Wednesday, March 31, 2010

waiting for rain

Today's China news: it rained yesterday in Yunnan! China's southwest is suffering from the worst drought in sixty years and Yunnan, which is normally an extremely lush, verdant province, has been hit the hardest. There are some really insane photos here--definitely worth taking a look, as they're both beautiful and horrifying. Despite the government's best cloud seeding efforts, the rain wasn't enough to make a big impact, but more rain over the next few days will hopefully improve the situation a bit.

The drought is a big deal because of the human impact--24 million people lack sufficient drinking water--and also because of its negative impact on China's relationships with its Southeast Asian neighbors (who depend on water from rivers, like the Mekong, that originate in China and flow south). More on this here.

I'm also keeping a close eye on the drought situation for selfish reasons--I was hoping to do some research there in a month or so, but the drought may make that impossible. The rainy season is supposed to start in May, so things may be better by the time I leave Beijing (or so I hope). In the meantime, not much to do other than wait, keep watching the weather reports, and hope things get better in the southwest (and make friends with the librarians at the National Library).

Sunday, March 28, 2010

NOTD #5: su chao bing

Spring has made it to Beijing! It was almost too warm for a coat today. Blue sky, even, and buds on the trees.

Fashion Week has also arrived, so the same hotels that were swarming with Lexus-driving bureaucrats two weeks ago are now swarming with leggy, intensely makeup-ed models. They are a funny addition to the usual wangfujing weekend scene: red-hatted Chinese tour groups; fresh-off-the-train peasants from the countryside gaping at all the glitz (and at the foreigners); pairs or trios of young women trying to strike up English conversation with foreign men, who are usually smart enough to flee as quickly as possible.

But enough about Beijing. I can't believe I haven't written anything yet about what might be my very favorite noodle-like substance--su chao bing (素炒饼), or stir-fried vegetable cake.

I have never seen this stuff in the States, and it's a bit hard to describe. Thin strips of something chewy and doughy--thicker than a tortilla, thinner than naan--are stir-fried with cabbage and garlic. And that's it. It's basically just stomach-filling, greasy street food, but for some reason it's infinitely more satisfying than other greasy noodle dishes. As we already established, more chewy = more delicious.

This particular plate of su chao bing was served to me in one of my favorite hole-in-the-wall places, so small and unremarkable that I don't know the name and wouldn't be able to give meaningful directions about how to get there. But their su chao bing and dry-fried string beans (干煸四季豆) are amazing. Here are the string beans, with the owner and his buddies behind them:

As you can see, the decor is, well, basic. But in China nonexistent decor and lots of customers are usually good signs that the food is decent.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

house -> home

I have been so busy working on a conference paper since my arrival in Beijing that at times I feel like I haven't really been here or started my fieldwork. But today, despite spending a lot of the day sitting in my living room working on that same paper, I had a few of those satisfying moments that make you feel like you are beginning to belong in a place, even if it is a place that will only ever be "yours" in the most superficial ways.

For instance:

As soon as I got up I opened the curtains in the living room to watch the unfolding Battle of the Small Yappy Dogs continue in the courtyard. My across-the-courtyard neighbor has had a small, yappy dog the whole time I've been here, but in the last few days a new, smaller, yappier dog seems to have moved in to the adjacent house. Each dog is highly offended by the presence of the other, and makes this known by barking and growling ferociously whenever the two are outside. The totally ineffective solution has been to put a teeny tiny gate (maybe a foot high) between the two houses. So now the courtyard is divided by a tiny fence and the dogs can still bark and growl at each other, which they do every morning. The best part is watching each dog get dragged away and scolded by its respective middle-aged, female owner, while the dogs continue to bark and growl.

(Incidentally, for an interesting and somewhat disturbing look at the lives of dogs in China, check out this photo slideshow).

Also, I know that sometime every morning my Chinese hipster neighbor (tight pants, mildly greasy ponytail) will stand outside his house, smoke a cigarette, and play video games on his cell phone, all at the same time. This happens two or three times a day.

Also, the local waitresses at at least three establishments on my street know me either by name or by past orders ("Last time you sat on the left and ordered green beans and tofu."). One of them, who fits the stereotype of the bored teenage waitress better than anyone I have ever met (last week I watched her put on seven different types of mascara, one after the other), invited me to her birthday party tonight. Her restaurant serves kind of mediocre food--except for the Chinese equivalent of French fries (thinly sliced potatoes deep fried with chili and cilantro), which I had for the first time tonight and which were VERY VERY DELICIOUS--but I keep going back because she's friendly and fun to chat with, as are the various other waiters who have started coming around when I eat there. The stuff we talk about is pretty inane--tonight's topic of conversation was "Is Sara's Chinese handwriting better or worse than a four-year-old's?"--but it's still probably more conversation than I've ever had with, say, the people who work at my local bakery in Oakland in all the years I've been going there.

Friday, March 19, 2010


I woke up bizarrely late this morning, probably because even at nine the light coming through my window looked like sunrise light. My whole apartment was sort of dark and yellow, as was the sky. This is sandstorm season in Beijing--loose sand from the Gobi Desert, which has been advancing eastward since the 1980s, blankets the city nearly every spring--but I've never been here in mid-March to experience one. I walked outside my door and found a layer of orange-brown dirt everywhere--the whole gray stone courtyard sort of looks like an old sepia photograph. My photos didn't turn out well, so just take a look at this one instead. Insane.

More on sandstorms and desertification in China here.

NOTD #4: Shaanxi noodles (biang biang mian)

Apologies for the long delay--worst blogger ever. I even have wireless at home, so there's no excuse for my long absence (other than a conference paper that I'm frantically trying to finish, a trip to the National Library, aka The Most Confusing Building In China, and my first round of interviews...).

Last summer, my friend Sarah promised to introduce me to biang biang mian, a type of noodle notable not only for its deliciousness but also for the absurd complexity of its written name. The character biang is so complicated and contains so many strokes (and, probably, is so infrequently used) that it doesn't even exist in most electronic lists of characters; while the restaurant that serves biang biang mian has the kind of laminated, type-written, Chinese language-only menu common in a lot of hole-in-the-wall places, the character biang has been written in by hand.

Biang biang mian are not the easiest noodles to eat--they're at least two inches wide and probably six inches long. A few of them come folded in a bowl with some greens and a lot of this rust-colored chili paste, and that's it. Simple, spicy, chewy--why is it that China has mastered the art of the chewy noodle and has not yet exported it to the States?--and (as I think I've written about other noodles) addictive. I've been to the restaurant twice in ten days and am already planning my next visit.

Friday, March 5, 2010

NOTD #3: Spicy Potato Starch Noodles

One of my favorite things about Beijing is the fact that China's many (and extremely varied) regional cuisines are all on display here. On my first day here, I had lunch at a Hunanese restaurant around the corner from my house. Hunanese food (湘菜)is spicy and delicious--beyond that, I don't know much about it, so just read the Wikipedia article linked above.

Potato starch noodles--transparent, slightly gelatinous, chewy--are hard to find in the U.S. I wish this would change, as I find them totally addictive regardless of how they're prepared. Thursday's preparation was 沙锅薯粉条 (sand pot sweet potato powder noodle? I understand why the English translations in Chinese restaurant menus are generally so absurd...), which consisted of noodles, strips of egg, and ground pork in a chili-spiked broth:

Also, that bowl is about a foot across. I am still working on the leftovers.

Home sweet home, Beijing

I've been getting complaints about the long blogging hiatus--now that I'm settled in I'll try to blog more regularly!

I arrived here on Wednesday night, welcomed by a fireworks display near the airport as we descended--a beautiful and somewhat alarming sight to see from a plane!

I am staying in a traditional courtyard house in a hutong (one of the small alleys that still fill much of central Beijing). It's quiet (except for a yappy dog) and totally beautiful. Here is the hutong:

And here is my house:

My arrival coincides with the arrival of China's VIPs for the annual meetings of the National People's Congress and the National People's Political Consulation Conference, and there is a steady stream of black Lexuses and Audis with tinted windows pulling up to the 5-star hotels not far from where I live. Chang'An Jie is lined with volunteers in blue and white tracksuits--one every twenty feet or so--who must be freezing even though many of them are toting large hot water thermoses, as it's been blustery here. It's a bit unclear to me what they're supposed to be doing; I haven't seen any of them do anything other than stand, and people appear to be directing questions to police officers (also out in force) rather than to the volunteers. But it is an amazing display of how many people can be mobilized quickly here. If only we could do the same in the States and, say, send an army of (track suit-clad?) volunteers into underserved schools.

Noodles to follow.