"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.

Powered by Linky Tools

Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…


International Women’s Day
March 8, 2011, 5:27 am
Filed under: Chinese culture, holidays | Tags:

Happy International Women’s Day! I don’t plan on doing anything special to celebrate, but I did run outside this morning and I don’t have to come to work until three. Here in China, some people even get the day off…but a half day is pretty good too.

It is refreshing to live in a country where International Women’s Day is acknowledged, which is not the case in the U.S.  In fact, a few years ago I surveyed various women of all ages at my college and found that not many people had even heard of it. I suspect this is because of the holiday’s historical link to socialism.  In fact, it was a member of the Socialist Democratic Party–Clara Zetkin–who first proposed the idea at the second International Conference of Working Women in 1910.  For the next decade, International Women’s Day would function as a stage for various political causes, particularly labor rights.  Later, as World War I devastated Europe, International Women’s Day matured into a day to protest the war, especially in Russia.  Lenin declared March 8 a national holiday to honor women, and it was Russia’s influence that brought the holiday to China.

Today in China, however, most people know about International Women’s Day, though they don’t necessarily celebrate it.  I asked my co-workers if they usually give their mothers and sisters a flower, as is custom in many Eastern European countries, but they said no.  I would buy them flowers…if I knew where to get flowers around here!

In Chinese, today is also referred to as Sanba Jie, which literally means 3-8 (March 8th).  But don’t go around wishing everyone a happy “Sanba jie” as I did at work today. According to my Chinese friends, “sanba” has a very different meaning–and it’s not flattering for women.  I thought hitting up the streets of Dalian to investigate what people thought of this multifaceted Sanba Jie, but then I realized that my Chinese isn’t advanced enough.  Luckily, Su Fei of Sexy Beijing beat me to it:


(My Chinese friends say that one should not say “sanba jie”; so why do they use that term in this video? Haven’t figured that one out yet.)

I would hardly say that women are treated equally to men in China.  How many times have people–women–told me that men are better at things like math, science, driving and finding directions?  Why is it that one of my co-workers, an intelligent, assertive woman who happens to be an excellent teacher, is reduced to a giggling, whiny-voiced ding dong when she talks to her boyfriend on the phone?  And why are there advertisements for abortion clinics on the buses, yet so many women either don’t know about birth control or are discouraged from purchasing it?  Then again, the people Su Fei interviewed are right–the condition of women’s lives have dramatically improved, in China and throughout many regions of the world.

But there is still so much to be done.  Why not start on the local level?  If there happen to be convenient flower shops in your country, go out and buy your mother, daughter, sister or girlfriend/wife a rose!

For more on International Women’s Day, please check out the official website: http://www.internationalwomensday.com/about.asp

A second new year
February 15, 2011, 2:41 am
Filed under: Chinese culture, daily life in china, holidays | Tags:

When I was a kid, I remember feeling sad that fireworks were outlawed in New York (except for at official events, of course). My dad used to take me to the roof on New Year’s to watch them; but with the new law, that tradition ended early.

But after experiencing Spring Festival (otherwise known as Chinese New Year) here in China, I get it now! Whenever we heard the sky rumble, my first thought was “We’re being bombed!” Whenever I heard a loud crack behind me, the New Yorker in my screamed, “Gunshot!! Where??”

People here use fireworks and firecrackers to stretch out the New Year for as long as possible; it starts a week before the holiday, and usually ends a week after. And they go off everywhere. In the sky. On the ground. Even walking down the street is an exercise in caution; a firecracker could go off mere inches away from you at any time. At any time–morning, afternoon, night. There have been many mornings when, after a late night, I wake up at 7am to a barrage of firecrackers right outside my window; I usually end up screaming “SHUT UP!!” before I’m even fully awake.

Given that I am the kind of person who jumps when the phone rings, you can imagine how much I love Spring Festival.

But that really isn’t a fair assessment of this holiday, which is so important to Chinese people. It’s really just a minor inconvenience compared to the other ways in which China shifts during this time of year. Everyone has been so much happier. My co-workers looked forward to their long holiday with their family. My students have all been a little more crazed than usual, and say goodbye and “Happy New Year!” to me with a little bounce in their voice. Red lanterns adorned the streets; gaudy flashing lights hung on the trees. Aside from the fact that it felt as though we were living in a warzone, Spring Festival managed to break the gloom of winter.

It depresses me a little that, like Thanksgiving, I spent Spring Festival in a bar. But it happened to be a bar in a really cool district of Beijing (Sanlitun) with other awesome expats. Here is a photo of the fireworks we saw at midnight:

View from The Stumble Inn bar (Sanlitun, Beijing)

In Beijing, I stayed with a friend, who tirelessly showed me a good time. We were even invited to her Chinese co-worker’s home to bao jiaozi (wrap dumplings) in honor of the New Year. I have never been good at wrapping Christmas presents; apparently I’m not cut out for wrapping dumplings, either. But it was good fun struggling with the other expats there while my friend’s co-worker, and her elderly parents, patiently helped us. Here we all are, trying to be Chinese:

Me, Amy (purple shirt) and her friends/co-workers boaing jiaozi

Wrapping dumplings is a bit of an art in Chinese culture. Some people even wrap them in the shape of flowers. Ours looked more like lumps. But these were, hands down, the best tasting lumps I have ever eaten. If only a Chinese mom would adopt me…

A Kafka-esque Christmas
December 30, 2010, 7:34 am
Filed under: holidays

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Dalian!

On Christmas morning, I did not awake to the thrill of unopened presents under the Christmas tree, but I did learn how to say “acute outer intestinal infection” in Chinese.  So, sadly, I spent Christmas morning wandering a dark, cold, unhygienic hospital in daze, unable to even wish I were home eating popovers and omelets because my stomach hurt so much. Luckily, I was with someone who spoke fluent Chinese, because I was too out of it to be of any use.

Not many people like hospitals, but this hospital that I went to was downright Kafkaesque.  Everywhere we went was cold and filthy.  First we were given a number and told to wait to see the doctor.  After about half an hour, my friend took me to a small, bare doctor’s office, where people line up from the desk, waiting to be interviewed.  This means that there is no privacy at all; if the doctor declares that you have some life-threatening disease, everyone else knows it.  As the only foreigner patient in line, I was apparently a source of amusement for the other patients.  People grinned and laughed when the doctor asked if I get regular periods, if I was pregnant, etc.

From then on, I was constantly being shuffled from a cold room to an even colder hallway, and then from another cold room to yet another colder hallway; this continued for about an hour or so.  I went to a room where they drew blood, waited in the coldest hallway in Dalian for a while, and then I was sent back to the same doctor.  She gave me a diagnosis, but the only thing I understood was “this is very serious.”

They then sent me to yet another cold room that looked like a hair saloon: big chairs, covered in standard hospital blue cloth, lined the room, some back to back and some facing each other.  All that was missing were hair steamer caps.  Instead, everyone was hooked up to their own IV.  Getting an IV in China is about as common as getting a tattoo back home.  People will do it even for a cold.

As the nurse plugged the IV into my hand, she asked where I was from.  “She doesn’t speak Chinese,” the other nurse said with more than a hint of glee; and, very foolishly, I looked her straight in the eye and said, “America.”

“Oh America!”  she declared, and then looked at me conspiratorially.  “So, which is better: China or America?”

“They’re completely different,” I said. “But both are good.”

All the nurses giggled.  “Ha ha! China is so much better than America!”

And because I didn’t know how to say a few choice in words in Chinese, my language skills, in effect, forced me to turn the other cheek.  Just as well, I suppose.

It was by far not the worst way to spend the holidays, though.  I was staying at a friend’s house, and people floated in and out to quietly celebrate.  Of course I missed my family like crazy, but it was far from lonely.  The day after Christmas, we made potato and pumpkin pierogies (using dumpling wraps) as well as sour cream (whipping cream and vinegar).  They were quite good; though I will admit that, once I started to get my appetite back, I did miss popovers and omelets.