I Heart Hot Pot

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It is no secret that I am obsessed with food. If you have read my other posts you will know that I cannot help myself from mentioning food, multiple times. When I visit a new place one of the first questions I ask is, “Where should I eat?”

Shanghai is a dangerous place for someone like me. Every street is lined with restaurants and street food. Around the city you can find any type of food from any corner of the globe. Shanghai’s community is a vibrant mix of people from every province in China and every continent in the world. People bring their dreams, families, and businesses here. It seems as though the American dream can now be found in China. Every culture brings its own personality to the city, where some places look and taste like Europe, while others look an taste like ancient China.

If it is the taste of ancient China you are looking for, then find a hot pot restaurant near you. The hot pot has been around for over 1,000 years, and although places in the U.S., such as The Melting Pot, have repackaged it and made it “fancy” the original is still the best.

Shanghai can be cruel in winter, and some days the only way to keep you warm and satisfy your appetite is a hot bubbly pot of broth and spicy red peppers. At a typical hot pot restaurant you will be offered a few types of broth, which could be a spicy Sichuan mix or a more tropical and mild coconut mix. Once the broth starts rolling, and the steamy scent fills your nose, it’s time to cook your dinner. You can order just about any type of food that is edible. Meat eaters can eat anything with a tail, wings, four legs or none. Vegetarians will enjoy the plethora of leafy greens, fresh mushrooms, and bean curd of all shapes and sizes. The type of cuisine available will vary by region with coastal cities offering up the fresh catch and landlocked cities and towns serving the four legged beasts that roam nearby.

Each person is in charge of his or her own tasty bites, and one chopstick load at a time, adds them to the savory sauce. The broth only gets better, as the individual flavors of the food infuse into it. If your mouth isn’t watering yet, it will when you visit the sauce counter where you can find peanut sauce, pepper sauce, sa cha sauce, green onions, crushed garlic, cilantro white pepper and more. You can bring back as many bowls as you like. Some taste better alone while others can be mixed in to a delicious concoction that you can drip on your food while it’s still steaming on your plate.

One of the best places I have been for hot pot is Hot Pot King in the French Concession. There the food was fresh and of high quality. The atmosphere is as it should be, full of warmth both from the costumers and the giant pots. Some patrons choose to wear the green apron offered by the restaurant, as it can get messy with all that hot and spicy liquid flying around. They offer an appetizer of thin and crispy flat bread with peanut butter smeared in between. The cost is great too. For a huge meal and the green bottled Tsingdao, it was only 120 RMB for each of us, about $19.

There may be many things about the city that you will find overwhelming at times, but the great thing is that you will always find a comfort food to soothe your soul. For many Chinese who leave their country to work or study abroad, hot pot is one of the foods that will always taste like home.

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A Few of My Favorite Things

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The holidays are approaching and everyone is saying their last goodbyes before the break. Some Shanghai transplants will be having Christmas dinner with their adopted families, usually co-workers, friends, and friends of friends. The city is all dressed up in trees and tinsel, so it really does feel like Christmas. Close friends, food, drinks. The only thing missing from that equation is childhood resentment, which I can happily live without. Those who do travel may be going home for the holidays, or to places completely unlike home. B and I chose to do the latter this year and booked a trip to India.

This was the last weekend we could all get together before 2012, and we went out together with a bang.

Friday night about nine of us went to Party World, similar to KTV, to sing us some karaoke. People here absolutely love karaoke, and in every town, no matter how small, one will find a dimly lit KTV sign somewhere. Karaoke here is nothing like back in the states. There is no stage, no bar full of audience, and no karaoke mama to take your requests. I was a little dissaponted at first, I guess because I like to make an ass out of myself in front of everyone, not just my nearest and dearest. So, your group rents a room by the hour, and is in charge of selecting songs, and pushing the button for food and drinks when needed. It had been a while since I went to belt out my favorites, and it felt awesome. There are two mics, so anyone can join you, if they feel so inclined. I spent five hours there, and when I got home my throat hurt. That’s when you know it’s been a good night of karaoke.

The next night we first went to Tiayro Teppinyaki, so good. For 168 RMB, you get all you an drink beer and sake, and all you can eat everything. We spent hours there taking shots of sake, cheers-ing each other, and occasionally breaking out in some sort of song. There were prawns, fish, lamb chops, tender beef, sushi, all kinds of veggies, and more. I have never left that place less than stuffed nor slightly sober. It is well worth the money spent.

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Finally, we ended the night with a little driving under the influence, but not in cars, mind you, and not on the road. Disc Go Kart is an indoor karting track with a bar upstairs. The second you enter all you can smell are exhaust fumes, and trust me, it gets you all revved up for the track. Grab a beer and take it with you to drink while you wait in line for your turn (I know, it’s awesome), then get into your go kart and race up to 8 others for 8 laps around the curvy track. At times it looks like people are drivinng bumper cars, and there will be crashes and small pile ups often. You really have to watch out for those hairpin turns, especially when you have had so much sake and gasoline fumes. Needless to say, it is one of the greatest things I have done in Shanghai. Just remember to wear your seatbelt.

I have found many of my favorite things here in Shanghai. Good food, friends, karaoke, and crazy go karts…these are a few of my favorite things.

Bu Ji Dao

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In America, one of the fondest words of a young child is, “why?” All of us have encountered the inquisitive child who is incessantly asking the big question. In America, we have been encouraged to ask why, it is an integral part of our society. To question authority is to be American.

I knew that when I moved to China, one of my most frequent questions would not be answered, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent to which I would be silenced. To cope with this, I have learned a phrase in Chinese, and I repeat it often: Bu ji dao, I don’t know.

Some of the major things I had questions about in my first months in Shanghai:

Why do babies wear split pants (pants where their bottoms are exposed at all times?)
Why do babies poo and pee on the sidewalk?
Why do grown men pee anywhere and everywhere?
Why is that dude carrying a purse?
Why is there a large green and white loogie in the elevator?
Why is that old woman “digging for gold”?
Why did that guy just blow a snot rocket onto my shoe?
Why are those girls pointing at me and laughing?
Why did that scooter almost run over me?
Why do I almost get trampled to death on the metro?
Why did the taxi just drive into oncoming traffic?
Why did that guy just push the button for both elevators (Mind you, he is on the 21st floor. One elevator is on the 2nd floor and one is on the 15th).
Why are the yogurt ladies dressed in go go boots and yelling at me through a megaphone?

Why? Why? Why?

Of course there are answers that probably wouldn’t make sense to you or I. For the most part, I just shrug my shoulders, close my eyes, and breathily say, “Bu ji dao.”

There are many obstacles facing those who ask why. In an ever-changing China, which is going through the growing pains of an emerging world power, the question is often met with mixed reactions; some embrace it while others despise it. As one who works at a Chinese school, I often see the division this question can cause. Our school’s student body is a vibrant mix of students from all over China; some from vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia, some from the humid factory lands of Guangzhou, but the one thing they all have in common is that they will leave China to attend university abroad. Our teachers are from China, Canada, the UK, and Oceania, but the one thing we all have in common is that we all want to help the students prepare for an overseas education.

When I was hired to work at my school, I was told, “It is an international school with a British curriculum. Our students are the best of the best, with most of them attending the world’s top universities! Because of this, our number one priority is English.” I thought, ‘Great! This is perfect!’
So, long story short, that is how I ended up where I am today. The reality is, the situation is much different than the picture painted. So, typical me, I asked the question. Many of the new teachers asked the same question, with each of us wearing a most bewildered expression, shrugging exasperatedly. The school’s more experienced teachers put their heads down, did their work, and kept quiet, for the most part.

Fast forward a year and a half, and we are still asking the same question. It is not restricted to the teachers however, as I mentioned in a previous posting, students are asking it as well. The response from the top leaders? “We have to talk about it.” If one has the audacity to inquire again, he or she will receive the reply, “I am not sure, we still have to discuss the details.” Most people never get an answer and just put their heads down, do their work, and keep quiet. The most persistent people will eventually get an answer, that is more or less satisfactory, and go about their lives.

Lesson learned? In China, persistence is a valued characteristic. In any market across the land, buyers and sellers will persist in obtaining the best price for an item. It is not rare for an exchange over the price of a silk scarf to go on for five minutes. The one who persists, within reason mind you, will prevail. This social custom spreads far and wide outside the confines of a local market; it can be found in family relationships, business, education, and government. I have learned that in the People’s Republic of China, it is O.K. to ask why, just don’t expect an adequate response, and expect perhaps that you will have to give up on your cause. This does not apply to everyone however, those with red envelopes and other treats will get appeasing answer.

Well, now that I think of it, isn’t that just the way of the world?

Bu ji dao.