March 30, 2011

Lucky Hong Kong Sevens

There are few events in the world in which Halloween costumes seamlessly blend in with well-tailored, designer weekend wear. The occasions are even fewer when both outliers of society – and everyone in between – play drinking games outside of a 7-Eleven.

Such was the scene for three glorious days at the Hong Kong Sevens, an international rugby tournament that hosted teams from 24 countries around the world.

I had never watched rugby and only understand the game at its most elementary level, but I quickly became a fan once I stepped into Hong Kong Stadium. Skyscrapers and hillsides competing for the highest altitude surround the giant open-air arena.  

Inside, the atmosphere was wild. Fans dressed in everything from Black Swan tutus to Captain America to giant cartons of milk waited in line for hours to get into the south stand. If the tournament were a college football game, the south stand would be the student section.

The games were only 20 minutes each and only seven players were on the pitch at a time. Play was fast-moving, hard-hitting, and fans weren’t easily bored by an extra long match. I don’t understand how many points can be scored at a time, but the USA was handily outscored by England.

After the games, the party moved to Hong Kong’s bar streets. My friends and I spent both Friday and Saturday night in Lan Kwai Fong. The area has many narrow cobblestone streets lined with bars and restaurants that are all precariously built on a steep hillside.

The bars were so full that people spilled out into the streets. Thankfully the roadways were marked for pedestrians only. Thousands of people met, cheers’d, hollered, and danced until the sun came up or until they couldn’t stand – whichever came first.

Drinks from bars are pricey in Hong Kong, but there is an open container policy: hence, drinking games outside of the 7-Eleven, because beer is cheap there. Countries, cultures, and costumes mixed together to make a messy slurry of a party. I imagine it was a small version of what the World Cup is like.

While half of my weekend was devoted to the rugby madness, the rest of my time was spent hanging out with my local Hong Kong friends and exploring the city on my own.

I was so thankful to make it back to Hong Kong again before I leave Asia. Without a doubt, it is one of the top three cities I’ve ever been to. The energy is palpable and it’s such a wonderful mix of Asia and Europe. I would love to live there next year. The city feels like it knows it’s on the precipice of Asia’s rise. It’s almost like Hong Kong is China’s wise old grandparent waiting to see how the nation emerges from its awkward and fast growth spurts during adolescence.

As much as I love it there, time is money and things aren’t cheap in Hong Kong. My friends, who are young professionals, work 10-12 hours each day and their work usually spills into the weekends. For a young 20-something, it’s a doable lifestyle but certainly not one I would want forever.

One of the [many] beautiful things about the city is that it is easy to forget your location on the globe. There are so many expats that you think you’re in England, The Philippines, America or France depending on the neighborhood. Of course, China’s influences are prevalent everywhere, but it’s less abrasive in Hong Kong.
But on Saturday night I was fortunate to hang out with a strictly Cantonese crowd.

My friend invited me to a barbeque at his friend’s apartment. Located on the second floor, the apartment had a fantastic patio – a rare find in Hong Kong. The patio was the rooftop of the store below and was large enough for several chairs, plants, and charcoal grill.

We grilled all sorts of delicious meats, fish balls, and marshmallows (of course) on sticks over the embers and I listened to everyone speak in a mixture of English and Cantonese. Mandarin and Cantonese are very different, but I was excited when I could pick up on a word here or there that sounded like something I know in Mandarin. The weather was perfect for a late night barbeque; I only needed a light cardigan to keep warm.

Flying back to Hangzhou on Sunday was a debacle of epic proportions. Our flight was canceled, so we were moved on a flight to Shanghai. We landed at 7 p.m. and immediately got on the metro to head to the train station. Our flight landed in Pudong Airport and we needed to go to Hongqiao train station – literally from the east end of Shanghai to the west.

Shanghai’s status as one of the world’s largest cities lived up to its size as we spent 90 minutes on the metro – causing us to miss the last train to Hangzhou by 15 minutes.

Exhausted, without options, and faced with an early Monday morning at work, we took a taxi. For 100 miles, we rode in a taxi. It ended up costing just over $1 each mile and we didn’t make it back until 2 a.m.

Big Red reared her ugly head that night… what an unfortunate end to a most ridiculous weekend.

March 21, 2011

Stomach of Iron

When I moved to China, I expected to have Pepto snacks and Immodium for dessert. And I thought my body would be almost instantly transformed into a tiny little figure that weighed less than the 16-year old version of me.. After all, everyone I knew who had been to China shed pounds without even trying.

However, I'm nearly six months in and have yet to bow down to the porcelain throne, even after enjoying copious amounts of street food. And much to my dismay, I have not gained or lost a single pound.

China is famous for selling anything and everything to eat. It's not uncommon to see live chickens purchased in markets or to see ducks plucked clean hanging by their necks out of an apartment window. Street vendors pedal around on their reconfigured bicycles that double as a food stand and set up shop on whichever corner they decide is most lucrative.

Most commonly during the daytime, people sell roasted sweet potatoes. Steel barrels, that once may or may not have contained industrial waste, double as ovens that char the potatoes to a black, crusty oblivion. Once their black shell is flaked off, the inside of the potato is sweet, creamy deliciousness... or so I've heard.

"Those give you cancer," one of my students told me when I was eying one at lunch one of my first weeks here. I got scared and haven't tried one...yet.

Modified barrel ovens are also used to make a baked flat bread that comes in either sweet or spicy. Both varieties are seasoned with a mysterious flaky black substance that resembles burned green onions (which they might well be) and other smallish chunks of awesomeness. The dough is rolled out into a 6-inch circle and then it is plastered to the inside of the barrel. Defying gravity, the bread sticks to the wall until it is baked to an airy, crispy perfection.

One round sells for about a quarter, and I usually treat myself to one after my language lessons. The woman I buy my bread from works out of her impossibly small one-room home on a street corner. Her husband operates a bicycle repair shop on the sidewalk that they've adopted as their front patio. She is middle-age and plump, and her teeth splay out of her mouth as if a grenade exploded and the shock prompted each tooth to bend forward out of her mouth. Regardless, she always greets me with a big smile.

I'm partial to the street side noodles. Vendors rock the wok and offer two or three varieties of rice noodles, meats, green leafy vegetables, tofu and eggs. I point to what I want (usually bok choy, tofu, cabbage, and pepper) and in five minutes or less, they hand me a paper bowl wrapped in a sensationally flimsy plastic bag and I have dinner -- usually for less than US $1.

After drinks on a Friday night, street squid on a stick or a bowl of dumplings are my go-tos. Meats on sticks are widely available here at any time of day. Instead of a cookie after school, kids rush to get some lamb, beef, or unidentifiable meat on a stick for an after school snack. While I don't eat many of the four-legged critter sticks, I really dig the street squid. I get it yidianr lao de (a little bit spicy) and they grill it right in front of me. It's a rare treat though, I'm a little weirded out by how fresh (or not fresh) the squid might be.

And you can never go wrong with Chinese dumplings. Salty and flavorful mystery meat wrapped up in a steamed bread product with a little bit of vinegar is heavenly. Though I admit that description makes them sound awful and does not do them justice.

Street snacks and restaurant food doesn't come without its risks though. Part of the reason for my weight neutrality is the unrequited love of corn oil. People use corn oil here more excessively than a Greek or Italian uses olive oil. Almost every restaurant dish comes with a hearty oil slick, including my favorite garlicky eggplant entree.

In a lot of Chinese restaurants oil is reused or recycled, making it carcinogenic. In more expensive restaurants the oil is fresh, but a lot of cheap restaurants and many street vendors use recycled oil. I opt out of thinking about that as I'm enjoying delicious food.

I've also seen rats in restaurants, dirty produce lying on the floor, dead chickens with their feathers still intact... I'm unfazed, and so far I haven't gotten sick.

March 14, 2011

Team Oprah/Shanghai Nights

For some strange and glorious reason, my social life has fallen into place after my Spring Festival adventure in Southeast Asia. I actually feel like I have a life here with a solid group of friends and new acquaintances each weekend. Of course, now that I feel established here, I have to get ready to go home in seven short weeks...

Thursday nights kick of a four-day marathon of socializing. A few of us started going to trivia at a cafe in early December. The first time we went, our entire team was made up of women. Desperate for a name and short on time to pick one, we chose "Team Oprah" because she's a legend of a woman. With a name like that, we felt confident we would dominate the predominantly male crowd.

Maybe the name made us a little bit cocky or perhaps we weren't really sure how things worked at trivia, but we ended up in last place. Consistently last -- even after five rounds. We never even came in second-to-last. The next week was much of the same, but we were minimally better prepared and found ourselves in the middle of the pack for a couple of rounds. Overall, we still came in last place of four or five teams.

We continued going, week after week, then took a month off for travels. Each time we went we got better and better, but still we couldn't break the top tier. With Team Oprah two ladies short after Spring Festival (Alex and Sophie went home), we had to adopt some guys to complete our team of six. 

Still we struggled. We could knock out the current events round and were usually decent at music, but the movie round and the two host's choice rounds were debilitating to our score. There was a round or two where we managed second place, but the top prize eluded us. By this point, Team Oprah had developed a reputation for having plenty of heart, but little skill.

Finally last Thursday, it all came together. We went 10 for 10 in current events and had a solid showing in the bonus. As the host read scores from the bottom to the top, our team was giddy that maybe for the first time ever we won a round.

All of our nervous tics came out to play -- giggles, twitchy legs, restless sips of beer -- then the announcement came. For the first time ever at Vineyard Cafe's trivia, Team Oprah was victorious! 

We cheered and savored our round of free drinks.

Then everything started to click -- we won round two, came in second round three, and had the lead going into the fourth round: movies. This round killed us -- we scored a measly five points, while the second place competitors brought in 24. We got our stride back in the final round and got a perfect score naming every artist and title of the music round's playlist.

Three out of five rounds, Oprah came out on top! We thought maybe, just maybe, we had won the entire game.

Yet again, our confidence got the best of us yet again and we came in three points behind the leaders. We're all about the scrappiness, and I have no doubt Team Oprah will soon rule the board.

Saturday morning, my newfound crew and I got on a bullet train bound for Shanghai. We were there within an hour and shortly thereafter I was enjoying a slice of Pizza Margherita at an Italian trattoria in the French Concession. I keep like-minded company, so we all happily planned our weekend around great restaurants and cafes. 

Early on in my adventure through Vietnam, I got an email from an old friend from high school who I had last touch with in 2007. Through the miracles of modern communication, he found out that I was living a short train ride away in Hangzhou. He moved to Shanghai in August and teaches at an international high school. All along we've practically been neighbors and didn't even realize it -- he has even been to Hangzhou since I've lived here!

We met up at a cafe Saturday afternoon and spent the rest of the day catching up on the last few years as we ambled around the city. Shanghai -- or at least the French Concession -- makes la vie flâneur  a real possibility, which is an extremely rare thing in China. The neighborhood begs you to saunter slowly down the sidewalks and window shop in the countless boutiques. 

Despite its massive population, the city is filled with alleyways that open up into small piazzas or courtyards. Side streets are lined with trees and it's not hard to find areas where you're not drowning in sky scrapers. 

Saturday night we continued our trend of deliciousness by eating at a place called Element Fresh. True to its name, it was fresh and light with a diverse menu. We got appetizers, dessert and cocktails. After dinner we went to the hotel to change into nicer clothes -- there's really no reason to ever dress up in Hangzhou, so putting heels on felt strange and wonderful. Shanghai is not a city to save money in, I would go broke and then some if I lived there on my current paycheck. It's swimming in fantastic restaurants, bars and shopping areas... we couldn't help but treat ourselves to a luxe little weekend.

We went to a few bars Saturday night, including one named Dakota. It was a classy joint with delicious drinks. My fellow ND friend and I joked about how far we've come since hanging out at state FBLA conferences in high school to meeting up for drinks in Shanghai.

Sunday morning brought the prospect of a legitimate breakfast (my favorite meal of the day). Three of us went to a restaurant called Mesa in the French Concession and sat on their second floor patio. We soaked up the 70 degree sunshine and snacked on fresh croissants as we waited for our omelettes and eggs benedict with pumpkin Hollandaise sauce. We spent the afternoon enjoying la vie flâneur and drinking plenty of delicious espresso and cappuccino... but before long, our dreamy bubble was burst and we found ourselves on a bullet train back to Hangzhou.

I seemed to have left my voice in Shanghai, however. After catching a nasty cold over the weekend, I have strict orders from a doctor not to say a word for the next 24 hours. I've drank nearly a gallon of lemon tea today and am going to spend tomorrow as a hermit in my apartment.

Earlier today I had hoped I would have an exciting post to write about going to the doctor in Hangzhou.. I went to a hospital and expected it to be a debacle. It turned out that a lovely international clinic was lurking on the fifth floor of a massive medical complex. I watched CNN in the waiting room and was greeted by two doctors from Michigan. It was disturbingly easy and streamline for China... a nice surprise no doubt.

March 9, 2011

Sleep your head in my hands

In the past two weeks I've started to become more aware of how I've changed since coming to China five point five months ago. Sure, I've become more responsible and tolerant, not to mention fearless and more laid back as well. But the changes that I find most alarming are in regards to the things I've grown accustomed to.

An hour ago I was sitting in the lobby at my gym, snacking on fresh vegetables and bite-sized sandwiches I had made myself. The sandwich consisted of one cherry tomato, 1/4-teaspoon of mayo, and a tiny bit of sweet bread with almonds on it. Five months ago I would have found this repulsive, but now I find it pseudo acceptable, as long as the bread doesn't have pork floss* on it (see definition of pork floss at the bottom).

While I was eating, I glanced up at the newly redecorated wall covered in decorative green and orange theater gels. On the right hand side, written in a new-age modern font was "take exercise with a green environment." What does that even mean? I was unfazed by it. I'm assuming it's just a phrase that, when loosely translated into Chinese, makes people feel like they're doing something good for the environment by toiling away on electric cardio machines. 

Engrish, Chinglish -- whatever you call it -- are the literal translations from Chinese to English, and are often silly and hysterical. When I first moved here, I got endless entertainment from signs, logos, and slogans that didn't quite make sense. Now I shrug it off, sometimes with a giggle, but mostly I don't even notice it.

I've even catch myself using Chinglish to explain a situation to co-workers, students or taxi drivers. My grammar is becoming poorer and my vocabulary feels like it has shrunk by 25% since I earned my degree last May. It's a disturbing revelation.

Last Sunday, I decided I wanted to dye my hair dark brown. Like my previous experience in a Chinese salon, it was tricky explaining what I wanted. I was terrified that my fine, Scandinavian locks would be fried by dye that is normally used on the thick, durable strands of the locals. Never mind that the guy doing my hair was in training...

The best part about Chinese salons is the hair-washing experience. My hair was washed twice on Sunday, and I would estimate I had at least a 30-minute scalp massage (I was in the salon for 3.5 hours). Since they spend so much time washing hair, the sinks are designed for ultimate comfort, so you essentially lie on a massage table. I still don't understand how my back didn't get soaked from lying completely flat.

Apparently I was a little tense when the stylist lifted my head to rinse out the back of my hair.

"Sleep your head in my hands," he said.

"Wait, what?? Shenme?" I replied.

"S-s-sleep your head in my hands," he repeated.

Ohhh -- I'm supposed to relax my head because he'll take care of it. It makes perfect sense, his hands are the pillow that my head is sleeping on. 

Five months ago it would have taken me much longer to deduce logical meaning from that statement, but now it's an easy thing to figure out. 

My hair turned out great, the styling was a bit off (ok -- way off). I looked like a cross between a 1990s sitcom mom and January Jones from Mad Men. I also found myself with thick, blunt-cut Chinese bangs again as well, I didn't want them back but they just showed up (I'm not surprised). 

I now voluntarily eat with chopsticks (even if it's not Chinese food), and last week I put a piece of mystery meat in my mouth before I realized that a chicken claw was making my bite nearly impossible to chew (again, unfazed). I drink tea like it's nobody's business, particularly green tea. I wear my parka indoors without complaint. I shamelessly bargain.  I no longer wince when presented with an in-ground squatty toilet. And occasionally I eat red beans for dessert and opt for a crepe with pork floss (I promise you're about to learn what it is).

And all of these changes seemed to have happened unknowingly, my sense of "normal" is anything but. C'est la vie.

[Definition from Wikipedia. I highly recommend visiting the site for a description on how the product is made. Mmmm.... delicious.] Pork floss: Rousong, also called meat wool, meat floss, pork floss, pork sung, is a dried meat product that has a light and fluffy texture similar to coarse cotton. Rousong is used as a topping for many foods such as congee, tofu and savory soy milk. It is also used as filling for various buns and pastries, and as a snack food on its own. Rousong is a very popular food item in Chinese culture, and evident in its ubiquitous use in Chinese cuisine.

March 3, 2011


It was 6:50 a.m. and I was standing outside shivering, it was misting and the temperature was only 35 degrees. I was sleepy and desperate for the big green shuttle bus to arrive at my apartment. I waited along with a dozen co-workers until 7:15, when someone got a phone call saying the bus was broken and wouldn't be coming.

People started chattering and rushing around the small parking lot under my building trying to figure out how to get to campus on time for work. I had no idea what was going on, I was cold and half asleep. Ten minutes had passed when one of the teachers waved for me to come with her. I was under the impression we would be sharing a taxi. Four of us went to the corner, crossed the street, and stopped in front of a primary school. 

It was 7:30 when a black sedan pulled up, the teachers motioned for me to sit in the front and they hopped in the back. I had no idea who our driver was and he didn't say anything to us. The women in the back immediately fell asleep, but I put my headphones in and savored the ridiculousness of the moment. Only in China. It took less than an hour to get to campus, thanks to our driver's erratic weaves around cars and sporadic stretches of driving in the bike lane. 

The day before, our shuttle bus gave a small SUV a little tap on its back bumper. There was hardly a scratch, but the SUV driver freaked out and put on a huge show of pacing back and forth in the middle of a huge, busy intersection. The entire bus of people got excited and many exited the bus to check out the argument between our driver and the SUV diva. It took 45 minutes, but we finally made it back on our way.

Two days in a row I had distinctly Chinese commutes to work. The immersion continued in the office. I share a new office with two other 20-something Chinese girls who love shopping, pop culture, and bright, glittery nail polish. Most of the day we sit quietly, they occasionally talk to each other in Chinese and I usually enjoy NPR, Pandora, or online TV shows that I haven't heard in five months (my internet at work is actually fast!) But every now and then we have random conversations about the latest iPhones, celebrity scandals in Hong Kong, or the best kinds of shampoo. 

As silly as it sounds, I'm gaining valuable insight into Chinese pop culture. My co-workers have wholeheartedly embraced my quest to learn Chinese and have promised to speak to me in Mandarin... which is cool, but I don't understand 98% of what's going on. At any rate, I'm trying to catch on, I have my work assignment for the next week written in pinyin (the roman letter spelling of Chinese words).

I was enveloped by China en route to work, in the office, and even at meals this week. At lunch one day, I learned all about the health policy of government employees in China, as we picked at a whole fish with our chopsticks. That night at dinner I was the only foreigner in a room of 25 people. 

I sipped on tepid rice juice, which has the texture of runny, over-cooked grits and is dark purple. I know, it sounds wretched, but it was good -- it wasn't overly sweet or pungent, like a lot of "juices" are here. Plus, it was a lot better than my other option, corn juice, which is the same consistency and texture but tastes like a popcorn kernel doused in corn syrup. 

The evening was full of strange and mostly delicious dishes, many that I've never had before. It was a typical Chinese buffet with a massive circular table with a wheel in the middle that all the dishes were put on, so we rotated all the food around, picking what we wanted with our chopsticks. 

I always get nervous eating with only Chinese people because I feel like they're closely watching what I eat, how I eat it, and whether or not I have capable hands with the chopsticks. Both at the dinner and at my Chinese banquet lunch the next day, I found myself dropping food more than usual or having a difficult time picking things up. 

I've made progress since moving here though, no one asks me if I need a fork anymore.

This weekend, my friends and I are going to have a very Chinese night out -- starting with KTV, the wildly popular and awkward karaoke experience, then we're going to a stadium-style dancing club that is decadently decorated with gaudy chandeliers and all things cheap but luxurious. We'll most likely be the only foreigners at both venues.

When in Rome, right? 

Except in Rome, doing as the Romans did was far less awkward and involved gelato. Doing as the Chinese makes for better stories though.

March 1, 2011


My days of safari hunting down green lights for taxis are done…for the most part. I inherited a bike from a good friend this past weekend and feel like I’ve been given instant access to the entire city.

In hindsight, a bike should have been one of the very first things I purchased when I arrived. I had every intention of buying one mid-November, but then it started to get cold and I got busy with the semester. All excuses aside, I learned about my lucky inheritance on a hike the day after Christmas.

Sophie, the bike’s first mom, took it all around Hangzhou for her six months here. As a result, she gained scores of friends and knew her way around the city better than most temporary residents. Since her internship was ending just two months after Christmas (last week), she needed to figure out something to do with her bicycle. We talked it over – I was desperate for a bike and she knew I was sincere about putting it to good use. The one and only caveat to the deal was that before I leave, I have to find a very cool foreigner to pass it along to, preferably one as unhappily lost as I was when I first arrived.

After plenty of pictures and hugs, she handed over the bike and all three of its locks to me on Saturday afternoon. It’s certainly nothing fancy – the wheels are small with a thick tread, and there is only a single gear. But it has a big basket in the front, a bell on the handlebars and a sophisticated anti-theft system consisting of a taped-on paper sign that reads, in Chinese, “Please don’t steal me, my owner doesn’t have very much money :)”

It was such a good feeling pedaling my way back to my apartment that afternoon. Sophie promised me the city would look differently atop two wheels, and she was absolutely right. I thought I would be more nervous about the traffic or other bikes, but after spending five months observing the illogical set of traffic standards here, things seemed to come somewhat naturally. Or maybe that’s just because I’ve developed a sturdy false sense of security…

Sunday promised sunny skies and a temperature of nearly 70 degrees, so I set out onto the streets around 10:30 a.m. Hangzhou famously boasts bicycle tours around West Lake, so I thought that would be an appropriate inaugural journey with my bicycle.

Since the weather was so nice, there were scores of people around the lake. The traffic and crowds were a little daunting, and there were more than a few times I found myself squeezing my way through cars and weaving around other cyclists and pedestrians.

The bike lanes here are as wide as a lane of traffic, for the most part. There’s no regulation as to the direction you go in the lane either, it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Playing chicken with a bike or motorbike quickly coming at you head-on is a normal thing that I will hopefully soon become a pro at. The key is to commit to a trajectory path and stick to it. Otherwise, if I wobble they’ll wobble, and we’ll both fall down.

Once I found myself in the southwest corner of the lake, the crowds thinned and I was surrounded by nature. That area of Hangzhou is home to a preserve that has tea fields, a bamboo forest, and an arboretum. Hiking trails line the hilltops, surrounding the side of the lake like a cooked spine. For a few minutes, I didn’t feel like I was in a city with millions of people.

The streets came easy to me – I thought I would feel lost or unsure of my way, but apparently months of sitting in the backseats of cabs and struggling to remember strange sounding streets made an impression. Yugu lu, Xueyuan, Tianmushan, Jiaogong, Wen San, Wen Er, Wen Yi… it all was laid out nicely in my mind. Even when I was on streets I had never been on before, I still knew my cardinal directions and knew where to turn.

It was then that I reminded myself that I was in a huge city, and I knew my way around it! Well…to a certain extent, anyway.

I have two months left here and I hope that will be enough time to explore everything that I want to with my new set of wheels. I’m not sure that it’ll be enough time, but I will have to make sure the time spent is worthwhile.

As sad as I am to see Sophie go, I can’t be more thankful for her gift. Here’s to hoping we’re starting a soon-to-be-legendary laowai (foreigner) bike, passed down from foreigner to foreigner, all of who are earnestly seeking to make Hangzhou feel a little more like home.