Have You Eaten Yet?

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Each culture has its own unique way of asking how someone is. In the U.S. you’ll hear, “how are you doing?”

In The U.K., it’s “are you okay?”

But in China, it’s “nǐ chī fan le ma?” which means, “have you eaten yet?”

Sure, there’s a way to literally say “hello” and “how are you?” in Chinese, but this key phrase inquiring about consumption is the most common expression. This just goes to show you how important the act of dining is in China. On any given night while passing by one of the millions of restaurants in Beijing, you’ll witness older, balding Chinese men with their shirts pulled over their bellies (on really hot nights) clinking glasses of beer noisily with their buddies. Their wives are gathered around the table, gossiping amongst themselves and munching on chuanr while the children run around the tables. Family dining isn’t just a meal–it’s a big ordeal. Typical Chinese meals consist of family-sized dishes that are meant to be passed around and shared. It reminds me of the way extended family members gather around turkey and mashed potatoes for a Thanksgiving meal in the U.S.

I found it so strange that everyone kept asking me if I had eaten during my first few months in Beijing. As soon as I learned the phrase Chinese, I didn’t stop hearing it. I was recently told by a Chinese friend that this question indicates that the asker cares about the askee and wants to make sure you are fed properly.

There is definitely a unique sense of bonding around the dinner table here that I haven’t seen elsewhere. It will be interesting to see how many times I ask my friends and family if they’ve eaten yet out of habit when I return home.

The Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an

The Silk Road Adventure Part I

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April 25, 2013

A friend I met in Beijing introduced me to his friend, Bow, who is working in Shanghai and was planning an ambitious trip to travel various places along The Silk Road of China. I had never met Bow, but her plan included impressively scenic locations that I would probably never get a chance to see if I weren’t already in China. Last week, I ventured nervously onto this very trip, unsure of the overnight trains and arduous hiking that lay ahead of me with people who would turn out to become three awesome friends. One of them, Ivy, is a friend who I already knew from living in Beijing, while the two others are expats in Shanghai.

Throughout the entire trip the Chinese people local to each area often asked Ivy where we were all from (Ivy was the only member of our group who was fluent in Chinese). This is how almost every conversation went:

Ivy: “Erdem is from Turkey”
Reaction: “Turkey? Turkey, huh? Turkey (repeated several times in Chinese).”

Ivy: “Bow is from Thailand.”
Reaction: “No, no she’s Chinese! She looks Chinese!”
Bow: *Responds in broken Chinese*
Reaction: “Oh, I guess you’re really from Thailand…”

Ivy: “Melanie is from the U.S.”
Reaction: “You’re not from Russia? You look Russian!”

Ivy: “I’m from Guanzhou, China”
Reaction: “Are you their tour guide?”

Xi’an was our first stop after a 12-hour, overnight train from Beijing. The six bunk beds crammed into one tiny sleeping quarter offered minimal privacy from the aisle of the train and left me without much rest the next day. The bathrooms were severely less glamourous than what I had already experienced in China. We arrived early that morning to a city similar in appearance to Beijing and brimming with other backpackers wandering about. Ivy and I met Bow at her hostel and filled our breakfast cravings with fresh mango smoothies on our way to meet Erdem. We all wandered onto the first of what would be many bus rides to venture toward the Terra Cotta Warriors. The steep entrance price simply to see the soldiers was a little surprising, but ultimately worth the opportunity to see the statues.

The Terra Cotta Warriors were discovered just in 1974, by a local farmer and workers were still unearthing statues as we visited. It was interesting to learn each soldier is unique in its appearance and life-sized, but other than that, they were rather lifeless.

After wandering a local street market and bargaining a bit, we broke our attempt to only eat local food and had Dico’s (Chinese fast food) for dinner on our way to board the next overnight train for Zhangye.

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Ivy, Erdem, and Bow

 

Favorite Things

Here are some of the wonderful moments that filled my days last week.

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1. Solana Mall: Sometimes it’s nice to see “normal” things, like a mall. I never thought I’d be so excited to see American Eagle! It was a wonderful day walking around the courtyards that were illuminated bright lights on [super fake] trees with friends.

2. Jason Mraz in Beijing: While on the subway with my roommate Katie, we were appreciating the musical delights of a random guitar player who was hoping for an appreciative and generous audience. As he ended one Chinese song, he transitioned into a tune that sounded oddly familiar. As Katie began jokingly singing the beginning to “I’m Yours,” he actually started singing the words too! Although his Chinglish interpretation of the words was less than perfect, Katie and I squealed and sang along excitedly. We definitely received a few more stares than usual, but we were so surprised to hear Jason Mraz that we didn’t care.

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3. Rainbow Dumplings: I had heard great things about this rainbow dumpling restaurant and finally got to try it this week! The restaurant, Baoyuan Jiaozi Wu, served dumplings that had been boiled in eggplant and other foods to dye the outside. It was a fun way to break up an otherwise mundane work week.

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4. Inappropriate Shirts: There’s a store in my favorite area of Beijing that sells graphic T shirts with random depictions of, apparently, flashing. I can’t imagine a store in the U.S. selling clothing that is equally hilarious or inappropriate.

Peculiarities of China

1. Rain Sweeping

I find great amusement in the people I see with huge brooms made of tangled straw furiously brushing at the stepping-stones at the park. They literally sweep the rocks that are set within the dirt of the outdoor park. The sweepers also emerge after heavy rainstorms to brush accumulated puddles of rain toward…I guess the center of the road.

I’m not entirely certain about the logistics, but I think these people are employed by the city. I can only imagine the uproar in the U.S. if tax-paying citizens found the city was employing people to sweep dirt and rain.

2. Outfit Recycling

When I first arrived in China, the AIESEC member helping me find an apartment wore the same outfit three days in a row.

I remember pointing out his colorful shirt the first day I met him because I liked it. When he wore it the second day we met up, I thought maybe he assumed the same outfit would help me find him in the sea of similar-looking Chinese people. By the third day I was thoroughly confused. When I began work I saw the same oddity. My Chinese colleagues would recycle same outfit about four days in a row, then pick a new outfit and stick with that one for a while.

While out at lunch, a Chinese co-worker told me that he and the others were amazed at how many outfits I must have brought to Beijing. Apparently the limited number of outfits I squeezed into my suitcase has impressed the natives.

3. Fast Food Delivery

McDonald’s and KFC deliver here. Enough said.

4. Squatting Babies

I’ve been told that diapers are a rarity for most people in China. Since most parents cannot afford them, they have adopted an unusual alternative. Their children wear pants that are split so that they don’t soil their pants when they do their *ahem* business.

These pants allow infants to squat down wherever and go to the bathroom. This means on the sidewalk, outside of McDonald’s, or, yes, even on the subway, you will find squatting babies. What puzzles me is that they soil everything else.

5. Cars in Hutongs

I’ve accepted the idea of a hutong, but I’m still baffled the the number of cars that drive down these narrow streets thinking that they’ll make it past the parked cars already crammed into the road. This clip is of a truck and a car trying to squeeze past each other. Astoundingly, they always seem to make it without a scratch.

Temple of Insomnia Cookies

This past Saturday I visited the Temple of Heaven with friends from AIESEC. As terrible as it sounds, once you’ve seen one temple, you have kind of seen them all. Since I had seen the Summer Palace temples, these were a little repetitive to me.

The highlight of this trip, though, was making a new friend through our shared love of Insomnia Cookies. Said friend is originally from Hong Kong and studied her four years of college in Chicago, IL. Apparently they had Insomnia Cookies on her campus also, and as soon as we realized our common love of the cookies, we could not stop raving about how badly we wanted those gooey morsels.

Bonding turned into a business proposition, and before I knew it, I was agreeing to a partnership in the cookie industry. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but very indicative of how much I am craving a homemade chocolate chip cookie right now. It was comforting to know that I’m not the only person suffering from the scarcity of decent cookies in Beijing.

Bright Lights and Frog Legs

The entrance to the Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square

Tuesday I had the opportunity to see Tiananmen Square in a way unique to the festivities of National Day. A friend from the U.S., his Chinese friend, Chen, and fiancé, and I visited the square, which was buzzing with excitement and illuminated with huge glowing shrubbery, gigantic panoramic televisions, and the flashing of cameras.

It was nice to have a native of China with us, since he had stories for us that tour guides would lack. Chen pointed out an intricately designed train station-turned-mall where his grandmother used to work. We also learned that the government hand selects soldiers of the same exact height and similar appearance to protect the Chinese flag in Tiananmen Square.

Lanterns of Ghost Street

Trying duck tongue

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After walking the square, we headed to a restaurant glowing red with lanterns on Ghost Street to enjoy Chinese food. Chen made sure we tried authentic food like duck tongue, lobster (including the brain), cow stomach, and frog. And, yes, I tried all of the above. Even though I stayed away from the roasted fish with eggs inside, I think Chen and his Chinese friends who dined with us were impressed by my willingness to try cuisine that would make most foreigners squirm. The food in China is certainly different from the U.S. and I’m thrilled to be able to experience new things.

Favorite Weekend Adventures

Simply being in a foreign country like China has given me opportunities to experience things I would never otherwise get a chance to do. Here are some of the more recent and favorite ventures from last weekend:

Wall art that says inappropriate things in Chinese

Stage where the bar has live music

Giggle: My co-workers and I stopped at Giggle Bar and Restaurant for lunch on Friday and I instantly fell in love. I couldn’t resist the charm of the random Chinese cartoons painted on the walls, a [fake] tree in the middle of the room, plush white and black leather cushioned chairs, which were comfier than my bed, and even the broken English statements on the menu. And with a name like Giggle, how could I not love this place? Okay, so this isn’t the most adventurous or authentic Chinese experience, but I loved it anyway.

The many options of snack street: scorpion, starfish, seahorse, centipede, and lizard

Yep, I ate three of these little scorpions

Snack Street: Having heard about a “snack street” that allows us crazy foreigners to try cuisine like donkey, scorpion, and lizard, I decided this was a must-try while I’m here. The little street is crammed between a large, western shopping area (Forever 21, Zara, Sephora, heaven!) I guess the picture speaks for itself: among other things, like yogurt that is in a glass container that Chinese people drink like milk and some barbequed squid and octopus, I tried scorpion!

Awesome chair in the lobby of KTV Ibiza Karaoke

Marck and my roommate Keith singing their hearts out

Our awesome karaoke room

Karaoke: Karaoke is huge here. Huge! Every Chinese person I have met sings at the drop of a hat and isn’t afraid to belt out a tune when I request it (and I have). Because of this, karaoke is a common bar-time activity. This past weekend I got to partake in karaoke with some friends from my program. The Ibiza KTV was ridiculously lavish, with the lobby decked out in gold couches and crimson wall decorations.

Moon Cake: Yesterday was National Day, which celebrates the day the People’s Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949. Along with having this entire week off from work, people celebrate with moon cake.

Now, I really don’t enjoy moon cake. I have tried, unsuccessfully, to enjoy it, but it’s just too dry for my liking. Even though it’s not my favorite, I was really excited that the company I work for gave everyone a big box of moon cake. Even though I don’t love the stuff, and have no intention of eating it, it made me feel like part of the celebration.

View of a temple in Summer Palace from across Kunming Lake

Summer Palace: I took advantage of my free Monday and went to Summer Palace with a few friends. The tourist attraction was originally constructed in year 1122. Hundreds of years later, it became a summer resort for Empress Dowager Cixi who blew a ton of money on its reconstruction and enlargement. The day was perfectly sunny and mild for walking around Kunming Lake, which surrounds the palace. It’s usually during tourist-y moments like this when it hits me; I’m in CHINA! Sometimes it’s nice to stop and just be amazed at where I am.