“Suibian” is a popular Chinese word meaning something like “anything, random, whatever.” For me, it’s also a convenient cover-up for my inability to thematically tie the following items of interest together. So instead, I present you with a series of hard-hitting and completely suibian reports about various aspects of our recent life in China.
Some of you may have heard a report on NPR or read the New York Times article about blooms of algae threatening the Olympic Sailing Regatta in Qingdao. Well, we have front-row seats to this Olympic Sailing pre-game show. It began for us when we looked out the window a couple weeks ago and noticed that the ocean had some funny green streaks running through it. A few hot days later, I found myself jogging down one of Qingdao’s nicest beaches between a reeking high-tide line of algae and a huge mat of it just offshore. I was planning to end my run with a jump in the ocean, a plan which I doggedly carried out after dodging the usual staring Chinese tourists and the bulldozer that was dealing with the algae on the beach behind them. But despite locating a small algae-free section of ocean to dunk myself in, with fields of the stuff stretching on all sides something didn’t feel right.
Sure enough, a few days later an itch in my ear became an infection, which took over a week to recover from. Adding insult to injury, by the end of that week the reek of the seaweed was finding its way up from the shoreline and into our apartment and our classrooms. Trucks full of camouflaged soldiers can still be seen driving towards the seaside in long lines, passed in the opposite direction by still more trucks overflowing and dripping with the neon-green algae. The scale of the cleanup is amazing; just the other day I strolled down to the ocean just to witness the seaweed-hucking, revolutionary anthem-singing bands of soldiers crawling like ants across the (now almost algae-free) shore. Although I wholeheartedly support their efforts, I’m still wondering whether I’ll be able to feel good about jumping in the water again.
Incidentally, there seems to be some debate locally about the cause of the algae bloom, with many residents quietly speculating that it’s a direct result of the parallel “bloom” of factories on the industrial side of Qingdao’s peninsula – particularly a new chemical factory supported by the mayor. Among almost everyone, a general mistrust of the algae and its causes is unmistakable, with many residents shaking their heads or just looking away when it comes up. But of course, ear infections aside, the China Daily fearlessly reports that: “The algae have no effect on the water quality or a negative influence on marine ecology of the sea off the Qingdao coast.”
Spending a year abroad with a constant companion requires a lot of things: trust, patience, and a willingness to compromise, to name a few. It also requires something a little less cliched, but no less important, something absolutely essential to the happiness of said constant companions: distraction. This distraction can (and does) take many forms, but for Lacey and I a game is often involved. Dinner for two at a local restaurant? We almost invariably take a pill-bottle full of dice for Yahtzee, or our tiny travel Cribbage board and a deck of cards. A quiet night at home? Scrabble has had its moments of glory. When things are really bad, Lacey sometimes tries to push a game of mental guess who. In recent weeks, China’s endless supply of pirated movies has pushed the tube to the fore. Still, games have played a huge role in our life abroad as a couple. So imagine our delight when a recent sampling of Chinese games gave us the opportunity to compare an old classic with a growing fad: Mah-Johngg vs. Paintball.
When a few of our favorite students heard that we wanted to learn how to play Mah-Jongg, it was only a matter of time before they showed up at our apartment with the gift of an enormous, heavy Mah-Johngg set and an afternoon at our disposal to teach us the ancient game. A few hours (and several wins, carefully engineered by our students) later, we were hooked. Without reinforcement, however, we might have quickly forgotten the basic rules. Fortunately, a dinner date the following night with a friend’s family gave us the chance to play again, this time with the requisite group of older folks. These senior citizens not only made perfect role models for our newfound addiction; they also kept us awake far longer than any septuagenarians ever should.
When an Australian friend who runs a language school invited us out for a Saturday afternoon of paintballing, we had no idea what to expect. We might have predicted the camouflage uniforms, the extravagantly vicious-looking guns, and the ducking and weaving through the trees. What we couldn’t have known was that our afternoon paintball war would take place in a public park, complete with gray-haired men playing chess and small children darting between the trees. Regulation is not generally China’s strong suit, but there is something truly amazing about being told not to shoot anyone within ten meters, handed a gun, and then released into a park full of ordinary citizens out to enjoy their Saturday afternoon.
Our Chinese paintball experience was unforgettable, but despite the belly-crawling, rat-a-tatting, civilian-dodging fun we had in Zhongshan Park, Lacey and I both agree that Mah-Johngg is the clear winner here. When you don’t want to stop even though your body is telling you it’s way past time for bed, you know a game is addictive. But when the gleam in the eyes of the senior citizens across the table tell you that midnight is just when things get started, you know you’ve found a winner. Add to that the constant peeks our “Uncles” and “Aunties” took at our tiles to make sure we kept winning, and playing Mah-Johngg with the old folks becomes an unforgettable China experience that we hope to repeat as soon as possible. My “helper” even walked us to our cab when the game finally ended, grinning spryly and shaking hands all around before we drove off into the wee hours of the night.
Chinese food is famous all over the world, and for very good reason. The Chinese possess an unrivaled talent for being able to make almost anything delicious. So for me, the most important directive when sitting down to eat here is always to taste whatever’s put in front of me, no matter what someone tells me is actually in it. As a result, without even having been to infamous Southeast China yet, and without having sampled the ubiquitous skewered scorpions and seahorses, we’ve still digested an impressive collection of weird dishes. Here are my top five:
5. Stinky Tofu: Sounds ok, right? After all, the French eat stinky cheese. But in the case of stinky tofu, “stinky” is a viciously deceptive understatement. Stinky tofu, and I mean no insult to those who have developed a taste for it, smells like bathroom. Lacey and I gulped down two bites of it each and had to stop. This is why I said the Chinese can make “almost” anything delicious. Near our school is a narrow, dirty street where hundreds (if not thousands) of students browse a wide choice of small stalls and barbecue stands for their dinner. Lacey and I walk by it on the way to one of our favorite local restaurants, but we’ve never eaten anything there, mostly because of the smell of sewer that pervades the scene every time we walk by. But it was only a couple weeks ago that we realized that there was no connection between the unclean condition of the street and the smell that hangs over the area. The nearby ‘sewer’ is just a single stinky tofu stand, buried among the dozens of others that ply their flavors.
4. Jellyfish: Seriously, did anyone know jellyfish were edible? I had no idea. But whether cooked up with veggies or boiled in soup, they’re both crunchy and mild, nicely complementing the flavor of whatever (usually delicious) sauce or broth they’re cooked with. And once they’re on your plate, they don’t sting.
3. Pig stomach, cow tongue, and sheep throat: Somehow these seemed to belong together, although we’ve eaten them all separately. We had the sheep’s throat at a now-forgotten banquet, the pig stomach at a recent wedding dinner, and the cow’s tongue at a Korean barbeque restaurant just the other night. The cow’s tongue was surprisingly sweet, and quite good. The pig stomach and sheep throat appeared similar, a little bit chewy, with the definite look of some kind of animal lining, but cooked up with lots of peppers and the usual mysterious sauces, each was unique, spicy and delicious.
2. Sea slugs and sea cucumbers: We’ve had sea slugs dangling in soup, chopped up in dumplings, and fried up as a main dish. Looking at them in the tank, it’s hard to imagine something you’d want to eat less than sea slugs. Long and pink, with a hole at each end, a wrinkled exterior, and no other discernable features, they stretch and retract like giant squishy leeches. But once you get them doused in sauce or soup, you actually can forget what they looked like (still alive, when you walked into the restaurant), and pretty much just enjoy them. As for sea cucumbers, my extensive online research tells me that they are also a kind of sea slug. They also don’t look like anything you’d ever want to eat, but they turn out to taste pretty good. In place of further description, I give you a picture of Lacey popping one into her mouth.
1. Bugs: Yes, bugs. I’m really proud of this one. Just this weekend, on a trip to a small, 500-year-old, hard-to-reach country town, in a family’s home that doubles as a tiny hotel, Lacey and I downed almost an entire plate of bugs. Not some small, palatable-looking bugs hiding in a delicious secret sauce, and not bug meat stripped of its bug-like appendages. I mean just bugs. In fact, when we balked at the initial offer of a basket of cicadas, our hostess misunderstood our hesitation and offered to mix them with another variety of bug, this one a large, mantis-like species. For some reason we consented. The result is well-documented in the accompanying “Photos” post, Brides and Bugs. But before you start squirming over the pictures, know this: there’s a reason why we finished almost our entire plate. Those were some damn tasty bugs.