We’ve finally taken the plunge and upgraded from point-and-shoots to a real, grown up DSLR. After much scouring of the internet for reviews and recommendations, we decided on the new entry level Nikon model D3100, and so far we couldn’t be happier. Here are a few of our favorite shots so far.
Bikes for rent along the Xiamen coast.
Biju with the Xiamen skyline in the background
Man sitting on the docks in a local park
Relaxing at our favorite local cafe, Helen’s
Yeah, I know the moniker of that Wall they have close to Beijing, but I didn’t think one small section would take hours and hours to climb. I also knew the Forbidden home of the emperor was a palace, but I didn’t really understand why they called it a City, until hours of trekking got us passed multiple squares and castle walls the scope of which simply cannot be described or photographed well. In comparison, the Summer Palace, with it’s more modest name, was even more grandiose, with temples, pavilions, and a gigantic lake.
Honestly, beautiful views aside, I just ended up getting numb to the gargantuan temples, parks, and palaces we went to – The Jade Temple, The Summer Palace, The Temple of Heaven….great names for big places, added upon by new structures -Tianaman Square, The Water Cube, and The Bird’s Nest.
But what I remember are the little things. Panting up the watchtowers on the Great Wall, happily seeing other foreigners and natives equally as worn out as my own nonathletic self. The call of locals trying to make a buck selling water at a price gouging rate in the Forbidden City. And looking at the faces of Chinese tourists and realizing that these places are just as awe inspiring to them as they are to me, a testament to how big this country is and how interconnected we humans can be, no matter our background, while traveling.
Happy mid-autumn festival, or Zhongquijie in Mandarin! The annual festival, dates back to the Shang dynasty over 3000 years ago, and celebrates autumnal equinox when the moon is at its fullest. While not as popular in the west as the Chinese new year, the festival is known for its customary pastries: mooncakes.
One of my favorite parts about the first year in a new country is experiencing all the holidays and events for the first time. It’s a bit like having your first Christmas but being old enough to remember and appreciate the day. This holiday had the same sense of anticipation and buildup as Halloween or Thanksgiving back home. Stores displayed stacks of mooncakes and the markets were filled with people purchasing ingredients for big family feasts. Our apartment building even had a community party on the Sunday before involving a dice game and sodas…that’s about all we could figure out.
What exactly is a mooncake? I had no idea when I arrived here in China. I’d heard of them, but I couldn’t have described what one looked like. As the holiday approached, Biju and I decided we really should sample a few varieties to figure out what all the fuss was about.
Put simply, mooncakes are a small, dense pastry filled with lotus seed paste and a variety of other fillings. The most traditional type of mooncake houses the yolk of a salted duck egg in the middle of sweet lotus seed paste, with a sugary crust holding everything together. The tiny and super heavy little pastries (you could seriously use them as paper weights) come at a price. The four we purchased from a cheap bakery cost $10, but we’ve heard they can go for over $30 each.
Now, with the exception of mangoes with sticky rice in Thailand, I am not a huge fan of Asian desserts. I’m always finding red beans, corn and sweet potatoes hiding in places where they shouldn’t be, and things that look like they’d taste amazing always seem to lack flavor. Mooncakes, on the other hand, are almost too rich with a heavy, cookie dough texture, and they can still contain some odd ingredients. We purchased the four types that were available individually from our local bakery, without knowing what they might contain. Sampling them was a bit like eating from a box of chocolates…you know the ending.
The first type we tried contained the yolk of a salted duck egg. The contrast between the sweetened lotus seed paste and the ultra-salted yolk was a bit odd, but I could understand the appeal.
Our second mooncake was a bit harder to identify, but I’m pretty sure it contained jujube, or date, paste. This cake had a tangy, fruity flavor to pleasantly contrast the sweetness of the crust and lotus seed paste. The bright purple filling makes this cake the most visually appealing out of the bunch.
The third mooncake, another classic variety, contained a mix of chopped nuts and seeds. This was Biju’s favorite, and tied for first with the jujube in my opinion. With a steaming cup of coffee, I’d eat a slice of this one any day.
The final variety contained solid green tea flavored lotus seed paste. Surprise, surprise! If you’ve ever been to China, you’ll know that everything here comes in green tea flavor. Green tea eggs, green tea duck, green tea ice cream. I like green tea, but I’m not a huge fan of green tea flavored things…it always just seems off to me. This cake was no exception. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t something I’ll ever feel the need to eat again.
The first six months in a new country always fly by. So much happens in the first six months abroad: finding a place to live, learning where to buy toilet paper, figuring out how to properly pronounce “turn right” in a new language…it’s sometimes difficult to find time to reflect. Here are a few of my own reflections on our first six month experiences, what we’ve learned, and what we’d do differently if we could rewind.
1. Establish a routine as soon as possible. Learning Chinese was a huge priority for us during our time in China, and as freelance writers, we had plenty of time to fit in lessons. One of the best choices we made was finding a tutor and meeting regularly with her from the second or third week we were here. Because those first weeks and months are so overwhelming and often exhausting, we may never have gotten around to starting had we not done it early.
2. Introduce yourself to everyone. Biju and I both work from home, so we’re not cursed blessed with coworkers. When you first move to any new location, your coworkers are often your first acquaintances, and without that social connection, life can feel lonely and isolated. We’ve found that seeking out the happening spots and making an effort to talk with everyone we can has helped tremendously. It’s definitely awkward at first to insert yourself into a conversation between complete strangers, but the shared experience of being an expat often makes up for such forward behavior.
3. Hook up with the Couch Surfing group in your city. The Couch Surfing project is basically a social network of people from around the world willing to host fellow travelers. We’ve had the pleasure of hosting several people, some of whom are now our closest friends. Xiamen has a super active Couch Surfing community, and we meet together at least once per month. If your city doesn’t have an active group, search for other members in your area and start up a monthly meeting.
4. Plan a vacation or getaway around the six-month mark. We’ve found that both in China and Korea, we really needed a break after those first chaotic months. This year my family came to visit, and we traveled together around China. While we didn’t even leave the country, we came back refreshed and ready to get back in a routine. If you’re feeling frustrated with the language or cultural differences, getting away for a few days can really make a difference.
I was personally very shocked at Beijing. What I knew about the city was from documentaries and National Geographic Mags I had read as a child, so I was expecting a small area of traditional buildings overfilled with people bicycling to work on cluttered streets.
What I saw was a city that dwarfed almost any other city I had seen. Our large tourist bus trundled along unnoticed amongst the sea of traffic along wide, clean streets devoid of bicycles. Our routes took us through downtown areas (although “downtown” is relative in a city with so many skyscrapers marching without stop across the horizon) filled with behemoth buildings.
I suppose it was the modernness that really shocked me with my static notions of Beijing. Our tour guide told us that back in the day, the mark of a upwardly mobile family was a bicycle and a watch, but that old Beijing was long gone, driven over by sleek new, imported cars. The streets were impeccable, and surprisingly green, hedged by carefully manicured flowers, trees, and grasses.
Yet, the rapid destruction of ancient buildings to make way for new high rises and condominiums has been halted in some areas. Close to the center of the city, we got a chance to take a tour of the traditional extended family houses, the houtongs, which offered yet a different perspective of the city. Riding in rickshaws through the narrow alleys and visiting a houtongs family, we got to catch a glimpse of what Beijing might have looked like before, albeit a tourist-friendly, government subsidized rendition of the past.
Photos courtesy of Jim Darling
Typhoon Lion Rock has has past Xiamen, marking my first typhoon!
My suspicions that something were amiss were quite indirect, since I can’t get my TV to work and in any case the weather would probably be in Chinese. Some friends in Korea mentioned that typhoon Kompasa was about to hit there. Someone else mentioned that there were three typhoons in the area. That was when my Spidey senses started tingling.
Finally I saw a post from people in Taiwan talking about typhoon Lion Rock, a noble sounding name that seemed to foretell the wrath of God. Since Taiwan’s weather is my future, I have resolved from now on to always keep an eye angled at our island neighbor.
According to one news source (not my TV) around ten flights were cancelled at the local airport, a dozen were delayed, schools were closed, as were scenic spots and the ferries to Gulangyu, the mainland, and presumably Taiwan.
Snug in my 20th floor apartment far away from the wet, I pondered only one question – what exactly is the difference between a typhoon and a hurricane? Apparently, a typhoon is the name of a large storm that occurs in the western Pacific, while a hurricane is the same thing, but occurs int he eastern Pacific and the Atlantic.
In either case, I think I prefer my storms to have cool names rather than ridiculous people names. Like Earl.
Last week we had friends over for dinner, a nice mix of fellow expats and local Chinese friends. As usual for a dinner event, everyone brought dessert. No complaints from me; I love dessert. We had homemade cookies, green tea and strawberry ice cream, brownies and doughnuts (doughnuts being a dessert food in Asia as opposed to breakfast).
The box of doughnuts, brought by Kate, our landlord’s daughter, contained a mix of different flavors, including some classic favorites like chocolate, coffee, strawberry, etc. As Kate was helpfully identifying each for us, she pointed to one and said it was a meat flavored doughnut. Hmm. We all selected other types, leaving a few odd stragglers behind.
Later that evening, once most of the guest had left, we were hanging out with a few close friends and decided someone needed to try this meat doughnut. Leave it to Biju to the the first. After carefully observing his face as he took the first bite, the rest of us decided we simply had to experience a meat donut for ourselves.
The first few seconds after you take a bite are sweet and doughnutty, and you immediately think, this isn’t so bad. Wait 5 seconds. It hits you, a strange fishy, salty meat flavor. If you’re lucky enough to get a bite with a dark brown flake on it, you get taste a strong flavor of beef bullion as you take in the doughnut texture. You keep chewing. It’s quickly getting gross. Doughnuts really shouldn’t taste like this. Nothing should taste like this.
So, if you’re ever in China, be careful what you bite into.