Saturday, July 10, 2010

We Think We Just Ate Duck Heads

Most of the time, we write about the amazing specialty foods we stumble upon all across China. But this time I think everyone will be surprised...

Yesterday was our first day in Shanhaiguan, and we spent it at the beach (as you know from Z's cliff jumper post). After a long day of laying in the sand, soaking in the warm sun, and feeling the cool breeze off the ocean, we finally decided to look for some chow. There was one restaurant in particular that caught our attention. It was a two-story building that seemed to have a fancy seafood restaurant downstairs with a more casual outdoor area on the roof.

We were all interested until we got a little bit closer. You see, here in Shanhaiguan, there tend to be groups of Russian and German men on industrial business trips. Although we don't have anything against them, we prefer to stay in the most "Chinese" areas of China as much as possible. So when we saw three or four tables of laowai (foreigners), we were definitely put off. However, we realized that they were only in the fancy part and thought we would be fine on the roof.

So there we were, entering this big restaurant all covered in sand. Daddy requested that we be seated upstairs, at which point we were led by a worker carrying a tub of cups and dishes up a small staircase by the kitchen. We were seated on the roof at a white plastic table, large enough for a party of fifteen, and given a laminated page with a list of dishes.

Now the growing question was whether this was the same restaurant as the one downstairs. The waitresses seemed to be alternating between the two areas and were all wearing the same thing. However, on the roof, the customers were mainly large groups of Chinese men drinking cheap beer and baijiu, while just below there were tables of foreign businessmen being treated to banquets. Upstairs, there was a huge chuanr (grilled skewer) station, with a little kid using a rag to fan the smoke, while underneath those seated at big gold tables were given large and ornate picture menus filled with every possible Shanhaiguan specialty. I am still not sure what was going on!

Things became really interesting, though, when it came time to order. We weren't interested in expensive seafood. We just wanted a few classic dishes. Daddy ordered tuduosi (shredded potatoes), even though it wasn't on the menu, as well as fifteen yangrou chuanr (lamb kebabs). Then he asked if they had any gan guo (a kind of pot that heats your food as you eat it). The waitress suggested an unknown dish, as well as some 28 kuai item that included some kind of a whole animal. (We still cannot always completely understand dish names!) Daddy accepted both suggestions, hoping that we would end up with something we wanted.

Our laid-back spirits were taken off guard when our mysterious "gan guo" dish arrived. We had no clue what it was, and all turned to Daddy to begin the investigation. He poked around with his chopsticks, until Z said he thought it was a duck. "See, there's the head!"

Well, that was unexpected. At first, I was really excited. Recently, I have been enjoying the duck in Beijing and I was ready for more. In China, the heads of animals are usually included in dishes, so this didn't bother me at all. It didn't bother me, that is, until we realized the whole dish was heads!

As it turned out, we ended up with a whole plate of what we think were duck heads, an order of tuduosi (the only item that worked out), two bowls of rice (we only ordered one), a whole shrimp on a skewer (this was the whole animal dish), and zero yangruo chuanr (when we asked about the lamb kebabs, we were informed, in a first, that they had run out). To finish off the night, Daddy had to haggle with the waiter over the price of the meal, when they tried to charge almost one hundred kuai extra.

Is there such a thing as a dull day in China?

~Julie

Friday, July 09, 2010

Cliff Jumper, Continued

We have finally returned to the fabulous Shanhaiguan, home of cliff jumping. For those of you who don't know, Shanhaiguan is the spot where the Great Wall extends into the sea like a dragon's head. It also has many elevated sand dunes that keep the defensive part of the wall above the water. I can't really remember how it started (see Cliff Jumper), but here I cliff jump.

How to cliff jump...

As "professional" cliff jumpers, Dad and I like to use the highest, most dangerous cliffs. Basically, we climb a 20-25 foot high cliff, start 10 feet back, run toward a marker, and leap off into the abyss. It's thrilling! Of course, the impact hurts your legs after several hundred jumps, and the sand gets harder and harder...But it's worth it! From below, the cliffs don't seem so bad, but from the top all you see is some shrubs and the water in the distance. I just love it!

Dangers...

After the first jump, you have to clear all of the rocks out of the sand and dirt. Then you have to move any harmful plants. After that, you have to jump a few times and find the small point from which you jump. Otherwise, you can seriously injure yourself. You also have to be careful about jumping too far, so as not to hit the beach and maybe break your legs.

I also love the little conversations that I have with people at the top of the cliffs. When they first see you jump, they think you are injured or possibly dead, so they run over to investigate. When I climb back up, we start talking about where I am from, what I am doing in China, and so on. Every so often, a group will stick around and help me check if there are people at the bottom and whether it is same to jump.

No matter how many times I ask, no one other than Dad and me will do it. It's not really that scary...There is no falling or flying sensation...The only sensation is the small twang in your knees if you land wrong. I've only hurt myself once while jumping. I bent my knees too much on a landing and fell hard on my tailbone.

The only other dangerous thing that has happened was that I leaned forward too much and flipped over three times on the beach after my landing. Even that was fun! Cliff jumping really is amazing...You should try it sometime!

~Z

Confiscated!

You've got to be kidding me. It made it 7000 miles...halfway around the world...only to be abruptly taken away from me by Beijing Metro Security.

Knowing we'd be away for seven weeks, and that during that time period we would probably be taking a couple of side trips, I calculated my hair spray needs at approximately one large can and one small can.

Time to head to Shanhaiguan for our first weekend away from Beijing, and so it was time to pack up (on the "light" side). Toiletry time comes and I throw in the small can.

At every subway entrance in Beijing, there's a security check...Put your purse, backpack, or baggage on the conveyor belt. I've done it hundreds of times without thinking about it (actually, without thinking that anyone's ever paying attention to the screen).

I guess I was wrong, for this time when I went to grab my luggage off the belt and head to the turnstiles, the guard started speaking to me and pointing to his head.

A little help here please? (I motioned to Steve and the kids who were right behind me).

Was it my hair dryer (which does kind of resemble a .352 Magnum)?

I took it out of my bag and showed him.

Nope. That's not what he was looking for.

"Oh no," I thought as I reached into the bag for my can of Volumax.

He took it from me and handed it to a woman security guard, who looked intently at the front of the can. Then they both motioned to a sign which clearly states in Chinese, English, and pictures all of the things you are forbidden to bring on the Beijing Subway.

The crime? Flammability. Ayo!

Faced with missing a train to Shanhaiguan or missing my can of hair spray, I opted to leave the can behind.

Guess who probably has the biggest hair in China now...I'm thinking it's that female security guard!

As for me, it may be a flat-head weekend but no worries...that big can is still safe and sound back at the apartment!

~Desi

Setting Up Shop

This time, when we needed to head out for housewares, we decided to avoid the Ikea route and venture back to one of our favorite Chinese markets...Wu Xin (Five Star). With several hundred xiao tanr available to peruse, we knew the selection and bargaining possibilities (for which Z is especially fond) would be plentiful.

On the list...a mattress for Z's cubby, a couple of pillows with covers (which were made on the spot for around two dollars each), two blankets, and some hangers. Not surprisingly, we found this excursion a bit more culturally appealing than the start of our last time abroad (except maybe for the Swedish meatballs!).

No stop at Wu Xin is ever quite complete without a visit to Julie's and my favorite stand. Stocking up on hair accessories and earrings is always fun and since the girl in charge remembered us, there was no haggling necessary.

Four out of four Ballas surveyed say, "Swap the big blue building for the Chinese 'equivalent.'"

~Desi

Thursday, July 08, 2010

iPhones?

In the US, we tend to not be concerned with buying expensive cellphones or iPods. The four of us are pretty content with sticking to the simple Motorola phones and first generation iPods we have had for years. However, living in China presents new technological opportunities.

Now, last year, we were newbies, so we just bought the four cheapest phones we could find at a China Mobile store. Unfortunately, last winter, Z's phone froze on our trip to Harbin. The rest of our phones, however, survived the whole year. We saved these phones in case we returned to China in the near future.

Of course, as we were packing for this summer, Daddy, Mommy, and I all included our Nokia phones. When we arrived however, Daddy's phone was the only one that recharged and turned back on. We were not concerned, though, thinking that we would just buy three new phones when we had a chance to visit the Zhongguancun markets.

After settling in, Z decided to look for his new phone of choice in the market down at the bottom of our building. Meanwhile, Mommy and Daddy discovered that the only problem with the Nokia phones was that they needed new batteries. I was fine to just buy a new battery...until Z returned from the cellphone shop. He had just bought a new phone...but it wasn't just any phone...it was a fake iPhone, complete with an Apple logo and all!

Despite feeling like a copycat, I was super excited when Z and I went back down to the market. In fact, I had planned on getting some kind of fake American phone this summer. (I was really hoping to find one with a pear on the back...like the Pear Pod on iCarly.)

What I ended up buying for 300 kuai was a touchscreen iPhone look alike. However, the most intriguing part is the back of the phone. There is no Apple symbol. It just says...

Phone
32 GB
Designed by Apple in California
Assembled in China

The phone's apps include a digital lighter, a mouth, birds, screen rotation, and breaking glass. And while I cannot exactly access the Internet, I can make phone calls and send texts just fine.

Although it does not have much value, my "iPhone" is priceless!

~Julie

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

An Update On The DVD Situation

As many of you know, some of my favorite things to buy in China are DVDs. Pirated DVDs. So, naturally, within the first few days of being here, I went to my "supplier" and bought some new things...

Julie and Julia...8 kuai.

Shrek Forever After...8 kuai.

Robin Hood...8 kuai.

Prince of Persia...8 kuai.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel...8 kuai.

The Office, Season 6...60 kuai.

Several of these are new releases and may not even be out on DVD yet. That is the reason why I go to this "person" to buy my DVDs. However, since some of them are "new", there are problems with them. Most of the problems are minor language issues that I can fix. Some cannot be fixed and are therefore useless. Iron Man 2, for example, is in Russian.

Another problem with some films is the quality. Most new releases seem to be filmed in first showings and have terrible lighting, the camera moves around, and you can see people walking. Still, for one US dollar, I'm OK with watching people leave the theater for popcorn.

Also, we need a way to watch these new purchases. So we went to Carrefour and bought a 99 kuai DVD player. I will be carting that little thing on trips and back to America, so we can watch our DVDs there.

If anyone needs DVDs, let me know and I will see what I can do!

~Z

Monday, July 05, 2010

In The Darkness Of The School Of Government

The average Chinese person consumes way less energy than the ordinary American. I know this is not a startling revelation or anything like that. After all, there remains a huge gap in per capita wealth between a China that is barely thirty years into its reform and opening up and a United States that is still the world's richest nation, even after the financial crisis of the past few years.

But I think there is more to it than raw wealth. Walk down a hallway or up and down a stairwell at the Peking University School of Government. More often than not, some or all of the lights are turned off. Here's the relevant comparison to the United States...Imagine scaling the stairs at Harvard's Kennedy School in near total darkness. It's an impossible thought, isn't it?

I think what is going on here is not so much a difference in wealth. Peking University is indeed the Harvard of China. Rather, there are cultural processes at work. Walk into to many Chinese homes and the lights are pretty much always turned off. The same is true for air conditioners and many other electrical devices. (The big exception here, of course, is the television, which seems to be on regardless of whether anyone is in the room, let alone watching. But that's a story for another day...)

I suppose these cultural norms will fade away with the passage of time, as younger generations who have grown up with greater wealth replace their frugal parents and grandparents. What I want to suggest, though, is that the government perhaps has an opportunity to slow this process down, through public campaigns that emphasize traditional values as they pertain to energy consumption. As for me, I would be perfectly happy to continue walking around the School of Government with the lights turned off...

~Steve

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Hey Wayne...

...Guess where we ate lunch?

~Steve and Desi

My Cubby

Our apartment has one big bed, a walk-in closet, a spiral staircase, and a couch. (There is also a kitchen and two bathrooms.) Mom and Dad sleep on the bed on the 2nd floor, while Julie sleeps on the couch. So I am left with one options for where to sleep...under the spiral staircase!

Under the staircase, there is about a five foot by three foot area that is perfect for a small mat. So naturally, as anyone would do, I bought a foam mat, a pillow, and moved a cabinet to under the stairs. Together, this creates my room.

There are two outlets by my bed, perfect for charging my computer and my phone, easy access to the windows, the bathrooms, the upstairs, the kitchen, the TV, and it has a good view of the wall clock. Next to my pillow is the cabinet, which has two drawers, one for my stationary, and one for random objects. On top of it is my computer, my phone, my video camera, and some other knick-knacks.

There is not much else to describe about my cubby. It will be pretty plain until I buy some more decorations. It's probably the best room that I've ever had!

~Z