Annie Bananie en Europe

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Tag Archives: chinese

In and out of my comfort zone

While looking through the MiMe (now part of CeMi) members on the web site today I realized that a lot of my former colleagues stayed in the lab after they finished their PhD. This made me think of two things. First of all, would I have been able to stay if I wanted to? I guess that is based on the premise that there was a project I could have applied to and that they would want me to continue working there. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to stay in MiMe or Glasgow – in fact, I had gotten so used to that life that it was perhaps easier to stay if I had the choice. This leads to my second point – stepping out of my comfort zone. I hadn’t thought of this in-depth but I ask myself now: was coming to China stepping OUT OF or INTO my own comfort zone?

There was a transitional phase between my departure from Glasgow and arrival in China, and obviously the deciding factor was J (my fiancé), but China was constantly hovering at the back of my mind as I was struggling to make a decision, even before I met J. Thinking back, I owe myself a round of applause for not looking back on this important decision (though I often complain about the downsides of China), being assertive, and MAKING IT HAPPEN.

It is often tempting to stay in the comfort zone rather than venture into the unknown. The path may be foggy, and it will be difficult to see the way. It takes some courage to accept change. The fog won’t fade away, but you will learn to see with new eyes.

For a long time, I’ve had this confusing identity crisis where I feel like a mixed product between western (Canadian) and oriental (Chinese) culture. Still, I always felt like I could and would identify myself as Chinese, no matter where I am. In that sense, by coming to China, I was actually stepping INTO a zone of comfort – familiar language, good food, and physically looking like everyone else around me. At the same time, China has perhaps been much more of an anti-comfort zone for me, especially in terms of expectations, cultural norms and phenomena, work habits, weather, etc. I had expected the challenges and knew that it would not be easy living here, but I was less ready than I thought I was. It’s not about being capable or incapable of adapting to the new environment and lifestyle, but the struggle to resist assimilation into a person whom even I would despise, because of the influence of my environment – that is ultimately what I fear and want to avoid.

Several points emerge from this. The fact that I say this means that there are people around me whom I despise (perhaps unjustifiably), and I attribute this to the way they are due to cultural norms. I also place the majority of the blame on environmental and cultural influence, and even though it can be resisted, it takes the patience, stamina, and wisdom of a saint, which I do not have. I acknowledge completely that this is a hypocritical statement but my opinion remains. This also brings to light my inherent arrogance and lack of empathy, which are areas that I have to work on.

The entire experience so far has been a tug-of-war between me, myself, and I. Society, culture, and the world are not obliged to change for any one person, so I will have to continue adapting to, accommodating to, and accepting – with principle – even the things I cannot seem to comprehend. The conclusion? There is no real comfort or discomfort – the process of bettering oneself will always be filled with pain and tears, but it is also during those moments that I realize how lucky I am compared to most people, who may not even know the meaning of “comfort”. It is indeed as much a lesson of gratitude and satisfaction as it is of self-discipline and self-development.

May 2019

Here goes May, the month where Wuhan tried to initiate summer but sort of failed, thankfully. (I feel like I can’t start a Wuhan-related post nowadays without talking about the weather – go figure.) The temperature hovered between 25 to 28 degrees Celsius during the final week of May, which was PERFECT, and as much I know it’s wishful thinking, I seriously hoped that it’d be like this all summer. Mid-May also marked the one-year anniversary of my official arrival in Wuhan so at least I could say that I reached a milestone. Good to be still hanging in there 😉

One of the things I do to keep myself sane on a daily basis is to take photos of beautiful things that I see, one of which is cloud patterns. I often see the stunning artworks of God in the form of clouds and they are enough to make my day. This photo was taken at the Guanggu 7th Road subway station in the late afternoon, and it almost seemed as if the smoke was emerging from the sky lit by the setting sun.

Another photo near Guanggu 7th Road station, this time taking in the early morning, from the other direction.

Third and final photo of beautiful clouds in this mini-collection, taken near dusk in Yancheng, Jiangsu province. J and I attended my cousin’s wedding in Yancheng and was heading to Nanjing for the evening, and saw this while waiting for the train. The sun and clouds fascinatingly accentuated the silhouette of the city, sending us a perfect goodbye gift.

A change of scenery here – a view of “Fairy Island Lake” from the highest point of the scenic area. This was taken during a company spring outing and though I honestly did not enjoy 90% of the trip, I give credit to the 2.5 hours of free time that we had in the end. It was raining pretty horrendously when this photo was taken (rain only during the free time, great) but I somewhat managed to capture the surroundings successfully. Perhaps the rain made it more…”fairy-like”??

Not going in chronological order, this is the Pagoda/Temple of Gratitude in Nanjing during the evening. It is named so because it was commissioned to be built by a king in the Ming dynasty as an expression of gratitute to his mother. I think the original has been destroyed and this is a replica, but it looked magnificent at night. The pavilion is lit up in alternating colours but there is a 20-second window every 5 minutes where it is lit up in multi-colours. Very beautiful!

Still in Nanjing, this is a serendipitous photo of a little girl staning in front of the lyrics of the Chinese national anthem carved into a wall, with the score. I was wondering why there was no English version, but I think the four languages at the bottom might all be ones spoken by minority ethnic groups in China. I’m going to venture a guess from left to right…Mongol, Sanskrit, Arabic, and transliteration of Korean. Can someone confirm??

Probably the most random photo of this post is of this small cocktail that J ordered as part of a meal deal. The deal doesn’t exist anymore so unfortunately I can’t find its name, but it certainly was an aesthetically pleasing little addition to an otherwise great (and very large-portioned) meal ^_^

This set of pig figurines (and the large piggy bank) that was displayed at the front desk of the Nanjing public library made my day and I wish I could have gotten the entire set! So adorable!!! The last one on the right must be doing some sort of yoga post, heh, I love it ❤

Obligatory (almost) monthly photo of me and J, taken in Yancheng. J looks so sleepy and clueless in this photo but actually it was just him being his usual dorky self 😛

Overall May 2019 has been a pleasant month, and I think I’m finally realizing this: I can constantly complain about various aspects of Wuhan, but at the end of the day, I have to accept the fact that I’m living here and learn to embrace its imperfections. I will probably still complain just as a way to vent (and it is necessary), but again, keeping a record of beautiful encounters will be my way of maintaining sanity and reminding myself of the good things in life. Yes, even in Wuhan.

My stories 02: Chinese New Year

It is no surprise that the Lunar New Year is the most important event of the year for the Chinese, and growing up in a Chinese family, we observe it every year. We didn’t go all out with the rituals and celebrations, which themselves vary among regions across China. For us, it’s usually just a simple meal with the immediate family. The last time I spent Chinese New Year at home was in 2014, and my dad cooked a huge New Year’s Eve meal. I remember, though, that my mom unfortunately had to work that evening and was absent, so it was a dinner for three – my dad, my sister, and me. This year, however, I was finally able to spend New Year’s Eve with the entire family, after five years.

During the Chinese New Year celebrations, elders are obliged by cultural norms to give youngsters red pockets containing lucky money, or “lai-see” in Cantonese. When I was a kid, I would receive lai-see from many relatives and friends of my parents. What did I do with the money? Well, I’d be lucky if I knew how much money was in the lai-see. Why is that? Well, my mom (and many Chinese moms do the same) would claim that I was too young to spend money anyway, so she would “save up the money” for my future. After that, I would never find out the whereabouts of the lai-see. Another thing is that only married people are expected to give out lai-see – I think this is a Cantonese norm, but I’m not 100% sure. So, even though I’m in my 30s, I still receive lai-see from my relatives and am not condemned if I don’t “return the favour” by similarly handing out lai-see to their kids. I guess that’s another reason not to get married yet…

And then there are firecrackers. Perhaps it’s an irrational fear, but I’m deathly afraid of sudden, loud noises – popping balloons, thunder, and firecrackers. I can’t recall what prompted this fear in me, but I do remember shivering and hiding in the house when the firecrackers were lit in my childhood days. Nowadays, firecrackers are prohibited in many cities in China, but are still a widespread form of celebration in the countryside. It does seem like traditional Chinese heritage is being compromised by the diminishing popularity of firecrackers, but at least it effectively alleviated my pain and suffering from the deafening noises that remain in my memories.

Red pockets containing lucky money, given out during Chinese New Year.

Living in Wuhan – Food and dining

Ah, food, my favourite subject ever. I’m surprised myself that the first post in the China mini-series wasn’t about food but about transportation, but it’s never too late to talk about food, so let’s get started.

There’s nothing too extravagant or unusual about eating and dining in Wuhan. As someone who grew up eating Chinese food and LOVES it, I couldn’t complain about having it every day. Compared to other provinces of China, Hubei (the province that Wuhan belongs to) doesn’t have a very well-defined “characteristic cuisine”, per se. Take Sichuanese or Cantonese cuisine, for example. The defining characteristic of Sichuanese cuisine is its “numbing spiciness” whereas for Cantonese cuisine, it’s the preservation of the original “freshness” of the raw ingredients. Nothing really comes to mind if you mention “cuisine of Hubei”. It’s not particularly spicy or sweet or salty or anything, and at least in terms of overall taste, it seems to be a blend of all types of cuisines.

Lotus root stuffed with glutinous rice, one of the regional specialties of Hubei province.

That is not to say that there’s nothing special about food here in Wuhan. Hubei cuisine uses a lot of lotus root in their cooking, and I’m not surprised because I see a lot of lotus ponds in the city as I walk around. As a result, I’ve had the pleasure of trying a few lotus-based dishes, including lotus root pork bone soup, lotus root tip, and glutinous rice-stuffed lotus root (photo shown above). You’d also see people selling lotus seed pods everywhere and they’re actually pretty good if they’re freshly harvested! (Some people may not feel comfortable with their appearance though…)

Lotus seed pods in their original form (left) and after being extracted (right). The shell of the pods themselves need to be peeled, exposing a white interior with a core that is sometimes bitter and should be avoided.

Of course we can’t forget the signature “hot dry noodles” of Wuhan (literal translation), which means…breakfast! If you’re not too familiar with Chinese-style breakfast, it’s very different than what you’d have in either North America or Europe. Stuff like pancakes, eggs/omelettes (not as uncommon), bacon, sausage, ham, waffles, etc…nope, not getting any of that. Instead, typical Chinese breakfast involves one or more of the following (or a variation of it): congee, dumplings, buns, and noodles. Often there are street vendors along the side of the road that I take to get to the bus station, and it’s super convenient to grab what you want and either eat it along the way or while waiting for the bus.

Breakfast stands on the side of the street. The first lady sells hot dry noodles and cold noodles, and the other vendors sell dumplings, buns, fried dough, etc…

My favourite breakfast item has been pan-fried dumplings from a particular vendor, but lately I’ve started getting hot dry noodles from another stand. I actually love hot dry noodles, but they’re just a bit more inconvenient to eat while walking, so I sometimes opt not to get it. What ARE hot dry noodles, you ask? They are a very popular Wuhan street food, though also sold at many sit-down places, that is most often eaten for breakfast (or whenever you want, really). As the name implies, they are VERY HOT (temperature), as they are strained right out of boiling water, and VERY DRY, even though a sesame-based sauce is poured onto the noodles. A variety of sides can be added, including pickled radish, pickled green beans, scallions, etc. A good bowl of hot dry noodles to get the day started – sounds like a perfect morning to me!

Hot dry noodles! Not the ones I got from the lady at the breakfast stand, but they’re similar. I like it with a lot of sesame paste and a lot of scallions. One bowl is super filling!

There are also lots of regional cuisines all over the place. J (the boyfriend) and I recently discovered a nice Cantonese restaurant that serves authentic dim sum – MY STAPLE as a Cantonese! – and a variety of Cantonese dishes, like white-cut chicken and stir-fried beef noodles. The menu is a bit limited but it’s got the most essential items, so it’s definitely a necessary dose of home once in a while. We also frequent this small restaurant that specializes in noodles of the Xi’an region in Shaanxi province. It’s close to where we live, cheap, and everything we’ve tried so far has been super delicious. I especially like their “biang biang” noodles, which are really wide (about the width of a waist belt) and really long. They were as good as the ones I’ve tried in Xi’an, though I should bring my friend from Xi’an to this place next time she visits, to validate its authenticity. In contrast to the Cantonese restaurant, this one has quite an extensive menu, so it’ll take many more visits to try everything! If you’re in the mood for something super spicy, there are quite a few Sichuanese restaurants, some specializing in hot pots. Recently we visited a place that serves “mao cai”, which is just a mix of everything you’d have at a hot pot all in one bowl at once. “Slightly spicy” is often already too spicy for us, so next time we’ll skip spiciness and just add chili sauce ourselves, thank you very much!

 

(Click to view the full image.) Cantonese cuisine (top row), Shaanxi cuisine (bottom left and middle), and Sichuanese “mao cai” (bottom right). We’re also discovering new restaurants every week!

Of course, these are just a few of the many types of regional Chinese cuisine scattered around the area. There are also international options, like Italian, Japanese (man I miss good sushi), Korean, and French. These options are rather limited, however, and they tend to be on the pricey side, so they’re more like a treat/splurge/indulgence for special occasions only. I’m craving a good steak right now…*drools*

Do we eat out all the time? You ask. Oh, we certainly do not eat out all the time, or else we’d be broke. Since J works at a university and I live close by, we like to go to one of the many university canteens for dinner. (That doesn’t count as eating out…does it?) The canteen themselves are quite an impressive sight and so much larger than the canteens or cafeterias I’ve been to in Canada or in Europe. And the variety of food is insane – from noodles to barbecue to soup dumplings to bi bim bap, if you could name it, you could probably find it! It’s almost like a hawker center in Singapore, and whereas you’d usually expect canteen food to be subpar, the food here is not bad at all! For less than $3 Canadian I can get a decent rice dish or several small portions of meats and vegetables. Maybe I should consider enrolling as a mature student in a Chinese university…just for the food 😛

One of the larger university canteen at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology. I heard there are around 30 canteens of various sizes at this university and I’ve definitely been to no fewer than 5. They’re only open at specific times during lunch and dinner and so they’re usually super crowded. You’d be lucky if you didn’t have to share a table with someone.

Oh, we do cook. Even though the kitchen at my small apartment is tiny, it is still a functional kitchen and from the first day I moved in, I intended to make good use of it. The thing is, after I started working, I’m too tired to cook when I get home (around 7pm by the time I arrive). Cooking at home now mostly occurs on weekends, when J and I would take turn cooking and washing the dishes. One thing I did notice when we did groceries was that meat and fish are rather expensive here. Well, compared to fruits and vegetables, that is. While 1 jin (the unit of measurement used here, equivalent to half a kg) of green beans cost 4 yuan (approximately 80 Canadian cents, all prices hereafter are stated in Canadian dollar), 1 jin of potatoes cost 60 cents, and a large watermelon costs $2.5, 1 jin of beef may cost around $6. And it isn’t even high-quality beef! Quite ridiculous, if you ask me. As a result, my meat intake has decreased significantly and I’ve been eating a lot more vegetables recently. Healthier, I suppose, but I do miss my chicken and salmon sometimes!

First home-cooked meal after moving into my apartment! Steamed spare ribs, stir-fried potato, and green beans with ground pork. Add a side of egg drop seaweed soup, please. Very satisfying!

Meanwhile, it’s almost dinner time and I’m waiting for J to come home after his basketball game so we can make our only home-cooked meal of the week. And I’ve got some lotus seed pods next to me that we gotta finish tonight. Life is good 🙂

Living in Wuhan – Transportation and getting around

I intended to write a continuously updating mini-series on living in China, specifically Wuhan, as a semi-foreigner but of course laziness (mostly laziness, though life itself had been hectic) wins. Oh, China. I’ve officially been living here for three and a half months and there was a whole lot that I’ve had to get used to. Let’s start with transportation, shall we.

Traffic and (the lack of) rules –> Survival of the fittest, fiercest, and fastest

OK. Where do I even start. The simplest way to put it is this: traffic is BEYOND CHAOTIC in China. I thought driving in Toronto was bad but realized that drivers in Toronto are tame little angels compared with drivers in China. Let’s just say that I’m going to delay the possibility of ever driving in China because well…I don’t want to die.

Wuhan is a Tier 2 city in China with one of the highest GDPs among the large Chinese urban centers. However, MUCH remains to be improved in terms of road conditions and safety. I WOULD talk about traffic regulations and driving etiquette and such…but wait, what regulations? What etiquette? Other than obeying the traffic lights (actually, bicycles, motorbikes, and pedestrians ignore them most of the time anyway), there aren’t really any strict… “rules”. What’s yielding? What’s signaling? What’s stopping? People will probably laugh at you and shrug it off if you suggest they do this because WHO HAS TIME TO SLOW DOWN, RIGHT!?!

To see it from another perspective, there’s nothing that you “can’t do”, in most cases. Going against the flow of traffic when you’re riding a bike or motorbike? NO PROBLEM! Just stay on the side of the outermost lane, be cautious, and you’ll probably be fine (don’t do this in a car…) No traffic light nearby and you need to cross a busy street? NO PROBLEM! When there is any sign of a gap between cars, JUST GO (preferably with a bunch of other people) and vehicles will reluctantly slow down or swerve around you as they approach. It takes guts and assertiveness, and the drivers WILL be reluctant, and pissed off, BUT IT WORKS and may be the only way to cross the road in some circumstances (unless you want to wait >15 minutes for a “safer” time to cross). The best comparison I can think of is playing a game of real-life Crossy Road (mobile app) where traffic is more random and not easily predictable as it is in the game. Life is a gamble – a potentially dangerous one if you live in Wuhan…

An “intersection” near my apartment, where road conditions are abysmal because of recent subway line constructions. That little gap where the scooter is – yep, that’s where you need to cross. It sometimes takes more than 5 minutes to get to the other side because of the absence of traffic lights, and no cars yield to bikes or pedestrians. Definitely harder than it seems during rush hour…

I think Charles Darwin has gotten it right when he developed the theory of “the survival of the fittest”. I, however, would like to extend this theory to what I call “the survival of the fittest, fiercest, and fastest” (the three Fs), with regards to living in Wuhan. The philosophy of “ME FIRST” dominates, and any consideration for other people will be looked upon as a weakness and a hindrance. Letting someone go in front of me? How abominable! Caring about the safety of others on the road? You’ve got to be kidding. In order to survive the chaos that is the roads of Wuhan, you’ve gotta practice the three Fs. It sounds cruel and that’s exactly it – it’s a cold, cruel world out here on the roads of Wuhan 😦

Get out of my way!

Another thing is that Chinese drivers honk a lot, whether it is on a car, scooter, or bicycle (ring, in this case). I’ve come to realize that it’s not necessarily a bad or rude behaviour – on the contrary, it is quite necessary. When I’m on a scooter and going behind a bike or pedestrian in a combined scooter/bike/pedestrian lane, I give a quick honk to let the person in front know that someone is behind and that I intend to pass. This allows them to shift slightly to the side and let me pass safely with sufficient space, avoiding a potential crash, and I don’t have to continue following super slowly. Same scenario when I’m on a scooter/bike and there’s a car behind me – I rather appreciate it when the driver lets me know by a honk that there’s someone behind me so I could be on the alert. In Toronto, honking is rare, but any time you hear a honk, it’s likely someone being pissed off at being cut off without warning or subjected to danger by irresponsible driving. Here, no one cares about signaling or safe passing or making sure that no one is behind when backing out, so you’re always in danger anyway, HARHAR. Then, honking here is more of a way to say, “Hey, be careful, there’s someone behind you” rather than “WTF man you !@*(##)@!!@#* jerk!” You kind of just learn to be more alert and react quicker, and somehow…we all manage to survive, which itself is a miracle.

Only at major intersections do bicycles, scooters, and pedestrians even consider following the traffic lights. Ready, set…GO!

Nah, I lied, most of the time honking is still the driver’s way of saying “Get the F*** out of my way or else suffer from the consequences of my wrath” (at least in the case of car/truck/large vehicle drivers). That epiphany hit me this morning as I was squeezed onto a crowded bus on a busy road, jammed to the max. The driver did not hesitate to show his aggressive temper as he continuously honked at the cars in front (some cutting lanes randomly) to get them to move, although I failed to see how it would have been possible to move as we were stuck at a red light. So yes, I completely contradicted what I said in the previous section by implying that people actually had consideration for others…too young, too naïve.

Bike-sharing is your best friend

Even if I were given the choice to drive in Wuhan, I think I would likely pass because the traffic jam would drive me insane before I got to my destination. Through traffic jams on local roads, bike-sharing is a godsend. I’ve seen bike-sharing programs in Canada and in Europe, but they’re not nearly as ubiquitous and useful as the ones in China. Scan the QR code of a bike that you could find anywhere on the street (unless you’re in a remote, undeveloped area), get to your destination, hop off, and lock the bike. It costs around 1 yuan, which is around 20 Canadian cents (even cheaper if you have a membership), per half hour, and the good thing is that you could drop off the bike anywhere you want. I find it to be exceptionally useful when I have to get home from the nearest bus station that has a direct bus to my workplace. I COULD change to another bus, but that requires extra wait time and more traffic. I could also walk home from the station, but it would take ~25 minutes. The solution, of course, is bike-sharing, and I usually have no problem finding a bike at the bus station where I get off. Cycling back home takes approximately 7 to 8 minutes, and I could almost LOL when I get to zoom past the traffic jam along the way by riding on the side lane and zigzagging a bit if necessary. When cars are stuck at an intersection for 10 minutes, I could fly past it in a jiffy and enjoy home-sweet-home, whereas if I drove…good luck making it home with unscathed sanity, Annie. Cycling also alleviates a bit of the heat because the way back home is on a slightly downward slope, and the wind acts as a significant de-stressor. That’s what you gotta do in China, find the little things that make life a bit less stressful and make the long day a little easier to endure.

Lots of bikes ready to be used outside my apartment. The most popular ones are Hellobike (blue), Mobike (orange), and ofo (yellow). Just scan one and go!

I would like to continue on the matter of transportation and getting around, but this post is getting too long. In a future post I will specifically talk about the public transit system in Wuhan (buses and subway), which really does warrant a discussion on its own. Hopefully the next post won’t take another three months to write…

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