Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Shengdan Kuai-le!

Another Christmas away from home has come and gone. Despite being in China, we still managed to get a (fake) tree, listen to Christmas carols, wear Santa Hats, and bake Christmas cookies. The last was only possible through the ingenuity of my dear husband, who fashioned cookie cutters out of a tin can. That's right, bring on the apocalypse, we can survive.

Some of my favorite gifts this year were:

Battery powered Snickers. Actually, we never figured out what the purpose of the battery was.

A beautiful jade necklace and earring set from the spouse.

A Chinese-landscape calendar from Helen and John.

A Great Wall silk scroll from one of my students.

Warm and colorful socks from another student.

Two bobble-headed rabbits, also from a student. 2011 is the year of the rabbit, so everyone's gearing up for the new year.

Money from Andrew's parents for a noodle-making class in Beijing.

And a Kindle from my family! This is how I look these days to everyone else.

I've read four books in less than four days. Andrew stole it from me this week, for both his sanity and mine.

We were also treated to Christmas cards in the mail from Emma and Sandra. Thank you guys so much!

We spent Christmas Eve with the bosses, and Andrew cooked an extraordinary feast complete with foie gras I've been hoarding for the past six months. I have to say, I really missed France this holiday season. Spending last Christmas in the snow, with the wonderful Christmas market and dinner at my colleague's house really was amazing. It was nice sharing Christmas with Helen and John, but I still missed France, and even more, my family back home. This is definitely the last Christmas we're going to spend abroad.

On Christmas Day we hung around the house, eating leftovers, watching new movies, and playing with the Kindle. Then we went to a dessert party with the other foreign teachers where I received no fewer than three marriage proposals in response to my Bailey's brownies. Andrew's awesome banana bread had everyone melting, too.
James, Morgan, and Greg (isn't her jacket awesome?)
Secret Santa gift exchange with foreign teachers

Andrew's adult class gift exchange

Unfortunately, we only got one day off for Christmas, and then it was back to work. In just two weeks, though, we'll be heading to Harbin for the winter Ice Sculpture Festival.

Speaking of only one day off, let me explain, what Andrew calls, a "Chinese holiday". The word "holiday" in China has a different meaning. Yes, it means a day where you don't work, but no, it doesn't mean a day off. Let him explain. The government decides: "Let Independence Day be a day of rest." "How nice," you say. Only, here's the catch: you work the Saturday before to make up for the missed work! So, you have the day off, but you still work the same amount of time. Likewise with our Christmas holiday. The poor high school students technically have 6-day school weeks, but the school usually decides to let them take their weekend only every two weeks, so they end up studying for 12 days straight before having a two-day break. Sometimes, however, the school changes its mind and postpones the weekend another week, thus the students study 19 days straight before having their two-day weekend (as is the case now. They skipped the Christmas weekend to, instead, have their weekend on New Year's, even though they don't technically celebrate it. Heaven forbid they have an extra day off!). The Chinese have a way to go for workers' rights, but it'll happen someday, I'm sure.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Dogs, Chickens, and Pigs: The Three Food Groups of China

(Tap tap tap)

Is this thing on? Helloooo, anyone out there?

Okay, finished with not-so-subtle-hint-to-comment.

Nothing much has been happening here, except our festive preparation for Christmas and a winter trip to Siberia. What does one wear to Siberia, anyway? I'm not sure we'll survive the -40 degree C temperature.

Here's some random pictures from the last month or so, most of them food, of course.

Andrew finally tried the shrimp burger at KFC, which included whole shrimp mashed together and formed into a patty. Yum.

We finally ventured into the category of Animals-That-Should-Never-Be-Eaten and tried dog. Hey, when in Rome....It wasn't great. It was served cold, and the less fatty pieces tasted a little like leftover Thanksgiving turkey (the dark meat, in case you're wondering), but the image of poor little Mopdog (who was not harmed in the making of this meal) was enough to deter me from a third bite.

We were going to buy some chicken's feet and pig snouts, but we figured we were done eating weird things, so we just took pictures of them in the supermarket. Sorry if you're disappointed. We're not. They sell these things in travel-size, perfect for any long distance bus or train ride! I considered sending some back home as stocking stuffers, but decided the garlic and chili flavored dried peas were treat enough for them (you're welcome, Mom).

In addition to eating our way through China, we've been spending a lot of time with the other foreign teachers, and of course, watching DVDs. It costs about $1.50 for good quality DVDs, so we've been working our way through the entire series of "Lost."

Christmas here is more of a tourist attraction than anything else. The big department stores have trees and decorations out, and all the locals giggle and pose for photos while rocking the peace sign. It's interesting to watch. We got a tree! It's fake, and the decorations are shoddy Chinese ones (just like home, right?) but it's green and pointy and has space at the bottom for presents (so far just one from my mom; thanks Mommy!), so I'm pretty pleased. We're not totally sure of our Christmas plans, but hope to spend at least part of it with the other teachers. Our bosses were really disappointed that we wouldn't let them take us out to dinner, but really, Chinese food on Christmas?!?

It snowed the other day, bringing the temperature down to a less-than-comfortable level. Should it really be 52 degrees F in my bathroom? 67 in my living room? Government controlled heating bites.

Another random tidbit about Chinese culture: When two cars get in an accident, however minor, the policy appears to be to wait in your car, no matter where you are, until a police officer magically appears to determine who's at fault. Does it matter that you're in the middle of a busy intersection? No! Does it matter that it takes almost 30 minutes for the police to arrive? No! You aren't even allowed to get out of the car and make sure no one is hurt.

No post would be complete without some great Chinglish signage. Enjoy:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

KungFu: The Andrew and Nicole Legend Continues

Last Tuesday morning we took a 4 hour bus ride into Beijing. Qinhuangdao is building a new train station, so in the meantime they've closed the train station for the next six months, so taking the super fast (and cheap!) train wasn't an option this time. However, the bus wasn't too bad since we left so early. Our goal in Beijing was to celebrate Andrew's birthday a little early, do some Christmas shopping, and stock up for Thanksgiving at the foreign food store. All in about 30 hours.

When we arrived in Beijing, one of the first things we noticed was a lovely sign pointing toward home! We didn't follow it, but did notice these European-style buildings in the same area. Next time we'll check it out and report back.

Our first stop was our hotel, which was a good choice. On our last trip to Beijing, we stayed at a gorgeous little hotel that was really far from the main sights and public transportation. This time we opted for an HI Hostel right next to the train station (we had booked it before we knew the trains wouldn't be leaving from QHD). It had lots of amenities, like a bar, mini-mart, and a cheap buffet breakfast.

We quickly checked in and then headed near the train station to see the old remnants of the Beijing City Wall.

Next we headed to the Temple of Heaven Park. Here, we toured some gardens and temples, and bought a cute little knit panda for Andrew's birthday.
See the baby panda?

After a couple of leisurely hours walking around, we went to the Natural History Museum. Unfortunately, the exhibits were in poor shape and none of the interactive displays worked, but it looks like with a little extra funding this would be a great museum. I never realized how fast you can get through a museum when there's nothing written in English!

After a yummy dinner, we went to a KungFu show at the Red Theater. I really enjoyed the performance. It told the story of a young boy who enters the temple and trains to be a warrior monk. The KungFu itself wasn't very impressive, but the costumes, sets, and story were really fascinating. I was most impressed by the little boys doing flips and mock-fighting. The whole thing was a combination of Street Fighter meets Swan Lake meets Jackass. There was a good portion of the performance dedicated to doing crazy things, like lying on a bed of nails and breaking bricks over heads. It was a lot of fun.
The Red Theater

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and then went shopping. We did our Christmas shopping at the Wanfujing Market, where I picked up a cool panda hat for $3. Did I mention I have a thing for hats? We also bought Andrew an amazing silk shirt with dragons embroidered on it for the low price of $20. My mad bargaining skills made Andrew feel bad because we got them so low, but I figure that if they really couldn't afford to sell it at that price, they wouldn't, right? We checked out the bookstore, picking up a few classics like Around the World in Eighty Days and Arabian Nights. Andrew also got a guitar tuner. We passed on the skewered scorpions this time.

After, we went to the Sanlitun Village Shopping Center, which is basically a big outdoor mall targeted toward ex-pats and rich diplomats. We checked out the IPad at the Mac store, and then discovered the amazing Lugas Villa Mexican Restaurant. I ordered a huge strawberry margarita, and the bartender even gave me a second glass with the leftovers from the blender for free! We ordered chips and salsa and giant burritos and contentedly stuffed ourselves. A little tipsy (it was a BIG margarita!), we then did our foreign food shopping at Jenny Lou's. We bought some cranberry sauce, evaporated milk (for pumpkin pies), cream soda, two precious avocados, and cheddar cheese.

Reluctantly we headed back to the hotel, picked up our bags, played a quick game of pool, and then headed to the bus station for the trip back to QHD. Not bad for only 30 hours, huh?
Andrew's cool Dragon Master shirt

Next Tuesday is Andrew's birthday, and we'll be celebrating with tacos and chocolate cake and Harry Potter in English (well, on Wednesday Andrew agreed to come with me to the theater)!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Off the Wall

Two weeks ago we tried to make it out to a different part of the Great Wall, a more scenic spot where you can actually hike on top of the ruins of the wall. Unfortunately, we were taken advantage of by a taxi driver who tried taking us to a different place in order to extort more money from us. So this week, our boss John drove us out to Jiao Shan, where he patiently waited for over two hours while we hiked and climbed to our heart's content.

It was a crisp, cool day, with blue sky (a rarity in Qinhuangdao), and we were practically the only people out there. We hiked along the "safe" part of the wall for a while, before a dead end told us to go no further. Not deterred, we hopped off the wall and bushwacked our way to a lower part of the "dangerous" wall, where we again climbed up until the wall literally ran out.
"Dangerous" part

The way up was really steep, but the scariest parts were the ladders (I'm terrified of heights).

And no public place in China would be complete without it's ridiculous Chinglish signs. I'm trying people, but I'm only one ESL teacher.

Ssshhh, the grass is sleeping

After our exhausting hike, John took us to a steamed pork bun shop, where for about $6 (total!) we feasted on pork buns, corn soup, pickled veggies, and thinly sliced pork heart. It was all delicious, but I think I ate too much!

Next, we drove around the Shanhaiguan area for a bit, stopping to see the Old Dragon's Head, which we visited back in August, and making a lengthier stop at a fishing pier, where we walked over a path paved with sea star carcasses and broken crabs.
Laolongtao, Old Dragon's Head

I guess the fishermen can't eat the sea stars, so they just let them die on the pier. Andrew even found a beautiful purple and yellow sea star, and I liberated it by returning it to the ocean. I hope it made it.

We didn't arrive home until after 3pm, and then we prepared for a visit from Genie, a Russian ESL teacher, and Jeff, a university teacher from Colorado. I made pumpkin soup and homemade baguettes, with delicious persimmons for dessert. If you've never had a persimmon, leave right now and scour your area for them. They're one of the most delicious fruits I've ever had. Ive been eating about 1kg a week. Be careful, because if they're not ripe, they can be very bitter.

Next weekend we're heading to Beijing again to stock up for Thanksgiving and celebrate Andrew's birthday a little early with a King Fu show and a trip to the Natural History Museum.

Here are the weird foods of the month:

"Yes We Can" WWII beer

Shrimp donuts
Sprinkled Nachos???

Until I finally get Picasa up and running again, you can view all photos at Facebook.

If you're interested in getting him a gift for his 27th birthday, he really wants ITunes gift cards. :)