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.

My Cat Likes to Eat Diamonds

Shanghai has a way of surprising you; she tests your limits to the point that you feel like you may have to flee, while soon after showing you something that makes you feel like you should stay forever. In one day you can experience serenity, fear, confusion, and joy. Those emotions may be evoked by a fuchsia flower blooming at the beginning of winter, a taxi nearly rear ending the car in front of it, a person accosting you for being crazy enough to walk without an umbrella in the rain, or a taxi stopping to pick you up on a freezing Shanghai night. Everything that happens in Shanghai seems to be an oxymoron; yin and yang. Somehow, it always ends up balancing out.

We came to Shanghai with one pet, a Chihuahua named Pepe. We didn’t plan on getting any other pets until we had a big space of our own, but you know how those things go, especially on the other side of the world. Our first new addition came in the form of a turtle, whose name is still Turtle. She is a Red Eared Slider and loves the water. I fist saw her when she was about the size of a half dollar. She was in a bowl with about twenty other babies, all trying to claw their way to freedom. The baby turtle seller saw that I was an easy target and thrust Turtle in my hand. One look into her shimmering green eyes, and I was sold. I carried her home in my hands and found a plastic container for her to stay for a while. B arrived home, and was understandably confused, “I thought we weren’t getting any more pets.” I replied sheepishly, “I know, but it’s just a turtle.” One trip to Pet Zoo and 7,000 RMB later, Turtle had a pimped out tank.

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One night, a few months later my friend was waiting outside a building when she heard meowing from a nearby trashcan. She sifted through the garbage to find two tiny kittens, no more than a couple of days old, tied up in a plastic bag. Fate had decided that was not the way those kittens were going to leave this world, and my friend took them home. She contacted the Second Chance Animal Association of Shanghai, an amazing organization that fights for animal welfare and assists with pet adoption. SCAA paid for the vet visits, kitten formula, and gave excellent advice on how to care for a newborn kitten.

My friend mentioned that one of the kittens developed an infection, and it was getting hard to care for the two. I, without discussing it with B, offered to help with one of the kittens…just until she was adopted of course. Luckily for me, B has a soft spot for cute things, and jumped right in to help care for her. The little ball of orange and white fur grew stronger everyday. We fed her every two to three hours, even at 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., we helped her to the bathroom, joyously declaring to the office that she was pooping quite well. Needless to say, we grew quite attached to the little one. I had just finished bottle feeding her one day when B came up and said, “We’re not giving her up, are we?” I looked at him, wide eyed, “Really?” And that was how we added the fifth member to our family, Penelope the cat.

The cute little kitten went from being a helpless, sightless, wobbly thing, to what she is now: an out of control, out for blood, mad cat. The transformation happened so slowly that we didn’t really notice it at first, we thought it was normal kitten behavior. She got into everything, had crazy dilated pupils at certain times of the night, she ran around chasing an invisible foe while sliding on the wood floor. It was cute because she was little. However, she did not stay little for long, and quickly outgrew Pepe, our poor Chihuahua, who now is attacked daily by his nemesis Penelope.
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One night I was minding my own business, watching TV on the couch, when a cat claw found it’s way into my cheek. Another time I was doing some crunches and a claw sliced into my leg, one of my friends went to play with Penelope one evening and came out with her hand dripping in blood. Then, one night I was petting her and she started to try and eat the diamond off of my engagement ring. She is the most bonkers cat I have ever known, but when your life starts out like hers did, you are bound to have a couple of screws loose, right?

Luckily, Penelope seems to have calmed down over the last month. She has recently been spayed, and maybe that is why I can actually pet her now without being attacked. She still tries to drink out of Turtle’s tank, “play” with Pepe, shove everything off of all of our tables, and she will still try to eat my diamond. But I love her anyway. Penelope is true to her city of birth. She pushed us to the brink, just to the edge of the cliff of insanity, but just in time became more than tolerable. Pretty great, actually.

As I start to plan the next phase of my life in Shanghai, another two and a half years, I know to be prepared for anything and everything. I have some big changes coming up in my life, including a wedding…in Shanghai. I will hope for the best, and plan for the crazy. That’s what you do to survive Shanghai.

V is for Volunteer

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One of the best things that has happened to me since moving to Shanghai was finding BEAN. BEAN is a global volunteer organization that helps unite people by involving them in charitable causes. The Shanghai BEAN chapter is packed with volunteer opportunities ranging from playing mahjong with the elderly to reading to migrant school children. Not only do they offer opportunities to give back, but also to kick back with fun parties and networking nights.

Since joining BEAN I have volunteered at a migrant school, where we taught English and played dodgeball. These particular students belong to migrant families who come from provinces outside of Shanghai. The migrant schools are often underfunded, and the teachers inexperienced. Getting to run and laugh with a group of foreigners is probably a unique experience for these students. I know I had a blast with them!

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I have also been to a cat shelter, well it is now a shelter, but it didn’t start out that way. It all began with a man who loved cats, he loved them so much that he ended up with around 200 of them. SCAA, an amazing organization for abandoned animals, stepped in and offered to help as long as the man didn’t take in anymore cats. Right now there are a little over 100 cats who are really sweet and love the attention volunteers give them.

The third volunteer event I attended was at the Shanghai Healing Home, which is an orphanage for babies with cleft-palate or cleft-lip deformities. The home was started almost three years ago by an expat couple, and now is able to house over 30 babies. It is a bright, happy place, and the babies are just adorable. I go most weekends and look forward to it all week. While I am there I forget about everything else in the world, it’s almost therapeutic. I know there are many charities around the world who need help, but I can promise anyone who is looking to donate to a good cause that every bit you give will benefit the babies. It costs about 9,000 RMB per operation and 3,500 RMB per baby per month for basic care. The Home is largely funded by donors, so if you have a little or a lot to give, keep them in mind. If you would like to help by purchasing diapers and other similar items, or you just want to learn more, you can do so by visiting their website http://jamieweidner.squarespace.com/healing-home.

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With BEAN, I have run around the city with a camera checking off tasks for a photo scavenger hunt (cricket fighting, doing tai chi in the park, holding a baby with split pants), it was crazy. Think The Amazing Race involving a bar as a checkpoint, and you have an idea of what it was like. I have also ridden around in a double decker bus filled with kegs and other goodness woo-hooing my way around the city, waving at all of the pedestrians and woo-hooing again when they waved back. I have dressed up as a Ninja Turtle, and hung out in a pirate themed rum bar. I have been back stage at a music festival and threw giant red balloons into the crowd while 30 Seconds to Mars played behind me.

If you want to meet awesome new friends, volunteer in and around Shanghai, and have a blast, go to a BEAN event. You will be loving life even more than before. I know I do.

Two other charities I want to mention, but have not tried on my own are HandsOn Shanghai and Heart to Heart. HandsOn offers a variety of volunteer opportunities on the weekend and during the weekday. Heart to Heart focuses on children who need heart surgery, and helps fundraise for patients. The organization also helps to connect volunteers with young patients at the children’s hospital.

O is for Organic

Last night, after a long day of teaching, I headed out into the Shanghai night to watch a documentary. I head never been to the destination, Melange Oasis, an organic restaurant located in the back of a Shanxi Nan Lu alley, but it was a delightful find. It is often difficult to find organic food in Shanghai. Local food is often very tasty, but saturated with oil and salt. Many restaurants around town offer healthy fare, such as Element Fresh, but it is not necessarily organic.

Eating organic in a country where most of the fruits and vegetables are contaminated with unpronounceable and dangerous chemicals is not always easy, but for me it is becoming clear that I need to make a change in my increasingly street food diet. I am feeling a little bigger than usual, a little more sluggish, and a little more tired. So, last night I resolved to make a change in my diet, and hopefully start exercising again.

One of the changes I will make couldn’t be easier. I am going to start ordering a box of vegetables from BioFarm, an organic farm located in Pudong. BioFarm uses the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, a model that is growing in popularity in the U.S., and now in China. Each week you can send in your order and the time you want it delivered. The boxes are filled with seasonal treats. The options available for this autumn are chilis, black winter melon, potato, sweet potato, Chinese broccoli, pumpkin, and organic eggs and tofu. For about 100 RMB, or more depending on the size, you can have organic and fresh vegetables delivered to your doorstep. So, I have no excuse not to do it, right?

The documentary I saw last night,”The Real Dirt on Farmer John”, hosted by Kimberly Ashton, was another inspiration for me to go organic. It is an excellent film based on the life on an eccentric but awesome Illinois farmer who, in the face of so many obstacles, created Angelic Organics. Not only did he struggle due to the hardships of maintaining a farm in a land where houses are more valuable to the public than food, he also faced persecution from the neighbors because he was different. It is an inspiring film that I highly recommend.

So, before my belly grows anymore, even though winter is coming and that extra layer may help to keep me warm, I am resolving to make a change. Being healthy is not easy, but the benefits definitely outweigh the difficulties on this one. Will you join me?