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China Impressions: Road Trip Snacks

5 Oct

My first Chinese road trip occurred during my first trip to China back in 2009. Stephen’s family drove us to Chengdu so I could achieve my panda dream. This was also my first experience with Chinese road trip snacks. When we got in the car, Stephen’s cousin passed us a bag of snacks, which consisted entirely of fruit — mini bananas, pears, lychee and mangosteen. Some of my favorite fruit, but not the easiest to eat in the car. Growing up, my dad always took pride in our cars. It was the greatest compliment when my friends would get in and tell him our years-old van still looked and smelled brand new. Fresh lychee is not readily available in the U.S., but if it were, we would never be allowed to take it in the car. I can hear my dad’s voice now — “It’s sticky and you’ll get shells and seeds all over!” But that, in a nutshell, seems to be the requirement for Chinese road trip snacks: sticky, shells and seeds.

This month we were in China briefly for a friend’s wedding. The ceremony and reception were held at a resort in a quiet mountain town about 3 hours outside of Shanghai, so the bride and groom kindly rented a big bus to take all their out-of-town guests there. I was prepared to “hold it” the whole way — it was a previous Chinese road trip that enabled me to set my 7 hours “hold it” record (I do not recommend this). I have taken many Chinese road trips, but since I assumed there’d be nothing but squatters, I have never been inside a Chinese rest stop. Until now.

I was pleased to find one handicap sit-down toilet in a sea of squatters (did I set that 7-hour record for nothing?!). While I was in the loo, Stephen hit up the fruit stall — that’s what they have at Chinese rest stops, fruit stalls. When I emerged, he greeted me with a bag of bananas and lotus pods. Members of our group gathered round as I broke the pod open and popped a seed into my mouth.

lotus fruit.jpg

“Oh god, this is horrible!” I said through muffled attempts to spit it out. Turns out you’re supposed to remove the bitter green shell before you eat it. If you do that the seeds are actually tasty.

Just then the bride came over and handed me what I thought was a souvenir relic from the Ming dynasty.

water-caltrop

“Try it,” she said. “It’s good, it tastes like a potato.”

water caltrop open.JPG

It was indeed good and potato-like, but I had no idea what it was. I meant to google “Chinese fruit or vegetable that looks like Satan’s mustache” when I got home, but I didn’t need to. An image of one happened to pop up on Reddit the other day. Turns out it’s a water caltrop, a type of water chestnut — those crunchy bits you see in tins or at the stir fry bar. Who knew they had such ominous exteriors.

water-chestnut-can

Stephen returned to our little group with a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts (cue The Christmas Song). I’m not sure I’ve ever had freshly roasted chestnuts, but they were delicious, and in true Chinese road trip food form, difficult to open and sticky. At least the stall gave us an extra bag to put the shells.

Once back on the bus, everyone shared some of their treasures. One guy went down the aisle passing out sweet potatoes — piping hot, gooey, delicious whole sweet potatoes.

“Why did you buy a whole bag of sweet potatoes?” I asked him.

“Because sweet potatoes are awesome!” he replied. Touche.

So if you’re keeping tally, my Chinese rest stop road trip snacks consisted of a banana, lotus seeds, chestnuts, water chestnuts and a sweet potato.

When we couldn’t possibly eat another chestnut, we passed the bag through the bus, while other snacks came to us. I passed on the bag of dried squid, but grabbed a handful of the next thing that came by.

“Ooo, are these prawn crisps?” I asked.

“Did you just say prawn crisps?” the guy across from me asked, faking an English accent. “They’re obviously shrimp chips!”

My accent might say “American,” but apparently I’ve become more British than I thought.

On our way back to Shanghai 2 days later our bus stopped at the same rest stop. It was around 7pm, so instead of just snacks, we needed to eat something more substantial and dinner-like.

“So tell us, what can we eat here that won’t give us diarrhea?” one of the American guys whispered to Stephen. His advice was to get something hot and cooked, preferably not with meat. There were stalls selling rice balls filled with pork and salty egg, all kinds of tofu, ice cream, corn on the cob, and crepe-like sandwiches. We settled on the crepe-like thing filled with egg, spam and ketchup. It was surprisingly delicious despite how I described it, and we didn’t get sick from it either. On the way out we popped into the only store somewhat reminiscent of an American rest stop filled with packaged snacks like chips and candy. A bag of honey-flavored potato chips caught my eye because I remembered reading an article about Korean honey chip hysteria. I was so excited to try them. They were just OK — better if you thought of them as really thin biscuits/cookies instead of potato chips since they were so sweet. I later realized the popular chips are “honey butter” flavored, not just honey, so I probably bought some cheap rip off Korean chip. I guess I’ll have to go to Korea someday to try the real thing.

Though Chinese road trip snacks are some of the most inconvenient things to eat with their sticky shells, seeds and skins, they are also some of the healthiest. While I don’t see sweet potatoes, lotus and chestnuts coming to an American Flying J truck stop soon, it would be nice to have some options besides McDonalds, chips and candy on my next Megabus ride.

For more in my China Impressions series, click here.

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I have a pokeproblem

18 Aug

It just dawned on me that I’m scheduled to run a half marathon in a month. One month! It feels like ages ago that I signed up for the Richmond Half, still bitter about not getting a spot in the Royal Parks Half (side note: my doctor in Kentucky ran the Royal Parks Half years ago. She said even then it was tough to get a ballot spot!). I can’t believe it’s a month away now. I felt more ready to run it in May than I do now. That’s partly because I’ve been traveling for 2 months now, and although I tried to run frequently, I wasn’t doing many long runs because this was the forecast every day:

hot as balls forecast

There’s also another reason my training has been slacking. And it’s name is Pokemon Go.

For people like my brother who spend most of their day on a computer inside an office or at home on the couch playing video games, it really encouraged him to get outside and exercise. But for people like me who were already Fitbit-obsessed, it turned my usual long runs into stop-every-2-minute gotta-catch-em-all walk-runs. Not part of the Hansons half marathon training plan.

I started playing Pokemon Go in early July, right after I got back from my Milwaukee and Chicago adventure. So for the first month I only played in suburban Kentucky, which it turns out is actually the worst place to play. There was only 1 Pokestop near me, and by “near me” I mean I still had to run over a mile to reach it. In London I am surrounded by Pokestops — my actual flat itself is a Pokestop. (For those unfamiliar with the game, a Pokestop is where you can collect free items like pokeballs. You need pokeballs to catch Pokemon. So if you don’t live near any stops, you won’t get many balls, and you won’t be able to catch many Pokemon. This was my life last month). The few times I went into downtown Cincinnati I went a little nuts hitting up Pokestops and catching Pokemon. It was like I was used to getting one bowl of rice a day and suddenly I was at an all you can eat buffet.

And then I went to China, where Pokemon Go has been banned because it uses Google Maps, which is also banned. I couldn’t play at all for 10 days. To continue with the analogy, I was starving. And then we landed in Hong Kong and had 8 hours to kill before our flight to London, so naturally we went to Hong Kong Disneyland. And suddenly I went from starving to eating at the midnight buffet on a cruise ship. I couldn’t contain myself. Every few feet there was a Pokestop or Pokemon. My finger couldn’t swipe fast enough.

pokemon go hong kong disneyland

Screenshot I took at the entrance of Hong Kong Disneyland. The 75% battery was already causing me anxiety.

“Wow, you’re catching a lot!” Stephen said. At first he was amused by it, cheering me on as I caught a wild Dewgong by the Jungle Cruise. But then he started getting annoyed. “Just one more,” I told him. “I know I need to stop, my phone battery is dying.” But I couldn’t stop. My proverbial stomach was full at the buffet, but I couldn’t stop eating. I had been depraved for so long.

“Stop playing Pokemon!” Stephen shouted at me as we tried to leave the park during the Paint the Night Parade. There were people everywhere and it was tough enough to walk through without staring at the screen.

I definitely have a problem.

And while I’d like to say I’ve learned my lesson and am now “eating” or playing Pokemon Go a sensible amount, I’m afraid it’s only gotten worse since I’ve gotten back to London. My flat is a Pokestop! There’s a gym just steps away! Regents and Hyde Parks are teeming with Pokemon! I’ve gotta catch ’em all!

….

Dear god, how am I going to run 13.1 miles in 30 days?

….

How am I going to go 2+ hours without playing Pokemon?

Uneventful adventures in China

9 Aug

Greetings from China!

I met Stephen here the other day. He flew in from London, I flew in from Cincinnati and we met in Shanghai. It seemed like blog material waiting to happen, especially since I would have to find my way to the hotel all by myself. Sure, I was nervous, but I’ve been listening to Pimsleur Chinese lessons for months now and it was all leading up to this moment. I even studied on the plane. And then the minute I landed the only thing that came out of mouth was English. Because it turns out the people who exchange money and sell sim cards at the airport speak English. So my I arrived in a foreign country all by myself story was rather uneventful — I cleared immigration, exchanged some money into RMB, bought a sim card, texted Stephen, and caught a taxi. The only minor hiccup came when I tried to use Uber. I couldn’t figure out where to meet the driver and couldn’t call the driver because my sim card was data only (and also I don’t speak Chinese). So I had to take a taxi, which was reasonably priced and easy. What a boring blog story.

It’s been years since I’ve flown from the US to China, but I knew it was going to be rough. 14 hours on a plane is rough, but it’s even rougher when it’s a 747 with no individual TVs. Luckily I expected this would be the case and loaded up my iPad with movies and TV shows. 747s sure can transport a buttload of people, but transporting them comfortably is apparently not a priority. (For the low price of $1,000 I could have upgraded to business class though!) The entertainment options may suck, but at least they feed you well on a 14-hour flight. Every time I was about to reach for my snack bag, there was another snack or meal on its way. I look forward to crappy airplane food entirely way too much on a long-haul flight. But what else is there to do? I tried to break the flight down into manageable chunks. When there was 8 hours left I thought “only a flight to London now!” At 6 hours left it was a Megabus to Chicago. At 4 hours it was a drive to Cleveland. At 3 hours it was DEAR GOD HOW MUCH LONGER, I CAN’T REMEMBER WHAT LIFE WAS LIKE OUTSIDE THIS AIRPLANE. And then whatever meal you eat at 11pm Cincinnati time, 11am Shanghai time came and everything was OK. The obvious solution to not going crazy on an insanely long flight is to sleep. And believe me, I tried. But sleeping sitting up with your feet crammed against a laptop bag is no easy feat. I think I dozed on and off for an hour or two before I gave up and watched another movie. Thankfully our return flight from Hong Kong to London is only 12 hours. 😐

sleepy panda.gif
One final thing — I still may be afraid to speak any Chinese, but I’m amazed at how well I can understand it now. When I really focus I can pick up the gist of Stephen’s conversations. The key there is “really focus,” which isn’t easy, especially when insanely jetlagged. Most of the time my brain decides to just tune it out and focus on eating all the things. (Like xiaolongbao!) Also, have I mentioned before how Asian jetlag is the worst? Because it is. Even after being here for a few days and finally — FINALLY! — sleeping through the night Sunday night, I legit fell asleep on the toilet last night at 9:30. Stephen’s boss’s words still ring true: “You don’t sleep when you go to Asia, you just take a series of long naps.”

jet-lag gilmore girls.gif

Ode to Churchill the Corgi

8 Apr

As you may have noticed with posts like this, I really, really love corgis. But unfortunately my current living situation does not allow me to have a dog. While I enjoy scouting for them on runs through the park, the next best thing to having a dog is having a family member get a dog. Though it’s been over a year since we lost Squirt, my parents are still not ready for another dog. Late last year Stephen’s family’s chihuahua Xiao Bei crossed over the rainbow bridge, which gave Stephen and me a new mission: get his family a corgi.

We started by slyly sending them photos of my favorite Instagram corgis, like Super Corgi JOJO. Then we upped the cute factor with puppy photos. They were sold. His cousin began researching breeders and sent us photos of prospects. We vetoed a few before Stephen sent me this photo followed by “Yes?”

china corgi breeder

He was perfect. I couldn’t wait to meet him, even if he was halfway across the world. The day they brought him home I begged Stephen to ask them for more pictures.

corgi puppy eyes.png

His cuteness was addicting — I couldn’t get enough. I watched him play fetch over Facetime. I saved every photo of him Stephen’s family sent.

“What’s his name?” I asked Stephen.

“He doesn’t have one yet,” he replied. Then he said we could help name him. After he vetoed my Chinese translations of “little butthead” and “short legs,” he said we should pick an English name. We wanted a human name that was stately and English and easy to pronounce.

“Churchill,” I suggested, conjuring the great British statesman and first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States… and also the adorable bulldog from the insurance commercials. (Source of this photo: an article stating that more British children can identify the Churchill Insurance dog than the wartime prime minister)

churchill dog

And just like that the little corgi had a name. Churchill. I watched Churchill eat his dinner over Facetime and promptly pass out in his bed. I treasured every sweet photo.

corgi puppy passed out.png

Stephen said even his uncle, who is not a dog person, was falling for Churchill. How could anyone not? I wanted so badly to go to China to visit Churchill in person. I knew the chances of me being able to cuddle him as a puppy were slim, but I looked forward to meeting him someday.

And then Stephen got off the phone with his cousin and dropped this bomb:

“Churchill’s dead.”

I thought it was an April Fools joke. Apparently so did his cousin, not realizing that April Fools’ Day has been banned in China.

Stephen’s family was so in love with Churchill that they took him on an adventure in the mountains. He likely ate something that was poisonous and died the next day.

I was heartbroken. We were all just getting to know Churchill. I never even got a chance to properly meet him, and now I never will. The little guy was supposed to have his whole life ahead of him. I always knew someday he’d cross the rainbow bridge and frolic with Squirt and Xiao Bei, I just didn’t expect it to be so soon.

corgi puppy toy

Goodnight, sweet prince.

Thoughts on the airplane class curtain

24 Feb

bridesmaids curtainAs a shameless rule follower, I am always torn about the airplane curtain. The general rule of airplanes is that your cabin’s toilets are behind you, and you should never breach a curtain to go to the bathroom. However, on my recent flight back to London from Shanghai, my Premium Economy seat was 3 rows from the Upper Class (business) loos, and about 20 rows from the economy potty behind me. So virtually everyone in my cabin passed through the curtain to use the closer and superior toilet cubicle (it even had lotion!). On previous flights I’ve seen flight attendants get upset over this, but on this flight no one seemed to care. Stephen, however, cared, because every time he started to fall asleep in his business class pod, someone would tramp by and leave the curtain open, letting the bright light shine through. What are your thoughts on this? Do business class passengers deserve a better experience because they paid 5 times as much, or should the curtain be open because “it’s civil rights and the nineties?”

bridesmaids help me poorSo this is my third version of this blog post. The previous two rambled on and on and I’m not sure anybody really cares about my thoughts on how it’s weird the Virgin Upper Class flight attendant says a very sincere “thank you” when taking away your glass or plate since you didn’t really do anything. I also lamented about the melted ice cream bar I let sit on my arm rest for 6 hours because I was in the dreaded middle seat on the way back and it just appeared when I got back from visiting Stephen in business class and I wasn’t sure if it was mine or not, since neither of the arm rests are really yours when you’re stuck in the middle. Like I said, you didn’t really miss much.

I am happy to report that ::knock on wood:: I am fully acclimated to UK time and no longer waking up at 4 a.m. craving xiaolongbao. I could go for some now, however.

This is your brain on jet lag

17 Feb

Brain: Hey, it’s noon, let’s go get some xiaolongbao for lunch!

Me: Um, no, it’s 4 a.m. You’re in London, not Shanghai. You can have oatmeal in 5 hours. Let’s kill the time by going back to sleep.

Brain: No, it’s cool, let’s check Facebook.

Me: If you want to stare at a screen, let’s get out the laptop and do some work.

Brain: Oh no, I’m way too tired to do work now.

Me: Then let’s go back to sleep!

Brain: How about we just take a 3-hour nap later this afternoon?

Me: No, the series of long naps sleep strategy only works when you’re in China for 5 days and on holiday. You’re in London now and have to work tomorrow, not to mention run, Skype mom and brown the pork chops before putting them in the slow cooker.

Brain: Did you say pork? Pork xiaolongbao sounds so good right now.

Me: Why do you seriously not have an off switch?

DinTaiFung XiaoLongBaoStephen and I got back from China on Sunday night. It was a quick, but amazing trip, despite the insane amount of time, effort and money that went into getting my passport renewed and a Chinese visa within a three-week period. But now my body is back in London, but my brain is still somewhere in Xintiandi, apparently craving soup dumplings, and I can’t help but wonder if I will ever sleep normally again, or if writing blog posts in my head for 3 hours in the middle of the night is going to be the new norm.

Lions and dragons and giant cameras, oh my!: Chinese New Year in London

31 Jan

On Sunday Stephen and I decided it would be a good idea to check out the Chinese New Year parade, because getting off the Tube at Piccadilly Circus is always a “good idea” on a weekend, or any day really. We were quickly reminded why we spend most weekends at home watching the obscene amount of blu-rays we bought in the states instead of standing outside in the cold being bumped by tourists with large cameras who think that somehow gives them the right to push through crowds. The parade was relatively entertaining, mostly because they had people representing every Chinese zodiac animal walking around in inflatable suits. It reminded me of Air Willie’s wild antics that made Northwestern football games tolerable (no offense to my alma mater, I’m insulting football in general here).


What surprised me was the abnormal amount of white people and other ethnicities in the parade. Most cultural events have your token white person, but this was almost enough to make me feel like I wasn’t getting the full Chinese New Year experience, like when you have a Mexican chef at Benihana. Sure, his onion volcano is top-notch, but it doesn’t feel like the authentic Japanese hibachi experience you expect in a strip mall. The crowd watching the parade was mostly non-Asian, consisting mainly of fathers hoisting their children on their shoulders ensuring no one behind them could see even the special Chinese New Year double decker bus, and people with giant cameras. I’m not talking your basic DSLR or mega-zoom like I have, these were some serious “Get out of my way, I’m a PHOTOGRAPHER!” cameras with equally “MOVEEEE I’m important!” telephoto lenses. I can’t tell you how many times the parade actually came to a halt when it was time to turn the corner because too many people and their giant cameras were standing in the street taking pictures of the dragon dance (not to be confused with the lion dance, more on that shortly). I have a hard time believing all of those people were from reputable news sources assigned to document the parade. I stood behind one guy who had a full blown monitor attached to the top of his camera. I’m happy to report that his photos were still crappy.

When the parade was over everyone processed to Trafalgar Square for more festivities. By “process” I mean we were engulfed into the crowd and together slunk to the square like a giant amoeba pushing out its cytoplasm and slinking along. We were not happy.

“I immediately regret this decision!” I said out loud, imitating Will Farrell’s character from Anchorman.

We arrived at Trafalgar Square only to realize the festivities weren’t starting for another hour. We were not going to stand in the cold in the crowd for another hour only to continue standing in the cold in the crowd while the mayor and ambassador spoke and performers sang and danced. We decided to bail and walked against the motion of the giant amoeba crowd back into Chinatown for some lunch. Many places were closed because it was still before noon, but we found a delightfully overpriced dim sum place. Since we were only a party of two, and even in London Chinatown the Chinese despise people who dine in groups less than six, they sat us at a table in the middle of the central walkway of the restaurant, so everyone and every dish had to pass by us. We tried in vain to change tables, but decided we were too cold and hungry to care that much. So we ate our overpriced dim sum and duck in the direct path of every waiter. It turns out we were also in the direct path of something else. …DUN DUN DUN.

Halfway through our meal we saw someone hang a giant bunch of lettuce above the restaurant’s doorway. I asked Stephen what it was for.

“The lion,” he replied, then he thought about it for a second. “Oh crap, I bet they’re going to come inside,” he said. It took me a while to realize what he was talking about. I then remembered my years of watching my friends perform in Northwestern’s Chinese New Year celebration, and photographing the lion dance for my photojournalism project. The lion dance is an integral part of Chinese New Year and is often confused with the dragon dance because all white people (myself included) think the lion looks like a dragon. Here are photos to clarify:

This is a lion dance costume. The dancer is hidden by the giant lion face which looks like a dragon.

This is a dragon dance. The dancers hold the dragon by sticks.

Sure enough the wait staff started freaking out and frantically moving tables around, as if the lion doesn’t come every single Chinese New Year. We could hear the steady pounding of a drum drawing closer as the restaurant owner shoved our table to the side. We then stood there awkwardly as the lion dance troupe processed through.

Here you see the restaurant owner freaking out and Stephen's arm standing awkwardly in the path of the lion.

Here is an example of a woman with a camera that seems way too large and professional.

And here are some more photos of the lion dance moving through the restaurant and almost bumping into us multiple times:


Unfortunately I did not get any photos or video of the lion eating the lettuce because there were people in the way and I didn’t want to put my coat on to go outside, but imagine a person inside of a lion costume (that looks like a dragon) grabbing the lettuce, grinding it up, and throwing it out the lion’s mouth to the delight of children gathered around. You can then also imagine pieces of lettuce sticking to the bottom of your shoes as you exit the restaurant.

Overall it was a neat experience but I don’t know if we’ll be going again next year. I like to avoid crowded situations that turn me into Eric Cartman.