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!

Note: Most of my Chinese friends are approximately 30 years old and unmarried. There’s a word for them in Beijing: 剩女. The leftover women.

2013-04-07 01.49.42

***

I had sung with her in Beijing’s International Festival Chorus. She was the best soprano we had.

I stare at my Chinese WeChat phone app in puzzlement.

“There’s someone who likes me that I don’t like,” she had typed. “There’s so much pressure from my friends and family.

“They want me to fall in love and marry as quickly as possible. They’re telling me to try it out with this guy. I’m trying to decide whether or not to try talking to him, see how it goes.”

“I’m so confused,” she adds presently. “I’m not in a very good mood.”

“But this is your whole life ahead of you!” I protest on voice message. I type so dreadfully slowly in Chinese.

“They want you to be married, but you’re the one who’ll have to deal with being married to someone you don’t like for the rest of your life!”

2013-04-07 19.32.26

Hey, I’m an American from the East Coast. She’s writing to me for a reason, and what she gets is my own strong opinion, East Coast American as it is.

“I think you’re exactly right!” she exclaims in reply. ” I can’t be in a hurry, but instead insist on someone I like myself.”

“Right,” I reply. “Anyways, that’s how I see it. I’d prefer to be single than with someone I don’t like.”

“Actually, I feel the same way as you do!!” she types back.

What can I say in response? Clearly, she already knows what she wants. Or rather, what she doesn’t want.

“Haha. Yay!” I exclaim back. “Add oil!” For some unfathomable reason, uttering “add oil” in Chinese in an upbeat voice somehow expresses enthusiastic encouragement.

“会的会的!” comes back at me. Kinda sounds like “Yes, we can!” to me, and so I send her the most ridiculously optimistic emoticons I have in my WeChat repertoire.

Her: “Haha, I like this emoticon!!”

Me: “Super cool,” and I send her an extra dancing rabbit for good measure.

2013-04-07 19.32.40

2013-04-07 19.32.34


Further Reading:

China’s ‘leftover women’, unmarried at 27 (BBC News Magazine, February 20, 2013)
China’s ‘leftover women’ phenomenon arouses heated debate in West (Response to BBC article) (People’s Daily, February 26, 2013)
China’s ‘Leftover’ Women (The New York Times, October 11, 2012)
Don’t pity China’s ‘leftover women’, they’ve got more going for them than you realise (The Independent, March 19, 2013)

I stepped up the narrow three steps onto the bus and stopped abruptly, for there was nowhere more to go. The person in front of me with a large suitcase in hand was behind a person in front of her who was behind another person in front of her, and nigh unto every seat was full. Face after Chinese face looked passively at me.

I turned to my left. The front row had one seat occupied by a person and one seat occupied by a massive, oversized, pink, plastic, Chinese-style suitcase.

In that blurry moment, I suddenly knew they weren’t accepting suitcases in the storage area under the bus, and I looked up from that realization to see suitcases blooming like unwelcome flowers in front of me, in every seat, on the racks above the seats, enveloping the woman standing in front of me.

I felt the familiar feeling of claustrophobia closing in on me, and I bid deep breaths come to me, but they refused.

“I must get to NY on this bus,” some inner voice was telling me, “there is no way for me to get off this bus.”

And I was light-headed, still unmoving from my post at the top of the steps, knowing I was so close to the exit and yet I would not use it, but instead would endure hours standing up on this awful air-less crowded bus.

I again tried to draw deep breaths, closed my eyes, and awoke with a start.

I drew a real, deep breath. I’m not in China anymore.

What I had read before sleeping: “Fung Wah Bus Between New York City and Boston Shut Down By Feds”

You land. The sunlight glints off the cement in an oh-so-romantic way, blinding you to all of the annoyances and stressors that will assault you not too far into this foreign future.

Here are some thoughts to ponder while you are still radiant in the brilliance of that initial blissful ignorance.

1. Before you leave home, ask friends if they know anyone in your new location.
A. It can be utterly alienating to find yourself in a new country by yourself with no one remotely familiar anywhere within reach on your first weekend there. Having someone to grab a drink with early on will make your new world seem so much safer, familiar, fun.
B. It just might be handy to have the number for someone familiar if you find yourself in a language-barrier-induced pinch.
C. What if you lock yourself out of your place? It’s not like you can just run down the street to your aunt’s friend the locksmith….

2. Pay attention to random details.
When I first arrived in Beijing, I failed to notice that when people were giving me directions, they weren’t just telling me what train station to get off at, but what exit in that station to look for. I learned that if I step outside through the wrong exit, I just might end up with an extra fifteen-minute walk. I might as well just pay again to go back in through the turnstiles and find a better exit. If someone’s giving you information, take note of it, just in case. It might seem so obvious to them that they don’t bother emphasizing it.

3. As soon as you arrive, make friends with anyone and everyone at every opportunity.
No one is too young, too old, or too different. My saving friend was an old artist I met when studying Chinese characters in a tea shop by the side of a pond in a park near my school. It took great effort for both of us to communicate, but we persisted, and I thereby had someone to talk to when dinnertime rolled around a week later and I was feeling my aloneness so far from home. When I began looking for a new place to live, he was the first one to call his friends to help me find a roommate.

The biggest leap you take when becoming an expat is making the decision to leave home. It’s easy to forget that the biggest challenge lies in the every day details of actually being an expat.

Staying focused, staying active. These are what keep the expat life delightfully live-able.

Two train stops from my neighborhood, and I am sitting next to a woman who gathers her bags preparing to disembark. In typical Beijing fashion, a woman hovers shamelessly, maneuvering her child into the seat the instant it is vacated. She is quite pretty, and I steal discreet glances at her as I scroll through the emails on my cell phone and wonder if she is a Westerner or wealthy. There’s just something about her confident, non-passive stance that makes her stand out on this crowded train.

I notice her eight-ish-year-old peering over my shoulder. “Can you read English?” I smile at him. He shakes his head no. “I can’t read Chinese either,” I say. He smiles. His mom smiles. Suddenly, they lock eyes, and pounce onto the backpack in his lap. “IPad,” they say, both digging furiously through the bag. “It’s in English,” they say, peeling back its nifty magnetic cover and punching in the password. “Could you switch it to Chinese!??” Their earnestness is adorable. She adds: “My little sister just sent it to him with a friend from England.”

 

My station was now only one stop away. I take the iPad in hand. “Let me think,” I said, a little bit stressed about fulfilling this apparently earnest wish before the train pulled into Andingmen Station, but somehow they had already figured out that the option should be under the “General” menu. I scrolled down, quickly located the language option, and tapped my finger on it. The option for simplified Chinese appeared. “It’s this one!” they pointed together. “Thank you! Thank you so much!” I was laughing, insisting it was no problem at all, heading for the opening train doors. “Thank you! Bye bye! Thank you!” they called out after me. And somehow, I felt like a rock star.

If only there were many such tiny problems to bring strangers into friendly contact.

The Point of No Return

January 17, 2012

I think I am making a break that I didn’t fully recognize as such until now.

For these four months I have been in Beijing, I have gone the route of full immersion. This means the vast majority of my friends have been Chinese, which of course means I haven’t been going out much and time has had almost no chronos meaning. We meet people after work, not at 7 pm. We agree to “chat again on the matter” instead of agree to handle a specific matter in a specific way. And I have infinite, endless patience.

And then I realized my world was feeling cold and colorless with no dance, no stimulating conversation, no impractical late nights, no art of flirtation, and I decided that the time had come: I would make expat friends. And in one week my world changed.

Foreign roommate, new foreign social club, foreign bars, foreign food, foreign conversation, foreign hookah, foreign flirtation, glorious, blessed, stimulating foreign-ness. One weekend passes.

Yet another Chinese friend date canceled with no notice, but I contact my old roommate for dinner, and he has no plans, and so we set a time to meet. And the time comes and he doesn’t respond to my texts and so I call, and then it turns out he has chosen the most nonsensical location for food, and I do not smile and I do not agree amiably, for it seems I have reached that point of no return. And I throw a temper tantrum and we can’t understand each other’s languages and so he waits for me where I say we should meet and he is smiling as calmly and welcomingly and sweetly as he did the day he and his wife welcomed me into their home, the way he always smiles, unrushed, unassuming, happy to see a friend. And I relax, and we eat, (and my foreign friends text, and my foreign friends email) and I am sad that such peaceful, unplugged living can not satisfy me for long. And I am sad that I cannot be more long-suffering, more adaptable, more forgiving, as my exquisite Chinese hosts are forever long-suffering, adaptable, forgiving, for me.

And I am sad because, past that point of no return, how will I ever learn Chinese?

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.