Monthly Archives: December 2009

My schooling was my education

Lately I’ve come to think that I really need to go back to school. Not language classes type of school, but school that involves knowledge acquisition and critical thinking and problem solving and activities that make me feel smart… coz I am feeling rather stupid these days. We’re treated like school children in class*, and my mental energies are channeled toward figuring out how to navigate the simplest things in daily life. I miss college, when non-stop learning was something I could take for granted. My mind now is stagnant and I’m falling behind.

*We learned and sang the Chinese version of Frere Jacques just the other week.


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America, you’ll always be in my heart

My recent nostalgia for the States has been punctuated with cravings for a good sandwich, something I’d taken for granted during my days in Philly. So ever since I stumbled upon the website of one “NYC Deli” weeks ago while googling “burritos in Shanghai” (don’t ask), I’ve been pestering Sean to pay a visit with me. Yesterday was the big day.

Greeted with a pretty impressive menu, we decided to go for an order of “South Philly cheesesteak” (how could we resist?) and a combo meal involving a corned beef reuben, beef barley soup, lay’s chips, a cookie, and a drink. At 38rmb and 60rmb respectively, both sandwiches also came with a pickle and home-made coleslaw.

My first reaction upon seeing the reuben was: the meat looks dry. And then: the bread looks wrong. As it turned out, the meat was fine, the sauerkraut and dressing (thousand island though it was) weren’t bad, but the bread was definitely not rye, and not soaked in oil, as I remember from college dining days. In spite of this, and even though they could’ve done with a little more cheese, the sandwich was tasty on the whole. It almost felt healthful.

[I’m looking now at the menu we picked up and it looks like rye is one of the bread choices–we’d just neglected to specify. Don’t reubens by definition use rye though?? Ergh.]

And then the cheesesteak. At first I was a little perturbed that it came in a “French baguette”, but I have to say that it gave the beloved Italian hoagie a run for its money–what it lacked in delightful chewiness it made up with a crispy crust. The meat (can’t say for sure it was steak) and onions weren’t bad. But the cheese warrants a mention. It was creamy and runny, as cheesesteak cheese tends to be, but tasted a little suspect–tangier than cheez whiz. So I asked the server/manager what it was, and his response was “We mix it ourselves.” Hmm. Right. We were going to let it go, but then he offered that it was a blend of cheddar and evaporated milk…which at least sounds better for you than the chemical orgy that is cheez whiz. Now there’s only so much one can expect of a South Philly sandwich in a New York-style joint in China, so I have to give these good people points for effort.

My expectations had been guarded to begin with, so the experience was satisfying on the whole. Even though these weren’t exactly the sandwiches I held in my memory, they were still quite tasty, and did ease my “homesickness” a little bit. So until we discover a rival deli, we’ll probably be back.

As if we hadn’t had enough meat for the day, the street we walked up after dinner was lined with shops like this:

While a cut of raw pig didn’t appeal too much to us, we stopped by a mall on our way home and shared 3 Subway cookies and 2 egg tarts, making it a truly glorious, heart-stoppingly American night.


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"Do you have a foreigner face?"

This job search is not looking good. Three interviews and two phone calls later, I haven’t come any closer to obtaining a source of income that’ll prevent me from going broke sometime next April.

The most recent of these episodes happened just now, two hours after finding out that my latest interview–for an English teaching position at an electronics factory–amounted to nothing. (At least I got a free cafeteria lunch out of that ordeal.)

The phone conversation went something like this:

“Hi this is Johnny, we received your application for the English teaching position at a kindergarten in Shanghai. I see you didn’t send us a photo with your application.”
“Oh…” [Struggling to remember which of my recent job applications this was; I thought I’d tried to avoid any that asked for a photo]
“So you’re from the United States?”
“Yes, I went to university there and lived there for five years.” [Oh, how I know where you’re going with this, but I’ll dance around as long as you’re dancing around.]
“But it says you were born in Hong Kong…”
“Yes, I was born in Hong Kong but I grew up in Canada.”
“So, uh…do you have a foreigner face, or…”
“No, I don’t, I’m Chinese–”
“Oh, you are Hong Kong person.”
“Yes. Is that a problem?”
“Uhh, well, the kindergarten would like to see a photo of the job candidate…”

And so forth. But you get the point.

I don’t want to sound emo, but this (i.e. coming to China) is the first time I’ve felt inadequate in my own skin since ninth grade when I’d wished I were white, because the white girls seemed to have everything a fourteen-year-old would want. I’m twenty-four now and have no desire to be white; I’m over that. I just want to be wanted for what I am, and what I am is Chinese, dammit.

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Finally, a substitute for the gyro

If I were somehow forced into picking the cuisine of a single country to consume for the rest of my life, China would be my first choice, hands down. Nevertheless, I long ago began to have intense cravings for a multitude of foods from other parts of the world (think egg & cheese, hoagies, lamb & rice, gyros, souvlaki, raisin bran, whole wheat bread). Sadly, even though I am in arguably the most cosmopolitan city on the mainland, my pitiable student budget severely limits my options, as most non-Chinese food establishments are geared at expats/the more well-to-do Chinese. Also, and maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough, but I suspect that something like Dominican food is close to non-existent here.

So Sean and I have begun to scout out satisfactory replacements for all those foods we missed from our previous life. Yesterday proved to be a fruitful day for our quest.

We followed a recommendation from his (American) coworker and hit up a little stall by my University’s back gate for some “Chinese sandwiches”. I could muster only a hesitant optimism on our walk there, but as soon as I saw the spit, with its alternating layers of fat and meat, my skepticism began to melt away. We ordered 2 “sandwiches” at 6rmb each. The girl proceeded to gather a bunch of meat pieces from the bottom of the spit (minus 1 point for having meat pre-sliced), throw some lettuce on top, sprinkle some orange and green powders, and roll it all up in a flat pastry dotted with scallions and sesame seeds (sorta like a thin 葱油饼). Slipped them into plastic baggies so we wouldn’t have to get our fingers greasy.

It was delicious. The meat was salty and succulent (most of my friends know that I hold the “meat” in lamb gyros/lamb & rice very close to my overworked heart, but this stuff actually looked like meat!), the greens refreshing, and whatever that seasoning was–chili powder?–tickled just the right taste buds. The pastry was warm, slightly oily, and chewy or crispy depending on where I bit. We decided that this would be our substitute for the gyro while we were in China.

As this was a literal hole-in-the-wall with no seating area, we strolled down the street as we ate, but as soon as we reached the end of the block we turned shamelessly around for seconds–in our defense, they were little. The girl was amused. “Hao chi ma?” “Hen hao chi.” Hoping to hit a second bird with the same stone, I suggested that she should start selling rice boxes with this meat, but she said there wasn’t enough space to make rice. (Not true: a rice cooker takes up no space at all.)

The sign on the sidewalk called it Turkish roast meat. Chinese, Turkish–whatever, as long as it’s good, cheap, and not slated to be bulldozed like the rest of Shanghai, I’m happy to have satisfied my heavily-seasoned-roast-meat-wrapped-in-flatbread craving. Throw in the 30-minute round-trip walk and the lack of white sauce, and this might become one of the healthiest changes I’ll have made in quite a while.

Now if I could only convince them to make the portions about 3x bigger…


Filed under eating out, restaurants - non-vegetarian

construction|destruction in Shanghai

It’s a fine and risky line. Like most of Shanghai’s development projects, this one seems to have plunged us knee-deep into that cement-grey area between improving and damaging lives–and livelihoods.

Click below to see more of my neighbourhood under attack renovation:

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Conscience calling

Walking home from the railway station, I am devouring a lemon-custard bun. There is a blueberry-jam bun in my purse that I am saving for later. A few meters ahead I spot a grey-haired man half-knelt on the sidewalk, his face scrunched up. He is making indecipherable sounds. A bowl sits before him. I get closer and we make eye contact. I take another bite of lemon custard; the guilt sploshes about in my gut. I very rarely give to beggars, having been told all my life that no good comes out of it. But I could at least give him the bun in my bag. The blueberry-jam bun. Would that look weird? I’ve walked past him now. Should I turn back? It’s too late. He probably wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. The homeless these days are picky about the food you give them–what if he just throws it out? What a waste. I keep walking; I turn a corner. My heart is troubled. If I see another beggar I will do something. Not that that’s likely though; another five minutes and I’m home. But what’s that up ahead: a woman huddled on the sidewalk with her head down, a plastic cup explaining her purpose. I get closer. She doesn’t look up. I don’t know where I would put the bun. It’s wrapped in plastic but putting food on the ground is like feeding a dog. Balance it on the cup? Tap her on the shoulder? People are coming towards me; I have to move aside. I just walked past her.

I should turn back.
Chinese don’t like sweet things.
Give her a dollar then.
She might be working for the triad.
She needs to fucking eat.
The government should help her.
I have no soul.

I let Sean have most of the bun. At least it wasn’t all for me.

Now I am writing about the incident on my blog. My belly is full and I am warm, but I am still a good person because I acknowledge my heartlessness. Forgetting it is worse.

It doesn’t take long to forget.


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There and back again

Hallelujah! Three days after my move to the lesser (and writing wishfully re the possibility of WordPress getting unblocked), WordPress has suddenly come down from the Great Firewall for reasons unknown. And so I am back again, VPN-free… for how long, who knows anymore. But I am hopeful. Holler.

(The link will still be active as a back-up.)

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Any time is a good time, for some

I understand that work needs to be done, but the Expo can go, uh, do horrible things to itself if it means we have to be woken up at seven (this morning at 6:57!?!) every day by workers outside my bedroom window or heavy thumping noises above and below our sleepy heads. There is also this on-and-off sweeping of the (apparently thin) roof that, as Sean aptly put it, sounds like “they’re sweeping on my face.”

Maybe they reason that because our compound is made up of about 90% elderly, the average household here should be up, with a pot of congee in the making, by 7 in the morning. That would explain why the mysterious things that happen on the roof end before dinnertime (my dinnertime = their teeth brushing time), and not into the dark of night as I had initially feared. That doesn’t explain why last night at 10pm for about half an hour, we heard the grunts and belches of a backhoe seemingly next to our building, no doubt scooping pieces of our neighbors’ lives into a soulless truck.

But we must always find a bright side to every situation. If this persists daily for the next two months, I’m going to be getting up on time every morning (my first alarm is set for 7am anyway) and be motivated to spend more time outside the apartment. Rent is due in a couple days, and Mom has suggested that I ask for a discount for the coming 3 months. We’ll see how that goes.

OK, literally as I write this, it sounds like someone is taking a giant hammer to the walls of our building.

Stay tuned for heart-rending images of rampant destruction, if we survive the morning…

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