Decoding China Now Available!

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My new book Decoding China: A Handbook for Traveling, Studying, and Living in Today’s China is now available. You can find it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There are links on the right.

I started this book back in 2002, put it away for a few years (busy with other projects), then began writing in earnest again and updating the research in 2010. If you get a chance I would appreciate any feedback you might have. I would also appreciate it if you would o a review on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

I have just returned from another trip to China; this time to the Southwest—Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan Provinces. I’ll be posting about that and my trip two months ago to Guangdong and Taiwan.

 

The Cantonese Really Know How to Eat!

Sunrise over the Pearl River, Guangzhou, China

Sunrise over the Pearl River, Guangzhou, China

I’ve been in southern China, specifically Guangdong Province, for the past couple weeks and was reminded of how seriously the Cantonese take their food and eating. Back in the early 80’s I lived in Hong Kong and learned first hand how much the Cantonese love to eat. Food was everywhere and people ate all day long it seemed, and late into the night. I remember once in the early 90’s I was in Guangzhou for a couple weeks working on a Cantonese language project. One night my Cantonese colleagues and I finished up our work at about 11:00 pm. I had a flight out the next morning at 7 am and figured I’d head back to my hotel and go to bed. But they had other plans. They suggested we go out and get something to eat. Why not? A little snack would be good. Boy, was I wrong. We found a small restaurant with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. The dishes kept coming and coming. We ended up with 12 different dishes and ate until 2:00 am.

One the first things the foodie may notice in Guangzhou is that there is food and eating everywhere. It is common for small restaurants to set up tables along the sidewalk and at the best places people will be lined up waiting for a table.

People eating and lining up to eat.

People eating and lining up to eat.

Eating is THE social activity in Guangzhou

Eating is THE social activity in Guangzhou

Even white tablecloths at some places.

Even white tablecloths at some places.

The number of restaurants in Guangzhou is staggering. Street food is also pretty serious business in Guangzhou as well. Busy pedestrian malls, night markets, near bus and train stations, and shopping areas are packed with vendors selling snacks from their carts. The streets are lined with countless small shops selling everything from milk tea to ice cream. And everyone is eating.

Snack food in Guangzhou

Snack food in Guangzhou

This shop sells 牛杂 niǔzá, literally 'misc. beef' but really means beef innards like tripe

This shop sells 牛杂 niǔzá, literally ‘misc. beef’ but really means beef innards like tripe

Milk an bubble teas are very popular.

Milk an bubble teas are very popular.

Dried seafood is a very popular snack in Guangzhou, especially squid.

Dried seafood is a very popular snack in Guangzhou, especially squid.

Of course Cantonese food is probably most notable for its dimsum and the dimsum in Guangzhou is spectacular. I will be doing several more posts on the eating scene in Guangzhou as it is one of the major cuisines of China.

Also watch for an upcoming posts on eating in Chaozhou and Taiwan.

 

 

 

 

 

Eating Seafood in Tianjin

Seafood lunch in Tianjin

Seafood lunch in Tianjin

Last year I had the opportunity to go to Tianjin for the first time. I have to admit that previously I had not had a great desire to go to Tianjin. I always imagined it as a big, dirty, industrial city. But I guess things have changed over the years. I had a couple days in Beijing where I met some friends so we decided to take the new bullet train out to Tianjin. It only took 28 minutes.

I had a former graduate student who was from Tianjin. Her parents were kind enough to pick us up at the train station, show us around the city, and feed us well. For lunch they took us to a fabulous seafood restaurant called 鹏天阁酒楼 péngtiāngé jiǔlóu. It was a large, well decorated restaurant. On the ground floor were dozen of large fish tanks full of turtles, lobster, shrimp, all kinds of fish, and so on. There was also many varieties of fish and other seafood on ice. There were also refrigerated cases full of side dishes. The way these kinds of restaurants work is you walk around, followed by a hostess, and you tell her what you want. You even select the specific fish you would like to eat. They write everything down, and in some cases, net the seafood right there on the spot for you.

Tanks full of live seafood

Tanks full of live seafood

Netting our selected fish

Netting our selected fish

Selecting other dishes

Selecting other dishes

After we selected our dishes we were ushered upstairs to a private dinning room. At most nicer restaurants it is common for larger private parties to have your own private dinning room. You will usually have a waitress assigned specifically to your room.

A typical private dinning room

A typical private dinning room

The Chinese are gracious hosts. I had worked with this graduate student for several years, had hired her, wrote letters of recommendation for her, and so on. Her parents were probably feeling somewhat indebted to me, so this their way of saying ‘thank you.’ As is usual in this kind of situation, they ordered way more food than we could eat. This is also the Chinese way of showing respect for a guest. In total they ordered 11 dishes. Some of those dishes are below. Chinese restaurant food have notoriously creative names and they are difficult to translate. I have provided more literal translations to these dishes and sometimes have avoided the more difficult to translate phrases.

清炒四角豆 qīngchǎo sìjiǎodòu (fresh stir-fried  four-sided beans)

清炒四角豆 qīngchǎo sìjiǎodòu (fresh stir-fried four-sided beans)

世纪深井烤鹅 shìjì shēnjǐng kǎo é (Century deep well roasted goose)

世纪深井烤鹅 shìjì shēnjǐng kǎo é (Century deep well roasted goose)

胞椒茴香卷 bāojiāo huíxiāng juǎn (Fennel roles)

胞椒茴香卷 bāojiāo huíxiāng juǎn (Fennel rolls)

白灼甚围虾 báizhuó shénwěi xià (Boiled shrimp)

白灼甚围虾 báizhuó shénwěi xià (Boiled shrimp)

清蒸海蟹 qīngzhēng hǎixiè(Fresh steamed ocean crab)

清蒸海蟹 qīngzhēng hǎixiè
(Fresh steamed ocean crab)

清蒸桂鱼 qīngzhēng guìyǔ(Fresh steamed Mandarin fish)

清蒸桂鱼 qīngzhēng guìyǔ
(Fresh steamed Mandarin fish)

鲜椒美容蹄 xiān jiāo měiróng tí (Pig trotters with fresh pepper)

鲜椒美容蹄 xiān jiāo měiróng tí (Pig trotters with fresh pepper)

It was a really memorable meal. Chinese dining is a group experience with all dishes placed in the center of the table on a lazy Susan. Everyone then serves themselves from these dishes. Everything is communal. It is great to eat wonderful food with good company.

And I quite liked the city of Tianjin.

Breakfast in Beijing

I love Chinese breakfast food, especially what you get on the streets, such as 煎饼 jiānbing. A few months ago I was in Beijing with some good friends and they took me to a simple little restaurant for breakfast. Nothing special, but nonetheless delicious. This is pretty typical fare for breakfast in the North of China.

That morning we had 素包子 sù bāozi (vegetarian teamed dumplings), 油条 yóutiáo (fried bread sticks), 蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo (steamed meat dumplings), and hot 豆浆 dòujiāng (soybean milk).

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

素包子 Vegetarian steamed dumpling

包子 bāozi is a generic term for steamed bread. They can be simply steamed bread with no filling or they can come with a variety of fillings. Vegetarian ones usually have spinach, mushrooms, and a number of other kinds of vegetables. Meat fillings are usually pork and seasoned with ginger, garlic, and will often have scallions, or mushrooms. They differ by region as well.

油条 fried break sticks

油条 fried break sticks

You can find 油条 yóutiáo all over China. They are commonly eaten for breakfast, either alone, or as part of another dish. For example, 煎饼 jiānbing will often have a 油条 inside. It is often eaten with 粥 zhōu in the south. Sometimes it is cut up into chunks and tossed into the 粥 zhōu sort of like croutons.

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 steamed dumplings

蒸饺 zhēngjiǎo are a variety of 饺子 jiǎozi that are steamed instead of boiled or fried. They usually have a meat filling. These also vary by region but are all pretty similar. are a variety of 饺子 that are steamed instead of boiled or fried. They usually have a meat filling. These also vary by region but are all pretty similar.

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 soybean milk

豆浆 dòujiāng is simply soy milk, but is often very fresh. In the Winter it is usually served hot in a bowl, like in the photo. It is a great way to warm up in the morning.

Below are a couple photos of 油条 yóutiáo in 煎饼  jiānbing. In the first photo you can see it just under the 煎饼 and in the second photo it is rolled up in it.

Making 煎饼

Making 煎饼

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Pop Culture China!: A Book Review

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Latham, Kevin. 2007. Pop Culture China!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle. Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford: ABC Clio.

I’m doing some research on Chinese pop culture, so this seemed like a good book to read. When I received it, I immediately noticed the heavy, textbook feel to it.EVen the layout seems very textbook-ish. It really is a reference work for libraries and maybe specialists. The author is a lecturer in anthropology and sociology at the University of London. The book is thorough, and as one might expect from this kind of book, the writing is academic in nature. It is best used as a reference work, and would be a bit heavy to read through from cover to cover. However, I did read it all the way through and found it to be well written and well organized.

Anyone who is interested in such things as the development of rock music in China, the evolution of film, the role of newspapers in Chinese society, how Chinese spend their leisure time, and so on, will find this book a valuable resource. Each chapter ends with a section called “A to Z” which serves as a kind of review of the major names, terms, and events discussed in the chapter. I found this useful. It is obvious that the book is well researched and a valuable contribution to our understanding of pop culture in an ever changing China. It’s a welcome addition to my library, but for most people I would recommend you check it out at your local library.

Decoding China

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Back in 1998 I was leading a study abroad group to China, Nanjing University to be specific. We had been in the country for only two or three days. I was eating lunch in a small restaurant just off campus when I noticed three of my students enter. They didn’t see me, so I just observed what happened. They entered the restaurant and stood just inside the door. I knew what they were thinking—they were waiting for someone to greet them and show them to a table, just like in an American restaurant. They waited, and waited, and waited some more. I could see they were getting impatient and maybe a bit frustrated. I also observed the two waitresses working in the restaurant. They seemed equally perplexed. One said to the other, “What are they doing just standing there?” The other replied, “I don’t know, maybe waiting for someone.” What my students did not understand is that in small, informal restaurants like this you simply find an empty table without waiting for someone to show you. In other words, there is no host or hostess. They assumed that eating in China was the same as eating in the U.S. These students had pretty good Chinese having studied at the University for 4 to 5 semesters. I knew they had the linguistic capacity to order a meal and do whatever else they needed in a restaurant. But they still didn’t know the “rules” or “codes” involved in eating at a restaurant in China. It’s not as simple as it may seem, even if you know some Chinese.

This experience impressed upon me the importance of cultural knowledge. To get things done in China requires a whole set of knowledge that goes far beyond linguistics. In fact, one could argue pretty persuasively that cultural knowledge will get you farther in China than linguistic knowledge alone. This book is the result of several years of research on how to get things done in China; how to make sense of the Chinese world; how to decode China so it makes sense for a foreigner.

With that rather lengthy introduction, I am happy to announce that my book, Decoding China: A Handbook or Traveling, Studying, and Working in Today’s China is now available for pre-order. It is available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble and there are links on the right side of the main page of this blog under Books. It will be available in April.

Who is this book for?

I think this book would be a great benefit to students going to China to study, students doing internships in China, people going to China to live and work, independent travelers in China, and even armchair travelers. It contains all the information I wish I had when I first started traveling to China. I think it will even be valuable for those who have been living in China, even for several years. Basically, this is a book for those that want to go beyond the tourist or typical expat level of understanding. This is a book for those who want to live, work, or study independently among the Chinese. It is for those who want to blend in, not stand out.

Here are just a few topics covered in this book:

Which train should I take? Deciphering the train class numbering system.

Characteristics of hotels in China.

How to make sense of a Chinese menu.

How to buy and make sense of cell phone plans in China.

How to use the Chinese versions of Facebook and Twitter.

How to open a bank account in China.

How to barter like a native.

Self study learning strategies.

How to select a Chines study program.

Making sense of Chinese “face” relations.

The concept of guanxi explained.

What kinds of gifts should you give.

How to deal with culture shock.

Strategies for staying healthy in China.

Send me a message if you have any questions.

The Story Behind Tianjin’s 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

狗不理大酒店 in Tianjin

狗不理大酒店 in Tianjin

In my last post I posted a photo of Tianjin’s famous 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo. I then received a comment about this very unusual name for this steamed dumpling. As the commenter noted, it sounds like these 包子bāozi are not even fit for dogs. For the non-Chinese speaking readers, let me explain. 狗 gǒu simple means ‘dog’ and to 不理 bùlǐ means to ‘pay no attention to,’ so a literal translation would be something like ‘the dumpling that dogs won’t pay attention to.” This would imply that they are not too tasty.

狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo

Before going to Tianjin last Autumn I had never tasted them, though I had heard of them as they are considered a famous Tianjin snack. Here is the story about these very tasty dumplings. It comes from the book 旅游城市美食指南:便走便吃 edited by 周国宝. (Tourist City Guide to Gourmet Food: Eating While Traveling).

According to tradition, the story begins in 1858 when a 14 year old boy named Gao Guiyou arrived in Tianjin. His nickname was Gouzi (狗子 gǒuzi) or ‘dog.’ He had come to Tianjin to study to be a craftsman. He was very clever, good with his hands, and a quick learner. He apprenticed at a shop run by the Liu Family that made steamed dumplings (包子 bāozi). He learned very quickly how to make beautiful and delicious dumplings. After three years he had served out his apprenticeship and opened his own shop selling his own dumplings. He soon gained a reputation for making the best dumplings in town and people came from all over to eat them. He became so busy that he had no time to talk to his customers, thus the phrase, 狗子卖包子,不理人, gǒuzi mài bāozi, bùlǐ rén, ‘Gouzi sells dumplings and doesn’t pay attention to people (meaning his customers). After awhile people began calling him 狗不理 gǒubùlǐ, and his famous dumplings became known as 狗不理包 gǒubùlǐ bāo. Now it is said that if you travel to Tianjin and don’t try 狗不理包子 gǒubùlǐ bāozi, then you’ve never been to Tianjin.

Me and a couple friends/colleagues traveled to Tianjin to visit the parents of a former graduate student I worked with. It was also a good excuse to visit Tianjin. We took the new bullet train from Beijing and it only too 28 minutes to get to Tianjin. They took us out to eat at the famous 狗不理大酒店. Whether this was the original location of the shop in the story, I don’t know.

Inside the restaurant

Inside the restaurant

We had an excellent meal which of course included gǒubùlǐ bāo. I am happy to report that they are delicious. We had a chef come into our private room and demonstrate how to wrap them. She then taught us how to do it. Though it may look easy, it surely is not and takes a great deal of practice to wrap them properly.

Rolling out the dough

Rolling out the dough

Wrapping the bāozi

Wrapping the bāozi

Michael and I feebly trying to wrap our own

Michael and I feebly trying to wrap our own

Can you tell which one the lǎowài (foreigner) wrapped?

Can you tell which one the lǎowài (foreigner) wrapped?

Finally, here is a short video I shot of the chef wrapping a 狗不理包. She makes it look so easy and effortless, but I assure you it is not. As I said, they are truly delicious. Next time you are in Tianjin, make sure to eat some 狗不理包.