06.25.09

The 4th of July and Michael Jackson (repost)

Posted in Pop Culture at 10:10 pm by Benjamin Ross

originally posted 7/3/07

The 4th of July is the one time a year when us Americans can dress up in red, white, and blue, and drink beer and light fireworks as we sing off-key versions The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Its a day to eat bar-b-que, have block parties, and above all, celebrate. The reason for all the celebration, in theory, is to commemorate our Independence, and to be proud of being American. But what does it mean to be proud to be an American? Living in China, I often come across tiny moments which answer this question. The most recent of these came from an unexpected source.

Last weekend I was enjoying an evening with friends in a private room at a karaoke bar. After several hours of Chinese pop songs, one of my friends selected Michael Jackson’s Thriller to be played on the hi-fi. Unlike most Chinese karaoke videos, the Thriller video is the uncut version of the original.

As the first scene began with Michael proposing to his girlfriend, the normally raucous atmosphere of the karaoke room toned down to a curious movie watching mode. My friends’ eyes remained peeled to the screen as Michael morphed into a werewolf and chased his girlfriend through the woods. The frightened look in their eyes was suddenly spun around as the scene flashes to Michael and his girlfriend eating popcorn in the movie theater. Everybody in the room had been engaged, scared, shocked, and humored, and were now settling into the fact that this was not just a typical karaoke video.

As Michael danced down the street, heads bopped up and down to the bass notes of that famous Thriller instrumental loop. When the music faded and zombies emerged from tombs and man-holes, the girls began to squirm in their seats. As Michael danced with the zombies, the atmosphere reverted back to that of a karaoke room. Shots of beer were consumed, snacks were munched, and the group chitter chattered amongst each other.

The party atmosphere was broken once again when Michael’s girlfriend runs home only to find the zombies breaking into her living room. As the zombified Michael emerged, looks of fright and anxiety graced my friends’ faces one more time, only to be promptly swifted away as Michael reaches in to grab his girlfriend and then suddenly wakes her up from a dream. As Michael turned around and faced the camera with his glowing eyes, the karaoke crowd clapped with delight.

One of the girls turned to me, “Wow, I had no idea he was so handsome back then. He is really strange now.”

Michael Jackson was handsome in 1983. But it was not just his physical appearance. Michael could sing. He could dance. He had the red leather jacket. And his teaming with producer Quincy Jones and a skilled team of directors, actors, musicians, and choreographers, produced a 13 minute clip of pure genius. Watching the Thriller video in a karaoke room in Fuzhou in 2007, it is still every bit as fresh as it was when I saw it for the first time when I was only 4 years old. It’s a work of art, which has proven to cross not only borders of time but those of culture.

During the next song another one of my friends in the room turned to me, and referring to the Thriller video said “That was really incredible. There has never been anything done like this in China.”

Because of various factors, social, economical, political, demographical, and some purely coincidental, the United Sates is an environment where this kind of creative innovation has thrived for 400 years. As the world’s largest fondue pot of ethnic mixing, American culture has produced some of the world’s most profound innovations, personalities, and works of art from the last 400 years. From Thomas Edison to Bill Gates, from Huckleberry Finn to Homer Simpson, and from the Model T to Gmail, the cumulative achievements of American culture should make us all proud.

The Fourth of July is not only a time to celebrate our independence, but also a time to appreciate the achievements which have occurred since our independence. This Wednesday take a short break from the beer and bar-b-que to re-watch the Thriller video. Or read a few chapters from The Grapes of Wrath. Download a copy of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Pop in a CD of Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan, or Elvis Presley. Use an iPod. Watch The Simpsons. Listen to one of George Carlin’s stand up routines. Reread the American constitution. Rent The Godfather, or eat General Tso’s chicken.

If anybody asks why you are proud to be an American, you will have a list of reasons to give them. And then you can return to the beer, bratwursts, and a capella renditions of This Land is Your Land.

michael jackson red jacket portrait
1958 – 2009

 

06.12.09

Obama’s House

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:34 pm by Benjamin Ross

Two weekends ago, my old friend Jiang Yueting from Fuqing came to visit me in Chicago.  I first met Yueting in 2004 in Fuqing’s only McDonalds.  I didn’t speak much Chinese at the time, and seeing as I was having trouble ordering a Spicy Chicken Combo (I had been subsisting entirely on Chinese university cafeteria food until that point), Yueting promptly offered his assistance and helped me order.  Afterwords, we exchanged phone numbers, and he went on to become my first non-colleague friend in China.

Thesedays, Yueting  is finishing up his law degree at Temple University in Philadelphia (you can visit his Chinese blog about the US here), and two weekends ago, he and his friend Michelle came to visit me in Chicago.  Along with our itinerary which included stops downtown, and through many of Chicago’s diverse ethnic neighborhoods, we decided to check out the residence of Chicago’s current most famous resident, Barack Obama.

Obama’s residence is in Kenwood, one of the more upscale neighborhoods on the South Side.  Before I went to see it, I had 2 major misconceptions about the president’s humble abode.  1) that it would indeed be humble and 2) that I would actually be able to see it from any close vantage point.

Barack Obama's House Chicago Road block
Instead, this is the first thing one sees when they visit the Obama residence at 5046 S. Greenwood. Traffic (pedestrian and automobile) is blocked off to anybody who does not live on the street, or who has been given specific permission (i.e. workmen, Chinese take out delivery drivers, etc.)
President Obama's House in Chicago
This was about as close to the Obama residence as we could get.  It’s difficult to see from this shot, but let’s just say it’s one of the larger single family units I have ever seen in the city.
President Obama's House in Kenwood
Here’s a view from the other side.
synagogue in front of Obama's house
Ironically, the oldest synagogue in Chicago is right across from the president’s residence. I tried telling the police officers that we had come for Shabbat afternoon services, but seeing as I was with 2 Asians, and all of us were carrying cameras, I wasn’t surprised they laughed off my request.  According to the cop, all congregants of the synagogue are required to present a special pass to get through the road block.
Obama's house blockade
Along with our old Fuzhou buddy Jon Zalman, we snooped around the scene and chatted with the Chicago police officer on guard for about five minutes before he politely told us we had to leave.  According to the officer, the vicinity was loaded with plain clothes officers and CIA agents, and that when the master of the house returns to Chicago, the blockade is extended out nearly through the entire neighborhood.  I couldn’t help but wonder how much of an inconvenience it has to be living in the same neighborhood as the President of the United States.  I asked another police officer if the security regulations would be in place for the next 4 years, and he immediately quipped back, “You mean the next 8 years.”

Well after our little jaunt, I must say the president does have good taste in housing and neighborhoods.  Kenwood is certainly one of the more aesthetically pleasing upscale urban neighborhoods I have visited in Chicago.   It’s also nice to know our president has chosen to live within the city as opposed to the suburban sprawl where most affluent Americans reside thesedays.

In a completely unrelated note, Obama’s neighbors in Kenwood include Muhammad Ali as well as Louis Farrakhan whose house we accidentally discovered. In fornt reads a large plaque “Residence of Muhammad, Messenger of Allah.”  In addition to the Obama house and the Farrakhan house, we also stumbled upon the Chabad House in Hyde Park about a half mile south of Kenwood, where we randomly encountered a native Chinese speaking Jew (mom was from NY, dad was from Beijing).  Yes, Chicago is quite the mecca of diversity.  Just ask our half-Kenyan half-Kansan Indonesian-speaking president.


 

06.07.09

Yangzhou, Home of the World’s Most Famous Fried Rice…and Jiang Zemin

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 8:54 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 8th entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

After two weeks of traveling, I had reached the end of the line.  Nanjing was to be the last stop on my journey from the Yangtze Delta to the backwoods of Anhui and back to the Delta.  I had to return to Shanghai to catch a flight back to Chicago, and Tex had to get back to Wenzhou to start teaching again.  After a few days of relaxing and enjoying the laowai life in Nanjing, we busted out the backpacks, and headed off for one final hurrah, a day trip to Yangzhou.

Yangzhou is a relatively modest sized town about an hour and a half from Nanjing via train.  From what we had gathered, we could walk most of the town in a single day if we had an early start.  Before our trip, I admittedly didn’t know much about Yangzhou.  In fact for many people, (myself included) they only know Yangzhou in the context of being the birthplace of Yangzhou (young chow) fried rice…that, and former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, although I’m guessing the the fried rice probably receives more fanfare.

Tex and I set out with the simple goals of 1) exploring the Yangzhou city area on foot and 2) seeking out the world famous Yangzhou fried rice.  It didn’t take us long to tackle the second goal, as our bus from the train station dropped us off immediately in front of this restaurant, named simply “Yangzhou Fried Rice.”

Fried rice has a certain allure in the West as being one of those sought after Asian dishes, presumably made carefully from fine ingredients in fancy kitchens and dining establishments across the Middle Kingdom.  In reality, fried rice is essentially the Chinese response to leftovers.  In most Chinese households, fried rice is what happens when you are stuck with cold rice and leftover scraps of meat and veggies from the previous day’s meal.  The rice is thrown into a wok, along with a fried egg, and then mixed with whatever excess foodstuffs might be lying around the house.  It is not intentional, gourmet or exotic.  It’s simply practical, a functional method for the disposal of leftovers, which of course was also the impetus for the invention of Chop Suey in California.

Now with all that being said, Yangzhou has become known across the Middle Kingdom (and in many parts of the world for that matter) for Yangzhou Fried Rice, a special recipe, which is prepared intentionally, and is commonly eaten in classy restaurants, by those with a refined taste for Chinese cuisine.

If I had to break it down to a simple explanation, the secret ingredient to Yangzhou Fried Rice is…everything!  According to the free brochures at the Yangzhou Fried Rice restaurant, the ingredients include “white rice, sea cucumber, dried scallops, chicken thigh, Chinese ham (火腿), fresh river shrimp, mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots, peas, etc,” however this is just a small sampling.  Unfortunately I didn’t take better notes at the time, but I remember counting nearly 20 different substances in my rice.

When all was said and done, there wasn’t anything which jumped out as particularly special about Yangzhou fried rice. It was just…well…fried rice, albeit a rather multifarious recipe, but still on the whole, fried rice.  Definitely not worth a trip to Yangzhou just to sample it, but it surely worth eating if you are there.

Other than eat fried rice, there really isn’t much to do per se in Yangzhou, but fortunately the city has some rather picturesque streets and architecture, so we spent most of the day meandering around town.
There are of course the requisite 80’s style bathroom tile buildings and cement cages.
But overall, a rather large amount of the local infrastructure and housing stock is of vintage style.
Like Suzhou, and many other cities in Jiangsu, Yangzhou is a water town with canals flowing throughout the city.
Unlike Suzhou, Yangzhou has not undergone an explosion of modernism and industrial development, and there are no skyscrapers, industrial parks, or compounds of Westerner businessmen and their latte-sipping wives.
Many of its locals continue living the simple life, pictured here washing clothes in the street with their neighbors.
Most of the canals were lined with ornate cement bridges and railings, making Yangzhou one of the more aesthetically pleasing small Chinese cities to explore on foot.
Unlike Fuyang and Taihe, Yangzhou is not poor. As is the case most of southern Jiangsu and Northern Zhejiang, the pocket books people of Yangzhou have benefited greatly from the economic development of the post Reform and Opening up era.  One manifestation of this is the Dairy Queen we found there.  While it may not seem significant at first, 18 RMB (approx $2.50 USD) for a Blizzard is an astronomically large amount to pay in a country where ice cream can commonly be purchased from street kiosks for 2 RMB.  Accordingly, Dairy Queen (simply called “DQ” in China, there is no Chinese name), is generally found only in the wealthiest, most developed cities in China.   As you can see from the picture above, Tex was quite excited by our find.
Yangzhou has recently been focusing on exploiting its tourism potential and in the eastern part of the city, a large tract of neighborhoods had been leveled to make room for a new tourist street (pictured above).  It’s part of a new trend in Chinese city planning which I like to call “tastefully touristy” development, where buildings and streets are reconstructed, in a careful attempt to mimic the architecture of times past.  While it’s never as good as the real thing, these developments do provide some sense of historical authenticity, as opposed to the typical plasticy tourist traps.
As much effort as was put into the tourist area, it still paled in comparison to the extant canals and dwellings which still make up the majority of the Yangzhou cityscape.
I also found Yangzhou to possess some of the best public landscaping I have seen in China.
Several of the canals are lined with tour boats…
…as well as restaurants on the water.
In one of the public parks, Tex and I came across the site of retirees partaking in their daily half hour exercise regiment.  A woman in the middle of the group led the exercises with a cheer cadence which was repeated loudly by the group throughout the workout.  Here’s a video below.

more canals and bridges…
even more canals and bridges
Yes, there was definitely no shortage of water in Yangzhou.
Like anywhere in China, Yangzhou also had its default “scenic spots,” like this temple which we did not bother going into.  Often times “attractions” such as these are simply commercialized versions of the sites and buildings which can be experienced for free in their natural context anyway.
We had planned to take the last train from Yangzhou to Nanjing which left around 7 pm, so we spent our final hour in Yangzhou exploring this bustling snack street.
Shawarma (or 土耳其烤肉, “Turkish roasted meat” as it’s called) is apparently a growing fad in Chinese street dining.  We had to have a little taste before our final meal in Yanghzou, which consisted of…

…yup, you guessed it, more Yangzhou Fried Rice.  We figured since we’d come all the way, and probably would never be back in Yangzhou, we owed it to ourselves to try the famous fried rice from at least two different restaurants.

As an interesting side note, Yangzhou Fried Rice is actually quite expensive in Yangzhou, typically going for about 15 RMB (approx $2.15 USD) for a serving like this, even in most hole-in-the-wall eateries.  In most parts of China, fried rice in restaurants such as these is priced in the mid single digits.

We topped it off with an order of gulaorou (sweet and sour pork).

China is known for cramped bus seats, and low hanging doorways, but this is something I had never previously come across in my travels: a miniature toilet.  I tried to get the brooms and the trashcan in the picture to capture a relative size comparison, but let’s just say this contraption would have been ergonomically perfect for me when I was about 5.  The characters on the wall read:

Bowel Movements Prohibited;  The pipes will get clogged

Finally, here’s a shot at night of the tower pictured at the top of this post.  If anybody knows the name and/or the history of this monument, please feel free to speak up in the comments section.  It was quite a spectacle at night.  I couldn’t help but wonder how often the sides have to be repaired from erhant motorists crashing into it.

After our 8 hour soujourn in Yangzhou, Tex and I caught the train back to Nanjing.  The following morning Tex headed back to Wenzhou, and I took the bullet train to Shanghai, where I crashed for the evening with some old friends, hurridly stocked up on tea and supplies from a Fujianese tea shop, and then flew back to the US the following afternoon.  After two weeks of non-stop fieldwork and writeups, and then two more weeks of travel through eight different cities, it had been my shortest (and most efficient) trip to China to date.  I’ve got a few more posts in the works formulated from thoughts and experiences from the trip, but will probably shift the focus of this blog more towards Chicago (including the Chinese community here) in the coming months.  As of now, I have no set plans for any future trips to China.  Thanks to everybody for following this series, and I’ll do my best to keep the content flowing.


 

06.04.09

Nanjing: Cultural Oasis of the South

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

This is the 7th entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

In Anhui, Tex and I saw what we went to see, namely under-developed, low income, areas of rural China with little outside contact.  Now it was time to return to the friendly confines of China’s big city foreigner “comfort bubble.”  Neither of us had previously visited Nanjing, former capital of the Republic of China as well as several dynastic governments, so we decided to stop to scope it out for a few days

We were met in Nanjing by Andy Goldstein, a fellow American (and member of the tribe) who has been living in Nanjing for the past five years.  Andy had a nice summation of Nanjing.  He said it is the Chinese equivalent of Boston.  Not as big as Beijing and Shanghai, but multiple universities, and brimming with intellectual activity.  In this respect, I would definitely agree with Andy’s summation.  After our rapid pace of traveling through Anhui, Tex and I took a 3 days to relax, sight see, and enjoy the former capital of China.

The streetscape of Nanjing looks very much like that of any other major Chinese city.
As far as major Chinese cities go, I found Nanjing to be quite livable.  It’s small enough that you can get just about anywhere by cab for under 20 RMB, and even the subway which currently only has one line was quite useful all things considered.  I have to say that Nanjing would be an ideal location for somebody who wants to experience a large Chinese cultural center, but without all the hustle and bustle (not to mention traffic congestion) of Beijing or Shanghai.
In terms of its architecture and streetscape, Nanjing is very much a southern city.  However, in terms of the personality types it attracts and the general vibe of the town, I found it felt a lot more like Beijing than it did Shanghai or Guangzhou.
Although not nearly as expansive and populous as Beijing and Shanghai, Nanjing is still quite large and developed, and has one of the more well-defined skylines of the Middle Kingdom.
The only major site Tex and I had on our itinerary was the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.  In the winter of 1937/38 Japanese troops invaded Nanjing as part of their Chinese conquest effort.  During the ensuing siege Japanese soldiers killed between 100,000 and 300,000 (depending who you ask) civilians.  It’s 300,000 if you ask the Memorial.
Admission to the museum was 5 RMB (about 60 cents USD), which probably reflects the central governments desire for people to learn about the events in Nanjing in 1937.
Accordingly, every caption was written in English, Chinese…and Japanese!
The message was clear.  The powers that be wanted as many people to see the museum and learn as much about the Nanjing Massacre as possible…which is why I found it rather ironic that cameras were not allowed in to the majority of the museum, and hence few photos follow.

I had done a decent amount of reading in regards to the Nanjing Massacre, and in addition to the historical events themselves, my interests also extended to how the they would would be presented in a Chinese museum.  Two years ago I visited the Japanese war museum at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo for that same reason.  The Japanese museum presented a rather curious view at historical events which undoubtedly would infuriate those who had experienced them first hand.  You can read some of them in this post I wrote two years ago.

As for the museum in Nanjing, in terms of curation, it was by far and away the best museum collection I have seen anywhere in China bar none. There was a copious amount of artifacts, images, and information, all given insightful and well-written multi-lingual captions and explanations, that would have given any American museum a run for its money. (From my experience, well-presented museum exhibits in the Middle Kingdom are few and far between).

However, the museum reinforced a theory which I have been nursing along for the past couple years.  That is, that Chinese propaganda results in the exact opposite of the intended effect when applied towards Westerners.  Let me use myself as an example.

Just like most historical man-made tragedies, there are certain fringe groups who maintain that the Rape of Nanjing either a) didn’t happen or b) accounts of it are grossly exaggerated.  The academic credence given to these theories is somewhere in the neighborhood of Holocaust denial and Bigfoot sightings, but it is certainly enough to get China (and most of Asia) in an uproar from time to time.

As we meandered through the museum reading captions on the walls, we were constantly bombarded with rhetoric such as “This proves that the Japanese brought great suffering on China,” and “The history cannot be denied.”   As a Westerner, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that the preponderance of evidence (photos, artifacts, personal accounts and taped testimonies) meticulously displayed in the museum were perfectly ample in shedding any possible doubt one might have about the events in question.  But every time I read the word “prove” in a caption I couldn’t help the knee-jerk reaction that the authors clearly had an agenda.  In my Western-educated psyche, this incited the natural feeling of doubt about the claims which were being “proved.”  In other words, I never had a shred of doubt about anything I had heard about the Nanjing Massacre until I visited the Memorial Hall.  This is not by any means I have any concrete doubts of what happened in Nanjing, but it is an interesting psychological question to ponder.

I would be interested to hear what kinds of feelings this over-extended (by my Western standards) rhetoric brings about among people who have been educated in the East, and how it might differ from mine, which I feel are quite typical of those educated in the West.

The museum is located outside of the Nanjing city walls in an area which used to be on the outskirts of town.  The reason why, which we learned, was that it was built on the site of a mass grave uncovered years later.  The final exhibit of the Memorial Hall was a walk through areas of the body dumping grounds which had been partially excavated and were open to viewing.
The end of the museum is marked by an eternal flame with the character 祭 (ji4), which refers to offerings to sacrifice.
Once we were outside of the actual museum, we were allowed to take pictures again.
After the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, we took a walk along the moat and city walls which partially surround the city.  The skies were clear and temperatures were in the 70s, which was fortunate because most locals told us Nanjing only gets about 2 weeks of nice weather all year.  The rest of the time you either are freezing (most buildings don’t have heat), or roasting in the heat of the summer.

Ancient Chinese god of fertility?
Like Beijing, Nanjing also has an active community living in old hutong style houses.  Although the buildings are old and dilapidated, and many lack modern plumbing, its inhabitants are not from the lower class.  Rather, they are upper-middle class holdouts who have elected to preserve their traditional neighborhoods rather than move into the modern high rises which can be found all over the city.
This particular neighborhood was just inside the south side of the Nanjing city wall.
After 4 days of trekking through Anhui, Tex (right) and I decided we wanted to relax and be laowai again for a few days in Nanjing.  So on our second evening in town, we met up with Andy (left) at a bar downtown which served stout beer for 30 RMB a glass, roughly the equivalent amount of money needed survive on street food in Anhui for a week.  As it so often does, the evening morphed unintentionally into a karaokeefest when a young Chinese man in his twenties invited the three of us (as well as our newly acquainted couch surfer friend Stephanie) to join him and his friends in his private KTV room.
The man (left) was in charge of an organization of tennis coaches, and had been treating several other coaches to an evening of binge drinking and off-key renditions of Chinese pop songs.  He had invited the four of us into his room presumably to garner more face in front of his associates. I’ve found myself in this type of situation countless times in China and creates an excellent opportunity for symbiotic usury.  We get free alcohol, excellent oral Chinese practice, and rambunctious evening of entertainment.  The other party gets the requisite face generated from having a group of foreigners constantly toasting him throughout the evening in the karaoke room he has hosted.
In addition to the drinks and singing, another element of the Chinese male KTV experience is the KTV girls.  For a fee ranging anywhere from 100-500 RMB, these girls can be “rented” for the evening to sing with, flirt, and pour drinks for patrons.  They also tend to consume a decent amount of the alcohol that the host has payed for as well.  This is certainly nothing I would seek out and pay for myself, but when somebody else is footing the bill….why not?
The girls generally come from different parts of the country (especially Dongbei and Anhui) and are attracted to the profession as a way to escape the dullness of their rural lives.  Being a KTV girl is a profession which is generally frowned upon by Chinese society, and thus leaving the hometown is a necessity.

About three hours after we had been invited into the karaoke room, the bar closed down and a waiter brought our host the bill.  The total came to over 10,000 RMB (approx $1400 USD).  In accordance with Chinese social norms, our host paid the entire bill himself, without expecting any contributions from anyone else in attendance.

Being the veritable Boston of Chicago, Nanjing has its fair share of college campuses, and some of the finer ones in the Middle Kingdom taboot.  Many of them are concentrated in a single university district. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the following pictures are all from Nanjing Normal University.

With its multiple major universities, Nanjing also has a quite sizable foreign student population.  In most Chinese cities, when you first meet another foreigner you ask them “Where do you teach English?”  In Nanjing you ask them “Where do you study Chinese?”
Many of the campuses are located in the vicinity of Nanjing’s “Student Street,” in the heart of the student district (unfortunately not actually pictured here). The street and surrounding area has a Starbucks, a McDonalds, small restaurants, tea shops, a specialty shop which sells Heinz tomato ketchup and Captain Morgan’s, and various barbershops, net bars, and other establishments to serve the massive student population.
lots of basketball as well
and of course, lots of abortions. In this particular add the Nanjing Dongda Hospital Institute is advertising “Painless Abortion…Endless Holiday…Full Package 350 yuan.”
At Nanjing University they have what I am told is the most extensive Institute of Jewish Studies in the Middle Kingdom.  Now, keep in mind, this is not an institute for Jewish people to learn about their history and culture, but rather one for Chinese students who are not necessarily of Jewish lineage or belief.

Andy told me that once a year, one of the professors with invites him (along with any other Heebs he can round up) to attend class for a day so that the Chinese students can get ask questions to bona fide living, breathing, talking Jews.  Andy and the other Jews are then give demonstrations of Shabbos, Hanukkah, and other Jewish customs.

Yeah, these shots are totally cliche, but it is always somewhat refreshing to see a pinch of the countryside in the big city.
Ok, so now to the most important part…food.  Anybody who has set foot on Chinese soil at one time or another has probably eaten baozi (包子).  Essentially baozi are hand-made dumplings cooked in bamboo steamers.  They can be eaten almost anywhere in the Middle Kingdom, and they vary a great deal from region to region.  The inside can be filled with either meat, vegetables, or just about any combination of the two.  Last summer I even saw multiple shops selling mapo tofu baozi (麻婆豆腐包子) in Beijing, and pizza and curry baozi selling in Tokyo 7-11’s.

What the Yangzi River Delta region is known for however, is what are called 汤包 (tang1 bao1), our “soup baozi.”  Rather than being made of mantou bread, as are most baozi, the soup baozi have a thin, impermeable casing, more similar to that of a regular dumpling.  Inside, in addition to the pork ball, is a pocket of “soup” which if the entire baozi is not consumed at once, will explode all over an unexpecting consumer’s clothes when bit into.  If you pop the entire thing in at once, you can appreciate the outside, the pork ball, and the soup all at once.  We ate these at Student Street every morning for breakfast

Her’es a local chicken dish which andy ordered, but unfortunately I cannot recall the name.  The inside is giblets of woodchipper chicken* stewed in peppers, and on the outside is a bread onto which the chicken can be placed upon.

*Woodchipper chicken” is a term I like to think I invented myself.  It is the most common way to serve chicken in China, and gets its name because random parts of an entire chicken (bones, head, feet, etc.) are all chopped up randomly as if they were simply thrown into a woodchipper before cooking.

As alluded to above, we spent most of our nights in Nanjing reverting back to laowai again, and the Nanjing student street is an excellent place to do that.  On our second evening, Andy introduced us to the legendary “Nanjing beer lady.”  While most nearby bars serve 12 oz bottles of beer for no less than 10 RMB, a while back an enterprising middle aged woman on student street set up a few chairs in front of the small kiosk she ran, and started selling cold 18 oz. beers for 3.6 RMB.  Being that it is China, and there are no open container laws (or at least none that I’ve ever seen enforced) foreigners, always in search of the cheapest cold beer, would congregate for hours on the sidewalk, chatting and getting drunk off beers that cost less than 50 cents a pop.

The Beer Lady herself is of a rather nasty disposition, speaks no English, and requests for beer are always replied to with “Get it yourself.  The fridge is around back.”  Nonetheless, it’s the cheapest booze in town, and the Beer Lady always attracts a decent crowd when the weather in town.

Here’s a shot of our Nanjing Crew on our last night in town.  From left to right that’s Tex, Shakiri, Andy, Stephanie, me, and on the far right the Beer Lady’s daughter and grand-daughter.  No word yet on whether they will take over the business when the Beer Lady decides to retire.

新街口 (xin1 jie1 kou3), Nanjing’s central shopping district at night
And finally a shot of the Nanjing Train Station at night, which is conveniently connected to the city center by Nanjing’s newly built subway system.

And that’s all for Nanjing, a pleasant, vibrant, culturally stimulating city in which I would consider spending more time if I ever moved back to the Middle Kingdom.  After our stint in Nanjing, Tex had to return to Wenzhou to work, and I had to make my way back to Shanghai to catch my flight back to Chicago.  However, on our second to last day traveling, we took a day trip to Yangzhou, and the ensuing travel log will be the final entry in this series…coming soon.

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