Nothing Quite Like…

•December 20, 2009 • Leave a Comment

…a little transgender dancing to put you in the holiday spirit.

Earlier…

•December 20, 2009 • 1 Comment

The college had a “Christmas Party.”  We were asked to “Perform.”

Found: Holiday Spirit

•December 18, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Woke up this morning and decided I’d had all I could take of the mess.  Spent upwards of seven hours cleaning, and in the process stumbled across this little Christmas tree on my back porch (along with other various holiday decorations)– almost as if my apartment were trying to help me rediscover the holiday spirit.  And while I still wish you were all here with me, there’s something to be said for the charming plastic apparition that is now the official tree of my first Christmas away from home.

Happy Holidays.

Love,

Jess

Alligators and armadillos couldn’t stop me

•December 9, 2009 • 1 Comment

It’s cold.  I’ve become a compulsive knitter. (5-days: 3-scarves)

Next attempt– Mock cable knit.

Currently listening to this on repeat:

“What kind of Thanksgiving dinner is this? Where’s the turkey, Chuck? Don’t you know anything about Thanksgiving dinners?”

•December 2, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Peppermint Patty had a point.  Thanksgiving is one of those tradition-sacred holidays when it comes to the food.  So this year– finding ourselves in China– far from the usual comforts of home (where grocery stores are sure to carry turkeys, cranberries, stuffing mix, and all the other T-day necessities) we had to work a bit harder to pull off the traditional feast.

At the outset, our friend Connie seemed fairly convinced she could get us an actual turkey.  Apparently they’re sold as pets?  However, come Thanksgiving day, the turkeys were all sold out… (coincidence?)  So we ended up scrapping the bird tradition, and purchased a chicken and a duck.  Though we had to let go of the pièce de résistance of the meal, we did manage to produce a fairly traditional (fully delicious) spread.  Stephen made bread from scratch, which he then turned into a stuffing with carrots, celery, chestnuts, and other wonderful bits.  Lisa made fantastic, garlicky mash.  Lauren used the cheese she bought in Jinan (cheese is virtually non-existent in Qufu, and we cry about this fact on a semi-regular basis) to create mouth-watering, molten mac & cheese.  Allie contributed her apartment, along with string beans and smashed sweet-potatoes.  Dana and I were on desserts.  Dana baked a very successful apple pie– the secret to which is apparently twice the amount of apples as any recipe asks.  I found a recipe for “impossible pumpkin pie cupcakes,” which I’ll include at the end of this post, because it’s just too good not to share.  The cupcakes have this great muffin/cupcake shell, but inside they’re exactly like that smooth, creamy, pumpkin pie filling we all know and LOVE.

Thus, despite being hundreds of thousands of miles away, we managed to bring a piece of home to life for a night.  And with the women dressed like fifties housewives, we proceeded to have one of the most memorable thanksgivings I’ve had to date.

Duck's blood: Comically red.

Steven's stuffing: Chestnuts-- an absolute must.

The setup (minus a few dishes).

Grateful for Connie-- whose turkey searching efforts were nothing short of heroic.

Qufu Thanksgiving: where matching aprons are alive and well.

Allie: the picture of charm in hostessing

Impossible Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes

Tryptophan or no tryptophan-- the food comas were very real.

And though we all missed our friends and family stateside, it’s safe to say that our little Qufu-family had a very happy Thanksgiving.

I have been terribly remiss about blogging, please accept my apology and expect another post this weekend.  Love and miss you all!

Impossible Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes:

2/3 cup all purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
1 15-oz can pumpkin puree
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup half and half (or evaporated milk)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper or silicone liners.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and pumpkin pie spice
In a large bowl, whisk together pumpkin puree, sugar, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla and half and half until well combined. Add in dry ingredients and whisk until no streaks of flour remain and batter is smooth.
Fill each muffin cup with approximately 1/3 cup of batter.
Bake for 20 minutes. Cool cupcakes in pan. They will sink as they cool.
Chill cupcakes before serving. Top with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Makes 12

It’s going to be another long winter…

•November 3, 2009 • 1 Comment

the kind that freezes shut the doors of early spring.

I’ve been bad about posting.  Here are some quick updates:

Flat Stanley arrived.

I ate some bad persimmons.

Daylight Savings doesn’t exist here.

There were six inches of snow in Beijing the other day.

Celebrating Halloween with our students was less a celebration and more a photo shoot.

Stephen made gnocchi.

We named the penguin, Carlos (He answers “jes” or “no” questions)

I’m taking Alex to see Au Revoir Simone for her birthday.

I miss you.

I promise to write something more substantial with more pictures soon.

Weihai

•October 8, 2009 • 1 Comment

It’s good to be home.

It’s good to realize that I’ve started to refer to Qufu as “home.”

That said, I had a wonderful time this past weekend.  After a nine-hour overnight train ride (which I spent curled comfortably on a top bunk, watching Running with Scissors on my ipod) I arrived in Yantai.  Allie was there to meet me– seeing her  walk towards me at 7:30 in the morning was easily the best way to start my day.  After a long-overdue hug session, she took me back to the hotel where she, Lisa, and Lauren had been staying.  Because of my latest Beijing excursion, I hadn’t seen the girls in over a week, so it was really nice to see them again and catch up.

Originally, the plan was for everyone to meet up in Yantai, but after spending a couple days there, Allie, Lisa, and Lauren were inclined to find somewhere else to go for the rest of break.  So we talked to the kids in Jinan (Charlee, Dana, and Steven) and decided on Weihai.  The bus from Yantai to Weihai took about 2.5 hours, but the group coming in from Jinan had a seven hour bus ride to look forward to.  Given that we were going to arrive well before they did, we were tasked with finding a place for seven people to stay for the next few days.  At the bus station we managed to find a cab driver willing to drive us around– for a more than reasonable fee– until we found something suitable.  The first option was an absolute no– overpriced, filthy, and suspiciously rank.  Our refusal seemed to confuse the driver at first.  He kept insisting that this would be the cheapest available lodging, which left us questioning his motives.  However, when we said we’d head out on foot and try to find somewhere on our own he panicked, insisting we wait a moment while he made some phone calls.  After a few hurried conversations, he motioned for us to get back in the cab.  Still unsure, we climbed in.  Now, I should admit that when he first pulled up to the second place we were, again, highly skeptical.

Photo by Lauren O.

Photo by Lauren O.

Location-wise, it felt like we’d wound up somewhere inconvenient and out of the way.  And, truthfully, it kind of looked like he’d brought us to his Uncle’s apartment… It wasn’t glamorous.  But the rooms were clean, there was space for seven, and it was only 30 kuai a night.  Besides, it was own and run by a very sweet Chinese couple (whom we would later affectionately refer to as “Mom and Dad”). We were sold.  And– in a stroke of good luck– it turned out that we were less than a five minute walk from the downtown area.

It was close to lunch time once we got settled, and Charlee, Dana, and Steven were still a good five hours away.  So Allie, Lauren, Lisa, and I decided to walk downtown to explore and find food.  Dad was kind enough to show us the way to a street lined with vendors that lead straight into the center of the city.  Now, before I continue I need to provide some backstory:  earlier that morning, when we were still in Yantai, the girls were talking about someone they referred to as, “The Egg Man.”  Apparently, they had seen him on a street corner near the hotel they were staying in.  He was your basic street vendor– cooking station on wheels, grease, grime.  But what he had to offer was something entirely new.  The best way they could describe his nosh was as a Chinese Egg McMuffin (doughy bread fried around an egg and a thin layer of pork and scallions).  The girls were fixated.  However, every time they came across him they’d already eaten and couldn’t justify more food.  And every time they looked for him– well, he just wasn’t there.  Before the four of us got on the bus to Weihai we searched, once again, for The Egg Man.  But, as anyone might have expected, he was nowhere to be found.  So we boarded the bus disappointed and hungry.  So, now, here we were in Weihai.  We still hadn’t had anything to eat yet, and we were all starving.  We headed down the street that Dad showed us, and then further into the center of Weihai, when all of a sudden Lauren gasped– or maybe it was Lisa… it really doesn’t matter, because there– right beside us– was an Egg Woman!  I cannot adequately express the groups elation at this discovery.  We had given up on The Egg Man in Yantai, and never even hoped to find an Egg Lady in Weihai.  But there she was.  And those Egg Sandwiches she made were every bit as good as we’d hoped they’d be.  I wish I had a photo to document that momentous discovery, but hunger made me forget to take out my camera.  Later we actually made explicit plans to return the next morning for more sandwiches and a picture with The Egg Lady.  But– and we should have seen this coming– no matter how hard we looked, we never found her again.  Poetic, really.  The Chinese Egg People: there when you least expect them, gone when you try to find them.  My mouth still waters thinking about it…

After devouring those elusive, steaming, delicacies, we continued to wander through Weihai.  It was a gorgeous day (one of many, the weather could not have been any more perfect for our stay), sunny, breezy.  And because we were by the sea, the air was refreshingly clean.

We stopped for a bit in a square where a little girl was performing acrobatics on a ladder.  She was adorable, incredibly nimble, and impossible to walk away from– a fact she was fully aware of and ready to exploit.  It made me uncomfortable, but when that sweet, dirt smeared face and hand bee-lined for us I couldn’t avoid reaching into my purse.  I felt completely suckered.  What’s worse, I didn’t have many small bills on me, so I only gave her 1 kuai– I’m positive she was more than a little unhappy with me for being so cheap.

Thankfully we got out of there quickly.  And there was plenty more of Weihai to serve as distraction: bizarrely oversized bags of snack-food, odd little shell critters in the middle of the sidewalk, a man pounding dough with a large metal mallet (and no, that’s not a euphemism), cars buried in giant stuffed animals, and delicious korean noodles.

Photo by Lauren O.

Photo by Lauren O.

After taking far too many pictures, and fighting the urge to buy useless tchotchkes, we took a walk through a small park and then found our way to a large bookstore.  Despite its size, the bookstore was a disappointment in its selection of foreign texts.  So we headed back to Mom and Dad’s for a much needed nap.  It wasn’t a complete waste though.  We did find this lovely sign in the foreign section:

Because it happened to be Mid-Autumn Festival, and because Mom and Dad had been so sweet to us, we picked up some moon cakes on the way back as a little thank you.  Once we’d delivered the little treats all four of us crashed.  By the time we woke up from our naps, Charlee, Dana, and Stephen were arriving.  We let them get settled and then decided we should all go get some dinner.  Before coming to Weihai I’d read some things about a bar/nightclub called 2046.  I was intrigued because of the obvious connection to the Wong Kar Wai film of the same name.  Plus I’d read somewhere that there were goldfish in the urinal.  Everyone was curious to see what this place was all about.  The only problem was that Weihai is a pretty big city, and I didn’t have a clue where to find the bar.  So when we’d first arrived at our hotel that morning, I asked Dad if he knew of it.  He didn’t.  But, in true “Dad” form, he made some phone calls, figured it out, and promised to walk us part way there whenever we wanted to go.  Since we were all set on heading to dinner, I figured I should let Dad know.  But I didn’t get any more than a few steps down the hall before Mom came around the corner, hands covered in flour, bearing a freshly-made tray of dumplings…!

We gorged ourselves.  And if any of us weren’t already completely in love with Mom and Dad, we were now.  Dumplings devoured, we followed Dad downtown.  He left us a few blocks from the bar.  After wandering about and asking around, we found our way into the hidden hutong where 2046 was located.  I’m sorry to say there weren’t any goldfish.  But it was an experience…

The next morning Mom and Dad asked us what we were going to do.  We told them that we were set on having a beach day.  So, of course, Mom said she and Zouyu (their 9 year old, obviously we referred to her as our little sister) would take us.  We assumed this meant that, like Dad had been doing, they’d walk us part of the way– most likely to where we needed to catch the bus.

We weren’t entirely wrong.  They did walk us to the bus, but then they got on the bus with us to make sure we got off at the right stop.  Mom kept insisting that she and Zouyu were coming along so that Little Sis could play on the beach, but it was pretty clear that this was yet another instance of our amazing hosts rearranging their day, and going well out of their way to make sure we had a fantastic time.  I think it’s safe to say that all of our hearts were melting.

The beach was stunning.  I don’t know if it’s because we’ve been living in the dust, coal, and smog of Qufu (though don’t get me wrong, Qufu still has a very special place in my heart), but it was a dream.  It almost seemed like a joke– it was too perfect: clear blue skies, soft yellow sand (that almost seemed like it had been shipped in from some bizarre factory), and clean, calm water.  We couldn’t kick our shoes off fast enough.  Zouyu was thrilled to see everyone go barefoot, and quickly followed suit.  Poor Mom looked like she was going to keel over from worry when Charlee, Dana, Allie, and Lauren took to the water.  As they waded out, she asked in frantic Chinese, “Do they all know how to swim?”  I reassured her that, yes, they did.  But Mom sighed and kept saying “Fang xin bu xia…”  Which is a Chinese idiom used to express that you’re feeling anxious.  Could she be any sweeter?  After a half-hour of this, Mom said that she would take Zouyu home.  She explained where to get the bus back and made me promise not to let anyone swim out too far before she left.  We spent the rest of the day in and out of the water, writing, reading, and dozing on the beach.

Shoes full of sand, Salty, and happy, we headed back to downtown Weihai to find some dinner.  It only seemed right that we get seafood since we were in a seaside city.  The street near our hotel was twice as lively as the first night.  We figured this was because most of the vendors had been home with their families for Mid-Autumn Festival.  Lucky for our seafood cravings, the new vendors were offering endless varieties of fresh catches.  We ended up stall hopping– scallops and oysters at one stand, pot-stickers at the next, candied-coated haw fruits at the next, and so it continued…

Photo by Lauren O.

Photo by Lauren O.

Photo by Lauren O.

Photo by Lauren O.

For our last day in Weihai we decided to head back to the beach.  On our way we looked (foolishly) once again for The Egg Lady.  Because she obviously was nowhere to be found, we ended up grabbing some barbecued chicken legs to take on the bus– breakfast of true champions.

At the beach, we were greeted by some useful information:

Jellyfish is danger.  Duly noted.  Thanks, China. With newly acquired knowledge, we proceeded to enjoy yet another perfect beach day.

It’s suddenly occurring to me how absurdly long this post is.  I’ll wrap it up with a few key closing points:
* Street vendors making glass roses

*Best photo I’ve taken in China so far

*Said goodbye to Mom, Dad, and Little Sis
Photo by Charlee B.
Photo by Charlee B.
Photo by Charlee B.
*Seven hour bus ride back to Jinan. Bus kept stopping to pick up people on the side of the road.  This, despite there being no more seats.  We were tired, grimey, and ready to get home.

And that pretty much brings us back to Qufu.