Sunday, April 24, 2011

American English and Old Beijing

The American accent is high in demand in China, where it's considered "standard" English.  In China, there is "Standard Mandarin"-- a pure, unaccented version of good ol' putonghua, the language Chairman Mao enforced to become the language of the nation, simply because it was what was spoken in the capital.  I keep reminding my students that there's really no such thing as "Standard English," but years of watching Friends and Prison Break has given many Chinese the impression that if one wants to speak English, they should speak it as Monica and Rachel do when they're bickering in their fabulous Manhattan flat.

Being from California-- where most American TV shows and films are from-- and having a Western American accent has blessed me in the TESL department, since I was born with the "standard" accent.  So it was only natural that my friend and colleague, Zhang Kun, asked me to co-teach a Pronunciation Class with him.

My buddy Zhang Kun and me
Teaching Pronunciation is a really tricky thing.  Imagine trying to tell someone how exactly to manipulate their mouth to make them pronounce "usually," when what keeps coming out is "urally," or to say "think" instead of "sink."  Or explaining why your sentences drift up and sink down at certain parts.  It ain't easy.  Fortunately, Zhang Kun had undergone the long arduous task of trying to perfect the American English accent, though what comes out now is more of a charming marriage of British and Chinese English.

After a few hard weeks of class, Kun offered to give Jason and me a proper introduction to Old Beijing snacks, since we still didn't really know exactly what Beijing cuisine was.  He took us to a place that is just about as old school as you can get.  You first go to a ticket window, where you buy 50 RMB worth of paper tickets.  Then, you go from window to window, exchanging tickets for snacks.
Snack offerings and illustrated menus
Beijing snacks are-- at best-- interesting.  It's mostly marked by fatty meats, sesame flavoring, and a lot of heavy, oil-laden fried things.  Neither Jason nor I were big fans, but we were grateful for the experience.

No, this is not a bowl brimming with sewage!  It's sesame soup!  It's basically made of a thick, starchy paste topped with sesame paste mixed with oil.  I wasn't nuts about it, but I managed to put down a few spoonfuls before feeling completely full from all the oil and starch sitting like a rock in my stomach.  But there was plenty more to consume, of course...

 It's not an authentic Chinese meal until you eat some unusual animal part.  This is a plate of flash-boiled tripe.  Despite the aforementioned piping-hot bowl of thick, oily sesame soup waiting for me, the tripe comes with a bowl of sesame paste sauce meant for dipping.  I actually quite like tripe, but this wasn't my favorite incarnation of it.

These little sandwiches were what I had my hope for a good meal riding on.  Sadly, they didn't deliver.  I've had some excellent versions of the sandwich (called bing in Mandarin), where the meat is juicy, flavorful, and dripping with yummy fats that are soaked in by the sesame seeded bun.  What we found were two sad, cold, dry sandwiches lacking in any flavor except salt.

After our meal (on which Jason later commented that he'd never eaten at a meal where he didn't like a single thing on the menu), we three decided to take advantage of the rare beautiful Spring weather and take a walk through Beijing's historic area.  We passed the back end of the Forbidden City, and Zhang Kun took us to one of the oldest standing Catholic cathedrals in Beijing.

While we weren't thrilled about the grub, it was a good day.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Welcome to 27

April 9 was Jason's 27th Birthday.  We're still a little blown away at how quickly our twenties seem to be rushing by, but our good friend Frieda was quick to remind us how young we are, emphatically insisting that Jason is "far too young to be married!"  All musings on age and growing older aside, Jason opted against his usual quiet approach to birthday celebrations and decided to give me a night off from kitchen duty.

Jason with our buddy and Firefly student, Paul, at dinner
We met up with our good friends at our campus's Xinjiang Muslim Restaurant.  Xinjiang food is mostly carbs and protein (so Jason was pretty stoked), and in following with Muslim doctrine, doesn't serve pork or seafood.  Being that beef in China is rather expensive, you're left with lots of chicken and mutton options, which Xinjiang folks do extremely well.  I have to hand it to people in China for serving up some seriously tasty, non-gamey mutton.  Here's a peak at what we feasted on.

Of course, being me, I simply couldn't let Jason go on and have a birthday without a proper dessert to give his big day a good finish.  And of course, Jason simply wouldn't let me spend the 150 RMB (about $23 USD) it would cost to buy a little cake at a local bakery.  He made a special request for chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes.  I went with this recipe for the cookies (lives up to its name) and some awesome Eton Mess Cupcakes, courtesy of Ming Makes Cupcakes.

Eton Mess, for those who may not be in the know, is a British tasty treat hailing from Prince William's alma mater, comprised of meringue, whipped cream, and strawberries.  Not to be confused with Pavlova, which is the only other meringue-based dessert that brings me joy (don't even get me started on meringue-topped pies).

I made little J's out of meringue in honor of the Birthday Boy.  Or is it Birthday Man?

Birthday Boy/Man enjoying his Eton Mess Cupcake

I'm pretty sure that every single time I introduce Jason to anyone in China, they immediately express is their shock and amazement at how handsome he is.  Sometimes, it's hard to not take that personally-- like I'm actually supposed to be married to Sloth from The Goonies instead, and by some crazy turn of events, I completely lucked out and married a good lookin' human being.

Well, all this self-deprecation is healthy for no one, so I simply take the compliments as an excuse to gush about how, yeah, he is really handsome.  Isn't he?  Of course, all the people who remark on how handsome Jason is don't have the great privilege of knowing that his personality outshines his appearance.  They don't know that when his wife stomps around the kitchen throwing things because it's too early on a Saturday and she hasn't had coffee yet, he sits patiently and waits for her to become sane again.  They don't see how hard he works at being better as a teacher, husband, servant of the Kingdom day after day, humbly and without expectations for praise or reward in return.  They don't know what he looks like shuffling about the apartment in his pajamas, singing Musiq Soulchild and checking his email. And they certainly don't know how fun it is being married to him.

But I do.  Happy Birthday, Husband.  I so look forward to finding out all the other things about you that other people won't know.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tomb Sweeping Day

Hello, world.  This past weekend was the first "holiday" of the semester-- Qing Ming Jie, translated as Tomb Sweeping Holiday, which is literally what families across China actually do on this holiday.  Qing Ming Jie is a day devoted to honoring loved ones, relatives, and ancestors who've passed on.  Families go home to maintain their family plots and "worship" their ancestors, asking for good luck and prosperity.

Another part of Qing Ming Jie tradition is to give "offerings" to your relatives by burning replicas of things that you think they might need in their respective afterlives.  Traditionally, copies of paper money is burnt... I guess so your ancestors can finally get that Snickers Bar they've been eyeing at the Afterlife Concession Stand.  But plain ol' cash simply won't do for those who've passed on nowadays, oh no.  I learned from my students that paper copies of iPhones, iPads, television sets, cars, even Visas to travel to other countries are available for all your ancestral worship needs.

In any case, given that we're sans tomb to sweep, Jason and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful Spring weather that's finally come around to take a walk through old Beijing.  Here's a bit of what we saw.

Some hutong doorways.

Locals doing what locals do.  These men are playing Chinese chess.  To the bottom left corner of this photo, you'll also see a disabled man dragging his torso along the ground, begging for money.
This particular area (Guanzijie) is down the street from the Confucian Temple and Museum, and near Yong He Gong Buddhist Temple, so it's a hot spot for tourists, which means a lot of panhandling.  The street is lined with Buddhist fortune tellers, where people can give a sum of money to hear about their futures.  While I was taking this picture, I found myself wondering about the future of this beggar.  Would anyone in his family ever burn a paper car, television set, or iPhone for him when he's passed, when I'm sure all he wanted during his time on earth was enough to fill his belly and the ability to use his legs.

Of course, it's not a proper day walking around China without your dose of Chingrish signage.  For the record, Funny Socks was closed, but from what I could tell about it, it was a real estate office.  Yup.

We decided to stop for some lunch.  This little Xiao Long Bao (steamed dumplings filled with meat and soup) joint looked pretty good, and the two men working inside urged us to come in.  Sure, it wasn't considered what most would call fine dining, but we thought we'd give it a shot.

While the dumplings were tasty and filled us up, they made a rather unwelcome, speedy return visit just one hour later, which necessitated a detour on our subway ride home.  I won't go too far into detail, but I'll simply say that given how few tissues I had on me, I was grateful that I'd brought along last month's issue of Time Out Magazine in my backpack.  The bright side to all of this is that I found out that subway toilets are a lot cleaner than one would assume!

In the midst of experiencing bits and pieces of "Lao Beijing," we inevitably ran into the cold concrete and soaring immensity of New Beijing, which continues to sprout up and overtake the city without warning.  In its own way, New Beijing was also the uninvited guest in many households this Qing Ming Jie, as many Beijing families had to dig up the ashes of their relatives to find a new burial site for them, as they'd been informed by the government that a new building is set to be built on what was the resting place for their parents, grandparents, and ancestors' remains.

Just around the corner from the small hutong where we'd spied on kids playing hide-and-seek by ducking behind wooden wheeled carts, old Beijing seniors chatting with one another, and lap dogs lounging in the sunshine, I saw these three identically giant buildings.

Old Beijing, I hope that by this time next year, we won't be burning paper money in your memory as well.  Cheers.