Thursday, October 21, 2010

Food, the Never-Ending Dilemna

The real irony of our move to China is that I have never been a fan of Chinese food, or Asian food of any kind generally. I was won over to Mongolian barbeque when I received a gift certificate to Louisville's best establishment of that sort (2 Han's Mongolian Grill, don't miss it!) from a parent at conference time. I have no argument with the basic ingredients of Asian cooking (except the fondness for shellfish and other rubbery things), but the sauces and spices are not my cup of tea. I did try several Chinese places in Flagstaff and found dishes I liked, but of course everyone warned me that "real" Chinese food would be completely different, and would spoil me for American Chinese food.

Now that we are here, we find ourselves having the same conversation as we leave school: so what shall we do for dinner? This is a conversation we brought with us from home, and it's never an easy answer. Despite having a wok, countertop oven, pot with lid, microwave, and frying pan, we have still not figured out the rhythm of cooking at home, nor have we asked our dear ayi to start cooking for us, as some of our colleagues do. I wish we could ask our upstairs neighbor what she does, because she cooks every night and it smells fantastic. We have met her when she dropped something down onto our balcony, but our relative language barriers prevented much chit-chat. In the first few weeks, we ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly, and that is still a common fallback position, but we enjoy trying our local restaurants as well. The menu prices are so cheap that we can eat out every night if we want, and we order in about once a week (more expensive, but also more variety).

One difficulty we have is in finding something to drink. Every place serves hot tea as soon as you sit, but it tastes to me like the leaves were burned before being brewed, although Joe assures me that it's very good. I drink a lot of Coke unless I can get bottled water, and Joe tries to order diet Coke but often ends up with the straight stuff as well. Once he ended up with some kind of canned flavored tea that tasted like cough syrup, so he just gave up and ordered Coke.

We have two favorites, each about a block from our house: the Japanese place, where the beef is as tender as you could ever imagine; and the Savory Eatery, where there is no English, not even on the menu, and we operate under the "point and pray" method of ordering. We have also tried a Taiwanese noodle house, a Vietnamese place, a German place (complete with Chinese waitresses in dirndl skirts), and even a lady who sells dumplings out of a doorway on a street near the subway. The last one scared me when we did it, because I had heard stories about sickness from bad street food, but her dumplings smelled and tasted delicious, and we had no ill effects.

One thing that makes us laugh is that almost every time we sit at a table, someone in the restaurant finds some Western music for us. Sometimes it's a pop hit parade including "Barbie Girl" and Michael Jackson, but probably the best was when the Japanese place played a collection of covers of Beatles and Paul McCartney tunes, including Sir Paul's hit "Live and Let Die" done in reggae. I nearly spit out my tender beef! I'm glad to say that we haven't experienced any health issues due to the food, and we hope to keep it that way, although we won't pass up good dumplings when we smell them!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Style: The Eye of the Beholder

After waiting until we were approaching a Bigfoot hairstyle, Joe announced one night that he'd like to go to Best Hair, where our kindergarten friend Ocean had a very successful experience for only 30Y (about $4.50). It's very close and I had given up on solving my tangled ends with any type of product, so I agreed to give them a try as well. We were ushered in, seated right away and brought the usual cup of hot water (which is faithfully offered even on the hottest day in August). After some negotiations in broken English and limited Mandarin, with a healthy dose of charades thrown in, the stylists went to work.
I had asked for a shampoo prior to my cut, having heard rhapsodies on the subject from our new friends, but Joe went right for the scissors, and his stylist (Jason #8) never once touched a razor, doing everything by careful and precise scissor work. Meantime, I was lathering up under a process whereby the shampoo is dissolved in a bottle of water and applied to my dry hair like tint or bleach. My stylist (Bao Bao) worked up quite a head of lather and piled it on the top of my head until I looked like a white haired queen. She also started a very thorough head massage with her thumbs of steel (more on that later). After a couple of latherings, we went upstairs to rinse out and apply great smelling conditioner, then back downstairs for the cut, I presumed. However, when I got back in the chair, a second stylist (Pa Pa) came over with her blowdryer and Bao Bao offered massages to my neck, shoulders, arms and hands, in which her thumbs of steel seemed sure to leave bruises. Massage is a funny thing. Bao Bao also cleaned my ears with a finely twisted Q-tip, which was pretty much as weird as you might imagine, but I kept my hearing.
By this time, Joe, figuring we weren't going anywhere anyway, was in the middle of his own shampoo and abbreviated massage (he skipped the arms, hands and probing Q-tip). It was a good call, because Pa Pa had started on the process of blowing my hair out completely straight. This is a totally useless quest, whether done by me or by a professional, but there was no way to explain that to Pa Pa, so I sat quietly and smiled a lot. After about half an hour, she got a beautiful, flat glossy look (seen above) that was no doubt the best she could do with my crazy kinky Western hair. The pics have been the hit of my Facebook page... too bad such a 'do requires so much effort (and would frizz right back at the first hint of humidity).
A couple of nights later, after finding too many knots that simply wouldn't come out, I headed back to Best Hair. Bao Bao and Pa Pa weren't there (and I haven't gotten a translation yet for their status, probably because I can't reproduce the sound of the word correctly), so I sat down with one of Joe's stylist (called Gui), who went upstairs and brought down another male stylist (never got his name). I went straight for the cut, indicating that I just wanted a trim of the ends, and that worked fairly well, but then the boys really wanted me to have a shampoo (which is after all, part of the fee), so I said yes. At this point the hard sell started, because my hair really was quite ratty, so Stylist Not-Gui decided that I had terrible hair damage and needed a very expensive treatment. Once I figured out what he wanted, I turned him down (a few times, even after he went upstairs to get the treatment bottle and show me). There was just no way to explain that I hadn't been to the salon in about six months and the cut was really all I needed to restore health. The blow dry was charaded as the "curly" style, which consisted of blowing everything out straight, then putting the curl back in with a small barreled round brush. When he was finished (and it looked very pretty, if rather flat), Stylist Not-Gui gave me a look that said quite clearly, "Well, crazy woman, this is the best I can do with it." Having seen that look before, I laughed out loud and assured both of the boys that it was just great (hen hao). I'm sure Best Hair will rest easy knowing that I might not be back for awhile!