4 Delightful Dishes From Xi’an’s Muslim District

xian muslim quarterSo about a week ago, my friends and I went down to visit Xi’an, in the northwest part of China. Last week I wrote a bit about the underwhelming Terracotta Warriors, and today I thought I’d write a little about the food in Xi’an. Because, it seems, every different area in China is famous for its food, and Xi’an is no different.

But Xi’an’s food isn’t as distinct as, say, Sichuan’s. There aren’t a lot of loud spices or bold tastes. Xi’an cuisine seems to be more about well cooked meats and tends to center largely around street food. Everything is cheap. Really super cheap. Even the sit-down restaurants we went to were cheap, including a famous dumpling one that was jammed with people. Since we were only in Xi’an for two days, I didn’t have a ton of time to sample the different dishes, although I did my best, and here are the highlights:

xian rou jia mo1. Rou Jia Mo – Anyone coming to Xi’an needs to stuff one of these little Chinese hamburgers into his or her face as soon as possible. Because they’re absolutely delicious. There’s not much to it – just beef or pork in a sort of pita bread. But the meat is cooked so well and is so flavorful, it turns out to be a real treat. I only ate one because I wanted to eat the crab on a stick, and for this I might be forever filled with regret (see crab on a stick comments below).

2. Beef or Lamb Pao Mo – Pao Mo is a funny dish because it requires a little bit of work. Pao Mo is basically just a soup with meat in it, but the thing that sets it apart is the process. See, when you order Pao Mo, first you get an empty bowl with some bread in it. You must then spend the next 5-10 minutes shredding the bread with your fingers and filling the bowl with it. Here are my girlfriend Feng Deng’s fingers as she does this.

xian breaking bread

Then once the bread is all ripped up, you get your broth and noodles and choice of meat. The bread soaks up the broth but doesn’t get soggy and disgusting like Rice Krispies sometimes do. Instead the bread retains a nice taste and goes very well with the noodles and meat. Overall, I wasn’t blown away by Pao Mo, although I did enjoy it and I do believe it’s a must for anyone going to Xi’an.

xian soup

xian crab on stick3. Fried Soft Shell Crab on a Stick – This was the one thing that didn’t turn out so great. I was really excited to try this since it looked so intense. Three small soft shelled crabs, put onto a stick and friend in oil. How could it possibly be bad? Well, it was. The crab had virtually no taste and dripped with oil. It also stunk. Feng Deng and I made the mistake of taking these on the train to eat on the ride back, and we seriously stunk that place up. On the good side, I will say the texture was decent and it wasn’t difficult to eat. So if you want to eat bland crab off a stick, do it baby.

4. Ja San Soup Pau – So, here you have it. I saved the best for last. The soup dumplings at the famous Ja San Soup Pau were, for me, the absolute highlight of the foods I had in Xi’an. The restaurant is really popular and packed with soup dumpling lovers; Feng Deng and I had to share our table with another couple we’d never met before (and who, I must add, seemed to like each other far less than we like each other).

xian dumpling place

 

The restaurant is also extremely loud as the staff basically scream out orders across the place. All that said, once the food comes, you’re in for a treat. These were probably the most delicious dumplings I’ve ever had. They’re filled with soup and the soup makes the meat really tender and moist. We had the traditional standard dumplings and the chicken and shrimp dumplings too. Both were excellent, though the traditional ones truly brought joy to my Western mouth. I’m not sure why this hasn’t caught on and soup dumplings aren’t served everywhere. They’re fantastic, and the high point of a night strolling around Muslim Street.

xian dumplings

Of course there are more famous foods on Muslim Street. Hand stretched noodles. Yellow fruit rice cake. Giant spicy chaunr on thick sticks. It’s a cool place to go. Sadly, now I’m back at my apartment, so I guess it’s back to soggy Rick Krispies.

If This Army was Really Underground, Not So Many People Would Know About Them

xian 3

Over the weekend, some friends and I went to see the famous Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, China. As the story goes, the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, had an army created to stand guard in his tomb and protect him in death. The army of statues remained underground and unknown until they were found by some farmers trying to dig a well in 1976. Upon discovery, the pits were excavated and over 8,000 finely crafted soldiers dating back to 210 BC were found. Unfortunately for the farmers, they had to go elsewhere to dig their well.

But today I don’t really want to talk much about the history of the Terracotta Army. No, I’d rather talk about traveling, and how the Internet has made traveling so much easier but also maybe a little bit less interesting. Not much less, but a little.

xian 2

xian 1See, when I came to China, I had never even heard of the Terracotta Army. Then some time went by, and I saw my friends’ Facebook picture albums and I Googled stuff, and eventually I had a decent idea of what the whole thing was like. It took some time for me to finally go, and when I did, I was able to find the location without much of a problem, taking a bullet train to Xi’an and then a bus to the actual site. Just like the Internet told me to. Everything was easy. And then I entered the site and looked at the Warriors, and I found that it was exactly how I expected it would be. There weren’t any surprises at all. Which might be good, or it might not be.

xian 4Is there something less thrilling about a plan that works flawlessly? Something a little disappointing when what you see turns out to be exactly what you’ve seen in pictures a hundred times already? Because that more or less describes the trip to Xi’an. It was nice to spend time with my friends and to share the experience with Feng Deng…but a few unexpected occurrences would have been nice. If only to add a little bit of flavor.

Essentially, I’m beginning to worry that the Internet, while wonderful, is also a really big spoiler alert. It gives everything away. Right now, as you read this, you’re seeing the exact images that you’d see if you went to Xi’an. And I can’t help but think, it would be kind of nice if that wasn’t the case. If you could go and have a real mind blowing experience, instead of standing there and looking at this magnificent creation and feeling as if you’ve already seen it. Like Google Images was a trailer that gave too much of the movie away.

For my next travel adventures, I’ve decided not to Google any of the sites. Sure, I’ll get directions, but that’s it. Maybe I’ll go and buy a Lonely Planet book that doesn’t have any pictures. Only words. Because I want an amazing experience. Something like what those farmers in 1976 got when they stuck their shovels into the ground and began digging.

For $5, you can get a picture of you and your loved ones standing with fakes warriors. If one person thinks it's real, I'll definitely consider it money well spent.
For $5, you can get a picture of you and your loved ones standing with fakes warriors. And then you can show it to your gullible friends, because tricking people is definetly worth $5. 

* Special thanks to my friend Jonathan who took most of these pictures.

Same Shirt, Different Day

ps shirt one

I saw him again today. He probably knows I’m staring at him, can see the disapproval in my eyes. He never looks back at me, always keeps his head down. Today he had the shirt on again, the bright green one. It’s been two weeks now. If I was a stronger, more confident man, I’d rip it right off his back.

For several justifiable reasons.

REASON #1: About a month ago, someone made a note on the whiteboard in the front of my apartment building about clothes donations. In fact, that’s all it said. “Clothes Donations.” And then there was an arrow pointing at the floor under the whiteboard. So I went and took all the shirts I don’t love any longer out of my closet and placed them there. Under the arrow. The green shirt was one of them. And then a few weeks later, I saw him wearing it.

Who is he? He’s the husband of the desk lady that works in my apartment building, which wasn’t really who I had in mind. Clothes donations? I assumed they were going to some poor Chinese workers in the village by our school. Not to the husband of the desk lady. That’s like donating your body to science and then learning it was taken by a crazy club-footed lab assistant who wanted new feet.

“Say, Seymour, do you know where that body disappeared to? And what happened to your limp?”

REASON #2: Two weeks, man. He’s been wearing my shirt every day for two weeks straight. Like it’s all he has. Like he’s a cartoon character. Like he’s been sentenced to wear for all of eternity by Nickelodeon.

ps shirt threeWhich brings us to the larger issue. See, back at home in the USA, it would be considered embarrassing to wear the same thing two days in a row. It just doesn’t happen. Wearing the same thing two days consecutively implies laziness and possible poverty. It would almost be like coming to work with a different hairstyle every day. People would find it odd and off-putting. That’s sort of how things work in an American office. The hair stays consistent, and the clothes always alter.

But that is not how they roll in China. From what I’ve gathered, it’s pretty common to wear the same outfit multiple days in a row. The Chinese teachers at my school constantly wear the same thing, sometimes three or four days straight. It’s kind of funny. A teacher will show up wearing a bright, colorful dress, and I’ll be like, “Wow, that’s a beautiful dress!”

And then the next day it’s the same dress. And the next day. And then I feel like the strong aesthetic value of that particular dress is actually having a negative impact overall, because the thing is too noticeable, too conspicuous to wear three days in a row. Maybe if it was a dull black shirt and some grey jeans, then I’d look past it without paying attention.

“Say, hasn’t Zheng Zheng been wearing the same thing for a month?”

“I dunno. Maybe. Or maybe she just has multiple black shirts.”

But when you wear your Oscar night dress for a whole week, it’s a bit obvious. I sometimes go over to the person and quietly inform them that I’ve noticed.

“You really like that dress, huh?”

ps same shirt twoThe funny thing, I guess, is that I’m not that much better. I mean, it’s not like I have an endless closet. I basically wear the same rotation of dress shirts and pants every week. The key, though, is that I change the dress shirt each day, which, in my mind, adds spark and variety.

“What should I wear today?” I’ve asked Feng Deng on occasion.

“Wear what you wore yesterday,” she’ll say. “It looked good.”

“But I wore it yesterday.”

“So?”

I’m not sure how to answer this.

“It will look weird. I’ll seem dirty.”

“What are you talking about? It’s not dirty. You only wore it one day.”

I know it’s true, but still.

Is it the cleanliness? Is it the monotony? What is it in Western thinking that says wearing the same shirt twice in a row is wrong? Is uncool? What is it that makes me cringe every time I see the desk girl’s husband, walking around in the same green shirt from Uniqlo?

I believe, after having thought about this, that it boils down to the great fear that my life isn’t going anywhere. That every day is just a dull repetition of the last. That my whole existence is just a skipping record, one where the same song spins endlessly. Wearing the same shirt every day is basically conceding to the idea that one day is no different from the next. It’s saying that today is the same as yesterday, and that tomorrow will replicate both. Each time that dude wears the green Uniqlo shirt, he reminds me that two weeks of my life have gone by, and nothing especially interesting has really happened.

Which is depressing.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll drop another shirt off under the white board. Just to give him another option, and to let him know that there’s hope.

A Loser of Great Intrigue

ps censor time

Today is the first time I’ve written in more than a week. Some of that is my fault. Laziness. Apathy. The desire to watch more than one movie in a day. But part of this is also China’s fault.

Those blog-hating bastards.

See, in China, a lot of websites are blocked by the government. Facebook is blocked. YouTube is blocked. XXXbunker is blocked. And any site related to WordPress is also blocked. I’ve actually tried to start a blog on an unblocked site in China, and it’s virtually impossible. This is because China has a deep impulse to control the flow of information, and thus they hate blogs. There are no bloggers in China. There are no amateur press people or TMZ, no Zhang Wei Hilton. And when I don’t have a VPN, there is no Parking Space 37 either.

Which was the case this weekend. I was at Feng Deng’s place and I didn’t bring my laptop. So there was no writing to be done, since this website was impossible to access. Instead, I sat around and watched the movie ‘200 Cigarettes’ – which I’ve wanted to watch for years but never did and now I realize that it took me almost 2 decades to watch a movie that really sucks – and then at night Feng Deng’s friends came over and we all got pretty drunk.

It’s weird hanging out with Feng Deng’s friends. They’re all in their late twenties or early thirties, and most of them sell cars. They drink a lot and none of them speak English. When we hang out with Feng Deng’s friends, I basically just sit there and do a lot of nodding. Since I can’t speak Chinese, there’s not much communication happening between them and me. Our interactions are limited to smiles, thumbs ups, and clanking our beer glasses together.

But something struck me as interesting the other night. Feng Deng’s friends were talking about me, and thus Feng Deng translated what they were saying. They said that I seemed like a really interesting person. Someone artistic. Someone of depth. Someone who had more to offer the world than an occasional thumbs up.

This, you know, got me thinking. I mean, really, I’m not that confident that I do have much more to offer the world than some nodding and a solid high five. Once in awhile I have my moments, those small incidents of exceptionalism where I say something witty or vaguely insightful. But would they – would I – live up to the expectations of Feng Deng’s friends? I’m not sure. I thought about how it could be possible that being quiet and having emotive eyebrows just might trump the ability to express oneself.

A lot of times, people take a sunny point of view in regards to not speaking a language. “Oh, if they could only understand me, then they’d really like me! They’d see how funny and warm I am!” People are optimistic like that. As for me, a true pessimist, I see it the other way. I think if we all understood each other, we’d probably end up liking each other a lot less. Because I’ve met literally thousands of people in my lifetime that I was able to understand, and how many friends do I have?

Maybe 20?

That’s like 980 people that didn’t make the cut. So what are the chances that Feng Deng’s Chinese friends would end up liking me if they all knew exactly what I was saying? I’m guessing that the chances would be less than they are now, when we all just drink in silence.

And to that degree, maybe China’s onto something. No Facebook. No WordPress. No Twitter. No overdoing it, no supersaturation of opinions. Of our thoughts. There’s no venue for ranting, no place for shared Huffington Post articles or ill-informed dating advice or brief judgemental statements followed by hashtags.

Nope. There’s only those quick bursts of short WeChat moments, baby pictures and flattering selfies. In the West, our freedom of expression, maybe it’s turned into a need to express, a real and true need to share one’s full opinions. And that need is thoroughly absent here in China.

Which could be why Feng Deng’s friends look at my drunk and red foreigner face and wrongly think that there’s something interesting lurking there, behind my flushed cheeks. That there are some words of staggering brilliance dangling like a hanged man at the end of my useless tongue.

The Bueller Line

bueller one

A few days ago, I began to feel sick. Although sometimes, for me, it’s difficult to tell if I’m really feeling sick or if I’m just more lethargic about life than usual. Maybe an illness is keeping me in bed today…or maybe I just don’t feel like getting up. It can be tough to tell. And that brings us to what today’s blog is about, the distinct point between illness and laziness that I’d like to call ‘The Bueller Line.’

bueller twoAfter Ferris, obviously. A movie that came out 30 years ago, but I prefer to think of as current and popular.

Anyways, if you’re anything like me, then all your memories of sickness are glowing. They’re great, wonderful memories. To me, sickness equals staying in bed all day, watching movies, having people bring you stuff, and (the best part) not having to do anything productive at all. Sickness, perhaps, is the closest I’ll ever come to having freedom. True freedom. Did I have to go out and earn a living today? No. While I had a fever, did I have to clean the apartment or wash any dishes? Absolutely not. All I had to do was stay alive, and nobody even complained or called me a loser.

bueller threeI mean, my fondness for being sick is probably because I’ve never really been sick – seriously sick. I suppose if someone has cancer and is getting chemo, then illness probably isn’t so great. But when we’re talking about a cold or the fever, then sickness rocks.

And this is what I’ve been going through the last couple days. I’ve gone into work but then it’s straight back into bed, where I can watch all the YouTube and RedTube I want and life is a dozen roses. I’ve let responsibility slide in favor of sleep. Although I did go to the bar one night, but that was during a thin sliver of time in which I felt recovered, which proved fleeting and wore off as soon as the beer did.

bueller threeEventually, I know I’m going to hit The Bueller Line. This is the point where I become sure, without any doubt, that I’m not sick anymore. That I’ve shaken my illness. However, it’s very conceivable that I’ll continue to be lazy and do nothing. Hence, I’ve changed from being sick into being Bueller, a responsibility-avoiding doofus that would rather bullshit everyone then act like a grown person. I generally know when I’ve crossed this line. Guilt begins to creep in. I force myself to get dressed and I’ll even cook my own soup as opposed to having my girlfriend bring it to me.

How a person acts when approaching The Bueller Line says a lot about that person. Some people never even get to it, leaping up and mowing the lawn as soon as they’re physically able to. These are life’s real winners, the people I envy and look up to. They might even end up sick again do to premature lawn mowing, but still I admire them. I think most people cross the line slightly, wanting to wallow in sickness for just a little bit more, before their pride and sense of maturity catches them and makes them return to their jobs. Most people have that moment of truth when they sigh and shower at six-thirty in the morning and start getting ready for work while fondly yearning for the sick days of yore.

As I write this, I feel I’m just getting over my sickness. Tomorrow I will be ready to dive head first into life. Real life. Out of bed life. The kind of life that might not be as fresh or as sweet as you want it to be but it’s what you’ve got, like when you’re on a bus and a little girl hands you a warm, soft Gummi bear.

gummi bear

Thou Shall Not Covet Your Neighbor’s Pants

ps pants one

About an hour ago, I got home from work and sat down on my bed with my netbook to start writing this. See, my living situation is a bit different than most people’s. There are two big factors that make my situation a bit unique:

1. I am an American living in China

2. I live where I work.

Right, so I live at my job. This is because I work at a boarding school, one that is surrounded by an impenetrable gate guarded by grumpy old Chinese guys who occasionally threaten to throw rocks or bricks at people. So all of us – all of the 80 or so foreign teachers that work and live at my boarding school – we’re all housed in the same dorm building that’s located within the impenetrable gates and about a five minute walk from the school buildings. It’s actually pretty swanky as far as dorms go, with free HBO and a western-style toilet that reminds me of home.

ps pants twoLiving with 80 other foreign expats, man, you’d expect there to be a certain level of trust in our building. Which is why I wanted to write about something that happened to me recently. About two weeks ago, somebody in my building stole my pants. They weren’t even nice pants…it was a pair of black dress pants that I bought for thirty bucks at Uniqlo. I’d set them out to dry in the courtyard and the next day they were gone. I even wrote a note about it on the big white board in the front lobby of our building. It went like this:

“If anyone accidentally took a pair of black men’s dress pants that aren’t yours, please return them to room 124. Thanks.”

Of course, it didn’t work. The pants theif did not return the stolen goods and, since I’ve been eyeing all of my male coworkers suspiciously and paying extra attention to their clothing, the pants thief hasn’t worn my pants out in public yet, either.

ps pants threeLike I said, it’s been a couple weeks. And what I really wanted to write about today isn’t just this heinous crime, but how the pants thievery makes me feel. Because, honestly, it doesn’t make me angry or upset at all. When it first happened, I was just sort of confused. And now, despite being down one pair of dress pants, I find it a little bit amusing. And this got me wondering about ethics, laws, and punishment.

Because a lot of the time, when someone breaks a law, nobody is emotionally hurt by it or really cares that much. Speeding. Cheating on your taxes. Smoking crack. I’ve never been pissed off at anyone for doing any of those things. Just like I don’t really care that somebody stole my pants. But I do get pissed off when somebody does something that’s ethically or morally questionable, or something that’s just plain rude. Really, I’d be more upset about the person wearing my pants than the fact that they stole them to begin with. So that’s what this post is really about. It’s about sentencing.

I mean, think about what happens to you if you get caught with crack.

Possession of 28 grams of Crack Cocaine – Sentence: a minimum of 5 years in prison.

But there are no rules, no standards, when someone does something ethically fishy. So maybe we should establish some, create a few punishments for ethical blunders or social faux pas. Let’s call it “Ethical Sentencing.” They can be, you know, a way to make the world a better place.

I had a few ideas I wanted to share. Just a couple thoughts to get the Ethical Sentencing ball a rollin’.

Forgetting someone’s name – Sentence: Leniency on the first offense. On the second offense, the offender must take the victim’s name as their own for a minimum of one week.

Making a rude comment about someone’s hair – Sentence: the person with the bad hair has the freedom to make one harsh criticism of the offender. However, this criticism cannot be about weight (see below).

Making a rude comment about someone’s weight – Sentence: the offender must apologize for the remainder of his/her life. In addition, the offender must watch one ‘fat fetish’ video in its entirety.

Flirting with someone else’s boyfriend/girlfriend – Sentence: The offender must clean the victim’s apartment. If the flirting is extra heavy, laundry must be done as well.

Sleeping with someone else’s boyfriend/girlfriend – Sentence: Both the offender and the boyfriend/girlfriend must clean the victim’s apartment until the victim finds a new boyfriend/girlfriend, and some new friends.

Obnoxiously forcing your shy friend to dance at a party/nightclub – Sentence: The victim is allowed to direct and film a video of the offender dancing to Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle Wiggle Wiggle.” The video can then be shown whenever the victim wishes it to be shown.

ps pants fiveWearing someone else’s pants – Sentence: The offender must provide the victim with a new pair of pants, and must iron those pants until the original pair of pants begin to fall apart. At that time, the offender is freed. If the offender then steals the new pants, the sentence will have to be death.

So there you have it. Ethical Sentencing. It really should be the wave of the future.

Now excuse me while I go hang some “Missing” posters with a picture of my pants on them.

Eat This Noodle, Or Die Young

ps noodle one

According to WikiPedia, birthday cakes have been around since the time of the ancient Romans. That’s right, before a major battle, it’s possible that an army of Roman slaves gathered around Spartacus and sang to him while he blew out candles.

“What did you wish for, Sparty?”

“I wished, my brother, that one day this revolt would inspire a motion picture, and then a scene from that movie would be used in a Pepsi commercial.”

And like ancient Rome, birthday cakes have become a part of life here in modern China (imagine Chairman Mao’s anger if ever the trick candle prank was played on him). But in China, there’s another tradition that exists and it’s kind of goofy, so I thought I’d talk about that today.

ps noodle fiveThis tradition is called “yi mein,” or, the “longevity noodle.” It’s a very simple idea: a soup is made with one really long noodle, and that noodle symbolizes your life. To complete the ‘long life’ metaphor, you’re supposed to eat the entire noodle in one big slurp. Failure to do so implies that…well…maybe you should get started on your will soon.

ps noodle fourI’ve already posted some pics of the longevity noodle in this post, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Yesterday was my birthday, and at night several of my friends (including my girlfriend, Feng Deng) took me to a Chinese restaurant. They got me a longevity noodle and sang to me while I attempted to slurp that bastard down. I don’t think they were even finished with the song before I couldn’t slurp any more and severed the noodle with my teeth. This is not something one is supposed to do, but I soldiered on anyways, sucking that thing down while hot broth burned my lips and splashed into my eyes.

In the end, I failed. The noodle was too freaking long. It was an impossible task, to try and slurp down a noodle the length of an intestine. Perhaps that means I won’t live past another decade or so, or perhaps it’s just a silly tradition and it just means I couldn’t fit nine miles of noodle into my stomach.

ps noodle twoBut isn’t that the way all traditions are? Half meaningful and half arbitrary? A birthday cake. A pinata. An endless noodle that I’ll be shitting out for days. A lighthearted person might say it’s all in good fun, while a more morbid person might say these are just distractions, something to take our mind off our own inevitable expiration.

Last night, after failing to eat much of my longevity noodle, I learned two important things. One is that I might not be living a very long life. And the other is that hot soup in the eye really sucks.