Annie Bananie en Europe

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Tag Archives: culture

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.

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My stories 03: The French toast that I never had in Hong Kong

A couple of weeks ago I was in Hong Kong, a place with which I have a love-hate relationship (I might write about that in a future post). I’ve been to Hong Kong plenty of times, discovering a new unique place on every occasion and still not deciding whether I like it or not. It is not a place for the budget-friendly traveler, even for western standards, though I cannot deny its charm and diversity. The most recent trip was unavoidable as it was for work purposes, but I did get a chance to wander around a bit in the midst of the official affairs that I had to handle.

One thing that I make sure I do a lot when I’m in Hong Kong is eat at a “cha chaan teng” (literally translated to “tea restaurant”), otherwise known as an “ice room”. These are traditional eateries that you can find in every corner of Hong Kong, serving a vast variety of items. Baked seafood rice with cream sauce, chicken wings, soup udon, fish skin, steak, baked vegetable, egg and ham sandwich, satay beef macaroni…just to name a few. If you could think of it, it’s probably on the menu. I could eat at an ice room for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and all extra meals in between and never get bored.

I am particularly in love with the classic Hong-Kong-style milk tea, an iced one in the summer to refresh the mind and a hot one in the winter to warm the soul. It’s got this unique rough texture that distinguishes it from the rather smooth and sugary powdered bubble tea, which feels overly fake. I couldn’t resist having a cup every morning with my breakfast, before doing any work, and that has become a necessary part of my daily morning routine in Hong Kong.

And Hong-Kong-style French toast. We call it “sai dor see” in Cantonese, which translates to “western toast”. It’s one of those things that I love but don’t feel the need to order every time. One day during lunch, while I was dining at an ice room, the lady with whom I shared a table ordered a French toast, and that instantly triggered my desire for one. With two days left in Hong Kong, I decided that I would certainly have a French toast before I leave. That definitely shouldn’t have been a difficult task, as there are so many ice rooms around.

On my last day, while having lunch right before catching my train, I happily ordered a bite-sized French toast (bonus points!) and eagerly anticipated its arrival. Certainly, this would have ended my short trip on a positive note. A few minutes after I placed my order, the waitress came to my table and informed me that they “couldn’t make” the French toast…what! I interpreted that as they were out of toast or out of butter or out of batter or something…but the fact remained that I wasn’t getting my long-awaited French toast. I was…disappointed, to say the least, but I didn’t have enough time to go to another restaurant, and so I left Hong Kong French-toast-less.

They say you leave a place with some regret so that there’s a motivation of going back. Maybe I’ll make French toast my priority the next time I visit Hong Kong, instead of waiting until the last day.

A very lovely hot Hong-Kong-style milk tea at Tsui Wah Restaurant near Tsim Sha Tsui, one of the busiest areas of Hong Kong.

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.

Eating in Southeast Asia, part 3: Street food in Hanoi

Street food is an essential experience in many Asian countries, Vietnam included. As someone who is fervently passionate about food, when my travel planner offered the option of a guided street food tour in Hanoi, it was an instant YES! In addition to the many Vietnamese noodle-based dishes that my friend and I have eaten throughout these travels, we were on our way to unravel the hidden secrets of the capital of Vietnam with the help of our cute local Vietnamese guide, Chili (sneak peek in the Southeast Asia highlights post). I noted down the Vietnamese names of everything (courtesy of Chili), although I’d have a lot of trouble pronouncing them correctly 😛 Let’s get started!

Bánh mì – First up was the legendary bánh mì, perhaps the most famous Vietnamese sandwich. I gotta admit that I was never a huge fan of bánh mì when I had it in Toronto…until I had it in Hanoi, many many years after I ate the last one! I almost missed it too. If it weren’t for a travel companion for pointing out Bánh Mì 25 (probably the most popular bánh mì joint in Hanoi), I would have left Hanoi without trying it. On the night of my street food tour, which was my final day in Vietnam, I mentioned it to my guide and she gladly took me to the joint as our first stop. And oh my, the real authentic thing was so delicious! I think what put me off before was the pâté in the sandwich, but this one had the perfect proportion of fillings and even the pâté tasted so good. I shared one with my friend (as we had an array of food lined up so a full one would be too much) and I wanted more! No wonder Bánh Mì 25 is so popular – it deserves the fame!

Other than bánh mì, I felt like our initial stops were for dessert, but no bother! Xôi chè bà thìn is the joint where we went for the next three items, and it certainly seemed like a very popular street-side spot as locals and tourists alike were lining up to get their goodies. As we ordered the desserts, we were able to see exactly how they were made.

Trôi tàu (top left) – Trôi tàu is a Vietnamese dessert consisting of warm dumplings with black sesame and peanuts. It was quite sweet and kind of reminiscent of the Chinese tang yuan, and rather gingery too – perfect for a cold evening! Xôi chè (bottom left) – This one is a little difficult to explain because I don’t remember much about it (it’s been almost a year!) but to the best of my memory, it was a bowl of thick, syrup-like sauce/soup/jam topped with some sort of sticky rice. I think I wasn’t a huge fan of this mainly because it was too sweet, but clearly the Vietnamese locals loved it because almost everyone was holding a bowl of it in their hands! Chè hạt sen (right) – Finally, we end our visit at Xôi chè bà thìn with a refreshing sweet tea (or soup?) consisting of lotus seeds.

Bánh tráng trộn – This is a funky one. According to my Vietnamese friend in Canada, the bánh tráng trộn (consisting of quail eggs, rice paper strips, dried meat, and a bunch of other stuff that I can’t name) is the newest fad in Vietnam. Teenagers are crazy about it while adults might not even know about it, ha! It seemed like Chili certainly knew what she was doing. I wonder if this random mix would do well in North America…

Phở gà trộn – The largest portion of food for the night was the soupless version of the classic phở, with chicken instead of beef. SO GOOD. The “booth” selling this amazing dish was located in a back alley in Hanoi, literally. We sat (or more like squatted) on small plastic stools around a small wooden table. Without a specialized food tour guide, my friend and I would definitely not have found this place…I mean who would venture into a shady-looking alley, right? Yet this was a great find – perhaps my favourite of the night!

The next location was one of the most “hole-in-the-wall” places that could possibly be found (if you could even find it) in Hanoi, and it actually felt like we were eating someone’s home – it couldn’t be more local. If I were just passing by I wouldn’t even have thought that we could order any food here. It just looked like someone’s household meal was happening right then and there!

Bánh cuốn – So here was where we got the bánh cuốn, or Vietnamese rice noodle rolls. If I remember correctly, the fillings consisted of wood ear mushrooms and the rolls were topped with dried minced garlic with a side of Vietnamese sausages and a savoury dip. Mmmmm the authentic taste of the streets – I like it! Not sure if I’d know how to find this place if I ever go back to Hanoi though…!

Toward the end of the tour, Chili brought us into a shop that was so inconspicuous that the narrow corridor leading to it seemed like a secret entrance to a sketchy spot. However, apparently Cafe Giang is somewhat of a legend in Hanoi and specializes in what we were about to get next, which was…

Cafe trứng …AKA egg coffee! As the name implies, the coffee is made with, you guessed it, a whipped egg yolk! I was a bit skeptical about getting coffee so late in the evening since it always makes me unable to fall asleep, but it was my final night in Vietnam, and I wasn’t about to regret missing anything. It was a good cup of coffee and not like your typical Starbucks – at least that was what I, who is not a coffee aficionado, thought.

Iced mixed fruits – We come to the final item of the night, which is a bowl of fresh mixed fruits on a bed of ice. My friend was unfortunately unable to have this because she was allergic to jackfruit, so I had this all by myself. This was a perfect way to wash down all of the goodies that I had eaten all night and quite a memorable conclusion to my Southeast Asia trip.

And that was the end of what turned out to be a fun, adventure-filled food tour, thanks to Chili on the far left! Keep in mind that my friend and I each had one of each of these mentioned food items, except for the bánh mì, which we shared, and the fruits, which my friend skipped. So in a nutshell…that was A LOT OF FOOD and I was so (happily) full by the end of the night. At least it was a walking tour, and we did a fair bit of walking to offset the food intake! Favourites of the night: bánh mì, phở gà trộn, and bánh cuốn! Then I left Vietnam the next morning missing all that food and wondering what else remains hidden in those narrow alleys of Hanoi. One could only imagine…or go back to Hanoi for another visit!

Eating in Southeast Asia, part 2: Vietnam

Part 2 of the “Eating in Southeast Asia” series is dedicated to Vietnam. Vietnamese cuisine is very diverse and every region has its own specialties. Some cities and towns even have special dishes that are found nowhere else. The food that I’ve had the chance to try in Vietnam was heavily noodle-based with variations from place to place. Here are some of the typical things you’d expect to find in the main tourist destinations in Vietnam – stay tuned for the next post on STREET FOOD in Hanoi!

Cao lầu – First up we’ve got cao lầu (pronounced “cow lao”), the noodle dish that’s only found in Hoi An. What’s special about these noodles is the texture, which was firm and chewy. The noodles were topped with green veggies and various types of pork, including what I believed was crispy pork skin.

Bánh bao vac – Another specialty of Hoi An, the bánh bao vac is also known as “white roses”. These little shrimp dumplings got their name from their appearance, which really do look like white roses!

Mì Quảng – On the way from Hoi An to Huế, my friend and I stopped for a quick lunch break in Da Nang. Though we didn’t have time to explore the city itself, we got to try the local noodle dish, mì Quảng! It is served with various types of meat (shrimp and pork in this case) and toasted sesame rice crackers in soup. Definitely not your typical soup noodles!

Bún thịt nướng – One of the best meals I had in Vietnam (out of the excellent ones, which are all of them) was bún thịt nướng, or rice vermicelli with grilled meat. In addition to grilled pork, the vermicelli was topped with peanuts, coriander, and a special peanut sauce, which was oh-so-tasty. I miss this!

Bún bò Huế – In Huế, the most well-known noodle dish is no doubt the bún bò Huế. In hindsight I’m not sure if I was ripped off at the restaurant that I went to, because the photos of bún bò Huế that I’ve seen suggested that the noodles should be in a reddish brown broth, whereas the broth that we had was quite clear. Nothing too special to rave about here.

Bánh bèo – We also joined a fun cooking class in Huế and learned to make four Vietnamese dishes (bún bò Huế being one of them). Of the other three, bánh bèo was probably the most interesting. These were gelatinous rice cakes topped with minced dried shrimp, green onions, garlic, and chili peppers. Our instructor Miss Thuy noted that out of all the people who learned to make this dish, only 20% of them expressed that they liked it. Many disliked it because of the gelatinous texture. Well, apparently I became part of the 20% that liked this unique dish and certainly ate more than just two or three that evening 😉

Bánh khoái Huế – The second dish was the bánh khoái Huế. These are basically chicken tacos that are deep-pan-fried (not quite deep-fried, but with a lot more oil than normal pan-frying) and while delicious, might have been a bit too greasy! I think one was good enough for me!

Gỏi cuốn – The last item on the list of dishes that we learned to make was the fresh spring vegetarian rolls and these were my favourite of them all! They were so fun and easy to make and super delicious! I couldn’t resist reaching for more and at one point I felt a bit guilty for eating so many of them. But having learned how to properly handle rice paper, I could make them at home anytime now!

Phở bò – And finally, who could forget the good ol’ beef phở? You mustn’t think that I skipped the ubiquitous soup noodles! There was phở at our hotels for breakfast and more phở in random sketchy shops on the streets of Hanoi, but all were so amazing! Glasgow is seriously missing some good Vietnamese restaurants and I was so glad to have just the simplest bowl of beef phở after having been deprived for so long!

So to wrap up, the food I had in Vietnam was heavily noodle-based, with my favourites being bún thịt nướng (rice vermicelli), gỏi cuốn (fresh spring rolls), and phở bò (beef soup noodles). In addition to these, I went on a personalized street food tour with a guide in Hanoi and got to try some lesser known favourites of the local people that were hard to find on our own – this will be a story for the next post!

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