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Lasting Memories in China

May 2011

Last time I was around so many Chinese people, besides Flushing and NYU, was 2008 Jay Chou concert at Mohegan Sun. And there, it was packed to the limit with ballistic Jay Chou fans, me included. This time around, I was in a country of Chinese people, a much different community than in America. As evident in my endless posts for my China Travel series, I found every experience eye-opening and tasteful. I have compiled lasting impressions, feelings, and insights in this finale until the next expedition.

Flip Flop

During the entire week in China, particularly in the beginning, Kelly and I were getting confused with each other.  At the first restaurant outing, Wai Po and Yi Ma looked and smiled at me, but called me Qing Qing (Kelly). I stared back and responded awkwardly, “I’m not Kelly, I’m Connie…” pointing at my sister to my right. To make matters more amusing, even my own mother started getting us mixed up! I would also poke at Kelly and correct her, “I’m not Kelly! I’m CONNIE!” My own mother?!  Kelly and I would blink at each other, “Seriously, they are getting us mixed up??” This may be a bad and inappropriate reference, but I’m drawing up a parallel with… love-making. I’ve seen it on television soap operas and movies and heard it happen amongst gossip tables. Amidst the pleasure, the girl (or guy) gets a little carried away and screams the wrong name. Everything stops and all is awkward… o.O

Clearly, my flip-flop situation is nowhere near as inappropriate and compromising, but I would like to point out a few key things. First, Kelly and I are not twins; we are actually a wide 5 years apart. Second, confusing Connie and Kelly meant one of appears older or the other younger. That can be disappointing, or flattering, depending on who you’re looking at.  I guess 10 years time really makes a difference in people’s minds, especially after the initial excitement of meeting us again. I do not notice the changes because, well, I’m in my own body, but for an outsider, I have undergone a dramatic transformation. Even within that same week, I went through a makeover for myself.

Rocky Roads

Let me make a point about driving in China. IT IS FREAKING CRAZY!!! Not just in Beijing, but Shanghai as well. Driving into Beijing was like driving a NASCAR race, not like I’ve done that myself, but judging by how much my heart rate skyrocketed, it was fast and furious. Seriously, I thought New York driving was bad. People in China do not follow lines on the road, pedestrian right-of-way, rules and regulations such as signaling, and roadway etiquette. It does not help when the streets are crowded with miniature carts, bicycles, motorcycles, mopeds, and pedestrians, the elderly and young alike. A few times, in Beijing and Shanghai, we got stuck at intersections where we were blown away by all the honks and besieged by cars from all corners, interspersed with bicycles, mopeds, and pedestrians.

I swear, these Chinese drivers really know how to live in the fast lane. They can speed so fast down the highway and avoid bumps & bruises in the crowded streets. They are aggressive and nonchalant at the same time. No one pays attention to the white or yellow lines. No one signals. No one wears seatbelts. There are no second thoughts when it comes to honking. Everyday is like orchestra of honks and bleeps.  I really wonder if their road tests are modeled after Mario Kart.

I was both frightened and amazed at how people drive out there. Even when I was on the streets of Shanghai, I was never so uncomfortable with jaywalking. Drivers had no mercy; they will mow you down and beep at you. When I was crossing the streets with my uncle from Kang Jian Park, I had cars and bicycles flanking from both sides! Never before had I felt like a poor squirrel just trying to get to the other side! Another time, I was walking back from one of the University restaurants on the last family dinner, I had a moped come up behind me, lights blinding my eyes. The pissed-off lady on the moped, on the cell phone, yelled at me to get out of the way… I was arm-in-arm with my Xiao Jiu Ma, and she and I complained about how unsafe walking around is all the time, even on the school campus. Never before had I felt like a deer stuck in headlights, literally! And man, was my family’s personal driver Xiao Wang an Asian Speedy Gonzalez. He got us to places quickly, but on a wild van ride. He would zip down the highway, high speed, maybe as fast as the Dongche (D-train). He would change lanes as quickly and smoothly as a motorcyclist on the LIE.

Ooops, Epic Trip

Dad’s terrible fall on the Great Wall was an epic vacation fail.  It was still the beginning of our week-long family fun, and BAM!, one slip on the rocks ruined many parts of the week. That day, we had to deal with a fretful Dad, frowning and complaining. When he wanted to go to the bathroom, Kelly and I were supporting him on both ends to the bathroom at the base of the mountain. Instead of thanking us, he was complaining we were slowing him down and he would rather not go to the bathroom after all. Dad was being a big baby, and we had to bear the brunt of it that morning.

Aside from shelling out 2000 yuan for a wheelchair, pushing him everywhere, carrying him up endless stairs, and really, treating him like a big baby, he will be fine. He had to withstand the rest of the week immobile, in pain, in bandages, and in tethers to a wheelchair until we arrived back in the states.

Update:  Dad went to visit an orthopedic surgeon. He got surgery on his fractured ankle. For the next three months, he will rest and heal in a cast at home. That means, no work for three months and plenty of time in front of the television watching his Asian dramas and variety shows and cooking channels…

Culinary Delights

Speaking of food and cooking, I was in such a well-fed state all week. That one week, I cycled from eating to sleeping, eating to walking, sitting to eating, then back to sleeping… It was mad tiring though!

My pancreas was on over-drive producing insulin to temper my carbohydrate bonanza and meat frenzy. I believe I ate enough meat that week to make up for 3 years of vegetarianism. I was okay with eating oily duck skin, chicken stomach, gizzard, braised eel, and many other exotic animal dishes, when a few years ago, I would puke at the mere thought! I’ve come a long way since eating purely plants. When I think about it, I still do not eat that much meat, only during special occasions or when people cook for me. On my own, I prefer to cook simple vegetarian dishes with rice or noodles. I have not dared to play with fire and whip out extravagant meat or seafood dishes. Sadly, I do not know how to cook meats, plain and simple =/

I have a greater appreciation for Asian cuisine now. Traveling is all about trying new foods (or going back to old roots) and becoming a part of the culture. Let’s say I was still a vegetarian, I would be missing out on culinary specialties; I would be in the background, watching other people enjoy the array of delicacies. I would also come off as ‘weird’ because Chinese people especially do not understand the concept of vegetarianism. There would be some explaining on my part; I would get frustrated talking about my healthy lifestyles and people might get offended if I choose not to eat their foods. My family cooked for us, took us out to dinners, and liked seeing us eat merrily; if I was the lone girl who refused to touch meat and fish, of course they would look down upon me.

Good thing I’ve reconverted myself to omnivorism over a year ago. I still prefer to eat healthy, but occasional, portion-controlled drifts to the exotic side of the dinner table are OK. And now I have the desire to perfect the art of cooking and make food that smells like Shanghai. I want to have my mom’s culinary magic. The foods I ate at Shanghai stimulated my nose and brought me back to home. I vividly remember the first night we arrived in Shanghai, Xiao Jiu Ma cooked us a lavish dinner that breathed home.

Pickpocketing

You do not know how many times Mom cautioned me to watch my bag. I kept clutching it and making sure it was securely zippered. Pickpocketing is infamous on the streets of China. Mom has told me stories of Chinese people sharpening their fingers as sharp as chopsticks. They are quick and sneaky, stealing your precious jewels and cash from right under your nose, gone before you can even blink and cry. I had to be particularly careful at Wang Fu Jing, because the nightmarket scene is where you will find prowling jackrabbits. Everyone is bumping into each other and taking out their money to buy street foods. When I was walking through the narrow streets of the nightmarket, I noticed many women like myself, grasping their side-bags and holding them in the front.

I also believe we saw a lurking pickpocketer in Shanghai, the first night after the Golden Jaguar International Buffet. Bunched together on the night streets, we were all chatting and enjoying the evening breeze. A suspicious-looking man walked by and kept looking at our shopping bags, which contained mostly shoes and clothes. I kept my eye on him as he walked off, but he kept circling around and looking back at us. I gave him the death stare right back, not sure if it kept him away, and watched him drift off. What a creeper!

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So Long Shanghai

Saturday, April 23, 2011: Homeward Bound

I was sad my week had to end. After a fantastic week flying around China and eating with family, it was time to snap back to reality. Reality meant back to school, medical school, and studying my brains to Jupiter again. Not like I study that hard in medical school compared to college, but still, I have to read books again and return to my time zone. Let’s say it took more than a good couple of slaps in the face to snap me back out of vacation mode…

For our farewell breakfast, Xiao Jiu Ma made us wonton soup and 湯團 Tang Tuan. It is apparently a Chinese custom to eat wontons or tang tuan before a departing for home to ensure a safe trip:  路上平安 Lu Shang Ping An =) We did have something to worry about for the trip back home:  bags and bags of stuff.  Coming to Shanghai, we all packed lightly; for one, I had one backpack and a pocketbook. There were also two duffel bags, a medium Nike red one and a large blue camping bag. Originally, Mom wanted to chuck away the big blue bag because it was so heavy. Not happening! We actually ran out of room stuffing all our goods:  gifts, biscuits, pastries, SHOES, clothes, etc… Consolidation was difficult, so we ended up carrying gift bags in our hands anyway. I was concerned with our baggage check though, because I was not sure if the additional slew of bags counted as excess baggage… In the end, it did not matter; they were simply counted as gift bags and we were fine.

It was barely 8 am and we were ready for the airport. Xiao Wang came to drive us to Hong Qiao Airport. Qing Qing and Xiao Chen accompanied us on our last ride together. We waved goodbye to Jiu Jiu and Xiao Jiu Ma, not for the last time of course. It was a hazy, lazy morning as we drove to the airport. God I really was going to miss a place I’ve come to equate with home!

At the airport, Qing Qing and Xiao Chen continued to help us through and through, until the security check area, with our overweight bags and handicapped Pops. Without them, my arms were going to crack in half. Either way, without their enormous help from the security check in, my arms would still break apart and my back sore ={ It was a sad goodbye, because I have come to know Qing Qing so well over this week, whom I met for the first time since a long, long time ago, a time I barely remember in the deep cobwebs of my brain. From here on out, I will remember all the incredible expeditions with Qing Qing and Xiao Chen and what wonderful people they genuinely are. I learned a great deal about China with them, and I hope we have taught them just as much about America. Like I told everyone else during our family encounters and farewells, I hope to have them come to New York one day and show them the best America has to offer! I will be their personal tour guide, as I lived a culturally-thrilling four years in Manhattan. Funny thing though, we have always complained they don’t leave Shanghai enough to visit us in America, when in fact, Yi Fu told us he did come to New York for a business trip. We just missed his phone call because Mom tends to ignore incoming calls labeled “unavailable.” Our paths crossed but missed, just like in those sad Asian dramas… Anyway, we all hugged tightly and wished for the best! No matter how much we have come to love life’s bliss and treasures in Shanghai, we had to part ways and move on until next time. Next time will surely NOT be a decade!

In the airport, we were lucky, again, to have assistance. An airport staff member gave us priority in passing the VISA check line and catching the elevator. He escorted Dad with us, who happened to be a convenient shopping cart because he loaded some baggage and gift bags on his lap. He certainly made himself useful. At the departure gate, the Chinese man took us through another special security check usually for first-class. Ah, now I got a chance to walk through a special corridor with the first-class riders! On the plane we go, back to Detroit!!  Next post:  How I stayed sane and not somnolent on the long flight ahead…

Shanghai’s Last Supper

Friday, April 22, 2011:  The Last (Shanghai) Supper

Our last quality family time together around a fancy dinner table! Sun Po and his wife came to pick us up in his slick black car. Mom, Kelly, and I sat in the back seat, chatting up a thunderstorm. Let’s see, we heard about their honeymoon again, a romantic getaway to France and Italy. Of course there was a language gap there, but we mentioned how Kelly knows some Italian and I understand a little French. As a funny compromise with them, we’ll make a European trip one day, cheap through China, and have the ground covered with our versatile tongues! Besides, Kelly and I have been accustomed to translating in various settings. And after a whole week, we wanted to exchange contact information. We hit a bit of a bump with exchanging emails, because people in China do not use Google or Facebook; instead, they use some bootleg-Facebook, MSN, and QQ (how cute). We have already exchanged emails with Qing Qing, who uses email we are familiar with, like Hotmail! But the rest of our family members do not know English very well and email communication may present as an obstacle. However, I do not know why we didn’t think of this earlier, but there is such a thing as Skype! It came to me suddenly, and I asked Sun Po, “Heyy… Do you guys have Skype!” He responded, “Oh yes, we do have THAT!” Bingo, now we can video chat and not have to struggle with Chinese-English translations. I joked that Sun Po would have to practice reading English. His wife joked that he would have to write a line of Chinese and put that through a translator and type it out subsequently. It could take a whole day writing and translating and making sense of the mumble jumble… How bizarre it is to be able to communicate so easily face-to-face, even when it’s in their native Shanghainese which I understand to an extent, but fail so miserably by writing?!

We arrived at an elegant restaurant at Shanghai Normal University, this time on the Fengxian campus. We had to wait a little while for Dad to come by wheelchair because our cousin went to pick him up. Other members of our family were on their way as well. While waiting, a black car pulled up. Some Chinese guy came out and dropped a net with a moving four-legged creature down on the entrance steps. I looked down, and it looked like an upside-down turtle with claws. I thought it was nearly dead, until Auntie Lin-Ai nudged it with her foot to see if it was really alive. I knew perfectly well the fate of the prized fat turtle…

Everyone arrived and we were set to go. I looked at the entrance, and you guessed it, there was a long staircase. No handicapped ramp for easy transportation and mercy for the disabled. Yes, Dad had to hobble up one step at a time and one of us lifted his heavy wheelchair right on behind. Once inside, he could sit comfortably in his 2000 yuan wheelchair, snuggled up against the table.

Now, my last mouth-watering post until another global expedition in June. To start, we encircled around a fancy dinner table. The waitresses served us fine red wine and this addicting sour milk that tasted like vanilla yogurt. It was thick, creamy, and rich to the tongue. The entire dinner session, I alternated my dishes with milk and wine, milk and wine. Yum =P

There was a common theme of birds and seafood:  pigeon, chicken, lobster, codfish, fried cuttlefish, abalone, jellyfish, shrimp, etc… Then there was also the Jiang en, the poor turtle creature that got spiced and fried up. Spicy curry beef made another surprise appearance on the dinner table; this time it was more fatty and less dissolving. I compiled a medley of appetizers to emphasize the plethora of Chinese delicacies:  duck, abalone (bao yu), seasoned cucumbers (liang ban huang gua), salad, Asian fungus (hei mu er), jellyfish, potato slices and peppers, fish, pork ribs, and chicken. One of my favorite meals that day was something rather simple:  leftover King Lobster mixed with qing bai cai (bok choy) in soup. It meshed very well with white rice. Well, anything with white rice wins my heart.

Pigeon... see the head?!

Appetizing

King Lobster

Lonely Wonton

Fried Cuttlefish and Whole Shrimp (Dai Tou Xia)

Jiang En... the turtle now became dinner

Dad loves everything that once moved... =/

Cruncy rice cakes brushed with duck egg yolk

Fish

Ah, my favorite!

All good things must come to a conclusion. This was our last supper together as a family. I have cherished every waking moment this week, to experience China’s wonders and familial love.  Despite the distance, a span of an entire ocean, I have grown closer to my dear family. They love me, and I love them back. I will forever remember their exhibition of deep affection and hospitality. They have shown me what it means to have an extended family that will support you and love you unconditionally. Our extended reunion has reached a blissful end.

Puppy Love

Friday, April 22, 2011:  To Auntie’s House We Go…

We arrived back at Yi Ma’s house, aka Lin-Ai, the way I’m used to calling her unfortunately. The area she resides in has changed dramatically since nine years ago. The same elementary school is next door. Across the street and all along, more stores have opened up and replaced older homes.  There was a pet shop for animal grooming, clothing shops, and eateries. I still had to take the same rocky path down a narrow alley to get to her apartment behind. We walked up to the second floor and arrived at her home. It was still as small as ever, but beautifully renovated now. I walked into the kitchen, put on some slippers, and moved into the living space. There was the same bed against the wall. The wine showcase was replaced with a built-in closet against the wall. A flat-screen TV rested against the opposite wall, making room for a table and chairs. Off to the farthest side was the alcove for the washing machine and dryer, air-conditioning, pseudo-balcony, storage space, and windows.  I clearly remembered how Kelly and I used to hear the watermelon man selling his fruits, “買 西瓜- 啊~~” or “Mai Xi Gua-ah~AH-ah~AH~ah.”  Kelly and I crawled up to the windows and echoed what he said! When he’d look up to find the mysterious childish voices, we would duck down and repeat the vicious cycle. Wow, we were mischievous little ones…

Speaking of watermelons and melons, we sat down and ate those fruits. I feel like that is what I always do in China, eat watermelons. Whether it’s in sliced or juiced form, watermelon is a common theme in Chinese homes and restaurants. It’s like this:  instead of sitting in front of the Yule Log munching on Christmas cookies or in front of Saturday night football pigging out on Domino’s Extra Cheese pizza and greasy potato chips, we sit together as a family sucking the juice out of watermelon juices. To me, it’s become a symbol of family bonding time – healthy, delicious, and poignant. I can’t complain, I love fresh watermelons in all forms and sizes. Wai Po and Yi Fu cut and served us melons. Yi Fu went out to buy fruits earlier for us to eat, cleaning and cutting in the kitchen. Of course, we told him to rest up and not work so hard because he’s been sick and he should watch his stress level. He sat down with us and mentioned it was not watermelon season just yet, so the fruits were not as juicy and sweet as desired. We spent a long time playing with the family pooch, Xiao Bao Bao. I am still not sure if the pooch has a name or she’s given a generic pet name, like Little Baby. She was too cute. We were feeding it the watermelon whites and melon pieces. She licked our hands. She stood on a chair as we fed her. Playing around with her, we would make the food a reaching target, but she was cautious enough not to move too far off the chair, or else she’d make a trip to the floor. She kept scuttling between our legs and under the tables. What a hyperactive little one. Overall she was adorable and good, not too fierce or aggressive. She was quiet and obedient. We would coo at her and shake her hands, “Xiao Bao Bao, Lai! La La Shou!… Guai Xiao Bao Bao! Good Baby!” Her bulging black eyes shined beneath the lights. Her white fur was like feel of a favorite stuffed animal.

We let Xiao Bao Bao model her irresistible beauty. Many wardrobe changes were necessary and many shots were taken to capture every moment!  First, she was in her birthday suit, au naturel…

Naked

Second, she sported a sky-blue and baby pink polo shirt for a sporty look.

Next, she went all-gangster and bling-bling in a hot pink hoodie.

Then, she modeled another tight jacket with a furry hoodie. Lookin’ warm!

And lastly, Xiao Bao Bao ended the chair-way with a wine-red, patterned vest.

The pooch was a VIP visitor. After the photo-shoot, I showed him pictures of herself on the camera, and she looked! Well, at least initially, she looked for maybe 5 seconds, and then she seemed to get bored… Still she was such a smart and pretty dog. Now that I think about it, she was the closest thing to an fun pet I ever had, even though our bonding was a mere few hours that Friday =) Aside from the puppy-play, it was also an important time to see family – Yi Ma, Yi Fu, and Wai Po. They’ve been special people to us for a long time. We were very lucky to spend the quality time to catch up on life and much more. Most of the time, Mom was conversing with her mother, sister, and brother-in-law. The few times Kelly and I came into the discussion, it was about our love lives and our future careers. For instance, the talk of the town this entire week has been about Kelly going to San Diego, California to study accounting and Connie becoming enslaved to medicine for the next 10 years… On a different note, Mom has been persistently saying Kelly will marry a “Jin Shi Mao” or a ‘Blond-Haired Beauty” or what I like to call “A California Beach-Blond No-Brainer Surfer Dude…” And it’s already known I will be on the polar opposite end of the spectrum, because I like my Asian guys and I’ve only dated Asian guys, and that’s not changing anytime soon.

Careers and boys aside, we had a nice heart-to-heart session in the living room, a private reunion with our loved ones. Over fruits, friendly dog, television, and chatter, I enjoyed my time there. Before we left for another dinner outing, Lin-Ai showed us photos from Sun-Po’s wedding. My, my, the pictures were glamorous and romantic! China wedding pictures >>> America photographs. Sun-Po and his wife posed in numerous suits and dresses, under various lighting and atmospheres, and with so much love in their eyes. It was like flipping through a real-life fairy tale book! So young and so in love… I can’t wait for my one love and fairy tale marriage. I’ll be sure to make Shanghai a honeymoon spot, first to see family, and second to get these professional wedding shots!

Feng Jing Zhen 楓涇鎮 – On the Streets

Friday, April 22, 2011:  Family Day

Feng Jing Zhen 楓涇鎮 – Walking the Streets

Mom, Lin-Ai, Qing Qing, Xiao Chen, Auntie, Kelly and I (whoa, what a jumble of people!) embarked on a promenade down the back streets of Feng Jing Zhen for a simple, small-town shopping experience. The ground was composed of rough, gray stones. The streets were narrow with occasional indentations housing little shops. Elderly people sat on wooden stools, just being simple people in a simple village. There was a painting above one of the stores, one of those Chinese landscape sketches of rivers, lakes, bridges, mountains, and Mother Nature. Xiao Chen told me a well-known phrase the villagers live by: 小橋流水人家 - Xiao Qiao, Liu Shui, Ren Jia (Small Bridge, Flowing Water, Family & Home). The painting exhibited a placid village amidst crossing bridges, towering mountains, and intersecting blue rivers. Feelings of familial love and sense of harmony exuded from the simple, but deep picture. The phrase Xiao Chen was elaborating on made the painting all the more special. Basically, everyone in the community is connected; no matter how small the bridge is, there is always that physical link between neighbors. Water symbolizes purity and continuous flow of fortune, always present in Chinese shops, restaurants, offices, and homes. Water will hopefully bring in the money, happiness, and luck. It will also wash and clear out any negative energy. Lastly, the essence of family is embedded in the Chinese character for home, or ‘jia.’  Embedded in the character is a sense of unity and togetherness. I thought that was a particularly powerful portrait of the village.

I like this sequence of pictures we took on our saunter. Mom and her sister Lin-Ai were arm-in-arm, heads together, gossiping and bonding over lost time. Kelly and I, representing the next generation, walked a distance behind, in perfect line with our corresponding roles. That is, big sisters were on the right side (Mom and Connie) and little sisters linked and off to the left (Lin-Ai and Kelly). It was an amusing Kodak moment. Qing Qing took the shots and here they are:

Why... Hello!

What did we spend on that afternoon? Mom stopped at a tiny shop and embarked on a spree for sandals, hand-woven baskets, and fire rocks.  The straw baskets were ideal for fruits and vegetables, or whatever else Mom wanted to toss in there. She ended up buying maybe 3 decent-sized baskets. There were also these fancy black lava rocks for rubbing the undersides of the foot to rid of dead skin and maintain overall foot health. Mom bought two-handfuls. I also saw a large wooden bucket. Xiao Chen explained to me the importance of foot health in Asia. Every night, before going to bed, it is of natural importance to clean and bathe the feet in warm water. It is tonic for the whole body, allowing for circulation and overall relaxation. I guess that’s why Mom always made me wash my feet before getting home, mainly for cleanliness reasons. And maybe it’s in my genes to absolutely hate walking barefoot anywhere, except where I know I’m in a clean area, like my home. I hate walking sans footwear on the sandy beach, in the shower, at people’s homes, etc… I’m used to following the Chinese way of living, where you wear sandals in the house. Or socks. But I do like my feet free, so I prefer flip-flops or flats. I’ll be sure to play around with those handy lava rocks! And try this evening feet-warming-and-bathing session.

We circled around the streets, over a bridge, and onto a bigger street. More shopping was pursued, obviously. Kelly bought sneakers. Lin-Ai bought a pink tennis shirt. I resisted the urge. Instead, I conversed with Qing Qing and Xiao Chen, while listening to the songs playing in the store. Again, my Asian side prevailed, since I started singing and dancing to Top Combine’s “Cotton Candy” and SHINee’s “Ring Ding Dong.” The latter song is absolutely contagious! I heard it, pointed to Kelly, who was trying on colorful sneakers, and said, “Hey Kelly, it’s Ring Ding Dong.” In her seat, right next to Shen Shen, she put down her shoes and started dancing to ~Ring Ding Dong~ My, my, it was hilarious!

We circled back to base. We met up with Ah-Gu, who looked a tad too red and tired ((O.O)). I bet he has the Asian gene… Anyway, we said our good-byes to Ah-Gu and Shen Shen, wishing them the best of luck and hoping to visit again in the near future. Then, we were on our merry way back to Shanghai city.

Feng Jing Zhen 楓涇鎮, Family and FOOD

Friday, April 22, 2011:  Family Day

Feng Jing Zhen 楓涇鎮 – Culinary Delights

As you would probably expect by now, I downed more authentic Shanghainese food! Ah-Gu and his wife, whom I was told to call Yi Fu and Shen Shen, owned the local restaurant called 萬福來 Wan Fu Lai, roughly meaning 10,000 Happiness Enters. My ‘uncles and aunts’ in the restaurant cooked us a whole table of food; steaming plates of meat and vegetables just kept rolling in.

Since day 1, I have formed a loving relationship with Coconut Milk Drink, or 椰子 Ye Zi. I drank it in a shot glass. I kept pouring, or at least my uncle and aunt kept insisting I replenish the shot glass. By the end of the meal, I believe I finished 2.5 cans of those babies. The coconut juice has a milky white color; it is not thick or creamy. Instead, it is quite watery and sweet, but not too sugary. And yet, I still felt like a sugar drunk. When it was time to do our family Cheers!, or 乾杯 Gan Bei, I was raising a glass of coconut milk to some alcohol and beer. Asian sweet drinks are THE BEST… Cavities not guaranteed.

A Shanghai specialty dish is Di Pang Niu (said in a Shanghainese accent), or Shanghai-style Braised Pork Belly. It is marinated and stewed in dark soy sauce, wine, sugar, garlic, ginger, and various spices for a viscous medley of sweet and salty flavors. !!Warning!!: it is very fatty with the skin and underlying adipose tissue attached. Even though the fat and skin complement the scrumptious pork, you do not have to eat the layers of fat and get a heart attack; simply pull it all off and at least eat the lean meat. At least the health-conscious Asians like me out there do this. It is a typical family-style dish. The aroma is intoxicating, emanating to every olfactory cell and orifice on the body. The meat is cooked so tender it falls right off the bones. It was one of the grandest dishes at the table. Uncle Ah-Gu served the whole table, scissors in hand and ready to cut the servings.

Other Shanghai-inspired dishes included:

1)   炸蝦球 Zha Xia Qiu (Fried Shrimp balls) – This has been a recurring dish, from America to Shanghai. Mom makes amazing shrimp balls, which taste as authentic as the many balls I ate this week. Shrimp are de-shelled, de-veined, and pounded together. Roll them into balls and fry away!

2)   水晶蝦仁 Shuǐ Jīng Xiā Rén (Sauteed Shelled Shrimp w/green onions) – nice and tender, just annoying to bite and chew off the shell.

3)   蘿蔔 Luo Bo (Daikon Radish, freshly marinated in light soy sauce) – Mouth-watering and crunchy appetizer.

4)   紅燒河鰻 Hóng Shāo Hé Mán (Braised Eel) – Made with soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, ginger spice, and green onions. I used to love this as a kid, until I saw swimming eels at the Chinese market and put two and two together. That day, I dared to try it again, because I was respecting my hosts. The conglomeration of savory flavors definitely overshadows the slimy fish, so I would say I enjoyed it.

5)   Plates of steaming, stir-fried Chinese vegetable greens.

6)   臭豆腐 Chou Dou Fu (Stinky Tofu) – This is truly a Taiwanese dish, and truly a smelly dish, if odors could kill… Mom always complained when my paternal grandfather and Dad’s family ate Stinky Tofu, because the name says it all. It’s fermented tofu that is then fried and dipped in hot chili sauce. The Taiwanese half of me was itching to eat these honeys, the real deal and not the bootleg take-out type NYU Asian clubs served. True, it was stinky, but anything spicy hot never failed to disappoint me.

7)   老上海熏魚 Lǎo Shàng Hǎi Xūn Yú (Shanghai-style Smoked Fish) – Not a big fan of these babies, but it is signature. Smoky, fried, salty, minimal bones, and fishy…

8)   Steamed Bass with ginger and green onions – Say hello!

9) Minced pink pork wrapped in delicate tofu skin

10) 韭菜炒蛋 Jiu Cai Chao Dan(Stir-fried Eggs and Chinese Chives) – Love the eggs, not the chives; just personal taste.

11) Clam soup – A taste of the East China Sea in a bowl.

12) 青蛙 Frog – Yes, I ate frog by accident. You may wonder how on earth I ate frog accidentally? Again, my Uncle Ah-Gu served his guests. I got a happy little portion. I thought it was chicken, like it was stretched out. The shape was a bit bizarre, but I believed it looked like a smaller-than-normal midget chicken. The ‘drumsticks’ were small and interconnected. It looked more like a meaty crab with ‘drumsticks’ and small bones. I bit down into the meat, which did not have the consistency of chicken. The mysterious meat was more stringy and rubbery, certainly not white-meat tender. Nevertheless, I still believed I was eating an exotic chicken.

Imitation Chicken

Only later did Kelly say something to me. She knew it was a funky looking animal, and knew it was NOT chicken. The entire time I was munching merrily on this ‘chicken’ she was staring at me incredulously. She thought to herself, “I guess Connie does not know what she’s really eating…” When she told me this, my jaws dropped to my knees and I just glared: “You did not think about STOPPING me?!” Kelly responded, “Nope, you looked like you were enjoying it and I didn’t want to bother you.”

It was a splendid family gathering. The small, dim restaurant setting created a tight-knit, backcountry feel. Cigarette smoke floated over the table like the London smog. Nearby men at tables were smoking and laughing over a hearty lunch. Camaraderie echoed from wall to wall, table to table. My ‘Aunt and Uncle’ showed their love for Kelly and me, even though this was our first encounter. I would like to thank them for the unique visit and open hospitality to their home village. I hope to meet everyone again.

Feng Jing Zhen, Far from the City

Friday, April 22, 2011:  Family Day

Feng Jing Zhen 楓涇鎮 – Life in the Villages

On the way out, we bumped into a man I did not know. A closer look changed that immediately. He looked oddly familiar. Then… I had an AHA moment! He was the spitting image of Yi Fu! And voila, he was a brother! I vaguely remember him referred to as Ah-Gu, but I never got confirmation on his name because I ended up calling him Yi Fu #2 the rest of the day to simplify the connections.

Girl Power

Row Row Row Your Boat...

Together, we traveled to a remote village – 農村 nong cun – outside of Shanghai and close to Zhejiang, 楓涇鎮 Feng Jing Zhen. This place was where Yi Fu and his siblings grew up. Feng Jing Zhen was a quaint, simple town. The old-style homes were built along the green, serene waters. People dwelled in the homes, where the backyard led to the river. Steps came down, and people could bend close, without falling in of course, and wash clothing and clean. Small shops nestled beneath short, black awnings sold indigenous food, the most notable being zhong-zi, hand-made crafts, and small merchandise. I got the feeling the small village was very family-oriented, people living, working, and staying together generation after generation. Red lanterns hung from the pointy black roofs. Wooden boat rides took visitors for a slow, leisurely trip through the old village. It was modeled like Venice, Italy, the famous water city, except on a smaller scale, homier, and more historic. The Chinese government purposely does not want to renovate such villages, because places like Feng Jing Zhen have become a symbol of ancestral China. If any renovations do occur, they will not demolish the town and build giant condominiums for profit. Instead, they would be to maintain the traditional architecture and the essence of the village life.

Screw the allergies, this is just too beautiful to pass up

Qing Qing, Xiao Chen, Mom, Kelly and I absorbed the natural beauty of Feng Jing Zhen. We boarded a wooden boat and embarked on a journey across people’s backyards. The kind rower took us on a relaxing, breezy ride past the row of shops and homes, under the stone bridges, and past many blooming trees. It was scenic and breathtaking to be away from the hectic urban rumble. Many small shops were busy with patter and chatter. We passed a home where a marriage took place recently, a red ribbon hanging outside over the balcony. We saw a wooden boat decorated with red ribbons and cloth. The dark green waters were so tranquil that I could see the reflection of trees and homes along the surface. What an enchanting place to experience!

POSER!!!

Mom and Daughter