Chunjie

祝你们春节快乐!恭喜!Happy Chinese New Year, everyone!
It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in China for a month now. Maybe it’s because I’ve been spending my days doing mundane things like apartment hunting and teaching English and cleaning, rather than the whirlwind tourism I usually participate in on trips abroad.

So a friend of mine from home, upon discovering I was moving to China, strongly recommended I talk to a friend of his, Film Director. We emailed and facebooked a bit back and forth before I got here, then I forgot he existed, and then remembered again and shot a little message out saying I’d love to meet, since I don’t know too many people here yet. Film Director invited me to a dumpling making party he was hosting, and I decided to go, not having any other plans.
My mom did a good job raising me, and always insisted I never go to anyone’s house empty handed (in particular, I remember one day planning to go to a friend’s house in early high school, and my mom trying to convince me I should bring a bottle of wine for her parents), so it occurred to me around 2 pm that I should probably make or bring something. I wasn’t sure if any stores were even open for New Year’s, and I was feeling a little bit lazy, so I cast my eye around the kitchen to see what could be done. Challenges: my rather sparse pantry with few ingredients, the complete lack of an oven and most other more sophisticated cooking apparatuses, and the only alcohol being a half empty bottle of Hendrick’s gin, two bottle of Harbin beer, and a bottle of Great Wall red wine. I thought about bringing the wine, but Great Wall is what I think of as a liberal use of the term wine. It’s cheap, bad, and probably best used for cooking in sauces that have to simmer for a long time. Showing up as a guest with a bottle of Great Wall in your hand might even be considered an insult.

So I decided to make a dessert. I had the basics; flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk, even some cream. No oven. I though about maybe making a custard and improvising steaming them rather than baking, but I have no extracts or flavoring. Wait, what was this? One and a half lemons? I did a quick Google search for no-bake recipes, and decided a pudding might be my best bet. Lemon pudding and fresh whipped cream it was!
The pudding came out pretty well, despite my fears (the cornstarch I have is particularly for the tenderizing of meat, it includes salt and phosphoric acid), if a little on the thin side (I don’t think I cooked it long enough, and I used skim milk instead of whole milk), but even Bambi, who is not a pudding fan, said it was pretty good. Since the granulated sugar I bought is on the large side, I made a few tablespoons of simple syrup, stirred that into the heavy cream, and spent a good fifteen minutes whisking it. My grandmother used to sometimes make fresh whipped cream with a hand-cranked egg beater, and I’ve made cream and butter with an electric beater, but doing with just a whisk? Freaking exhausting.

I put it all in some rather inelegant tupperware and set off to find the bus to the apartment, which was somewhere near Sanlitun. Unfortunately, I wrote down the wrong bus stop, and got a little muddled, and ended up calling Film Director for better directions. And again, China, what is with you and confusing places to get to? I had to walk into a side alley, and then turn into an even smaller brick alley that didn’t look like an alley so much as a brick hallway for rapists to hang out, where not one but TWO separate fires were raging over the wall due to fireworks. A long, mostly unlit outdoor corridor, strange beeping sounds from the wires running along the top of the stone wall, silence except for the sound of far off explosions. I thought I was in a horror movie, and kept looking over my shoulder and was nearly running by the end. After getting back to a more proper public street, I was promptly nearly hit, crossing the street a man decided to start lighting off his firecrackers as I was approaching him, even though he saw me coming. I managed to get to the right building, only to have small children lighting off bottle rockets in the doorway.

Dinner was interesting, I met a fellow alum and one of Bambi’s coworkers (talk about a small world!), ate a lot of good food, and was treated to an impromptu performance of that Brazilian dance-fight thing. We watched fireworks, and it amazes me, where else are you able to look down at fireworks? Or to be basically inside the explosion (we were, at one point, almost concerned a stray rocket might go in the open window).

I left around 9:30 to meet up with Frisbee people at another party nearby. I walked through streets littered with the gutted remains of firecrackers, scraps of charred, red paper swirling around my feet like autumn leaves. I found my way (miraculously) to the correct apartment building where I was greeted with yet more delicious food. And of course, I was able to find the chocolate cheesecake within moments. There has been more than one party where I have chanced upon chocolate cheesecake, and then of course, had to walk around eating it and sharing the delicious bounty. The fireworks were amazing. Although they had been going on steadily all night, the real excitement began at midnight. Think of any official fireworks that you’ve been to in America, Independence Day or your Town Day or University pep day or whatnot, think about that, and imagine that everyone in the city, every big and small apartment building, is setting off that same exact display. Except it doesn’t just last half an hour max, you’ve been setting them off all day, and it doesn’t stop until 2 AM. That’s the first night of Chinese New Year. There was so much smoke that eventually, we stopped being able to see other buildings.

Trivia at Kro’s Nest again on Thursday. A little bit of an adventure getting there, I had looked up the address very quickly online, and then waited a long time trying to get a cab. Finally got one letting people out, he didn’t want to take me but I pleaded and said I was running late and I had been waiting outside forever, and I guess wherever I was going was on his way home. Only maybe I wasn’t very clear, or it’s just my luck, but I wasn’t too sure myself what part of the street the place was and I wasn’t looking on the right side of the road when we passed by, so then we got out to the fourth ring road, and the cabbie was like, this is where you want to go, get out, I’m going home! And then he sped off, leaving me slightly confused as to why I was standing in the middle of nowhere with a wide expanse of trees on one side and some development that everything was covered in tarps. Luckily, I was at least on the right street, and was able to get a bus back out of the middle of nowhere.

Some of decided we just really wanted to dance, so off to Sanlitun to see what the clubs there were like. The one we had loosely decided to go to turned out to be closed, so somehow we ended up at Kai, the sketchy place with disastrously cheap alcohol. They have these tables that offer a dice game, that my friends all became engrossed in playing. I had no interest in dice, so I just sat, had a beer, kind of danced to myself in the chair, and watched them, vaguely puzzled as to the rules of the dice game. That’s about when some of the Chinese girls there came over, grabbed my arm and dragged me up to dance with them, telling me not to be so shy and I was very pretty, lets dance. At this point I kind of figured out that they were probably the hookers that worked the tables up there. Oh boy.
After they finished playing the interminable game, I convinced people to go to the actual dance floor where we kind of took over (Small floor, 7-8 big Americans=takeover) . It was a lot of fun. We concluded the evening with some really amazing street food from the stalls set up all up and down Bar Street. One of the things I love best about Asia is the street food. Beijing so far hasn’t impressed me with selection, nothing compared to the night markets and stalls of Taiwan or Thailand, but what they do have is generally tasty.

chuanr stall on Jiu Ba Jie (Bar Street)


The chuanr (skewers) were pretty excellent, we got a selection of lamb and chicken, as was the grilled mianbao, or flat rounds of bread covered in cumin and other spices. I have to wonder at the people who set up there, I mean, some of them run a legitimate and pretty profitable business of feeding and hydrating drunk bar-goers, but there are a lot of beggars. Technically, they’re selling flowers, but I’ve never seen anyone buy the flowers, just give money to them, because the sellers are mostly young children, adorable little girls who can’t be older than 9 or 10. It’s an effective strategy on the part of the parents, working on the sympathy of foreigners, but is it so necessary? Why are you pushing your kids to beg at terrible hours of the night?

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