Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

New Years Pt. 3: Religion For Sale

February 22, 2012

I’m far too behind schedule to get away with still blogging about Chinese New

Incense for sale on the way to the temple

Year, but the rest of my New Year’s Eve was pretty fascinating too. We last left our heroes shortly before midnight, having just set off probably several thousand RMB worth of fireworks while at a questionable level of sobriety. Leaving a wasteland of smoking and discarded packages strewn across the pavement (this is China, after all), we set off for a temple, where it is tradition to burn incense and make a prayer for good fortune at the start of the New Year.

The main road up to the temple was lined with stalls selling incense of all sizes,

Lining up to burn incense

from small conventional sticks to massive columns at least six feet high. Our hosts bought a half dozen three-packs of large, four-foot sticks of incense, which we lugged up the road with us to the temple. Reaching the temple and climbing a set of stone steps up to the first main altar, we found it already packed with people lugging bundles of incense. I had seen people make offerings of incense before at Chinese temples. Given a less crowded day at a temple, people will generally take the time to light the sticks and hold them up as they bow three times before placing the incense at the altar to burn or placing them to burn in a nearby small stone tower housing a fire. But this evening, crushed by the growing throng of “worshippers,” people showed little interest in attaching even the most basic sense of ritual to the act. One by one, people approached the pyre and unceremoniously lobbed their package of (expensive) incense into the flame. The environmentalist inside me winced as I watched plastic packaging, unremoved, curl up in the flames. Many people tossed in entire plastic shopping bags of incense. By the time we had arrived, the stone tower held a massive, roaring fire and belched thick clouds of black smoke into the air.

Burning incense

This type of folk religion was, of course, forbidden for much of the last century in China, and has only re-emerged as a consequence of opening up in the last two decades. I find the role that it plays in contemporary society puzzling. From what I can tell, many families do still pay respects to ancestors, and give offerings during visits home and on important holidays. However, out of everyone I’ve spoken to, no one seems to attend rituals like the midnight New Years prayer out of any real religious feeling. Most go just because it’s the thing to do, or, as a cousin told me that evening, to 感受气氛—just to take in the atmosphere, and enjoy the novelty of it.

The pervasive commercialism seems to have become inseparable from the ritual itself. I remembered seeing the same thing when I visited Wutaishan 五台山, a famous Buddhist pilgrimage site, with 博哥 a couple of years ago. The amount of incense and other Buddhist paraphernalia for sale, which rose exponentially in price the closer one got to the actual holy sites, was staggering. It must have cost several hundred RMB just for each member of the family to toss in a sizeable ream of incense as part of the New Year’s prayer. The temple in Yiyang, 博哥’s dad informed us later, had held an auction for the right to be the person to give the first auspicious offering in the temple right after the stroke of midnight. The winner had spent 40,000 RMB (6,330 USD) for the privelege.

The worshipers thronging around me had spent quite a bit on their bundles of incense, too. And yet, though people line up to throw their money at these rituals, they often take no time to savor the actual ritual of it. They just the incense in the fire and move on, as if the simple act of having purchased the incense is all the spiritual credit you need.

We climbed another level of the temple, reaching its highest point shortly

We were waiting by another incense pyre just as the fireworks began to go off

before midnight. As the official start of the New Year approached, I realized that we had deliberately set off our fireworks prematurely. Most families waited until midnight, and before long, the air was filled with rumbling and cracking from all directions. Looking out over the edge of the temple platform, I saw that the entire skyline was ablaze, looking (and sounding) as if the town was experiencing an air raid. It was an incredible sight, and I tried to get photos of fireworks going off all along the river, but smoke from the incense fires below blocked a lot of them out.

A couple of the aunts were determined to make the rounds to all of the different

View of the street below

altars. Families who must have been waiting to set off their fireworks continued to stream in, and by the time we started the climb down, the temple was absolutely teeming with people. Rather than go straight to bed, we returned to the second relative’s home for a family tradition of eating 夜宵, a late-night meal (the Chinese equivalent of post-partying drunk food). Here we finally got the famous Chunjie dumplings, though I learned that the tradition of eating dumplings on Chunjie is in general a tradition confined to northeastern China. However, because several relatives had worked in Shenyang, Liaoning province for several years, they had brought the tradition back with them. Another meal of course brought more beers. Though this now marked their third attempt of the day to get us drunk, we held on as best as our endurance would let us, before we all staggered back home and crashed around 3am.


New Years in the Middle of Nowhere pt. 2: Drunken Fireworks

February 4, 2012

My experience in Yiyang, Hunan included just a few brief respites from constant eating and drinking. After a massive dinner on New Year’s eve, and after chatting through several hours of the 春节晚会 (the New Year’s variety show which is sort of the Chinese equivalent to Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin’ Eve), we went outside for the part of the evening that I’ve been looking forward to the most: fireworks. 博哥 knew how excited I was for this part, and I think I had his father prepare a particularly large haul for this year. Leaving the apartment, I helped haul a load of boxes out to the pedestrian street, which at this point was mostly deserted. These were filled with a massive assortment of fireworks of all shapes and sizes, including many of a size that I’m sure require some sort of professional license to use in the US.

(The video starts getting good about 15-20 seconds in)

The last time I was in China over Chunjie I remembered reading stories of fireworks-related burns and injuries—I’m sure, with the combination of professional-grade fireworks and heavy drinking that there are dozens of accidents a year. So I was a little nervous when Bo’s father lit a cigarette and thrust it into my hand. “Just touch the cigarette there and then run this way,” he said. As I walked up to the first case of fireworks, my boots slid a little on the pavement, which was smooth and slick with half-melted snow. I lit the fuse, though, hopping frantically over the slippery pavement as I heard it sizzle behind me. Looking up into the sky I was rewarded with explosions of the size that you’d only see at Fourth of July in the US.

While the show was amazing, it did little to quell my concerns about the irresponsibility of making such large explosives so widely available to drunk people. One uncle lit a box of big rockets and then, as the rockets began to shoot into the air, shuffled immediately to another box a few feet away so that he could set both off simultaneously. While the first few rockets launched into the air without a hitch, the third rocket only lofted a lazy ten feet into the air, exploding just above his head as he was crouching to light the second box. Another big rocket lit soon after gave off sparks but never got off the ground, instead exploding in a shower of green sparks just ten feet away from us. No one was injured, but it did make me wonder how often one comes across a defective firework. The big expensive fireworks were soon expended, leaving an assortment of sparklers, roman candles, and other novelties. My favorite among these, which they called a “butterfly,” consisted of a small rocket with a set of small cardboard wings. Once lit, a stream of sparks causes it to spin rapidly, such that it lifts into the air like a flying saucer, making an unearthly buzzing sound before exploding with a crack.

When we finished, a wasteland of smoking and discarded cardboard packages lay before us. This being China, after all, we of course simply left them behind us and took off for the last activity of the evening. The residents of Yiyang have a tradition of visiting a local temple to burn incense and make a prayer for the new year. More about that next week.

New Years in Middle of Nowhere, Hunan pt. 1

January 26, 2012

Cousin Katie and I spent Spring Festival 春节this year with 博哥’s family in Hunan. While this was the second Chunjie I’d spent in Asia, I

Picturesque Yi Yang

had spent the holiday during my year at Beida travelling outside China, and was thus excited for my first chance to have an authentic Chinese New Year experience. We flew into Changsha Hunan, early on Saturday morning, and 博哥’s mom (who I’ll call 李妈妈 for the purposes of the blog) and dad (李爸爸) met us at the airport for the drive to Yiyang 益阳, where 李妈妈’s family is from. Yiyang,a tiny (by Chinese standards) city of about half a million people, lies about an hour and a half northwest of Changsha. It’s got the rather drab uniform look of most middling Chinese cities: most of the buildings share a similar beige color and few are over eight stories high. We stayed in an apartment just off of the wide shop-lined pedestrian street (perhaps modeled after Shanghai’s Nanjing East Street) that is also a mainstay of all mid-level Chinese cities. It snowed most of the afternoon and evening of our first day there, such that the whole city was blanketed in snow by the second day. Covered in snow, the city resembled a less picturesque version of the homely town where the blockbuster Pepsi commercial I wrote about earlier this month is set.

We arrived in Yiyang mid-day on Saturday, in time for a massive meal with several aunts, uncles, and cousins, including a mid-sized bottle of baijiu split between the five men (including me) at the table. Unsurprisingly, non-stop eating and drinking were the dominant theme of the entire trip to Hunan, to the point of exhaustion. Every lunch and dinner became a big production,

All the meals were this awesome. Only thing missing from this photo is the boozeHanging out around the fire after a meal. It was too cold to do much else

with plenty of relatives crowded around a table piled high with food. The homemade food was, also unsurprisingly, amazing, although I was surprised that this Hunan crowd ate very little spicy food. Most meals consisted of a couple of large stews which boiled throughout the meal in electric kettles, flanked by an assortment of stir-fried dishes. As the meals wore on and the stir-fried dishes cooled, the remainders were dumped into the boiling electric pots, presumably to re-heat them and to soak up the flavor of the stew. Several family members live on farms, giving us ample access to amazing home-raised free-range chicken, and incredibly fresh home-grown vegetables, including some I’d never seen before.

Even this amazing food took a back seat to the single-mindedness with which a Chinese family at New Years pursues its alcohol. The level of drinking was

View from on top of a temple on a hill overlooking the city

exhausting. It felt like an act of physical exertion to drink heavily over a big lunch and then, just in time for the buzz from lunch to wear off, to start all over again. Luckily, this family was willing to spare us from drinking baijiu most of the time, leaving us to choose between beer and wine. The downside of drinking one of these, though, is that an appropriate toast often requires draining a full 5 ounce glass—whether it was full of beer or wine. According to custom, one is expected to toast everyone at the table, as well as be toasted back by the other drinkers. On several occasions, thus resulted in me finishing off more than a full bottle of wine to myself, to say nothing of the beer. A couple of times, 李爸爸 brought bottles of wine with him to toast us with when we went to visit other relatives. However, as the wine was mostly for our benefit (had it been up to them, they would have drunk just baijiu), few people had an opener handy. We watched instead as an uncle, showing remarkable ingenuity, drove an ordinary screw through the cork and used that as leverage to remove it.

While Chunjie festivities often last a whole week, the official start of the new

Burning "money" for ancestors to use in the afterlife

year was Sunday night. We gathered in an aunt’s apartment for the meal, but before we could eat, the family had to make a New Year’s offering to their ancestors. We gathered in the small apartment’s dining room, where several Mao posters overlook a round wooden table. We watched as Grandma laid out two plates of meat and a full stewed chicken in a bowl on the table, as well as a couple of plastic cups of rice, and two glasses each of water and baijiu. She placed a sprig of green onion over each of the dishes of meat, and lit a couple of sticks of incense. Each member of the family took turns bowing over the table, following which she burned a small handful of rough yellow paper, which I’d seen before to represent money. The little dish

Also from a temple overlooking the city. The low buildings in the background are a cement factory.

of incense was transferred to a small altar inset in the dining room wall.

I’ve decided to split this into a couple of entries since it’s too long for one blog post, but stay tuned next week for drunken fireworks.

The Spirit of Spring Festival, Brought to You By Pepsi®

January 4, 2012

The TV’s in some of the subway lines in Beijing are now playing an epic, 10-minute long Spring Festival 春节 (Chinese New Year)-themed Pepsi commercial. The commercial, which features a star-studded cast of Chinese celebrities and is directed by the award-winning director Zhang Guoli 张国立, tells the story of one Chinese family and how Pepsico products brought them together for the holidays (description below):

The clip opens on the family’s father, who is a security guard at a small-town train station, closing up after the last train on Spring Festival and finding a lone stranger waiting on the bench outside. Not willing to leave the stranger alone on the holiday, he brings the man back to stay with him for the evening and eat dumplings together, a traditional Spring Festival food. Through phone conversations with each of his three grown children, we learn that all three have blown off their father for the holiday. The older daughter, a high-powered publisher, is swamped with work; the younger daughter, a free-spirit photographer, has made plans to travel with friends; and the son, a pop singer, has a career-making gig booked. “Papa understands 爸爸理解,” the father says, hanging up the phone, before the camera cuts to him gazing forlornly at a table full of Pepsi products (Pepsi, Tropicana orange juice, and Lays chips), presumably which had been bought to consume over the holiday. “This is how we’ll spend the holiday this year 新年就这么过吧,” he says, to which the stranger replies, “Not necessarily 那不一定.”

The father goes to sleep, following which the commercial cuts to a montage of the stranger encountering each of the children the next day. He hands each of them one of the three featured Pepsi products (Pepsi, Tropicana, Lays), which for each of them triggers a flashback to a childhood memory when they consumed their chosen product with their father. These are interspersed with shots of the father walking his bike throughout his town, handing out the Pepsi products to neighbors as New Year’s gifts–his children aren’t coming home, so he has no need of them anyway. The stranger runs into him at the end of his rounds, saying, “This is a time for family members to be together, 这是家人团结的时刻,” before leaving. Cut to the father forlornly eating hot pot alone at home, when the two daughters burst through the door, home for the holidays after all. A noise brings the three of them outside, where they find the son has brought his whole tour bus, backup dancers and all, to the small town. The commercial ends with the son giving a concert to the whole village, as the father continues to happily distribute Pepsi products. Amid the fireworks, the text appears: “Bring Happiness Home 把乐事回家.” Added bonus: The names of all three Pepsi products featured,  Pepsi Cola 百事可乐, Tropicana 纯果乐, and Lays 乐事, all have the character 乐, “happiness,” in their names.

Certainly holiday-themed commercials are nothing new in the United States, but the idea of a high-production commercial, in which the Chinese equivalent of the Ghost of Christmas Past helps the protagonists recapture the spirit of the holidays through the distribution of soft drinks and snack foods, strikes me as something slightly more exaggerated than would generally go over with an American audience. I would argue that American advertisers face a greater challenge in marketing to a postmodern, corporate-suspicious audience. The goal with high-budget American advertising is to create something clever or gimmicky, often unrelated to the product itself, something that will stay in viewer’s minds despite the fact that it’s advertising and that it’s associated with a product. With Chinese commercials like this, however, the message can be much more direct and straightforward: our product will bring you holiday cheer.

Certainly, as this recent New York Times article about choosing brand names describes, Western multinationals face a unique challenge in crafting a brand identity that will resonate in China. It’s something that I’ve found myself thinking a lot about in this job: as we look for American corporations who would consider including Teach For China as part of their CSR initiatives, I find myself reading a lot of corporate annual reports. With some of them, you can really get a sense of what kind of a claim the company is hoping to stake in China. For many, China plays only a single part in a larger global strategy. On the other hand, with KFC now clobbering McDonalds in China, Yum! Brands has made China their singular focus, and is even selling of A&W and Long John Silvers in order to focus on efforts here. As a KFC commercial now playing in some movie theaters says: “Our figure is in China 我们的未来在中国”

Which still leaves me with the task of trying to get money out of them…

Christmas with Chinese Characteristics

December 26, 2011

This weekend actually marked the second Christmas that I’ve spent in

Christmas decorations outside a mall

China. As a result, I wasn’t terribly surprised when decorations and Christmas trees started appearing in storefronts and outside malls in late November. The level of holiday kitsch which accumulates in Beijing is actually quite impressive-though I’m convinced that there must be one factory supplying every glass storefront int he city with the same identical cardboard cutout Santa Claus face. Indeed, as if Chinese malls weren’t already nearly identical to their American counterparts, they dutifully pipe in the same corny mix of holiday tunes throughout the month of December.

It was hard for me not to chuckle when I woke up on the 25th and read about the Pope’s lament that Christmas in the Western world was succumbing to the glitter of commercialism. In China, the holiday has, impressively, skipped the phase where it held any spiritual meaning and gone right to the commercialism. I’m inclined to agree with the analysis of a Chinese friend, who argues that Christmas in China is in most part just one of many manifestations of a growing urban class with disposable income. Indeed, Christmas in China is just one of a number of new holidays that have received more attention and presented more merchandising opportunities in the last few years (“Single’s Day,” which makes for a much less somber 11/11 than does Armistice Day, is another). I had dinner in a mall on Christmas Eve which was crawling with shoppers vying to take advantage of special sales coinciding with the holiday. The surrounding streets had a decidedly festive air, with street vendors hawking Christmas-themed toys and balloons everywhere.

Mixed in with the raw capitalism, though, is some rather interesting cultural ingenuity. There is the new

Wrapped apples for sale on Christmas

Chinese tradition of eating an apple on Christmas, which arises, like many Chinese traditions, out of a linguistic homophone. The Chinese translation for Christmas Eve —pinganye 平安夜, or “peaceful night”–shares a homphone with the word for apple, pingguo 苹果. Among the balloon and toy vendors on Christmas eve were people selling apples wrapped in colorful tissue paper and cellophane–and at a shockingly hiked price of 7-8 RMB each. Christmas also provides yet another excuse for Chinese young people to engage in one of their favorite pastimes–forwarding cute holiday text messages and emails to all of their friends. On any holiday, Chinese or Western–even Thanksgiving–one can expect to receive corny poems and other holiday greetings forwarded along throughout the day. Unlike in the US, chain forwarding in China is not simply the purview of the idle and elderly.

Out of all of the homegrown Chinese Christmas traditions I’ve heard of though, the most interesting one was reported to me by a Teach For China Fellow currently teaching in Yunnan. In the city of Dali, a popular tourist destination in Yunnan, street vendors appear in the early afternoon to sell masks and cans of Silly String. Once darkness falls, the city erupts into a free-for-all war of brightly-colored foam, and the masks provide much-needed protection.

I know that, as far as cultural observations in a blog by an American about China go, these are pretty

The Chinese word for Santa Claus 圣诞老人 literally means, "Christmas Old Man"

ordinary. At the same time, though, I think there’s a more profound lesson in a comment made by one of my companions at Christmas Eve dinner (hot pot, what else). She referred to the eating of apples as the bentuhua 本土化, or localization, of Christmas. At Teach For China we talk about “bentuhua” a lot–we know that, in order to gain the confidence and collaboration from principals, government, and Chinese donors, it will be essential to run an organization that adequately addresses the unique realities of the communities and the culture that we’re working in. The same goes for any nonprofit or business in China–you can only have a real impact, or turn a profit, if you can adapt your model to the local context.

Seeing as it’s been another three months since I’ve managed to write a blog, I can safely conclude that gainful employment is bad for my blogging career. I could say that I’m making a New Years resolution to work on that, but no promises.

Hunting down the food of rural Sichuan

December 17, 2010

Check out my interview with Chinese food blogger Stephen Jack. I discuss my favorite meals, some cooking tips, and the truth of Sichuan’s reputation as the spice capital of China!

Empowering Entrepreneurs through Microfinance

December 9, 2010

I paid a visit a couple of weeks ago to Zhang Rong, the hot pot entrepreneur and microfinance borrower whose photo has long graced the Wokai website. Mrs. Zhang operates her hot pot stand across the street from the ARDY branch office in the town of Yong Le, while her husband works up the street at the local power station. Her older son, who is 21 years old, works as a car mechanic in Chengdu, while younger son, 18, is currently a senior at Yongle High School.

Mrs. Zhang and her husband moved to Yongle from the countryside in 2001. When they first came here, Mrs. Zhang worked as a cook at the power station where her husband still works. In 2005 they started construction on the building which currently houses the hot pot shop on the ground floor and the family’s residence on the second floor. The concrete building was completed at a total cost of around 20,000 RMB and paid for in part by a micro loan from ARDY.


With her husband away at work all day Mrs. Zhang runs the entire shop by herself, even during the evening rush.

Mrs. Zhang’s stand is famous for its Ma La Tang 麻辣烫, a type of hot pot consisting of vegetables and some meat which is sold by the skewer (at 0.5 RMB apiece) and then boiled in a spicy broth. Mrs. Zhang makes her own broth from chili peppers, Sichuan peppers, and various other seasonings; I tried to get the exact recipe from her but was unsuccessful. Many people who sell food for a living here are protective of the secrets of their business, for fear of inspiring more competition.


In the years since first opening her own shop Mrs. Zhang’s business has increased significantly. In addition to the classic hot pot she now sells fried hot dogs on skewers for 1RMB each and bubble tea for 1 RMB a cup. The profit margin on all of her products is quite slim; the hot dogs cost her 0.8 RMB a piece to purchase, leaving her with only 0.2 RMB profit. She caters mainly to students from the three middle and high schools in the town, which swarm her stand during break time, especially after their evening classes end at 9pm.

On the Saturday afternoon during which I spoke with Mrs. Zhang, two regular customers, students at the local middle school, had just showed up for a snack before going shopping. The two girls lingered at the shop, sipping on bubble tea and munching on sausage skewers as they chatted with Mrs. Zhang before sitting down to a bowl of hot pot. Mrs. Zhang mothered over them, urging them to eat more vegetables.

With their own home and a stable business, the Zhang family has a fairly comfortable life in Yongle. Through their own relentless hard work was doubtlessly the most important factor, microfinance also played a role in helping them to become successful rural entrepreneurs.

Who Wants to Start a Restaurant in Rural Sichuan?

November 2, 2010

Since revealing to many of my friends here that I’m leaving Sichuan in less than two weeks, I’ve received a rather surprising numbers of proposals from friends to go into business with them. My guess is that this isn’t particularly common among local residents, but a lot of the people I know here seem to be so taken with the potential profits to be had through working with a foreigner that they can’t help themselves. I’ve had offers to sell local alcohol in Beijing, to run a tour guide company at the Jiu Zhai Gou 九寨沟 national park in Sichuan, to sell printers in Chengdu. The most intense offer, though, came from the friend who faithful readers of the blog will remember as the rabbit farmer. I got a phone call from him a couple of days ago which began first with a lament from him about the quickness of my departure, following which he asked me if I was interested in finding work in China after I went back to the US. When I gave my usual ambivalent answer, he interrupted with an excited proposal that we partner up to open a 农家乐—a type of rural-themed restaurant that is quite common here and specializes in serving freshly-grown ingredients and traditional peasant foods.

He continued furthermore to say that a friend of his from the nearby village of Ri Xing 日兴, a cop –“our cops here aren’t like your cops there, they can still do other things on the side besides being cops”—who was thinking of going in with him on the restaurant, was having dinner with him the next day, and I should come. Never one to miss out on few sources of food, I took the bus to Ri Xing the next day, and soon found myself in a hotpot restaurant with my friend and an unknown cop in his early 30’s.

Before we started eating the cop explained that two more of his friends were coming, and it wasn’t until they showed up that I realized what was going on. As the two new friends sat down, our new cop friend introduced me: “and this is our American friend, he’s wants to invest in our restaurant.” Suddenly it was clear that I was the primary target of an investment pitch dinner. They spent most of the rest of the meal trying to convince me that if I invested, I’d be sure to get my investment (of which I think they wanted at least $10,000 US) back within a year. “All we have to do is put your face on the billboards and the advertisements, and people will flock from all around.” Which is probably true. I did my best to keep my responses as ambivalent as possible for the rest of the meal.

As we ate liberal amounts of two different types of baijiu (白酒—local booze) were passed around. Traditional business practice drinking rules stipulate that one has to toast and take a drink with every other person at the table at least once (if not more) in order to show your respect for them. This goes for everyone at the table, which results in a lot of drinking. The food eaten and the alcohol drunk, we were whisked back to Jincheng (the main city where I have been living) for Karaoke, where more beer accompanied the singing. Once again I was grateful to the Beatles for being famous enough to be offered on every single karaoke list in Asia.

I had thought that I had more or less kept up with my hosts in terms of drinking, but it was soon clear that I had not reached the expected level of drunkenness. By the time the we had paid for expired, most of my hosts had thrown up and were passed out on the couches in the karaoke room, giving me the chance to slip back to the ARDY office while they stumbled back to a friend’s car.

So if anyone’s interested in splitting stock in a restaurant in rural Sichuan, let me know.

Who Says You Can’t Have Halloween in Rural China

November 1, 2010

Anyone who knows me from the real world knows that I am always loathe to miss the opportunity that Halloween provides to dress up like an idiot and eat inappropriate amounts of candy. I was travelling over Halloween weekend last year, and was pretty disappointed to miss it, so I resolved that I wouldn’t let the same thing happen last year. Along with the help of my roommate and fellow volunteer here at ARDY, I think we made the best approximation of a Halloween party that you can have in rural China, which I’m pretty proud of.  My fellow volunteer and ARDY and I co-opted the apartment of his great aunt that lives in Jincheng for the party, and invited a few friends of mine who teach at a local English academy. Here are pics:

Most importantly, pumpkins, or some variation of orange gourd, is commonly grown in Yilong. While most of the ones that people eat here are long and skinny, some hunting through the morning vegetable market yielded a few round ones.








My friend's little cousin, who lives with his aunt--Chinese pumpkins look the same on the inside.

My teacher friends sporting the awesome masks we bought--suitable either for Halloween or for a low-budget bank heist



kekekekekeke ^_^




My friend's little cousin pulled this whole jack-o-lantern off by himself. I was so impressed.

All three finished products

The mask is apparently a character from the Chinese folk novel "Journey to the West," but I think it's plenty scary



Fishing in a Tie

October 23, 2010

I spent yesterday learning how to fish with Yang Taigang, who is an old army buddy of one of the local volunteers at the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County. As I learned how to thread a worm on a hook and cast a line, lessons which had been missing from my boyscout-less childhood, Yang told me about his life. He joined the paratroopers in 1993, in a period when there were few other economically viable options for someone from a family as poor as his. The military salary of less than 100 RMB a month was enough at least to relieve his parents of the economic burden of supporting himself. Today, after over a decade of economic growth in China, a Chinese soldier earns several hundred RMB a month. Jumping out of airplanes, he explained, is something one picks up quickly by necessity, but “the first time was scary. The first time my instructor just pushed me out of the plane.”

In 1999, after six years in the military, Yang left to seek work as a migrant laborer in Beijing. After two years of manual construction labor he was able to gain promotion into a construction management position. Much of the money that he saved by working in the city went to building a new house for his wife and children, which was recently completed. In 2008 he invested some of his own money in his own hot pot restaurant. Unfortunately, the restaurant failed to take off, and since closing it he has been back in Yilong since, planning his next business move. I was quite surprised when Yang showed up to our fishing trip this morning in a sport coat, a tie, and leather dress shoes. The land surrounding the lake where we fished was taken up mostly by rice paddies currently out of season, and after an afternoon of stomping around in the mid his leather dress shoes and dress pants were completely caked with dirt. When I asked him about his choice of attire, he replied, “my family was always poor growing up, we didn’t have much choice of what to wear.” Now, that he is able to afford to Yang always tries his best to look professional.


Our first catch of the day.


I should note, though, that not every peasant in Yilong shows up to the fishing pond dressed to the nines. When I told this story to the ARDY volunteer through whom I met Yang, he laughed. “Yang has always had peculiar dressing habits, even in the army,” he replied. In any case, the story seemed to me to be an interesting example of what China’s recent economic explosion meant for one individual. For Yang, looking the part is only the beginning. While his first private venture, the hot pot restaurant, failed, he has spent his time back home talking to neighbors and learning more about the different types of businesses currently being run in Yilong. He explained to me that in the China of his childhood, in the years before and the first years of the Open and Reform movement, one’s economic options were so limited that the amount of effort that one put into self-improvement was irrelevant. Now, in contemporary China, “if you work hard, if you struggle, then you can make a better life.”

While Yang landed around 20 small fish by himself, I was proud enough to manage to reel in 4 or 5. We took them back to his home that night, where his wife cleaned and gutted them, then boiled them with pork fat, pickled vegetables and chili peppers to make a delicious sour soup. I asked her if the time Yang spent as a migrant laborer, during which he could only return home once a year to spent Chinese New Year with the family, had been difficult on them. “That’s just the way it is,” she replied, resigned, “when he had time he would call home. It’s the same for most families around here.”\


De-scaling the fish



Sour fish and pickled vegetables soup 酸菜鱼汤. Unfortunately, I was called into the dining room to drink with the host as she was making the soup, and so I couldn't get the whole recipe.