26 March, 2012

What a Weekend...

The only way the weekend of 23 July could have been better: if I would have miraculously developed the ability to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese.

Okay, so there may a bit of hyperbole there. For instance, I did spend the weekend battling my first serious bout of diarrhea. However, I knew the Runny-Dee would make an appearance every now and again. (Sadly, it’s not the good stuff kids go for.) A couple of my friends even gave me some anti-diarrheal medicine as a going away present (thanks again). But ignoring that fact altogether—as I am sure a lot of you want to, wondering why I would bring it up at all—my weekend was just outstanding.

Other than the heat/humidity-plus-sweater vest combo, Friday was a pretty easy and relaxing day: always a great omen for the weekend to come. After dinner, I went with my host father and brother to play ping-pong. I’m not good at ping-pong, but they took it easy on me.

Saturday morning, I slept in. It was glorious. It was raining when I awoke, so the morning was lazily spent finishing lesson plans for Model School. (Clearly, China’s done something to me; the last time I was productive on a Saturday morning, I woke up at seven to watch a Power Rangers marathon.) During breakfast, my little host brother told me we were going to go to an arcade in the afternoon, and I was going to eat huoguo for the first time.

Huoguo is literally translated as fire pot, and—for those of you who chose not to click on that link and read about it (which is fine; link-clicking isn’t for everyone)—is a traditional Chinese meal that consists of cooking things in a vat of boiling oils and seasonings in the middle of your table (similar to an oil fondue).

If there was something I was scared of coming to China, it was hot pot. I read about so many horror stories: the best came from a story about eating it, and I quote, “you haven’t really been in the Peace Corps until you soil yourself”. PC said that if there was one thing that made volunteers ill more than anything else, it was this. Partly because it is so spicy, but also because there is a danger when you are responsible for cooking your own meat by holding it in boiling oil with chopsticks. After the fact, I cannot judge anyone who ate something before it was finished cooking, if only to stop the heat from burning his or her knuckles. (And with the ghost of Runny-Dee’s past already visiting, my tentativeness was on high alert.)

The meal. It was a very long, slow process; it was a learning experience. I can also mark more foods off of my “I would never eat that, but now that I’m in China, I may as well try it” list. I ended up eating with another volunteer, which was a pleasant surprise. (This isn’t the first time my family has done that, either. It feels almost like they are scheduling play dates for me, but I’m grateful; I was glad to pop my huoguo-cherry with another PCV.)

Looking back, I cannot even remember everything that happened during the meal. It was a blur of boiling oils, heat and my burning mouth. The first thing I tried was comparable to bacon (this was what I held in the oil with chopsticks, only to have my knuckles burn). At one point, there was a small fish in my bowl. There was some other seafood that was pretty tasty. Quail eggs. The most notable consumption of the meal was the duck blood. When it entered the oil, I swear it looked exactly like cherry Jell-O; when it came out, it looked like grey. It was no longer Jell-O, but the monster lurking under Jell-O’s bed at night. They insisted that I did not have to eat it if I did not want to, but I wanted to try it. When in Rome, right?

It just tasted like the fire it came out of. I did not notice any distinctive flavouring, other than the same spices that came from the hot pot itself. What makes huoguo spicy is what makes all of Sichuan known for its spicy cuisine: the Sichuan numbing pepper. That is not actually what it’s called, but that is how most of the PCVs refer to it, so the name stuck. Huajiao looks like a small popcorn kernel, but if you eat one, imagine you put your tongue on a nine-volt battery. Your mouth is filled with a numbing, tingling sensation.

Oh man: you’re 750 words into this blog post, and I’m still talking about my lunch on Saturday. LONGEST BLOG POST EVER.

The arcade was located within what they told me was a “department store”. It was a five-story mall. Being from small-town Indiana, I’ve always had a soft spot for the mall culture. I hope to go back another time and just wander around for a while (note: later in training, this did mall did become a meet-up and hang out spot for some of us). I was devastated to find that Chinese arcades do not have skee-ball. Chinese arcades do have a lot of those shooting basketball games, racing games, and Tekken 6. Li Yanxi (my little host brother), I learned, loves racing simulators. He’s not good at them, but man does he love to play them. The only racing game I played was Mario Kart, and I rocked it like a hurricane (am I too young for that reference?).
After hours of arcade fun, I thought the day would end. That was foolish of me... From there, we went to Jinli street, a part of Chengdu developed and restored to architecturally look as the city did in Ancient China (read: touristy). Okay, that’s not entirely fair; read “touristy” without the pejorative context. Chengdu is a city that boasts a very long history, and Jinli is meant to reflect that. Also, most of the people there were simply visiting from other parts of China, not waiguoren.

We spent the entire afternoon, evening and night at Jinli. I saw people making small wax figurines, blowing candy and molding it into animals of the Chinese Zodiac, cooking all sorts of identifiable and unidentifiable food products. There was also a Starbucks and Dairy Queen built into the fa├žade of the streets. That evening, I ended up eating what I count as two and a half meals. Walking up and down a street with literally nothing but food shoppes (here is a lack of hyperbole; that is an accurate use of “literally”), my host-father continued to buy me different things to try. Weary of seeing the ghost of Runny-Dees present, I tried to politely refuse what I could. After eating the spiciest noodles I have tried since arriving in China and trying to cool it with a sweetened tofu pudding/water, it was then time to go have a formal dinner.
I met another volunteer after dinner—two play dates in the same day!—and we walked around some more. I managed to draw another crowd, but this time it was on purpose. There was a cart peddling puzzles, many resembling those wooden-style ones that can be purchased at your local Cracker Barrel. However, there were also a number of knock-off Rubik’s Cubes. I did not bring mine to China, so I had been looking for one. They were grossly overpriced, but in my exchange with the shopkeep, I noticed he had a mixed-up Mirror Cube next to his toilet paper.

A Mirror Cube works just like a Rubik’s Cube, but instead of colour differences, the squares are different sizes. It solves exactly the same way, but unless you have the spatial reasoning of Jason Bourne’s cartographer cousin, it is considerably more difficult to solve. Despite only being sold in Japan, I’ve had some experience solving them (thanks to my enigmaphile of a brother who owns one black market, no big deal). I took it from him and began solving it, trying to communicate to him that he should give me a discount when I finish solving it for him. As I worked on the cube, people took notice and stared. Each step I solved from then on out, I would point it out to the onlookers; they would emit noises of delight. The oohs and ahhs increased until I completed it, drawing a round of applause.

It was a late night, but luckily I slept in again the next day (PC didnt give us many two-day weekends during training, so I took full advantage of it). After another late breakfast and productive morning, my host-family told me that we were going to go to a park to exercise and ride bikes. Initially, I was weary—on another occasion, my little host brother said exactly that same thing, so I donned athletic shorts and a cut-off shirt, and we ended up at the Wenshu Buddhist Temple—but was excited at the idea of spending time at a park and exercising. (With all of the terrifying health talks PC has given us about the pollution in China, I’m considering giving up exercising for two years for fear of developing serious lung problems.)
If you didn't believe me.

I cannot say I actually know the name of the park I went to, but it was wonderful. The sign in the front only had “LOHAS” and “greenway” surrounded by Chinese characters. LOHAS I know stands for “lifestyles of health and sustainability”, and with all of the googling I have done, I gather that “greenway” is a Chengdu initiative to provide cycling/walking paths throughout the city and connecting with its suburbs. Regardless, it was awesome. We rented bicycles and toured the area. It was like a very large area with many different groves and gardens, growing all sorts of fruits and flowers. Part of the adventure also went through a beautiful birch forest. It was so gorgeous and I enjoyed it so much, it didn’t even bother me that every third person I biked past shouted “haalllooo!” at me.
When I took this shot, I was
actually trying to get a photo
of the back of her shirt.

After such an exhausting afternoon, we returned home. My family recently discovered that I am a big tea drinker, so they boiled a pot of water, and we sat down together and had an afternoon teatime with some freshly sliced xigua (that’s watermelon; food is really the only Chinese vocabulary I have a handle on, so I use it frequently). It was wonderful, because before my family called me to get tea, I had picked up the crossword book I brought with me. I spent my Sunday in China doing exactly the two things I loved to spend my Sundays in the States doing: drinking tea and doing crosswords.

The rest of Sunday was a small dinner—I ate a lot of xigua—readying my lessons to teach Monday, and beginning to write this Godzilla of a blog post by finding a way to politely mention diarrhea: which ended up a terrible reference to a kids’ drink. Although, to be fair, it was almost a Run DMC joke, so I would like to think I made the right decision. 

Below are some additional photos from my weekend adventures in Chengdu. Also, I don't know why the formatting for these is such chaos. I'm getting frustrated with Blogger.

Spot of tea?
My volunteer friends will
know this is not the Starbucks
from Jinli. However, it
similarly has its facade built
to match.
Li Yanxi bought an opera
mask; how do I look? 
When I see this photo, the only
thing I can think of is a Ludacris
: "Tell your friend he can
quit mean-muggin'".
I enjoy flower pictures,
and so should you.

And more flowers.
There was a quaint stream. 

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I wish we had a greenway here in Lanzhou :(