There is no place better than Chicago.

However, I miss the delights of dining in China so much that I actually have moments in which I wish I were there instead of here.

And this is what friends are for.

Thank you to Jisbar Gomez for sharing this image from his latest meal in Beijing.

IMG_2767

Wood-ear mushrooms are one of my favorite types of mushrooms, right up there next to tea tree mushrooms. They absorb spices and flavor super well, and the texture is unique.

And texture is very important in the sensual experience that is feasting.

The menus in Beijing often have very unfortunate translations. Good thing I have trained myself to put mind over matter.

Now, when I see “fungus,” I can easily switch from thoughts of the Walgreens foot care aisle to thoughts of dark, delicious, wood-ear mushrooms.

Look forward to pictures of ridiculous menus on Curiously Yours in the future.

***

Do you have a good wood-ear mushroom recipe? Do share below. Or, email it to me at TalesByCuriouslyYours at gmail. I am dying to know how to cook this myself.

Happy salivating!

I get in, tell him where I’m headed. The necessary exchanges occur.

“Your Chinese is great! Which country?”

“I’m from the US.”

Image

Via threewatersproductions.com

“How many years have you been in China?”

“I’ve lived here eight months.” I know, of course, what’s coming next.

He yelps. He peers at me in his rear-view mirror. At the next light, he swings his head around to squint at me.

“EIGHT MONTHS!!” That part is actually yelled. “AMAZING!! You’ve been here eight months and you speak this well!! So great!!!”

I giggle. The same thing, every time. Chinese always lavish flattering praise whenever a foreigner speaks any Chinese.

I inform him that I learned all my Chinese by chatting with lovely taxi drivers like him. He is pleased.

And then a car cuts him off at a traffic circle. He glares at it. He glances at me. “In such a situation, he asks, should one say ‘Fuck you, ok?'”

I laugh. “Yes! Absolutely. Just: ‘Fuck you.'”

He practices. “Fuck you, ok!”

“No no no,” I tell him. “No ‘ok’; just ‘fuck you.'”

“No ‘ok?'”

“Right,” I confirm. He practices again. Flawless execution.

“How about ‘shabi'”, he asks. “How does one say that in English?” Best way I can think to translate it: “Stupid vagina.”

Ahem. “We don’t really say that in English.”

“Do you speak French?”

My curiosity got the better of me. “What’s your question?”

He asks: “Do you know the word ‘cu#+’?”

Image

Via lyceum.com.au

“That’s not French,” I say, laughing inwardly, sharing a joke with that unknown foreigner that had taught him to swear and told him he was speaking French.

I HATE that word. I never understood how  proper Brits got away with saying such an awful word every day. I refuse to help.

“It’s actually British; Americans don’t say that word.” I don’t like that word; I don’t want to say it.

He pressures, pleads, insists, tries pronouncing it, but it comes out with no t. “Cun!” he exclaims, the foreign word bursting out of his mouth with a splutter. “Cun! Cun!”

I’m from the East Coast. I can’t bear to see someone with an attitude not armed with the proper artillery. I had to help him out.

“Put a “T” at the end,” I encouraged. He was puzzled. “A ‘t?'” But he was so earnest!

I sighed. “Like ‘unt’!”

He got it. He practiced. “Cu#+! cu#+! cu#+!”

Just passing the love around.

The newly paved road of my narrow hutong is a bit inclined, and my bicycle doesn’t like it. I decide to park it with the rear tire sticking out a bit; I’ll just run out and move it if a driver needs to pass by.

I enter through the tiny doors and greet the young girl sticking lettuce onto sticks. “Nihao.” She’s there every single day.

She replies: “Nihao.”

Two men are waiting for their dinner at the table closest to the fan. “And hello to YOU,” one calls out, enthusiastically.

I turn a bright smile at him, and as I turn to pick ingredients for my malatang dish (the one I always tell them not to add peppers to, but which always comes back whopping spicy anyways, and I’m no wuss), I hear him tell his dining mate: “Yes, I’ve seen her before.”

I make a show of turning all the way around to face him and smile again so he’ll know that A. I understand him, and B. I’m not an animal in a zoo.

To no avail.

I pay the lady, take a seat, and pull out my cell to begin composing this post. The man continues discussing me.

The TV distracts me momentarily: an older man is awakening a frightened, screaming younger woman by trying to force her to have sex with him; she defends herself simply by jumping off the bed. And then she just stands there, glaring at him.

Taken from eWritings

Taken from eWritings

I am bewildered, and return to my phone.

The food is done, and I say, “I don’t need chop sticks, thank you.”

As I walk out, the dining man says, “Oh, she’s going now.”

I roll my eyes, because I’m not yet big enough to accept the fact that I am, indeed, just an animal in a zoo, everywhere I go, but especially, every time, for some reason, in this malatang place.

Too bad I’m addicted to malatang.

The elevator stops at the 8th floor, and a tall Chinese man steps on. He is perhaps 60 years old, but his face is smooth and very handsome.

The door closes. He emits a very small, low sound.

This sound would perhaps be unnoticeable elsewhere, but I know this sound. It’s the sound that happens whenever Chinese people are in a small place with me, a foreigner, and they are so in wonderment of this situation that they don’t know quite what to do with themselves.

Plus, of course, there’s that elephant in the room, that burning question they’re pondering, biding their time, deciding when to ask. In this case, the man decides that somewhere around floor 5 is the right time to ask.

He looks at me. “Which country?”

And there it is. No preliminary “hello, how are you” is necessary. Not now, not when the most pressing, salient, outrageous context is unfolding right in front of his very eyes. No, in such a circumstance, clearly, the most fitting opening question is to inquire as to from which homeland such a foreign creature could possibly hail.

So obviously fitting is this question for this situation, that even to utter the complete question, “Where are you from,” would seem outrageously superfluous.

I reply. “The US.”

“How great!” he exclaims,  using the exact same words everyone uses to exclaim upon my answer.

I respond with the same question I always ask in such situations, feigning the same surprised expectancy I always feign in such situations. After all, it’s a little bit embarrassing (in a lovely way) to have people react so positively to your nationality.

“Have you been there?!” I cry, in pleased surprise, with bated breath, so clearly ready to ask next, “Which cities have you visited?!”

But of course I know he has not been there. Most Chinese I meet tell me I am the first non-Chinese they have ever even spoken to.

And he replies “No, I have not been.”

Just to keep up the friendly conversation, in such exchanges I often ask next, “So why did you exclaim about how great it is that I am American?”

But this time I do not. We have reached the ground level, and he is an exceptionally considerate gentleman. The doors open, and he stretches his hand outward, gesturing for me to exit ahead of him.

“Thank you,” I say, in such a good mood.

I approach the line. Sue is three people ahead of me. She turns to smile at me. “Do you have paper?” Her English words, tinged with a Chinese accent, come out in a burst of energy. This is why I love Sue. She has a zest for life.

I am nothing if not prepared for this type of activity. Of course I have paper! I break open a brand new 12-pack and hand her a sealed package.

The line inches forward slowly.

I break open my own package of tissues, slip one out, and breathe in its essence. “Ahh,” I sigh, “good thing these smell so nice.”

As if on cue, everyone else in line pulls out their tissues and holds them to their noses.

Sue lowers her hand temporarily and begins rolling up her pants. The soft beige cloth folds easily in her hands. I giggle.

“It’s like we’re entering a war zone!” My voice comes out muffled from behind the tissue.

She laughs too. This is also why I love Sue. She is always ready to laugh about anything. Everything. “I know!” She exclaims. “But this IS dangerous!”

Her pants safely secured above her shins, she replaces the tissue against her face. The line trudges slowly forward.

Location: Public restroom, Dawanglu Station, 1 line.

Beijing Spring

April 25, 2012

Little white balls were falling through the air from the trees today.

I watched in horror

through the reddening, throbbing, swelling balls of itching and burning

that I call my eyeballs.

The bass is pumping, and I am sitting cross-legged with my back straight on a straight-backed chair at a small square table. There is a miniature square brown lamp beside my laptop and behind my mojito and behind my cell phone with WhatsApp, with which I tell someone in Beirut whom I sometimes call my lover that I am happy.

My right shoulder rests against a tiny wooden door that is open, allowing air to waft in through a window with some interesting metal square patterns and no screen.

And out that window is the sign “Qinlao Hutong”, and hundreds of Chinese and foreign tourists stroll along Nanluoguxiang Hutong, around parked bicycles and mopeds, scurrying away from slowly moving cars, and I can see a red Coca-Cola sign, and I smile at that sign’s ubiquity and how it symbolizes all sorts of memories for me, and how incredible has been their branding success.

To my left five young Chinese folks eat popcorn and smile and shout and smoke and play that loud game with the dice and the cup that I can never learn how to play.

And it is Saturday night at 9:40, and I am translating from Portuguese into English, and the music is pumping, and I feel alive, and happy, and I bounce in my seat. In fact, this moment epitomizes happiness. And I tell my lover in Beirut this, and she sends me a “:)”.
  • People can be smashed into the most uncomfortably close quarters on the train and yet almost never complain
  • People just let loose and sing to themselves regularly on the street
  • People just let loose and release all-out gargantuan yawns, with the accompanying gargantuan sounds, in the randomest places
  • Public toilets are everywhere
  • Extremely frequent trains
  • No train re-routing (like in New York)
  • All restaurants are required to make their restrooms open to the public (if they have them)
  • If a restaurant doesn’t have a restroom, it probably has a sink where you can wash your hands
  • Buses cost approximately six cents USD
  • Text messaging is an acceptable form of communication with potential employers
  • I can ask for hot water in a restaurant and no one will think it’s strange
  • If I ask for water in a restaurant, the server wouldn’t think of putting ice in it
  • I can tell a security guard I would rather not place my bag through the X-ray machine and she will wordlessly just watch me walk past

In the United States, we see grandmothers and grandfathers on the buses, in the grocery stores, at family picnics, in nursing homes, in our offices and volunteering in museums. Some live highly social, sometimes professional, lives; some wile away lonely days in seclusion. Never, however, have I seen people with silver-tinged hair congregate in public spaces in such numbers as I regularly observe in China.

In my past few weeks in Beijing, wherever I have found a large space, I have found elderly people engaged in public activities. From my bedroom window I can look down into the courtyard of my residential community. Sometimes, I see grandparents accompanying children to the pond or on a walk over the little footbridge; frequently, however, they are gathered without children on the benches, engaged in conversation. In Wangfujing, a crowded, popular tourist spot, I find a corner, upon whose benches (and around and hovered above which) are huddled some twenty men with wizened fingers and sharp eyes, engaged in an animated chess game. And anywhere there is a park, amongst the sleepy weeping willow trees whose leaves just brush the lotus flowers floating quietly on the pond waters, I am met with the scene of at least one aged person engaged in some sort of exercise–perhaps tai chi, their slow movements reflecting the peacefulness of the ambience, or perhaps playing the pipa, its ancient notes inviting the ears of passersby old and young.

And then there are the simple machines scattered about the city in the most random of places, their bright blues, greens, and reds appearing in public parks, residential communities, on dusty curbs near subway stations and in front of auto body shops.  And these metal monstrosities, some of them shiny and some of them peeling and old, are well-used, as people with balding and greying heads swing from, stretch upon, and resist against them in these public places. However, the spectacles that put me most in awe are the mass choruses, the mass dancing groups, and the mass performance groups.

The Olympic Park is best-known for its Nest, its TV tower, its Cube, and perhaps even the spectacular Sen Ling Park at its northernmost part.  During the day, if no particular event is taking place, upon the vast spaces between its few monuments will tread map-scrutinizing, camera-wielding tourists of various languages and creeds, vendors hawking their wares at unbelievably loud volumes in strongly dialect-accented Mandarin, and a few locals enjoying the free outdoor space. Overall, the park’s atmosphere somewhat reflects its visitors: rather mellow and overall generally quiet (except for those vendors…).

Perhaps its best-kept secret, however, is what happens at night. Sometime after dinner, when all the tourists have gone home and the vendors have ceased their screaming, is when the Olympic Village truly comes alive. And the sight is incredible. At night, the main plaza walkway is lit from above by the palm-tree-shaped lamps and from around by the various screens presenting the park’s various features.  Surrounding the visitor is a cacophony of song, of color, of energy, and of movement. And the source of all this joyous ruckus, by my estimation, is at the very least 80% over retirement age (which in China, by the way, is nowhere near my American definition of “elderly”).

First, there are the groups of Yang Ge dancers. To the side sit a small-in-number-but-not-small-in-sound music group, one man beating some kind of congo and three men wielding their crashing cymbals, brightly colored cloths streaming from each of the instruments. Dancing in two long columns, first facing each other, then turning away, then forming a third and fourth column, are 25-ish women and men dressed in neon-bright colors, their equally bright cloths streaming through the air as they move their arms in wide arcs, side to side, now over the head, now below the waist, their slippered feet keeping time to the banging of the drum and the clashing of the cymbals and the swinging of the cloths. The scene is one of color, of passion,  and of energy, and it is just surprising to see the wrinkles upon the faces of these beautiful figures.

Next, I am drawn by the Western techno beat blasting from a crowd up ahead, and so I meander over to watch as a grandmother stands before perhaps 100 or more people, mostly (but not all) women, moving and grinding in unison. “Boom, boom, boom, I want you in my room, we’ll spend the night together, now until forever…;” the beat is rousing, exciting, and the dancers throw their arms, rotate their hips, turn left, turn right, look up, look right, turn around, bend the knees. I am in awe of how synchronized their movements are, how everyone seems to know every move without seeing their leader, and how these old folks are not afraid to swing them hips!  My grandma would find this nightscape a bit scandalous! And yet, as I continue down the plaza, I discover there are no fewer than four such humungous groups, exercising en masse in the brisk night air.

Then, last but not least, I stop at the sound of many voices joined together in harmony. Huddled in a circle three people deep is a crowd of dignified ladies and gentlemen, their mouths open wide, engaged in a rousing song, whose topic  I so want to know!  What could they possibly be singing about with such energy, such perfect pitch, such volume, and such, well, such volume!!?? In the middle of the circle stands a very petite woman, gesturing broadly as many a conductor does, pointing to first the men and then the women, smiling at each person, her own motions eliciting louder and louder and more and more enthusiastic participation from the venerable singers surrounding her. I could have stood there and listened to their beautiful sounds forever.