Japanese meat…banned in China?

Posted in Curious English, Health and Medicine, Japan at 7:06 pm by Benjamin Ross

Lately, the hubbub in the press has been all about the safety of products originating from China.  As I was leaving Japan, I ran into this sign at Narita Airport.

China prohibits carry-on beef from japan

I had been previously unaware of any Chinese restrictions on transporting Japanese beef. However, I guess you have to run a pretty tight ship when you are selling to distributors like the one pictured below.

Really Safe Meat

Maybe they just have to massage all of the cattle in-house now…安全第一



A Chinatown in Japan

Posted in Down in Chinatown, Immigration, Japan, Travel Log (Asia) at 1:02 am by Benjamin Ross

Note:   I am now back in the US, and have been taking a little hiatus from blogging while I catch up on time, sleep, and Mexican food.  I will be in Chicago for the foreseeable future, and the blog should be back up to speed this week.

Japan is home to one of the world’s largest overseas Chinese communities, and the Tokyo Chinatown is a major attraction that I missed in my first round to Japan in 2007.  For me, Tokyo’s Chinatown bears a special significance.  I spent my first fifteen months in the Middle Kingdom living in Fuqing, a small town in Fujian.  Like most small towns in Fujian, Fuqing’s primary export is people, mainly in the form of commissary staff.  For many small towns in Fujian, they have corresponding locations abroad where its residents sneak over to, and then in turn help their friends and relatives make the journey.  Whether by arranged marriage, fraudulent passport, transit via shipping container, or in the rare instances with legitimate credentials, the Fujianese have spread themselves further across the globe than any other Chinese demographic.  Once abroad, the typical program is to find a job in a Chinese restaurant, work 70-80 hours a week for an interlude of 5-10 years, and then head back to Fujian with a veritable pile of money.  Even within Fujian, the residents of Fuqing are known for their prowess in sneaking across borders.  As for their destination, Tokyo is number one.

Where specifically do all of Fuqing’s emigrants end up?  A trip to Tokyo’s Chinatown was in order.  For starters, it’s actually a misnomer to say “Tokyo Chinatown,” as the Chinatown is technically located in Yokohama, a separate city which has now been completely engulfed by the Tokyo megalopolis.  On my second day in Japan, I made the 25 minute pilgrimage from Tokyo to Yokohama, in search of anything Chinese.

Like most Chinatowns, the entrance to Yokohama’s Chinatown is marked off by a large 牌坊 (pai2 fang1)*, with the characters 中华街 (zhong1 hua2 jie1), one of the various translations of “Chinatown,” written on it.  Behind the gate is a tangled web of streets and alleys, swamped by mobs of people.  The streets are jammed with stores selling Chinese spices and trinkets, restaurants with names such as “Shanxi Family Chinese Restaurant,” and street vendors galore.  By far, the most common items were smoked chestnuts (板栗) and baozi (包子).

But what was different about this Chinatown were the linguistic sounds emanating from the streets.  The racket of a typical Chinatown is usually dominated by the hyper-tonal sounds of Cantonese, the glottal emanations of various Fujian dialects, and a competing amount of Mandarin, usually spoken with a rough southern accent.  In Yokohama’s Chinatown, all I heard was Japanese.  In fact, it took me seven minutes from the time I walked through the 牌坊 until I first heard any spoken Chinese, during which time I had easily passed several hundred individuals.

If I had to give an estimate, I would say that on any corner of Chinatown, 90% of the people are Japanese, and that’s being conservative.  Like many famous “ethnic areas” in the US, Yokohama’s Chinatown seems to have long expired as an ethnic enclave, and is now merely a destination for Japanese tourists.  Although many of the businesses are still run by Chinese owners, their clientele are primarily Japanese.  The young wait staff can be seen outside storefronts yelling their sales pitches in fluent, but heavily Chinese accented, Japanese.  Even the “Chinese food”  (see picture below), looked and smelled Japanese.  I couldn’t help but conjure images of Homer Simpson eating at Americatown during his own visit to Japan.

So what has happened to the Chinese community in Tokyo?  My best guess (and I would love some feedback from those with more knowledge of the situation) is that as cost of living has risen in Yokohama, the Chinese community has dispersed to other parts of Tokyo.  During my previous visit to Japan, I had been eating Yakitori with a Japanese-speaking American friend in an old neighborhood in Tokyo when it came up that our waitress was Chinese.  She had been from Changle (a neighboring town of Fuqing), and told me that all of the store owners on that particular street were from Fuqing.  In another instance, on my way to Narita airport, I stopped to explore the area near Nippori Station.  While wandering through one of Tokyo’s more neglected neighborhoods, I was startled by an old woman on the street yelling “国际电话卡,”  (Get your international phone cards!)  As I meandered through the run down neighborhood, I encountered a disproportionate number of Chinese restaurants, and even a 刀削面馆 (cut noodle restaurant).  And if that weren’t enough, on my first evening out in Ikebukuro with the same American friend, we were repeatedly solicited services by Chinese hookers standing on street corners.  (I wonder if I could have worked a discount by speaking to them in their native language?)

So as it stands, Tokyo seems to still be a hotbed of Chinese activity.  It’s just no longer confined to a single Chinatown.  If I had more than three days, I probably would have dug deeper into the Japanese-Chinese community, but ultimately I was too distracted by people watching, conveyor-belt sushi, and all of the other stimuli which come with spending three days a city where you constantly feel as if you are inside of a cartoon.  Bottom line, if you’re going to Tokyo and interested in overseas Chinese communities, you might want to take Chinatown off of your must-see list.  Below are some pics from my afternoon in Yokohama.

*I honestly have no idea what you would call a 牌坊 in English.  Maybe “big overhead Chinatown gate thingy,” but that’s my best shot.

Yokohama River
Yokohama has less of an urban feel to it than Tokyo…which now that I think of it, that probably applies to just about every other inch of space in the world, save for possibly Manhattan.
Yokohama Chinatown
This is the entrance to Chinatown with the 牌坊.  The characters read 中华街, (zhong1 hua2 jie1), one of the various Chinese words for “Chinatown.
Japanese Chinatown
This shot probably could have come from just about any other Chinatown in the world.
Tokyo Chinatown
However, I must admit, Yokohama’s Chinatown probably has the  cleanest streets of any Chinatown I have been to.
Chinese food in Japan
Like most Chinatowns around the world, the primary reason non-Chinese go there is to eat.  The picture above showcases the typical fare of most Chinese restaurants in Tokyo.  Usually there is 麻婆豆腐 (ma2 po2 dou4 fu2, spicy Sichuan tofu), some variation of beef with green peppers, and everything else is about as Chinese sashimi and a ham sandwich.
Chinese steamed buns baozi
As is also the case in the non-Chinese parts of Tokyo, baozi are the big rage in Yokohama.  A friend of mine who had been living in Japan for six years describes Chinatown as “basically a feeding ground for Japanese people to eat baozi.”
All in all, I knew I couldn’t make it two trips to Tokyo without a single visit to Chinatown, but it certainly was not a highlight of my trip.  I am quite sure Homer’s experience at Americatown was infinitely more cultural than mine in this assumed hotbed of Chinese activity.  But hey, they got great baozi, so how much can I really complain?



Baozi (and Japanese Efficiency)

Posted in Food and Drink, Japan at 5:56 am by Benjamin Ross

Japan has a worldwide reputation for its efficiency.  For years, they built their economy on taking foreign products and making them better than the original inventors had.  Whether it is cameras, computers, or automobiles, Japan simply makes quality stuff.  Let’s take another product and add it to the list:  baozi (包子).  Yup, those puffy steamed buns which are a hit with both Chinese and foreigners alike in the Middle Kingdom are wildly popular in Japan as well.  And just as a Honda is a superior machine to a Volkswagen, I must admit the Japanese have a better take on the baozi than the do its original inventors.

Japanese baozi
Baozi, slow cooking in a Tokyo 7-11

Baozi can be found in virtually every region of China.  They are typically cooked in large bamboo steamers, and sold in the morning as a breakfast snack.  Their flavors tend to vary from region to region (i.e. the “soup” baozi common in Hangzhou and Shanghai, or the “cha shao” baozi found in Guangdong), but for the most part this variation is regional, with each region having a rather unvaried baozi selection.  (While I know several shops in Beijing putting everything from mapo tofu to stir-fried pork and cabbage in their baozi, this is the exception, not the rule.)

In Japan, baozi can be found in 7-11’s and various other convenience stores.  Rather than using metal steamers, the baozi are slow cooked on metal cooking racks which in the US would probably contain hot dogs or taquitos.  But what sets Japanese baozi apart from the rest is the barrage of flavors in which they are available.  Each level of the cooker contains a different flavor:  pork, beef, high grade pork, red bean, curry, and my own personal favorite:  pizza.  In addition to the insides being varied, the steamed bread itself is modified with the different flavors too.  For example, in the pizza baozi, the bread is cooked with cheese flavoring, and in the curry one the yellow buns, in addition to their flavory insides, carry the scent of Indian curry.

As they are in China, baozi are now a common staple in the Tokyoite diet for all walks of life.  With their portability, and ease of production and variation, baozi are perfectly suited for the busy Tokyo lifestyle.  Accordingly, they are also probably the most visible Chinese culinary product in Tokyo today.  Now if only some American company would take wind of this trend, and pick up the baozi slack in the US…or did we already learn our lesson with the automobile?



Update: Landed in Japan

Posted in Announcements at 12:42 pm by Benjamin Ross

I just wanted to chime in with a quick update of my wherabouts for those of you who have been following the blog.  This has been one of the most incredible summers of my life, and after three months, it is finally winding down.  I was supposed to leave Beijing on the 9th and head off to Tokyo, for what is now becoming my annual 3-day stop over in Japan.  During my last 2 days in Beijing, I had 2 different visitors stay in my house, and combined with the normal tasks one completes before leaving China (mainly buying stuff, i.e. eye glasses, pu er tea, funky Beijing t-shirts, etc.) I wasn’t exactly ready to leave by the time my last evening rolled around.  I decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do; stay in China after I’ve already told everybody I’d left.  This gave me three extra days without all the text messages, excess gifts, last minute phone calls, “I gotta see you before you leave” demands, and other hoopala which go along with leaving China.  I highly recommend it to anybody making an exit from the Middle Kingdom.

So anyway, I am in Tokyo now, so look for this blog to shift to more Japanese related content for the next week or two.  I will be back in Chicago on the 17th, and soon after we will be back to regularly scheduled programming.  Thanks to everybody who’s followed this blog during Summer ’08.  More updates on the way from the Sun Kingdom.



Qingdao…Chinese for “Beer”

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 10:33 pm by Benjamin Ross

The final leg of my Shandong excursion was a stop in Qingdao.
Due to its clean air, modernity, and relatively modest population, Qingdao is usually grouped with Dalian and Xiamen as the most livable cities in China.
Now that I have visited all three, I would probably say Qingdao is my favorite.
Even more than the clean air, what separates Qingdao (as well as Dalian and Xiamen) from other Chinese cities is the rare combination of modern amenities such as those found in a city like Shanghai or Shenzhen, but without the mobs of people.
There aren’t many cities in China where you can see a scene like this.
Qingdao, (like Dalian and Xiamen) also benefits from favorable geography.  As a peninsula which juts out into the water, any toxants in the air get easily whisked out to sea.
Thus skies remain nice and blue most of the year.
Qingdao also has the most scenic beach promenade I have ever seen in China.
I spent nearly an entire day walking along the beach.
I’ll let the pics do more of the talking…
Qingdao is known for its seafood, and at the end of the afternoon, I stopped at this 大排档 (da4 pai2 dang1) to relax and refuel.
A 大排档 is an outdoor, temporary, restaurant, which is usually set up under a tent and using a portable kitchen.  A typical 大排档 will have tiny tables barely big enough for a 10-year old, discarded seashells and bones scattered on the floor, and crappy service…not the kind of place you want to take your suburbanite parents when they visit China.
Here was my lunch, consisting of 京酱肉丝 (jing1 jiang4 rou4 si1), thick pork strips with onions, which are then wrapped in a tofu pancake (left).  Along with my 京酱肉丝, I had a pitcher of draft Qingdao (Tsingtao) beer and two pieces of mantou (right).  Shandong as a whole probably has one of the lowest per capita rice consumption rates in China.  Qingdao locals seemed to prefer mantou is their staple.  I did not see too many flour tortillas as I had in Qufu.
Right next to the beach, near the train station, is an underground mall.  I remember thinking that it seemed awfully close to the ocean to build tunnels underground.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had this concern.
Qingdao at one point was a colony of Germany, and several neighborhoods still bear the mark of the colonial architecture.
However, the biggest mark Germany left on Qingdao was beer-related.  Throughout history, colonial powers would often build roads, factories, and other forms of public infrastructure in their new lands.  For the Germans, they built breweries.
Today, the Qingdao brewery is the largest and most famous brewery in China.  It is located on Qingdao’s famous 啤酒节 (pi2 jiu2 jie1, “Beer Street”) seen above.
The main attraction to Beer Street (other than the brewery and the museum) are the various tented restaurants lining the street.  I spent the evening out with China Law Blog’s Steve Dickinson and his wife Sarah, sampling Qingdao’s renowned beer and seafood.
Since I first came to China, I have always enjoyed Qingdao beer.  In addition to Qingdao, nearly every province has its own local brew. Invariably however, it all tastes pretty much tastes the same.  The beauty of actually going to Qingdao Beer Street is that you can sample beers which are not available anywhere else in China.  The dark beer pictured here (黑啤, hei1 pi2) is what I would probably consider a porter, by leaps and bounds the best tasting Chinese beer I have ever had.  The one on the left is an unfiltered version of the Qingdao lager called 原浆 (yuan2 jiang4).  In addition to these, we also polished off a pitcher of Qingdao Green Beer (绿啤 lv4 pi2).  The waitress explained to us how it was made, and all I could catch was that it was made from some kind of plant.  It looked like Mountain Dew, and tasted fantastic.
Qingdao’s main pedestrian street
The Germans also decided to build a Catholic church in Qingdao.  Of course, out of convenience it’s not located too far from Beer Street.
more colonial architecture
Generally speaking, I think the whole Chinglish thing is a little bit played out, but I couldn’t hold back on this one.
Qingdao is quite hilly…one of the reasons there are very few bicycles.
a quick look at the CBD
Upon my departure (I originally came from Jinan on a bus), I found that Qingdao may have the single most impressive train station I have ever seen in the Middle Kingdom.
The floors at Qingdao’s Railway station are probably cleaner than most tables in other Chinese train stations.
Where are all the crowds?  Am I still in China?
And now with the new 动车组 (I have no idea how to translate this) trains, you can make it back to Beijing in just under six hours.  Final verdict:  Qingdao rocks!  Possibly now one of my all-time favorite Chinese cities…at very least, top 3.



Exploring Qufu, Home of Confucius…走进曲阜

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 10:18 am by Benjamin Ross

My first taste of Qufu (both literally and figuratively) arrived in tortilla form.  Qufu residents often prefer to eat their food wrapped up in flour tortillas, called 单饼 (dan1 bing3) as opposed to consuming other staples such as rice, noodles, or mantou.
For a more detailed explanation on the 单饼 making process, check out this post on Ji Village News.
Qufu is also known for its 孔府菜, or Confucius family food.  This is the Confucius tofu.  I wasn’t particularly impressed.
Qufu is famous for being the home of the Confucius Family Mansion, Confucius Forest, and the Confucius Temple.  It is also one of the most well-preserved ancient Chinese wall cities I have ever visited.  However, I must say Pingyao still takes the cake in this department.
Aside from the historical relics, Qufu has a lively downtown walking street chalked full of excellent dive restaurants and street vendors.  Everything goes for dirt cheap prices, even by Chinese standards.
I wasn’t particularly impressed by the Confucius Family Mansion.
As the name indicates, it wasn’t Confucius himself who lived here. but rather his descendants who for many years were one of the most wealthy aristocratic families in China.
One theme I felt throughout my entire visit to Qufu was an abnormally vast amount of greenery for a Chinese city.  This is the garden in the back of the Confucius Mansion.
For the most part, Qufu’s city wall is almost entirely still intact.  The wall and the moat surround the entire perimeter of the city.
more wall
The highlight of my Qufu trip was the drizzly afternoon I spent in the Confucius Forest.
The Confucius Forest has functioned as the cemetery for the Kong family for over 2000 years.
Members of the Kong clan are still buried in the Confucius Forest today.  When I asked locals what percentage of the population of Qufu are Kongs, I heard estimates ranging anywhere from one fifth to sixty percent.
Throughout the forest are scattered clusters of gravestones.  Each cluster is demarked by generations of Confucius’ progeny.  So for example, one cluster might contain only members of the 71st generation of Confucius’ descendants.
tombs from the Ming Dynasty
The Confucius Forest is certainly one of the more spooky places I have seen in the Middle Kingdom. Wandering off the main road, and meandering through overgrown, forested paths, I didn’t encounter another human for about an hour.
In the center of the Confucius Forest is the grave of Confucius.  Allegedly, when red guards pillaged the site in the 60’s, they found the tomb to be empty already.
Qufu’s third main attraction is the Confucius Temple.  In the front of the temple, is a large courtyard.  Keeping with the theme of Qufu, is another long expanse of grass and foliage.
Since I have already seen enough Chinese temples to last my entire life, and probably the next few lives as well, I was a little hesitant to fork over the cash to see the Confucius Temple.  However, my hesitations evaporated as soon as I stepped inside Qufu’s temple for the Master Kong.
Moreso than your typical Chinese temple, the Confucius Temple is a collection of ancient buildings enclosed together by a wall.  It’s almost like a scaled-down version of the Forbidden City.
The crowds are scaled down as well.  The whole experience in Qufu was pretty touristy, but not quite “I am going to kill the next person who tries to sell me damn T-shirt” touristy like you get at most major Chinese tourist attractions.
On the south side of the old city, you can climb up on the old city wall and take a walk.
Part of the southern leg of the wall has been restored for tourists to walk along.  I wanted to hike around the entire length of the wall, but the ticket attendant told me that it hadn’t all been restored, and walking the entire length would be impossible.  I decided to try to hike it anyway.
The best part about city walls are the views you get of the city looking down from them.
After about twenty mintes of hiking, the restored wall gave way to weeds.  I figured this was what the attendant had meant when he said that the wall was “unrestored.”  The weeds got higher and higher, until about an hour later when I reached the drum tower on the north face of the city.  After passing the Drum Tower, the weeds came back.  I continued heading east until I suddenly realized what the attendant meant when he had said the wall wasn’t completely restored.  A small sction of the wall had completely collapsed, leaving a 30 foot gap.  Had I been Indiana Jones, I probably could have figured out an easy way across.  But being Ben the humble blogger with limited athletic/roap swinging ability, I had to head back.  The whole journey took about two hours, and my legs itched for days from all the grass and weeds.
After a hot afternoon panting atop the city wall with no water, I came across this stature when I got back to the restored wall area where I started. Did China invent the Golden Rule as well?  Or does this just reinforce the idea that most major religions and value systems are geared towards the same core principles?

Regardless, Confucius certainly had a great enough impact on the Chinese civilization (and the world as a whole) to warrant such monuments built to honor him in his hometown.  Qufu is an excellent locale to spend a day or two learing about the Master Kong, as well as soak up the environs of a intriguing little Northern Chinese town.



Confucius says…Eat My Jian Bings

Posted in Food and Drink at 11:43 am by Benjamin Ross

Yao Ming and Zhou Jie Lun may be the top advertising personalities in the Middle Kingdom in 2008, but will their images still grace the face of Chinese products 2500 years from now?


Yao and Zhou are hot items now, but only time will tell if they have the long-lasting star power of the great Kongfuzi.  Arguably the most influential figure in all of Chinese history, his image is now used to sell his specialty Confucius Family Jian Bings in his hometown of Qufu.

Confucius jian bing

However, I can’t imagine the royalty payments are too lucrative. 20% of the residents of Qufu alone are surnamed Kong, and claim to be a descendant of the Great Master. In addition to the flagship jian bings, Qufu locals have also created an entire cuisine known as 孔府菜, allegedly the food of Confucius and his aristrocratic progeny.  The stuff wasn’t bad, but I have a little trouble grasping the fact that the 孔府豆腐 (Confucius tofu) I ate was in any way similar to what the Kong family dined on during the last few centuries B.C. I’m not really sure whether they had jian bings back then either.



Snackin’ it up, Jinan style

Posted in Food and Drink, Travel Log (Asia) at 11:55 am by Benjamin Ross

Jinan is a non-descript, crowded, polluted, grey Northern Chinese capital city.  It’s the capital of Shandong province, but nobody goes there for tourism.  However, under all the grey and dust, Jinan contains one of my now all-time favorite spots in the Middle Kingdom.

As I was wandering around downtown on my first day in town, I accidentally discovered a small alley called Furong Street.  Tucked behind clothing stores and fast food restaurants, the entrance to Furong Street is barely visible from the busy street.  Furong Street is what Chinese people commonly refer to as a 小吃街 (xiao3 chi1 jie1), or snack street.  For those of you who have never been to one (and no, the “snack street” on Wangfujing in Beijing does not count), here is what defines a proper Chinese snack street.

-Various booths and stands, mostly run by migrants from the countryside, each selling individual, cooked, snack items.

-Nearly everything sold on snack streets is portable, and can be consumed without the aid of chopsticks.  Items are commonly served in a plastic cup, wrapped in paper, or served on a stick.

-oil, lots and lots of oil

-Prices start at around 1 RMB (approx 15 cents USD) per item, and don’t get too much higher than 4 or 5.  One can easily fill their stomach for under 20 RMB ($3 USD).

-Random smells, both aromatic and wretched, permeate through the air, competing for real estate in patrons’ nasal cavities.

-Beer is always available and never sold for more than 5 mao above the retail price.

-There are no trash cans.  Instead, bones, shells, cups, sticks, and other miscellaneous garbage is all disposed on the ground.  Every night just after the stalls close, a massive sweep through cleans it all up.  In a proper snack street, a more sophisticated trash collection system simply wouldn’t be practical.

-Seating is all at temporary tables and chairs, many of them only big enough to fit the average 6 year old

Furong Street, in every way, fits these parameters, and I spent the better part of an afternoon grazing my way through it.  Here’s what I found.

Jinan furong street
The main drag of Furong Street
chinese street food
patrons enjoying snacks at temporary tables
shao kao
烧烤 (shao1 kao3), a mainstay in any Chinese snack street
street snacks in China
Why not add a little 辣椒?
street food in China
Here is a popular Shandong snack which I have seen in many parts of China.  I like to call the “Shandong egg burrito.” It consists of an egg tortilla with cilantro, beans, and other veggies inside.  If anybody knows the proper name, please let us know.
fried quail eggs on a stick
fried quail eggs on a stick
fried cicadas on a stick
fried cicadas on a stick
crabs on a stick…being several hundred miles away from the ocean, Jinan is not exactly known for its seafood. I decided to pass on the crabs and wait until I got to Qingdao.
Chinese food
In addition to snacks, several shops along Furong Street also had 盖饭 (gai4 fan4), a small portion of a Chinese dish, topped on a plate of rice.
Here is one of my favorite new discoveries. These little fried salty bread rolls are called 油镟 (you2 xuan4), and I have never encountered them outside of Jinan.
Chinese schawarma
The 图尔基烤肉夹馍 (Turkish roast meat wrap) or as I would probably call it, schawarma, is now becoming a token “ethnic” food in Chinese snack streets.
Another tasty snack, this little curly-cue is made of flour, and aptly referred to as 面经 (mian4 jing1), or “flour vein.”
bread in China
Vendors in Furong Street also sold various forms of breads, some of it similar to the nan bread found in Xinjiang
The most interesting snack I found on Furong Street were these little guys called 窝窝头 (wo4 wo4 tou2). Made from corn flour, yellow bean powder, sorghum, and green bean powder, 窝窝头 are both cute and delicious.  The boy who was making them told me they were a traditional Jinan stack, which have recently seen a resurgence in popularity.

Most large Chinese cities have a snack street similar to Furong, and I always keep a lookout for one when I am in a new locale. But I must say that when it comes to ambiance and food selection, Furong Street now tops my list. (honorable mention goes to Kaifeng and Tianjin).  Chinese snack streets are not for the pampered Westerner, or even for the Chinese upper-middle class suburbanite for that matter.  They are dirty, gritty, crowded, and stinky, but in order to truly feel urban China, it doesn’t get any more real than this.

***I also want to mention as a disclaimer that I have never once gotten sick off of anything I have eaten from a Chinese snack street, and I’ve tried just about everything, regardless of how scummy or dirty it looked.  From my own experience, I have found Chinese cooking methods to be inherently more sanitary than those in the West, and thus many of the sanitation precautions commonly taken in Western restaurants would be redundant within a Chinese context.***

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