…..but I’m learning!
Since first arriving in China, one of my main goals has been to learn to cook some dang Chinese food.
Can’t be that hard, right? Google “Chinese recipes” and there you have it. Sixty variations on crab rangoon and whatever chop suey is.
But as disappointing as this may be (it sure as hell was to me) but that ain’t the real stuff. So unfortunately, Happy Wok and Chang Jiang have been lying (sort of) to us. Imagine my dismay when I realized people don’t eat spring rolls and potstickers on the daily.
At least, not here in Central China. See, another thing some of you (including me until very recently) don’t realize is the kind of “Chinese” food Chinese people eat varies a great deal depending on where in China you are. Here in the more northern part of China, we have dumplings for the New Year, but this isn’t so in the south. Mantou (aka steamed buns aka God’s gift to humans) are pretty common as a rice substitute in this province, whereas noodles are more common in other places. Same goes for the level of spiciness in food. Supposedly, Sichuan (“sze chuan”) cuisine is ridiculously spicy and includes a lot of numbing spice (which is exactly what it sounds like). However, my friend from Guangzhou says he likes spicy foods, but his parents “won’t accept it.” Which makes sense when you aren’t actually tasting anything so much as you’re wishing you could taste anything.
All that to say, my endeavors to learn how to cook Chinese food have faced obstacles. Namely, what kind of Chinese food? Even now I can’t really tell you what kind I’m looking to make. Something easy (or not), digestible, and worthy of showing off to my friends and family at home. Ultimately, when I cook, I hope to make dishes that remind me of my time abroad.
So far I have a very small list of things I, in theory know how to cook. I have a list of even fewer things I’ve actually cooked. (Unfortunately, steamed buns are apparently difficult to cook, so they’re not on that list but hopefully that will change.) In looking up recipes, I discovered a couple things:
1) if it’s by Paula Deen, it’s probably not authentic.
2) if it links to take out restaurants in the greater Madison area, it’s probably not authentic.
3) recipes in Chinese are my best bet, which also means…
4) holy crap y’all I CAN READ AND FOLLOW DIRECTIONS IN CHINESE!
When I say “authentic,” I’m using the word very lightly. Generally I mean “likely cooked in a Chinese household” and not something that can be found at a takeout place. Not to say those foods aren’t authentic—those cute little pancakes that you put meat and vegetables in are often served with a duck course, for example—but I want to make food I’ve eaten in China, made by Chinese food, or by the woman who lives down the hall from me who is Japanese but cooks every day and makes me incredibly jealous.
Anyway, so hopefully this list will continue to grow, but below are the foods I could in theory make and/or have made:
-fried eggs and tomatoes with green onions
-boiled cauliflower, onions, and sesame sauce with parsley
-fried eggplant with tomatoes and green peppers
-steamed mushrooms (these things called “tree ears” that are black and wrinkly) with chopped chicken, onions, green peppers, and green onions
-stir-fried pork with onion shoots and green onions
-pork and bokchoy (cabbage, basically) dumplings
-sliced cucumbers, sliced onions, and spinach leaves dressed in vinegar, soy sauce, peanut oil, and sesame paste (this one I overheard so it may not be accurate//am a huge fan of sesame paste and will put it on anything)
***as far as I’m concerned all of the above can be served with rice, over noodles, with steamed buns, crackers, on a pizza, etc.
Which might sound impressive, but I have a long way to go. Onions are also pretty popular in Henan dishes, as are different kinds of mushrooms and lamb. Anyway, this post was inspired by my first attempt at one of the dishes—stir-fried pork with onion shoots and green onions. I bought some steamed buns to make it more filling. Two is more than enough for one meal, but I underestimated how much food I would yield with the stir fry. It was surprisingly easy, even though I kind of burned the green onions, and also really good. It’s a dish I’ll have to work more on before sharing it with others, but here’s hoping!
I’ll post more about this later, but in the meantime, if you’re able to read Chinese//know someone who reads Chinese//want to experiment with Google Translate, here’s a fantastic website I’ve found with all sorts of recipes for Chinese food:
p.s. the title means “I’m not a chef” bcuz #clever
A number of things have become abundantly clear to me in the past couple of days, namely:
1. This “blog” isn’t really a “blog,” or at least not a very successful one. Who reads a blog when there’s nothing to read? If there’s nothing to read, who reads? No one!
2. The link I made for this blog is kind of difficult to remember? Maybe that’s why I’m discouraged from posting updates. And here I used to think I was a writer. Now I’m not so sure, especially when the latest piece of work I’ve completed was inspired by my own disdain at not having written anything recently.
3. There is probably not anything less witty than titling a blog entry after something in the Bible, especially when said entry has nothing to do with the Bible, and the writer in question is totally oblivious to the contents of said Bible. Good job!
4. I’m coming home soon!
Aside from those things, I feel like there is lots to write about, but very little inspiration. To quote a professor of mine, loosely: “People always say, ‘I have this idea, but I just have to get it down.’ But that’s the hard part—actually committing to writing it.” Which is where you, dear reader, have found me today. It’s about 6:15am for you (if you’re in the Midwest/reading this immediately after it’s posted), and I highly doubt this is going to be the most interesting thing you’ve read today.
But bear with me! I have things to share!
The months—because holy crap, it’s already been almost three—have flown by. A different kind of homesickness set in this time around, which made me feel less anxious about missing things at home but more like I was doing things wrong here. I’m not sure how to put it. Both last semester and at the beginning of this one, I took lots of pictures and yet felt like they weren’t the right pictures. I copied characters and read my textbooks, but it all felt off. This existential crisis of sorts was unnerving, but hard to place, and so I started asking myself questions. What made me decide to stay? Is writing characters in different colors based on their tones (orange for first, green second, blue third, and pink fourth, to match up with the system my dictionary app has) really helping? Do I have time to be asking so many questions?
The answers are not all that important (but if you’re curious, they are: the opportunity is a fabulous one, yes, and who cares, respectively). More so than ever before, I feel like I’ve adjusted to my surroundings. Basic tasks like showering and doing laundry no longer feel like temporary actions; I don’t feel so much like I’m living out of a hotel, or that I’m just a guest in a foreign house. Whether people are staring less or I’m just paying less attention isn’t clear, but the feeling of being an outsider isn’t so present, or at least so poignant. And by the time I realized all of these things are technically true—I am living in a hotel, I am a guest, I am foreign, and I’m definitely getting stared at—it wasn’t so pressing to have these questions floating around, struggling to be answered. Instead, they fell into step with the other noise of my thoughts, and would quickly form themselves into questions about what needed to be done for the day.
How did this happen? Did enough time finally pass that I stopped caring about being a foreigner and started caring about being a person? What does that even mean? Do I think by adding lots of questions to my posts that I seem more witty?
For one, I stopped counting the days with such regularity. For a while it seemed that there would always be more than one hundred days left, several months and countless hours until I could board a plane in Zhengzhou. Oddly enough, counting the hours kind of helped. There’s an app I downloaded that sets a countdown for a date of your choosing and puts a widget on your screen. I set it to hours and eventually stopped counting days. Because saying, “oh fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu there’s 69 days left” makes it so long. You have to wait a whole day before that number gets smaller; don’t get me started on number of weeks. But by breaking the time down into smaller, more manageable increments, the time has gone faster. I go to dinner with, for example, 100 days left til I leave, and 100 days left after dinner is over. Even if I go buy groceries, do homework, and take a shower, before I go to bed that number is still the same. But if I look at the progress in a smaller amount—I can do my homework, write this post, go for a run, watch some Breaking Bad—it seems so much more significant, and thus I stop paying attention to it. So tonight when I go to bed at 11 or 12, that number is smaller; when I go to bed, another five hours will be knocked off that big number. Right now, I have 1672 hours and counting. By this time next week, I’ll be in the 1500s.
But the greatest thing I could do to help the time go by meaningfully and quickly: make routines, or at least fill the time with as many things as possible. As luck would have it, another job has landed in my lap. Thankfully it’s much less formal, and instead of screaming at a class of preteens, I’m drawing on the sidewalk with two six year-olds for a couple hours every Sunday, not to mention getting paid $10/hour. Next Saturday, though, I’ll also be starting another job at a learning center. Very much unlike the middle school, the classes will be smaller; instead of trying to teach them a lesson, I’ll be doing arts and crafts with them. Nothing is set in stone yet, but the woman who runs the school (which is more like a tutoring business for wealthy families) has only just started the process. Next weekend is an open house of sorts, where I’ll be sitting in on a class (in Chinese) and, based on the number of people who sign up, will teach no more than six hours a weekend, and no more than ten children per class. She’s also pretty keen on not setting back any of my studies, and has made it clear all of the work I’ll do is prearranged and laid out very specifically. All fine and dandy, a mostly-legal ways to earn extra money (because job prospects for the summer are looking less and less promising) and get a routine going while learning how to interact with little kids.
Other routines include running at night, since the track is open to anyone at all hours of the day. A friend from last semester has asked for English practice, so we meet once a week to just casually converse, drink tea, and go out to dinner. I make coffee in the mornings, do work in the afternoons, and sometimes take naps. Slowly, I’m learning to make (very basic) Chinese dishes, and look forward to cooking more in the future. Part of me thinks I should be out traveling every chance possible, but that doesn’t sound so appealing. Traveling is stressful. It’s no fun trying to care about what other people want to do, but traveling alone is also nerve-wracking. There’s a school trip to visit the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang coming up, but as far as anything else, I haven’t got plans.
So where does that leave me? On a job-hunt for the summer, for one. Worse comes to worse, money spent isn’t coming directly out-of-pocket, so not working in the summer wouldn’t kill me financially (but would totally drive me crazy so I’m not giving up). Furthermore, instead of feeling sad about not being home or dragging my feet through the next two months, I get excited when I think about the future. It’ll be exciting to see how things change in the remaining weeks, and exciting to share my experiences with friends and family at home. Running feels good, eating vegetables and fruits feels good, and having a job feels good. All in all, studying comes first, but if I’m not living, really living, what’s the point in knowing 3,000 characters?
What do you think?