I’m Back!

For the past 2 weeks I have been visiting Grandma He and paternal family in Chongqing to celebrate 春節 (Chūnjié), Spring  Festival/Chinese New Year  (Year of the Dragon!). This was my first Spring Festival, a 15-day celebration (1/15-2/6), in the motherland. In the States, this holiday meant little to me but huge potlucks with our Chinese family friends in Boston, an annual event that sadly diminished as I got older.

Grandma He, the cutest most grandma-ey-ist grandma on earth!

The spirit of Spring Festival is equivalent to the entire holiday season back home which explains why the spirit I was missing around Christmas was far but made up for. Red lanterns hung everywhere, businesses offered special 春節 discounts, train tickets sold out, a week off from work, traffic cleared up (AMAZING), bags packed and most everybody was back home with their families, and I with mine.

Spring Festival has a lot of traditions that I don’t think my family keeps to. But the ones we did maintain this year included eating a Reunion Dinner,  cringing as we watched the annual Spring Festival Evening Broadcast (6 hours of flashy, cheesy music, dance, and comedy) on TV, exchanging red envelopes ($$$!), eating “rice dumplings” filled with black sesame (nom nom), and setting off fireworks (terrifying). I read in the China Daily that at least 70% Chinese people gain weight over this break, and according to my scale, this is accurate.

Right next to our balcony!

We did a whole lot of sitting around this holiday, but that’s part of the tradition: being at home. However, when I wasn’t at home learning how to knit socks with my grandma, stifling her dogs with my love and affection, munching on snacks, playing games on my phone, sniffling because of my cold, and freezing my buttocks off because there’s no indoor heating in the south, I was out and about with my parents, throwing ourselves in the mix of massive crowds. My uncle, a Chinese history professor turned businessman, took us to several awesome places I never knew existed including Dazu Mountain, Longxing Ancient Town, the former Communist Party headquarters in Chongqing, and Baigongguan (Kuomintang’s cruel prison for Communists in the 1940s). We even took a 2 hour train ride to Chengdu, the city with the best food–and pandas–in the world! Don’t you worry, I’ll write more about that trip in another post.

If there were a sudden natural disaster, we would all be doomed. (Photo taken at Ciqikou)

Sakyamuni Entering State of Nirvana at Dazu Mountain

Longxing Ancient Town: Mahjohng Haven

A room in the Communist Party headquarters (photographs were not allowed so don't tell!)

Cave for Interrogation at Baigongguan

Me and Yoshitomo Nara's Little Red Riding Hood at Chongqing's Three Gorges Museum

I’m back in Beijing now, 10 degrees colder outside but infinitely warmer and more comfortable indoors, and fireworks are still exploding (quite an annoyance). I have many, many more photos to show you but I’ll post them in installments to keep you comin’ back for more!! I will, however, leave you with this:

My dad.

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High Rolling in Macau

I just gambled away a small fortune (in Yuan, so divide that by 6.2 and you’ll have an even smaller fortune in $$) in Macau. Don’t judge me. I’m just trying to assimilate.

My 90 days were up on my visiting visa so I had to make a reentry into China. Macau, one of China’s two “special administrative regions” in Southeastern China (the other is Hong Kong), was a close getaway so there I went for two nights with my parents. We stayed at The Venetian, a fancy hotel casino for a fancy lady.

It was pretty astounding to drive around this little city on a peninsula scattered with towering casinos. It was also pretty bizarre. Macau was a Portuguese colony until 1999, when it was handed over to China, but most people speak Cantonese. I couldn’t figure out who were ethnic Macanese (Portuguese descendants) because the city was overrun with tourists, mostly from the mainland. There were also a few Russians, several Indians, some Europeans and groups of young Americans–the most diverse atmosphere I have encountered since my trip to the Maldives. I’m not talking ethnically diverse, though, because if I were, mainland China is definitely most diverse.

The historic centre of Macau is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its symbol of an east-west relationship as it is the oldest international trading port. The city’s architecture is a blend of Portuguese, Chinese and contemporary Western influence (huge-ass casinos), with Chinese and Portuguese on every street sign. Walking through Largo do Senado (Senado Square), I was actually quite reminiscent of my days in Europe where buildings are small, pathways are narrow and cobblestone, and windows have shutters. If there hadn’t been so many Asian faces, people in general, Chinese store signs and undergarments hanging from windows, I would’ve thought I was in Europe. Sort of.


Near Largo do Senado rests the Ruins of St. Paul’s, a 16th century Portuguese cathedral, the largest in Asia at the time but one of several churches throughout the city. Aside from the casinos, this area around Largo do Senado was all I saw in my day and a half in Macau.

One thing I did enjoy immensely about Macau, besides the multicultural architecture, was the food. I tried Portuguese oxtail which was okay–too sweet–and their most popular pork chop sandwich–a thin filet of deep fried pork chop tucked between two buttered toasted buns. But Chinese-Macau food, I believe similar to Hong Kong cuisine, was the bomb, and thanks to my uncle’s superb connections, I got to try some of Macau’s best and most authentic cuisine. With seafood so fresh I forgot I had allergies. From meaty sauteed crab with bitter melon and Hong Kong style dim sum, to salt and pepper prawns and Macau’s special hot pot, it was an Asian gastronomer’s dream come true.

If you asked me to visit Macau again, I would definitely go just for the food. As for gambling? I can do without.


Goal: Quit My New Job and Travel

I was looking through old photos from my travels while I was studying abroad in college, and it made me miss my independence. In my second year at Ithaca College (I later transferred to NYU), I decided the town was too small for a gal like me and signed up for a semester in Spain. Little did I know, I would never return to Ithaca.

When I first arrived in Barcelona, I was excited for a change of scenery. I stayed with a senora, her cat Deraymon and her wonderful boyfriend Armand (they were an old couple, so it was exceptionally sweet). I also couldn’t have asked for better roommates; the four of us were completely different but we got along like sisters and are still in touch today even though we’re each on a different continent (Hannah is in Guatemala with the Peace Corps. Check out her blog!).

Hannah (Guatemala), Me (China), Deanna (New York), Ashley (London)

At the very beginning of this trip, everything was new and exciting, especially the night life. As the first weeks went by however, it started to get a little bit lonely and I spent hours upon hours getting lost and people-watching in cafes–that is how I became addicted to coffee. But gradually I started to cherish all the alone time I never had in college. At such a small school like Ithaca, it was impossible to escape, even for a moment. In Barcelona, I felt like I had all the space in the world and it was freeing.


On weekends and breaks from classes, I visited surrounding countries like Portugal and Italy, both of which I traveled to alone. That’s what brought me to write this post; I realized while going through my photos that some of my best memories have been during trips that I’d taken by myself.

Me at Parque Guell in Barcelona

Sure, it got lonely at times–like the 23 hour “cruise” from Italy to Spain, during which I just had to dream about Titanic–but the majority of my time was spent gawking over Europe’s beauty both in landscape and in people. All that space and time also made me think, about anything and everything. I remember sitting at the front of the boat, staring into the endlessness of the sea thinking that if I were to die in that moment, I would’ve died happy,  and my life would’ve been a good one. Of course I didn’t die, in fact I’m alive and kickin’, but the point is I was happy, and I was alone then.

I wasn’t always alone though. Making friends was easy as everyone in hostels seemed to need a friend–I still keep in touch with some of them. Some of my best friends from the States also came to visit and traveled with me as well while I was in Spain.  I also went to Morocco with friends and had the most amazing

experience of my life driving through the desert with Berbers and sleeping under the stars.

Mohamed headed to the depths of the sand dunes where life is good.

I miss that independence terribly, and wish I could explore China the same way–just me and my backpack, although a friend wouldn’t hurt. My situation is different now though; I live with my mom and I have a full-time job. What I’m living now is life, but not the life I have in mind. It sounds silly to complain about my job while millions of people can’t even find one, but I’m not one to stick with something I’m not happy with (my ex-boyfriend was an exception). I realize that I am so lucky to have the privilege to say, “I’m not happy here. I’m quitting.” But that’s exactly what I plan on doing, because my time here (in China) is short (give or take a few years, but compared to a lifetime it’s not a long time). I want to make sure I take the time to explore the country in which my ancestors  who I know absolutely nothing about are from, to learn about my heritage, this language, and my family (I didn’t even know what my grandparents’ did for a living until recently, and I still can’t remember my grandma’s Chinese name).

Portugal

Lonely Planet: China is already collecting dust on my bookshelf (Beijing is an exceptionally dusty city) and waiting for its pages to be flipped through. I am getting antsy at my job thinking about all the places that await me, food that has yet to be tasted, people I have yet to meet. It helps that I read so many amazing accounts of people’s travels through WordPress that inspire me to quit my job. Therefore, whether or not my parents will allow me–yes, after years of living on my own, I am back to curfews–to travel by myself, I will think of some way to find the space and those alone moments I once cherished.

Free!


An Ancient Town in the Modern World

If only I had this message written on my wallet, then I might–just might–consume rationally. But it’s so difficult to resist when you walk into places tourist traps like Ciqikou, an ancient town in Chongqing where everything looks like it should either be hanging on my walls or settling in my stomach (mostly here).

From fresh black sesame candy to sweet globs of sticky rice, how can anybody resist a taste?

Steamed Sticky Rice Stuffed in Bamboo on a Stick

Mahua, a typical twisted treat from Tianjin, China, but in Chongqing, they make 'em spicy and numbing.

Barrel of steaming hot sticky rice ready to be mortared and pestled into little globs of...rice balls?

That's my dad.

The Little Rice Balls lightly toasted and sprinkled with sugar

Or One Big Glob of Rice

The Smashing of the Black Sesame Candy

And where else am I to find nunchucks and chicken-feather hackey-sacks if not here in the ancient town? Decathalon Sporting Goods? I don’t think so.

At the end of one of the many roads within Ciqikou, I saw the light; the bright, glimmering reflections of useless souvenirs.

One of the exits of Ciqikou overlooks the Yangtze River. Gloomy as that day was, it was still refreshing to be by a body of water.

Strolling along the dock, I came across a particularly ominous but beautiful abandoned bridge that looked very familiar to me. As soon as I took the picture, I remembered why. I had seen an image of this place in an article in the New Yorker.

 

It didn’t quite feel like déjà vu, but the world felt smaller and I was happy to know that beautiful places we come across in photographs actually exist in the most practical places.

 


It’s Thanksgiving! Here’s What I’m Grateful For:

  • a full stomach
  • loving parents, no matter how unbearable they can be at times
  • friends for the rest of my life, who love me for the silly way I am
  • WordPress, because I’ve learned so much, shared so much, and have met so many inspiring people I would never have met otherwise
  • the ability to see, hear, smell, taste and feel
  • my parents, again, for working tirelessly their entire lives so that I may enjoy all that I now have in my life (including the new pair of boots I got today!)
  • mobility–including the privilege of travel which has opened my eyes wider than any book or lecture (and just to take a moment to brag, these are the countries I have visited: Guatemala, Morocco, Portugal, Amsterdam, Spain, Germany, Japan, France, and Italy.)
  • public transportation, though it can be such a hassle
  • my college adviser, June, who I admire so much for her compassion, brilliance and kindness
  • my “almond shaped” eyes and dimples (thanks to mama dearest)
  • being bilingual–my salary is higher because of it
  • a conscience that told me not to accept the job teaching English at a monster corporation (New Oriental, it literally has an office in every corner of China) that robs students of their money and teachers of their sanity.
  • Gmail/gchat because I can keep in touch with my friends across the ocean
  • Time Out Beijing.com because it just informed me that a Hello Kitty themed restaurant is opening up in Beijing (I haven’t had the chance to mention the Hello Kitty store I came across in Chongqing yet). Keeps my life exciting!
  • farmer’s markets (in the US) because their produce is just so fresh and the prices are unbeatable!
  • not just one, but several roofs over my head. I feel like I have a home wherever I go. That’s surely something to be grateful for.

There is infinitely more I am grateful for, but it would be impossible to list them all here.

So, Gobble Gobble to those who celebrate Thanksgiving! And Thank You, to those who make life worth living!


Passport? What passport?

My trips are never complete without a passport mishap. This past trip to Chongqing, which I just returned from a few hours ago, was no different.

I was standing in the check-in line with my dad when he asked me to take my passport out. That was the first time a passport even crossed my mind! Obviously I didn’t have it; it was tucked away safely at home.  How is that possible for someone who has traveled pretty far and wide? Anyway, my mom had to rush it over via a 150 yuan ride so that my dad and I could change our flight to an hour later for another 302 yuan each. Oops.

The first time I left my passport behind was when I was going to Guatemala. I was on the west coast with my ex-boyfriend, from where I was going to fly directly to Guatemala. But of course, my passport was in Brooklyn, on the east coast. My roommate had to express mail it.

The second mishap was in August, on my way here to Beijing. I was sleeping soundly, with my bags all packed and everything I was leaving behind stored away at Moishe’s Self Storage, when I got a call from my mom the morning I was to fly asking me if I had my passport ready. Yes, yes, yes, obviously. I was half asleep when I said that; I had absolutely no idea where it was. Well, after a whole morning of freaking out and driving back and forth from Moishe’s searching like a mad-woman for that darned little paper booklet, I found it in my dresser at home.

Whatever. Every trip needs a little adventure. Mine jut start before my trips even happen. I guess you could say I like to live my life on the edge, though quite inconveniently. Anyway, the important thing is things always work out. I believe that’s true for everything, at least thus far.

 


How to Order at a Chinese “Farm-to-Table” Restaurant

As the course of nature would have it, the food must grow first before we can order it at a restaurant.

Farm machines.

Snow Pea shoots, a favorite of mine. Great in soup or lightly stir fried!

Airing out.

Once the food has grown and has been collected, it is transported both locally and to the city. In this case, Kunming. (These photos are from my trip to Yunnan, my mom’s neck of the woods).

I'm sure this guy doesn't deliver into the city.

Now, we are ready to order from some of China’s finest. Follow these easy steps and you’ll have yourself a most delicious meal!

1) Swoon at the assortment of veggies, proteins, grains, seafood, etc.

2) Deliberate amongst family members and/or guests (only one or two people usually decide what to eat for everybody. China’s not a democracy, obviously. Notice below that I am excluded from the ordering process).

"Hmm, so much yummy stuff! How to choose?! How to chose?!"

3) Find a seat, chat, open your appetite with some tea, and wait eagerly for your food.

And finally, 4) Voila! The meal is prepared!

Just kidding. It looks more like this:

(I never catch my aunt at her finest...)

and this,

Dried salty fish with really pointy, crunchy noses (mouths?). Not my favorite.

You see! Easy as pie! Cleaning off the plates is even easier! But losing the weight? Not so much.