Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What's That? Wednesday: Dining in China

My observations for dining in China are primarily based on eating at non-Chinese food restaurants.  I’m sure that there is a whole other set of findings to be made when dining on Chinese cuisine.  Although our family enjoys Chinese food, minus the chicken feet (which I’ve had no desire to try), we spend a lot of time in the international restaurants. We enjoy eating Indian, Thai, German, Mexican and “American” food.

EBean eating at Heidi's on Singa Plaza
during the first week we moved to China.

Here are a few of the things I have learned along the way...

Once you are seated and the waiter/waitress hands you your menu, you are left alone until you call him or her back to your table.  Often times this involves yelling “waitress” across the restaurant and waving your arms.  This tends to bring most Americans (i.e. me) out of their comfort zones.  But other than that, I tend to like it because you don’t get a waiter that asks the inevitable “How is everything?” as you’ve just taken a big bite.  I also don’t feel like they are hovering and waiting for you to pay so they can boot you out of the restaurant.

LBean enjoying the foosball table at the
German restaurant across the street called "Big & Whistle".
Formerly known as Pig & Whistle....
Perhaps the servers don’t bother to “hover” because there is NO TIPPING in China  (unless you are in a big city at a really fancy Western-style restaurant or hotel). I think their philosophy is, stay as long as you’d like!

Appetizers don’t necessarily come first.  Some times appetizers become dessert…even if you specifically ask for them to be served first.  Makes me laugh! In fact, main courses usually aren’t served to all the diners at the same time either.  We have learned to eat when your food arrives and not wait, or someone’s food will be certainly cold.  

An appetizer that arrived on time, but without the
advertised sauce.  My friend decided that maybe the
sauce was "optional"!
You can tell how many expats (expatriates) a restaurant serves based on the question “Would you like ice?”  The Chinese tend to drink warm or hot drinks and avoid cold drinks.  It’s been explained to us that your body has to heat up (like a fever) to stabilize your body’s internal temperature after drinking something cold, so why would you want to cause a “fever” reaction in your body?  I am a risk-taker, so I don’t mind getting my body’s ying and yang off balance and enjoy ordering lots of ice!

EBean enjoying her "bing hong cha" (iced tea).

The bathroom situation varies.  Some restaurants, like ones in a shopping mall, don’t even have a restroom, and you are expected to use the mall’s bathrooms.  Odd? Yes. It tends to not be a problem unless you have small children who need to be accompanied.   It’s even harder when I have the girls by myself (no spouse to divide an conquer parenting duties).  I must encourage everyone to “eat fast.” And, if one insists, “But I have to go NOW!!”. We must abandon our food and make a hasty exit.    There are some establishments with their own restrooms, but the sinks are often outside the restroom.   I actually like this set-up, because it is easy to tell the kids to run and wash their hands before and after eating without having to go with them into the bathroom.

Napkins and tissue are like gold (I’ve got you wondering about this one, right?!).  For some reason in China, paper products are scarce and closely guarded.  There aren’t many napkin dispensers in restaurants. If you’re lucky, you might  get one or two with your order.  We often ask for more napkins.  Now, for the tissue.The lack of paper often extends into the bathroom...always carry tissue (just FYI)!

LBean has taken the award for the best chopstick skills,
but EBean gets the award for most adventuresome eater.
(LBean enjoying the beef on rocks at Yang Yang's in Old Town.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What's That? Wednesday: The Buick Van

I was recently Skyping with a family member, in the hallway of a hotel in Shanghai (I’m sure I looked pretty funny on the security cameras!), and she commented on how she envisions us being driven around in a limo-like van with a glass partition.  At first, it made me chuckle, and then I considered that it might make for a good blog post!

We are driven around in a Buick minivan (provided by the company) that is just like the minivans driven in the US, but instead of Jamie or myself in the driver’s seat, it is our driver Mr. Dong.  I Googled Buick minivan to get the model name and up popped “Buick minivan China” ( , so that testifies to our van’s popularity  here on the mainland.  

There are hundreds (thousands?) of Buick minivans being driven around Suzhou and Shanghai.  We can tell the age of the minivans by what color they blue are the oldest, slightly newer are the silver ones and finally champagne (like ours) or silver again, but with the newer body style.  I have a fear of accidentally climbing into the wrong minivan when riding with friends to lunch, to the grocery store or other excursions. Needless to say, I’ve tried to memorize my friend’s license plates or recognize their drivers!

There is no glass partition to block our driver from hearing our children when they are crying or whiny (which never happens).  Poor guy!

We do appreciate the extra space our van offers, because after adding a few pieces (or maybe 12 ) of luggage in the van, we are pretty much up to capacity.  Soon, we will probably have to hire an additional car or van to get our luggage to and from the airport for the long treks back to the US.

On a final note, there are no child car seat laws in China.  Although there are many, many people with cars here, for the vast majority of the population, the law wouldn’t change how they travel with their children (using the bus, e-bikes, bicycles, etc.).  Our kids do have child car seats and use them.

Take me home, Jeeves!

In case you were wondering what else is parked our apartment's garage...






Another Mercedes

Lots of E-bikes
(to read more about E-bikes, click here)

Not too shabby of a motorcycle.

I like this motorcycle, but I have my eye
on a BMW motorcycle with a side car that
also parks in our garage.

And you can't forget the Range Rover.

Can I just say that I felt so shady and criminal walking around our apartment's garage taking pictures of people's cars.  The things I do for the sake of a good blog post!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Roar: Suzhou's Tiger Hill

No visit is complete without a trip
to the McDonald's in Old Town!
Last month, our family was so excited to welcome Jamie’s mother to Suzhou for 12 days.  We took her to some of our favorite spots: Old Town, the pearl market, Ancient Street, the No. 1 Silk Museum and the former French Concession in Shanghai.  

Temple in Old Town.
Mei Mei's: Where we had Jamie's aunt's silk pajamas made. 
One of the workers making Jamie's mother's pearl necklace.
So much to look at in the Pearl Market.
Waiting patiently (or not so patiently)
for our jewelry to be finished.
Standing in front of the live silk worms
at the No. 1 Silk Museum. 
Pulling the silk threads to make a silk duvet.

Tianzifang at night in Shanghai.

Jamie's mother's visit gave us the perfect excuse to make our first visit to Suzhou’s iconic Tiger Hill in the northwest part of the city.  The island area is a combination of a bamboo park, tomb, and temple, and is surrounded by canals.

Walking towards the entrance of Tiger Hill.

Though we went on a very hot day in August (but all days are hot in Suzhou in August!), I was pleasantly surprised about how much of the area was in the shade.  As we were walking up the many steps towards the temple, I was approached by a young woman who asked to  be our guide around the area. She suggested a price and I counter-offered, not really finding it necessary to have a guide.  She said no and I thanked her and she walked away, but then she came back with another offer and I restated the price I was comfortable with and she walked away.  The third time was the charm because she came back again and agreed to be our guide.  I can tell I’ve been here a while, this negotiating is becoming second nature (be that a warning to all car salesmen we deal with when we repatriate to the US!) and it helped that I couldn’t have cared less if she agreed or not, no emotions were tied to the deal!  As it turns out, I am very glad that she agreed to be our guide, we would have missed out on a lot of the history and details of Tiger Hill.

Tiger Hill is the burial place of He Lu, the King of Wu and founder of Suzhou.  Tiger Hill earned its name because the legend says his spirit was guarded by a white tiger that  appeared three days after his death and refused to leave.  The King was supposedly buried with 3,000 swords.  Our guide told us that the entrance to the tomb is actually underneath a moat and the water would have to be drained to enter the tomb.  She also said that upon the completion of the tomb all of the workers were given wine to celebrate, but that it had been purposely poisoned causing all the workers to die on the spot...just like with the Egyptian pyramids.  The spot where the workers perished is called Thousand People Rock.

Canals surround the Tiger Hill area. 

1,000 People Rock (the pillar) where
all of the workers died after completing the tomb.

Apparently if the water was drained,
we would see the entrance to the tomb.
Are there 3,000 swords down there? 
Looking out at the Suzhou skyline, our apartment
is to the left of the archway, which has
 been dubbed "Big Pants" by locals.

Looking up at the pagoda.

Above the tomb is the 1,000-year-old temple.  I asked if the temple had been built there because of the tomb and our guide said that it was coincidence that both were built on that spot.  The pagoda (temple) is leaning more than seven feet and sometimes is called the Second Leaning Tower, the first being  in Italy.  The exterior of the pagoda had been covered in wood, but the tower had caught on fire a few times, most recently during the government’s changes in the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

Running down the tree-lined path.
After walking up to the temple, we enjoyed seeing the bamboo on the way down to the canal.  We love canal rides, so after a quick ice cream break, we ended our day being taken by a man-powered boat around the canals circling Tiger Hill.

Any time is a good time for ice cream.

Powered by hand.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Beijing or Bust

After our trip to Jeju Island, Korea, we had just enough time to unpack, wash some clothes and repack for our weekend trip to Beijing.  Jamie had been to Beijing before, but this was the first time for the girls and me.  We took the high-speed train, which can reach a speed of 300 kilometers an hour, from Suzhou to Beijing and it took us just 5 hours to reach the capital city.  Before the high speed train was introduced, it took 12 hours by regular train.  

On the train and ready to go. 
Heading north everything became much dryer. 
We experienced some hazy skies because the
farmers were burning the wheat fields after harvest.

EBean keeping busy. 

This was one of our snacks on the train ride home...
donkey hide gelatin cake.  Yummy!
The high-speed train is such a great way to travel --minus the few accidents they had at the start of service (I’m sure the bugs are worked out).  It is very clean and the ride is smooth.  It was nice to see how the landscape changed as we moved further north.  We moved away from wet, marshy land with rice paddies and saw more mountainous terrain with wheat fields.

The main purpose of our trip was to visit some friends from the US who now also live in SE Asia.  If they were going to make the long trek to China, we weren’t going to let anything keep us from making it to Beijing!

Cooking outside.
Our first night we went out in search of Weger food.  The Weger ethnic group live in the far northwest corner of China (near all of the “-stan” countries, like Kazakhstan) and they are Muslim.  After taking in the local scenery as we walked, our friends, Jamie and I successfully found a Weger restaurant complete with an outside grill and lamb kabobs.  The food was great, but the company was better!

Look at that meat...that's what I call a skewer!

Amanda & I enjoying our dinner!

Sunday we stayed close to the hotel, but we were able to enjoy a complete Chinese banquet with some dishes I had never tasted before.  One was sweet potatoes that I think had been fried and then covered in a sugary, taffy-like goodness.  It was necessary to dip your chopsticks in water to keep them from sticking together.

They played together last year in the US and
this year they played together in China.
We ended our trip to Beijing on a bus with our friends to see the Great Wall. It was a long couple of hours to get to the wall, so we had a lunch break when we first got there. Guess where we Subway, of course!  Once at the Wall, we went to a portion of the wall where it is possible to take a sled-like contraption down it (it’s a luge, like the movie Cool Runnings!)...  This trip, however,  we decided to take the more reserved mode of transportation—the cable car. I am putting the luge on my bucket list, though!  

There are Subways everywhere! 
Going up to the top. 
Up, up, and up in the cable car. 
The square building is one of the guard stations
along the Wall.
The faint white line leading off to the right and
top of the picture is the Wall continuing.

LBean and EBean looking at the Wall
go on for miles. 

Amanda and her daughter taking in the view.

Amanda trekking back up the stairs.

The girls with their medals.
The thought had crossed my mind that the Great Wall had such build-up in my mind, that maybe it wouldn’t seem that “great” when I got there.  I should not have been worried as  it was impressive!  Words can’t begin to describe the awesomeness of the wall and hopefully our pictures can do it a bit of justice.  

EBean liked getting a medal to wear around her neck commemorating her first trip to the Wall (although the ice cream at the end might have been her favorite part).  LBean liked seeing the Wall go on for miles and miles and she is considering taking the luge down with me the next time we go.  Jamie enjoyed his second trip to the Wall, but said it was a bit more challenging with children in tow!

The long walk back up!