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

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.


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.

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).

Political Prisoners @Large
April 3, 2015, 5:45 pm
Filed under: arts & literature, Asia abroad | Tags: ,

For those of you in or planning to visit the San Francisco Bay Area, be sure to check out @Large, Ai Wei Wei’s exhibit on Alcatraz. It closes on April 26th, so there are only a couple of weekends left to catch it!

We went a few months ago, on a characteristically misty day; with San Francisco beyond visibility, the claustrophobic sense of imprisonment loomed upon us. Within the drab, colorless prisons, you can walk among the vibrant Lego portraits and a beautifully intricate kite dragon.  There is something miraculous about the existence of this art. @Large is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Yet, as viewers, we are constantly aware of the presence of absence. In the peeling paint and water damage we sense the ghosts of the prisoners and the missing artist himself. The trick is not to rush through the exhibits. Time slows down in prison; put yourself in the shoes of political prisoners and surrender to the solitude of memory and desperation.

The best exhibit by far is Stay Tuned, a block of solitary cells big enough for just a stool, each containing a recording of a poem, song of speech about human rights from all over the world–the U.S. (MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech), South Africa, Nigeria, Iran, Russia and, of course, China. It’s chilling, yet inspiring.

Warhol introduced the question: “Is it art?” But Ai Wei Wei’s work extends that question to: “Is it art or is it activism, and what’s the difference?” We all know Ai Wei Wei has serious beef with the Chinese government, but what I like about @Large is that it looks at human rights and the human spirit beyond China. Political oppression is a force wielded by individual nations but not bound to them; where there is power to be had there will be those who seek to abuse it, and there will also be those who will seek justice.

After finishing the exhibits, viewers are invited to write a postcard to one or more of a selection of political prisoners around the world.  Supposedly, the postcards would be sent to the facility in which they’re held; whether or not the postcards actually make it there, we’ll never know. Lipeng didn’t see much point in that, but I believe that slim possibilities are possibilities nonetheless, so we made a postcard anyway.  

We chose to write to Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned for drafting Charter 08, a petition demanding gradual political change in China. He was detained in 2008 and isn’t expected to be released until at least 2019, if ever.

Postcard to Liu Xiaobo. It reads: "Thank you for your service. Don't give up!"

Postcard to Liu Xiaobo. It reads: “Your service is very important. Thank you. Don’t give up!”

Front of the postcard

Front of the postcard.

But after dropping Mr. Liu’s postcard in a bin filled with dozens of others, I found myself asking: Who will win the day? Ai Wei Wei’s life embodies the shifting, see-saw exchange of power between governments and people. He hasn’t given up–so that’s all I need to keep believing!

If you’re not in the Bay Area, or you just don’t have time to make it, I encourage you to go to the official website, where you can contemplate each exhibit from the comfort of your home.  Remote access lacks the experiential dimension of @Large, but that doesn’t make the work any less important.

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!