggling…) 

It should come as no surprise, then, that every ball that got pitched followed a vertical path over everyone’s heads, and the batter kept waving the bat around like it was tennis racket.  Miss after miss after miss, the basewomen (they were all girls who didn’t want to play) slumped, hopped and daydreamed on their respective bases.  Good thing this wasn’t real baseball, otherwise we’d be sleeping in the park.

I showed them again how to pitch and how to bat, and they kind of got it, enough for the batter to actually make contact with the ball, which went rolling along the grass.  The batter looked around. “Run!” I shouted. “Run to first base!” The batter ran to first base, looked around and kept running.  Pretty soon the basewomen were running too.  The ball lay forgotten in the grass.

“Why are we running?” one girl asked.

Can you believe that, at the end, the boys wanted to know where to buy a metal bat and a hard baseball? Don’t worry, they came back to class on Monday with a full set of teeth.

A Chinese Wedding in America
April 18, 2015, 11:46 pm
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture | Tags: ,

A Chinese wedding in America is really nothing like a Chinese wedding in China.  Having made such a sweeping generalization, I should probably note that I have only been to one Chinese wedding in America and one Chinese wedding in China. 

I had been mightily impressed by the Chinese wedding in China.  We sat at one of many dinner tables in a large dance hall, squinting under the purple LED lights to watch the bride and groom walk down the “aisle.”  After the Emcee had elicited enough applause for the newlyweds, we enjoyed a slideshow of the couple’s wedding pictures, ornamented with computer generated hearts and set to the background of a sappy piano piece.  True love, indeed.

On the other hand, the wedding that I went to just a few weeks ago outside San Jose was very Chinese; absent were the wacky emcees, nightclub lights and hearts.  And because Lipeng was there as a photographer, we both got to see every stage of this auspicious day.

In fact, we were the first to arrive, and were greeted by the bride in her PJ’s and hair rollers.  To distract us, I think, her mother served us each a bowl of tangyuan, a glutinous dumpling dessert traditionally served on Chinese New Year and, apparently, on the morning of weddings. (By the way, YUM!)

Slowly more people filled the apartment, close friends and bridesmaids and groomsmen, and, SURPRISE, some of my former students!  (The bride was also a student at our school. But I did not expect that . . . ) Not one, not two, but five!  At least none of them had failed my class. That would have been awkward!

Once the bride had been properly pampered, it was time for the first phase of the wedding.  Out she came, decked in a traditional red dress and headpiece, with matching tassel earrings.  (The groom, who had been busy collecting all the necessary people, hastily changed into his matching ensemble in the living room.) Everyone cleared to the edges of the living room, and Lipeng began positioning the cameras.  The bride’s parents sat together on the couch as the bride and groom stood before them.

It was time to begin the serving of the tea.

The bride gets ready. Photo by Lipeng Chi.

The bride gets ready. Photo by Lipeng Chi.

First, the bride and groom knelt down to the set of parents.  Someone counted, “one — two — three,” and at each interval the couple bowed, head to the floor.  Then the best man and the maid of honor each handed the couple a small cup of green tea.  The couple served it to their parents, saying, “Ba, ma, please drink the tea.”  After their parents accepted the cups and took a sip, they returned them to the couple, who then passed them to their respective counterparts.  Then their parents each produced a large red envelope of money and presented it to the bride and groom.  To conclude the ceremony, their parents helped the couple to their feet and wished them luck and happiness in their future together.

After the tea came the dumplings.  Two dumplings were served to the bride and groom on a small plate. They then both fed each other and kissed.  It’s really very sweet.  Then, the bridesmaids and groomsmen lined up facing each other and followed suit.

The serving of the dumplings. Photo by Lipeng Chi.

The serving of the dumplings. Photo by Lipeng Chi.

These two ceremonies were performed in the apartment of the bride.  At their conclusion, we were all whisked away to the church, where the formal Western-style wedding took place.  Nothing much there to report; you all know how that one goes.  All the same, it was lovely (and outside, so no crazy nightclub lights).

When you eat chocolate, how do you know when to stop?
April 1, 2015, 12:57 am
Filed under: Chinese culture, racism, the expat life, TIC | Tags: , , ,

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend of mine–a fellow former China expat–posted a video of a comedy sketch about being black in China and the bewildering ignorance that black people experience. I thought it was hilarious–because, sadly, it’s true. Racism does exist in China. Here’s the proof:

“When you eat chocolate, how do you know when to stop?” AI YA WO DE MA YA!!!

All foreigners, regardless of race, should expect be asked some off the wall questions, ranging from the benign to the offensive. It’s understandable: a cocktail of a one-party system that limits free speech, a guarded Internet and travel restrictions has created a culture that really doesn’t understand the outside world. Even the language demonstrates China’s isolation: you may here Chinese people refer to China as guonei (within the country) and the rest of the world as guowai (outside the country), as well as to themselves as Zhongguoren (Chinese) and the rest of the world as waiguoren (foreigner). Yes, you could find a similar way to express these ideas in English (your country/abroad, your nationality/immigrants or foreigners or what have you), but these concepts are different when Chinese people speak. You will hear people say things like, “Chinese people are like this, but foreigners are like that”–as though the entire world is diametrically opposed to China in a massive monoculture. I do not say this as a criticism of China, a country that was previously very poor and more isolated than today, and does not have the same history of immigration and diversity as many other countries. 

And that historical void has been filled with the next best thing: Western media. Do you see where I’m going with this? There’s a certain demonization of black people in our media, and developing countries like China pick up on that. The difference is that while they hear things about black people being dangerous, homeless, unemployed and drug addicts, most of them have never met a single black person. I think my students–most of whom are Chinese, studying in San Francisco–are afraid of black people. They will casually say things that I think are racist, like, they see a fast driver on the street and say, “Oh, he’s black.” Meaning: that’s why he’s a reckless driver. That’s just one, tiny example; nevertheless, I find it disturbing. We have to contend with racism as a force so vicious, so pervasive, that it can spill onto foreign soil and grow.  Slavery has long been abolished, and yet the world is still reeling from its repercussions.

Well, regardless of how or why racism reared its ugly head in China, the fact is it’s very hurtful. I’d like to share with you all the first time I ever encountered racism in China. I’m white so I didn’t experience it first-hand; in fact, it was several months into my first year until I really noticed it.

It was Christmas Day, and I was sick as a dog with some kind of gastrointestinal infection. My friend and roommate was at work, but her boyfriend was around. One look at me and he knew I needed a doctor, and luckily, he happened to speak fluent Chinese (he was doing his M.A. in Dalian). So he took me to see a doctor.

On the walk to the hospital, I noticed that people often paused to look at us. OK, this was not unusual, we were foreigners after all, but it seemed like . . . more?  And less friendly? The stares I attracted were partnered with smiles; but these stares were quite unwelcome.

And then, once we’d arrived, I finally got it. We found a nurse and approached her to ask for directions for the proper facility.

As we approached, a look of cold fear took over her face.

This guy, my savior on that day, was black, from a small African country, and quite dark-skinned. The nurse was afraid for her life.

Honestly, if everywhere I went I had to deal with fear and contempt, I probably would have quit China long ago. I really don’t know how people do it. I suppose some people just don’t have a choice. You go where the money and opportunities are; that’s what we all have to do, it’s just easier for some of us.

After that experience, I tried to do a lesson on racism in my adult language class. But surprisingly, none of my students believed racism existed in China. They maintained (like in the video) that Chinese people are all the same race, therefore, there is no racism. And if no one believes in racism, how can they talk about it? How can they work through it? How can they begin to see it?

The video above was also posted onto the Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube. Here below is a snapshot of what some Chinese people made of this video, which I’ve translated into English. Some of the opinions are harsh. But at least there’s some kind of platform for people to talk about racism. Is it too generous to believe that this is a start? Read below and decide for yourself.


It’s not that I discriminate against black people, but they do leave me with a bad impression. Black people contribute absolutely nothing to the progress of the civilized world, from ancient times to the not so distant European Industrial Revolution–nothing advantageous came from the work of black people. They completely enjoy the results of progress brought on by people of other races.


Why do black people continue to live in China? Wouldn’t it be better to go back to Africa?


The truth is, Asian people think white is pretty…

还有中国1978年才开始慢慢发展到现的程度。国家很穷,教育也不好,旅游也不可能。 //@(username deleted): 因为中国封闭了几十年 让人坐井观天

And it wasn’t until 1978 that China slowly began to open its doors. China was poor, the education was bad and people couldn’t travel. / @(username deleted): This is because for so many decades China was sealed off. It makes people narrow-minded.


We understand, but that’s not to say that all Chinese people do. Although not all Chinese people are like the ones in this video, most are!


This video says something really profound about Chinese people’s ignorance!

For further reading, please check out A Minority in the Middle Kingdom: My Experience Being Black in China via Tea Leaf Nation.

Dalian and the Children of the Sea
March 27, 2015, 5:58 pm
Filed under: Chinese culture, daily life in china, dalian | Tags: ,

A centerpiece of the Dalian local’s identity is that of being a child of the sea.  That’s true, at least, of my husband, who needs to live near water to feel content. He shared with me a song about growing up by the sea, called “Big Sea, My Home,” (大海啊故乡)which every Chinese person knows. So here’s a bit of Chinese culture:


And for those of you learning Chinese, here are the lyrics and their translation:

When I was young, my mother told me
that the big sea is indeed my home.
海边出生 海里成长
Born by the sea, raised in the sea,
大海 啊大海 是我生长的地方
 oh, big sea, the place where I’ve spent my life.
海风吹 海浪涌 随我飘流四方
 As the sea wind blows, an electrical current drifts in all directions.
大海 啊大海 就像妈妈一样
Oh, big sea, you are like my mother,
走遍天涯海角 总在我的身旁
walking to the ends of the earth, yet always by my side.
When I was young, my mother told me
that the sea is indeed my home,
海边出生 海里成长
born by the sea, raised in the sea,
大海 啊大海 是我生长的地方
oh, big sea, the place where I’ve spent my life.
海风吹 海浪涌 随我飘流四方
As the sea wind blows, an electrical current drifts in all directions.
大海 啊大海 就像妈妈一样
Oh big sea, you are like my mother,
走遍天涯海角 总在我的身旁
walking to the ends of the earth, yet always by my side.
大海 啊大海 就像妈妈一样
Oh big sea, you are like my mother,
走遍天涯海角 总在我的身旁
walking to the ends of the earth, yet always by my side.
大海啊故乡 大海啊故乡
Big sea, my home; big sea, my home;
我的故乡 我的故乡
my home, my home.


Dalian, a city on the edge of a peninsula, is ringed with beaches — so it’s no surprise that it’s the place to be during the summer. After the long winter (seriously long — 7 months at least), everyone emerges from their homes and offices to play badminton, dance, play majiang on the street corners or just walk around the beaches.


A misty day at the beach.


Fujiazhuang Beach

After a long week of students crying in my office over grades, paperwork and the general motion of my daily routine, I find myself longing to chill on a rocky beach in Dalian, enjoy a cold beer (yes, you can find them in China) and munch on barbecued seafood.


Me, enjoying a bite-sized abalone.

So excited to be going back for a short visit this summer! See you then, Dalian!

Livin’ the Chinese Lifestyle . . . in North America
April 9, 2014, 4:26 pm
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture | Tags: ,

Now that I’ve repatriated – perhaps permanently, perhaps not – I find that, basically, my life inside the house really isn’t much different than it was when I lived in China. I think it’s common for expats to adapt to the customs of their host country and to then preserve them when back home. So here are some parts of the Chinese lifestyle that I’ve imported into my North American life:

  1. Cold water leaves me feeling…well, cold. Americans scoff at the idea of drinking hot water – and they’ve got a point. Why drink boring hot water when you can drink tea? (We’ll get to the tea later.) Well, some people find hot water just as soothing as hot tea! And some of us (me) are too lazy to perform the extra step of making tea. Why does it need to be hot? Chinese people believe that cold water is harmful to the body – really, that anything cold is harmful. I remember teaching in warm, stuffy classroom, thinking I was going to die from heatstroke, while all of my students sat bundled up in their winter coats. The cold won’t kill you! I wanted to shriek. This example is a bit extreme, however, I do believe that hot water can aid digestion and make you feel much warmer on a cold day.
  2. Shoes are for the outside. Imagine bits of gum, dog poo, and an assortment of bacterial cultures swimming along your living floor, or worse yet, in your carpet. OK, I happen to be a major hypchondriac, but still, I think I’m on to something here. Plus, it means you can get away with cleaning the floor less often.
  3. Everything can be eaten with chopsticks. Even salad. Especially salad. Here in the Sates, a friend of mine came over for an impromptu meal of pasta and tomato sauce. When all I had to offer her were chopsticks (we’ve only recently purchased silverware), she laughed at the idea of using Asian utensils to eat Italian food. Until then, I’d never thought twice about it.
  4. Tea occasionally wins over coffee. I’ve always hated tea, particularly herbal tea. Names like “orange spice black tea” and “cinnamon sunset” all boil down to the same flavor for me – water. What a let down! I’ve always attributed it to my weakened sense of smell. However, I can actually taste Chinese tea, and I’ve really grown to like it. My favorites are green, pu’er and damai (barley). Also, if you’re coming down with a cold, try drinking hot green tea with lemon. The taste is on the bitter side, so you may have to gag it down, but it will make you feel better within hours. And if you’ve just had an amazing meal but ate too much and you think your stomach is going to explode, make yourself a tall cup of pu’er for some relief. I know from experience … this happened a lot when I lived in China.
  5. After dinner walks. When I lived with my husband’s family, I’d adopted their habit of taking “after dinner walks”, usually near the beach where they lived. It sounds pretty blissful, doesn’t it? Taking walks by the ocean every evening after a delicious, healthy homecooked meal… To be honest, this is a habit I would like to continue, but here in this rough CA city I’m too afraid to leave the house at night.
  6. Dinner is optional, but lunch isn’t. The Chinese, along with probably everyone else who is not North American, do not believe that eating three meals a day every day is necessarily healthy. The meal that usually (but not always) gets sacrificed is dinner, either in favor of a few small snacks or nothing at all. That way, you’ll wake up nice and hungry in the morning, just in time for the most important meal of the day, breakfast. In China, a typical breakfast is some form of carb, such as mantou (cardboard-flavored steamed bun), with doujiang (soymilk) or cow’s milk. Throw in a hardboiled egg or two (or a “tea egg” if you’re lucky) and you’ve got a filling but light breakfast. There might even be a few vegetables on the table, or perhaps some tasty baozi, which is a steamed bun filled with meat or vegetables. Lunch tends to be quite large and filling – noodles or rice as your carb, meat, tofu or egg as protein, and vegetables. And for dinner? Fruit, perhaps with a side of veggies, or perhaps nothing. Add it all up and you’ve probably got the standard 1000-1200 calorie diet.

I don’t think I’d be able to part with any of these habits. They’ve become inseparable from who I am – and, I think, have contributed to a newer, healthier me. So thank you, China!