Author Archives: smerkens

Finding my way in the world as a free spirit


I didn’t plan to take a hiatus from writing but that’s what it has turned out to be. Without China as my backdrop, I struggled to find my muse. All my ideas for writing came to dead ends and read like whiny diatribes. When I would try to pick up with writing I had started months before, my emotions or feelings has changed. This piece below was started back in May. I couldn’t find a reasonable end to it, perhaps because I didn’t feel like I had actually experienced the end yet. Finally, I forced myself this week to finish this posting. Below isn’t so much a story with an end as much as it is an update of my life and where I am at the moment.

Although I’d like to make a commitment to write often and continuously, I know I may not be able to keep my word on that. Here’s hoping that with getting this post out there, that I can at least pick up and get the momentum going again.

“Steph is our free spirit friend.” These were the words close friends of mine used to describe me to other guests and friends at their wedding a few years ago. I’ve often reflected on the accuracy of that description of me and how my friends used it in a complementary way. Nevertheless, over the years I’ve wondered whether being a free spirit is one of my personal assets that sets me apart from others or whether it is actually a curse and character flaw. Because of my free spiriting ways, I have always been able to easily imagine and then ultimately follow through with living in whichever place my heart desires for the moment. I am often resilient to change and being in a new place. On the other hand, my free spiriting ways have prevented me from ever feeling I could settle down in one place. They make me fiercely independent at times and unable to speak of the “we” with important people in my life, while ironically at other times make me seek, latch on and cling to people I hope may offer me a sense of roots. Thanks to my free spiriting ways, I no sooner start to feel comfortable in a place, embraced by a community of friends and satisfied with my living surroundings and daily life routines, when suddenly I have this overarching need and urge to seek and find a new place, a new lifestyle and a new beginning. I’m programmed every three to five years to reposition and uproot my life to somewhere new. Suddenly, I’ll find myself again in an obscure, remote and far away corner of the world and wonder, “What just happened? How did I get here? What am I doing here?” Even worse, I pine and ache for all the collective chapters of my life from all of the previous places I left behind. Remnants of familiarity, such as a song or smell, will trigger a mix of nostalgia, homesickness and longing.

This roller coaster of emotions is what I rode on during the first six months I lived in New Zealand. One would think that this being the third major move for me within ten years, let alone to another English speaking country, and the fact that I practically jumped at the opportunity to move here, that it would have been easy for me to plunge in and get on with my merry life. On paper, it happened that way. My partner and I both secured employment in jobs we enjoyed, and moved into a house where we could relax in the evenings, garden on weekends and easily visit his family within two hours. Nevertheless, in spite of that wonderful settling and nesting, I struggled with feelings of confusion, isolation and loneliness during my first six months. I found myself resentful of going into winter in July. Other days, I longed for the beauty of the Pacific Northwest outdoors or the impressive views from my parents’ Montana cabin, while being oblivious to the spellbinding nature surrounding me. I would sigh at an outdoor surrounding and simply say, “This reminds me of…..” with my voice trailing off and reminiscing about some far away location or experience from a not so distant previous chapter in my life. Ironically, I even missed the very aspects of China that used to drive me crazy- busy, crowded streets with lots of activity and hubbub. In contrast, New Zealand was so quiet and peaceful. Streets emptied by 7 pm and I was left scratching my head wondering, “Where did everyone go?” The roller coaster ride also included the pining of friendships. I had reminders of people who touched my life so profoundly and relived tearful farewells over and over in my head. The slow, painful realization that our friendships would slip into eventual occasional contact, no matter how sincere and well intentioned we were when we parted.

Am I alone in having such conflicting feelings and attachments towards different places? Am I the only one who struggles with the answer for where or what “home” is? The writer and fellow free-spirit Pico Iyer described in his TED talk last year that there are now over 220 million people worldwide living in countries other than that of their passport. Soon, according to Iyer, we free-spirits will make up the “fifth largest nation on Earth”. This comforts me to know that I am part of club or sorts and that there are countless others of us out there walking in the same shoes.

More than eight months in since I moved to New Zealand, I like to think I have coped well and made it through the lowest dip of the roller coaster ride. This wasn’t without a little bit of cheating along the way. Going back to the US for two weeks in August helped infinitely by giving me a dose of summer and allowing me to spend much needed time with my mother, sisters and some friends and family. While I thought a trip home would only make me more depressed to come back to New Zealand, it had the opposite effect and recharged me. When mentioning to some people in the US that I lived in New Zealand, they seemed to perk and brighten up. They would gush, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go there. It’s my dream destination!” or “I’ve seen from pictures that it’s stunning!” It took these remarks from both friends and strangers to help me realize that indeed I now lived in a special place. It reminded me that I chose this path in life so that I could be with someone dear to me and be part of his world.

I arrived back in New Zealand in the second week of August with optimism and a new attitude. Since then, I can say I have been happier thanks in part to new friendships, the love and generosity of my Kiwi family, a growing vegetable garden in our backyard, new found nature escapes, and my rediscovery of swimming. Although I may still make comparisons with other places and may still miss certain elements of my previous life chapters, I’ve also realized that I don’t have to seek full closure on those previous chapters in my life. In the meantime though, it’s okay to focus and embrace this new and current chapter in my life.

Two weeks ago, we drove fifteen minutes out of the city where we live and soon found ourselves on a gravel country road. Driving past hilly and luscious, green pastures, we witnessed herds of ewes and their baby lambs. Bright yellow gorse blanketed entire hillsides as we wove our away along the road. Taking in the splendor around me, I realized for the first time that I wasn’t actually comparing it with anywhere else. I’d finally arrived. Maybe not home but at least I’d arrived to a feeling of contentment and living in the moment.

Happy to live in the moment but honor my past

Happy to live in the moment but honor my past

For further reading/ viewing:

Pico Iyer: Where is home?


Lest we forget


Reflecting on the national, personal and emotional significance of Anzac Day

With no set plans or agenda for the day off, I woke up on Friday, 25 April and spontaneously decided to observe the local Palmerston North ceremony and commemoration for Anzac Day. Similar to ceremonies and observances held in cities and towns all over New Zealand and Australia, the ceremony I attended remembered the lives and sacrifices of New Zealanders and Australians who served in wars. Anzac is an acronym for Australia New Zealand Army Corps and the day was originally observed in both countries to remember the horrific loss of lives of Australian and Kiwi soldiers who landed at the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Ottoman Empire on April 25, 1915. The campaign dragged on for months and thousands of soldiers from New Zealand, Australia, the UK, France, British India (all fighting for the Allied forces) as well as countless enemy Turkish soldiers fighting for the Ottoman Empire, died in battles. News of the Gallipoli battles made their way back home and had a heavy impact on the morale and national psyche. Impromptu observances were held already in 1915 and the first official Anzac Day was held on the first year anniversary of the April 25th landing at Gallipoli. Today, almost a century on, the Gallipoli campaign has become for both Kiwis and Australians a symbol of almost legendary proportions as well as national pride and sacrifice. Following World War II, Anzac Day became a day to remember the sacrifices and lost lives of Kiwi and Australian men and women who have served in all wars and conflicts.

As I walked on the almost empty streets of Palmerston North to make my way to the cenotaph and war memorial in the town square, I reflected on what I hoped to achieve attending the Anzac Day event. What could I, a newcomer, whose identity here as an “American” is given away as soon as I open my mouth and the flat toned accent rolls off my tongue, gain from going to the ceremony? As a relative newcomer to New Zealand, I was curious to observe how the symbolic day would be marked and as such try to understand its significance to ordinary Kiwis. I am grateful to New Zealand for welcoming me here, recognizing my relationship with my partner and allowing us together to have the opportunity to live, work and enjoy life here with relatively few obstacles. Perhaps in some sense, I felt it was my duty to witness and take part in the day and pay my respect to those who sacrificed their lives so that I could build my life here today. In addition to paying my respects; understanding its significance to my Kiwi neighbors and the community; I think I also hoped that in some small sense, participating in the Anzac Day ceremony would help me feel more integrated and closer to feeling more at home here and at least for a few moments, identify with being a Kiwi.

While attending the Anzac Day community ceremony, I was indeed overwhelmed with emotion. Unexpected tears welled up in my eyes as I walked up to join the crowd and we started to sing Amazing Grace, a song so familiar and sentimental to me and which I have always thought of as a true American anthem. I was moved by the words of the pastor who spoke to the crowd and reminded the community to remember those who had died, those who had come to our aid, and most poignantly to also remember enemies, as they too were bereft and had lost many loved ones. Within the crowd were families with young children, military personnel with their families, university students, older veterans, as well as attendees from all communities including Maori, Pacific Islanders, and various immigrant and national communities. Following the pastor’s sermon, various members of the community were called upon to place wreaths on the war memorial. Uniformed veterans of different wars or family members were first called upon, following members of different community organizations and schools. High schoolers as well as primary schoolers all proudly represented their schools and community and placed wreaths on the war memorial. Regional foes in conflicts over the last couple of centuries, the Greek and Turkish communities of Palmerston North symbolically placed a joint wreath together at the end of the wreath placing ceremony. The ceremony ended with a moment of silence, a military gun salute and the singing of the New Zealand national anthem. Following the ceremony, the participants in the wreath placing marched out on the middle of the square and along its periphery while the crowd followed and clapped.

Community members gathering around the war memorial after the ceremony

Community members gathering around the war memorial after the ceremony

Whereas my informal participation in Anzac Day did allow me to understand firsthand the significance of the day to New Zealanders, I couldn’t help but reflect on the implications of such as day back home in the United States. While I’ve always considered many Americans to be patriotic, involved in their communities and politically active and engaged, I believe that a day such as Anzac Day in the US does not seem to have the same significance as it does for Kiwis. While it’s true that Memorial Day and Veterans Day are observed in the US, I personally have never felt any overpowering sense of importance leading up to those days such as here. Americans seem to participate at the same level of involvement and engagement on the Fourth of July (Independence Day) but curiously do not come out in the same numbers for Memorial Day or Veterans Days. Rather, these days seem to be embraced simply because they give Americans much needed long weekends or allow retailers an excuse to lure consumers to holiday sales (of course the same might be said for here). Perhaps the US is too politically divided and its current involvement in wars has made more active participation and greater involvement in the day a thorny issue for many Americans. I learned that throughout the last century, Anzac Day ceremonies have also seen their share of protests and controversies in Australia and New Zealand but in recent years, the political implications have been overlooked to remember the lives of all victims of wars and to offer gratitude, united comfort and closure to those who fought as well as their families. Perhaps someday when the US is also more removed from its conflicts, Americans too will more willingly embrace and offer similar sentiments for the men and women who have served the country in the armed forces.

Following the Anzac Day local community procession

Following the Anzac Day local community procession


As I was at a remembrance day event and my emotions were raw, my mind began to wander and remember people no longer with us. April 24, 2014 marked what would have been the 100th birthday or my grandfather George Ball Stephan. He was and still is an important part of my life. I also remember the life of a neighbor who recently passed and left this world too soon. He and his wife were once only briefly in my life but I remember him for being part of my life at one point and my heart goes out to his wife and two daughters.





Goodbye, China


It’s been over six weeks since I left China and I know that the time has come for me to wrap up Inside the Middle Kingdom. It’s taken me a while to collect my last thoughts on this experience as if I need to get some sort of closure. I haven’t emotionally been in the right place to reflect on my departure as well as the culmination of my time in China- mostly because I have been living for the moment and focused on starting this new chapter in my life in New Zealand. Before the time away from China becomes more distant, here are (for now) some of my final thoughts.  

Dear China,

When I first met you, I was only 10 years old. The year was 1985 and I was a skinny, curious, naïve kid whose senses were stirred thanks in part to my strange first encounter with you. You yourself were just coming of age and slowly and cautiously opening your doors to the outside world. My family came over on a bus with other curious foreigners on a group visa for a day trip organized by a travel office in Macau. Until then, I knew very little of you other than its famous Great Wall or images of throngs of friendly people wearing grey Mao suits and blue caps on bicycles careening by the famous, larger than life portrait of Mao at Tiananmen Square in Beijing.   Maybe I half imagined we were going to the Great Wall or to wave to those Tiananmen Square cyclists on our brief day trip. I did sense it was a very special opportunity, although I was a bit unsure of what to expect and probably had a mixture of nerves and excitement the night before. On that trip, we only got to see some glimpses of the world of ordinary people. We were shuffled along to the birthplace of Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China and then to lunch in a restaurant I can only surmise was reserved for foreigners and important officials. I learned about the One Child Policy that day when our guide pointed out a large propaganda billboard extolling the virtues of the policy. At that time, there were no tall skyscrapers nor even a skyline, nor any large development and construction projects. Roads were very dusty and only partially paved, and no sidewalks, trees or stylish, glitzy shopping areas graced their sides.  Transportation was limited to the odd bus, truck, tractor and bicycle (although I don’t recall seeing throngs of people on bicycles). My main delight and keenest memory of that day was visiting a village of one-level cement block homes. The street was relatively empty but suddenly a friendly woman in her 30’s or 40’s came out with a little girl of about 3. For the special occasion of the foreign visitors, the little girl has a red ribbon in her hair. The woman took delight in her daughter meeting my sister and me and the little girl bestowed us each with kisses on our hands.  Whatever came off that village, the small girl and her mother- of course I will never know, but this brief encounter has always left a permanent impression on me. I imagine that skyscrapers now stand where that village once was, and the little girl with the red ribbon is now a successful businesswoman and mother. The ghosts of 1985 spend their days wandering the crowded streets looking for remnants of the past.

My first encounter with China in 1985 on a trip to Guandong Province.

My first encounter with China in 1985 on a trip to Guandong Province.

I didn’t return to you until 25 years later when I arrived in August 2010, bewildered but eager to start a new adventure. Even though I had already had an encounter with you, I was nervous again just as I was on that night before that first trip in 1985. I had different conceptions shaped by others. From a very talented, charismatic and knowledgeable 8th grade social studies teacher, I first learned about your over 4,000 year history, your dynasties, your geography and your complicated, often strained relationship with the outside world. It was also at that time that I along with the rest of the outside world tried to learn and understand what happened, what went wrong in June 1989.  My next encounter with Chinese was favorable with my first contact with Chinese peers in 1993 when I went away to college. From them, I formed the notion that Chinese are hardworking, diligent and are under immense pressure to not settle for second best. From friends and former coworkers who had spent time living, working and studying there back in the 1990’s, I formed the notion that even then, you were still a wild-west frontier in which some venture capitalists started to dabble. Still in those early years, only a few adventurous people actually seemed to have the gumption or smarts to delve into your world. The excitement of the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of Eastern Europe meant that many people, myself included, seemed to focus their attention on that part of the world for a while. When you were nominated for the Olympic Games for 2008, you came into the spotlight. Still, you remained a relative enigma to me and unfair opinions were formed by American statesmen and media that became alarmed with your new economic might and were also quick to point out your human rights abuses.  So pre-arrival impressions of you in 2010 were very muddled and I knew that I would have to form my own impressions by having my own experience from within.

I was and remain astounded with the transformations you have undergone in the 25-30 years since 1985. No longer shy and closed off to the rest of the world, you now have thousands of foreigners living, studying, enterprising, teaching and discovering their niche in your cities. No longer are you an unknown, wild frontier but a tame, booming conglomerate of metropolises offering both exoticism and the comforts of home. So often, there were days I might have even forgotten I lived in your world and I worried about you losing your own identity as you embraced the stores, trends, lifestyles, food, fashion, technology, entertainment and education of outside realms.  But really you integrated these outside elements while maintaining your own principles, traditions and way of doing things.

During my three and half years living in your world, I wasn’t immune to my occasional bouts of frustration with you. At times, I bemoaned how packed public places were, sighing, for example, with annoyance while squeezing into overcrowded busses or for there being a lack of taxis during rush hour. I cursed the inconsiderate driving habits and hierarchy of traffic in which pedestrians such as myself were left to fend for ourselves, hastily fleeing loudly honking, speeding cars in pedestrian crossings. The disruption of early Sunday morning sleep by fireworks (on any given day of the year) or by elderly neighbors outside my window moving to the shrill commands and directions of their tai chi exercise recordings left me frequently grumbling and irritable. At times, I had my challenges with lack of notice and planning for holidays even by public institutions, throwing my arms up in defeat when learning about a holiday in the next week and then the subsequent sudden make-up day on a forthcoming Saturday. I grumbled over the difficulty in finding clothes, shoes and acceptance for women my size and shape in China. “Do Chinese women have no hips or butts?” I remember indignantly whining to the shopkeepers who wanted to comfort me but could only shrug their shoulders when nothing in my size could be found. And at times, I probably came off as an uppity feminist when I complained about the 1950’s role I perceived women, men and marriage to have.

However, there were days I felt overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude for the experiences I encountered with you. Were it not for the opportunity to come teach in your world, I would never have become a confident educator. Scarred and doubtful of my abilities from previous teaching experiences, I found my comfort level in the classrooms at the university, where I was left to experiment with designing my own lessons, teaching methods and approaches while working with patient, mostly diligent, disciplined and eager students. I thrived in a setting in which education was embraced and educators were revered. The university teacher lifestyle provided me with the right work-life balance which allowed me to live comfortably free of stress and juggling too much.

Living in your world also helped me learn more about patience (although still a work in progress) thanks to dealing with the frustrating situations above. I also started to learn that it’s pointless to worry about things that are out of your own control.

But my fondest, most heartwarming memories of you will be my encounters with people. These included the community of other teachers; friendships with Chinese teachers and colleagues; the friendly interaction with neighbors, shopkeepers and people from the community around where I lived; as well as the random acts of kindness or ordinary actions of strangers. I never felt lonely during my time in China. As I’ve shared in my blog before, there were those ordinary moments I witnessed between human beings or of which I was a part that moved me. An hour in a park where I could witness people coming together to play music and sing ancient love songs would catch me unexpectedly choking back my tears and emotions. The exuberance and friendly tidings a stranger on the public bus who upon seeing me, proclaimed, “Welcome to China!” and proceeded to give up her seat.  The familiarity and simple sociable banter that developed between me and the owner of the local copy shop or the local hairdresser; the husband and wife and their twin daughters; or a new friend my own age with whom I bonded over sharing our very different life circumstances. The steadfast and persistent nightly gatherings of neighbor ladies to exercise and dance on the tennis court in front of my apartment building. Even as the days shortened, the temperatures got colder, and their group got smaller, I would take comfort in their presence, their faint figures moving in the dark to the dim light from adjacent buildings.

During my last weeks living in your world, I found myself nostalgic and reverting to the same wonder I found in you when I first arrived in a 2010. Knowing my time was coming to an end, I tried to soak up the everyday experiences or routines that had become a part of my life and that I would soon miss. Eating jiao zi and guo tie in our favorite local dumpling shop, visiting my frequented stands in the cai shi chang (vegetable market), and enjoying the smiles and loving moments shared between parents and their little ones. Although I didn’t find myself fighting the tears on the day I departed, I realized it may have been because I wasn’t mourning an end to this meaningful, significant chapter in my life. Rather, I was continuing on my journey onto a new chapter in my life with feelings of contentment, confidence, ease and inner peace which I was only able to achieve thanks to my experiences in your world.

So for now, I say 再见 (Zai Jian) but I’ll forever have a tie to you.

With gratitude. 谢谢,

With some of my students after exams during my last semester

With some of my students after exams during my last semester

I took joy in seeing the love between parents and their little ones- and the willingness of people to have me share in such moments.

I took joy in seeing the love between parents and their little ones- and the willingness of people to have me share in such moments.

A friend and her husband whom I met in my last few weeks.  We were the same age and bonded over sharing our different life experiences.

A friend and her husband  with Nick and me. She and I met in my last few weeks. We were the same age and bonded over sharing our different life experiences.

Getting my haircut by the local hairdresser.

Getting my haircut by the local hairdresser.

This vegetable seller was a  comforting, constant presence in the neighborhood.

This vegetable seller was a comforting, constant presence in the neighborhood.

Moments I enjoyed witnessing

Moments I enjoyed witnessing

I enjoyed seeing these little twins grow over time.

I enjoyed seeing these little twins grow over time.

The local copy shop I frequented. I enjoyed interactions with the staff/ owner.

The local copy shop I frequented. I enjoyed interactions with the staff/ owner.

Shangri-La: The life, death and rebirth of an ancient Chinese town


A few days ago, I read the sad news that the ancient part of the city in Shangri-la in Yunnan Province in China had been ravaged and almost completely destroyed by a fire. I stumbled on an article about the fire half way down the page, deeply embedded in the middle section of the international news page of the local newspaper where I now live. Having visited the city myself exactly two years ago, I had to carefully reread the headline and subtext to make sure it was indeed the same obscure city. A remote city in the northwest corner of Yunnan Province called Gyalthang in Tibetan by it mainly Tibetan inhabitants, the ancient city was formally a trading post along the Southern route of the Silk Road and still serves as an isolated springboard for travel into Tibet. Known in Chinese as Zhongdian until 2001, it was renamed “Shangri-la” by the Chinese government in the hope of attracting tourists. Before moving to China, I knew nothing of the namesake for Shangri-la, a fictional Tibetan utopia in the 1933 novel “Lost Horizon” by James Hilton, nor was I aware that there was in fact a real place bearing that name.

Although Shangri-La had apparently attracted a lot of tourists both from China and overseas in the recent years, it was almost completely shut-down for tourists when I arrived there in January 2012 with newly-made hiker friends. It was the week leading up to Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and most accommodations, shops and restaurants were shut for the winter. Ice-chilling winds blew through the empty, narrow, cobbled streets of Dukezong, the ancient part of the city. Walking gingerly along the icy roads, stray, rugged dogs escorted us through the streets as we wandered around and explored. The tucked away, elevated remoteness of Shangri-La reminded me of a frontier town in the Wild West, thanks to the lack of foreign and Chinese national big brand commercialism. Entire families putted by on tractor pulled carts, cows and wild turkeys shared the streets, and Tibetan techno pop music blared from local bars and shops. A 15 minute walk outside of the old city center was a busy market. Monks in their long auburn robes sashayed by while other locals sold brightly colored prayer flags, brass bowls and a variety of produce.  A short uphill walk behind the ancient city, prayer flags flapped from hilltop monasteries while wind whistled past my face. Lacking a skyline of tall buildings and any construction, clear views of the residential city in the valley below offered a calming backdrop. It was a welcome escape from the overpopulated chaos, noisy traffic and urban sprawl typical of other Chinese cities.

shangri-la collage

The question remains as to what will now come of the ancient part of Shangri-La. Having been branded as a tourism getaway by the Chinese government, it will most definitely be rebuilt. How will the new ancient city be reborn? Will it be completely gutted, flattened and then developed with new upmarket shopping malls, KFCs, and fancy new high rise apartment buildings similar to those popping up over other cities in China? Could the ancient city be rebuilt to resemble another Lijiang, the Unesco World Heritage city a few hours south in Yunnan that tends to be overcrowded and overpriced with its theme park depiction of the local and ancient culture? Part of Shangri-La’s charm was in its remoteness, ruggedness, and it not being another concrete replica of an ancient town fashioned by an eager developer from elsewhere in China. I do hope that the ancient town of Shangri-La will be rebuilt again. Certainly the income will help support the local economy. Here’s hoping it will be rebuilt similar to the original form as well as with a majority of input and involvement from the local population.

From a hilltop monastery overlooking the old part of Shangril-La below, a monk collects old prayer flags to burn.

From a hilltop monastery overlooking the old part of Shangril-La below, a monk collects old prayer flags to burn.

A Chinese culinary journey along the streets of Nanjing: Part 3



My Chinese food experience in Nanjing would not have been complete without a basic Chinese food staple- jiao zi (饺子)or dumplings (cousin of the American “gyoza” potstickers). I believe the best dumpling restaurant in all of Nanjing is located a 5 minute walk down the road from the university. It is absolutely packed every afternoon from 12 noon until 1:30, with patrons squeezing in at tables with other customers. This adds to the charm as you may be forced to small talk with a couple or a mother and her child sharing the table with you. In the back of the restaurant, a team of women hunch over a large table preparing the dough and the filling for the dumplings from scratch. This is a large production. Two women can be seen mixing a pile of flour with water with their hands. Eventually, the large pile of flour becomes a large pile of dough. Grabbing small pieces of dough, two other women quickly knead and roll out small, flat discs of dough. Two additional women rapidly spoon fillings of ground pork or ground pork and corn onto the flat discs of dough and pinch the dumplings together. The prepared dumplings are placed on a large round bamboo woven tray and hurriedly brought to the cooks in the back who boil the dumpling for the eager customers.

In the front of the shop, a two person team fries the guotie (锅贴) or pot stickers (this is a literal translation) in two inches of piping hot, bubbling, golden cooking oil in a large shallow and round iron pan. As the guotie fry, they begin to brown and stick to the pan and each other. The outside of the guotie harden and turn crispy while the minced pork and garlic filling cooks nicely in the inside. Once crisped, browned and stuck together, the cook slowly pours the oil into another pan. Another attendant scrapes the browned blocks of guotie onto plates for hungry customers who push their way into the line and quickly grab from the latest batch before it is depleted. On hand at each table are garlic cloves (for mashing up with bare hands, no less), dark vinegar and a bright, thick red garlic chili sauce. Customers prepare a mixture of all three in individual dipping bowls for dunking the fresh steamed jiaozi and guotie in before downing the savory treats.

Another interesting take on dumplings are tang bao (汤包)or xiao long bao (小笼包)or soup dumplings. A specialty originally from Shanghai, xiao long bao is a dumpling with a gelatinous broth cube placed inside before it is pinched on top. Xiao long bao literally means “little steaming basket buns” and these little morsels are placed in a bamboo basket to steam over boiling water. As the dumplings steam in the basket, the gelatinous cube inside the dumplings melt and mix with the water vapor and turn to soup, essentially creating tasty soup filled dumplings. An unsuspecting xiao long bao virgin might bite right into the dumpling, squirting hot liquid all over himself and his front. I myself haven’t mastered the art of eating xiao long bao but usually I cautiously and wobbily grab one with my chop sticks, careful to pinch the top of the dumpling, and slowly dunk it in dark vinegar. Steadily, I then place the xiao long bao on a small porcelain soup spoon held in my left hand while still gingerly holding the dumpling upright with the chopsticks in my right hand. I bite a small hole at the top of the dumpling and then slowly suck and slurp the soup out of it. I usually manage to not dribble or squirt any soup on myself but every once in a while, one of my shirts becomes a casualty of careless xiao long bao consumption. For a while, a small eatery right next to the university steamed tasty xiao long bao and it became a tradition to bring any visitors from back home to try them as one of their first Chinese cuisine experiences. As I write this, I laugh because until this week, I thought “long” in xiao long bao meant “dragon” (龙) (different tone from “long” meaning “steamed basket) so all along, my friends, sister, niece and I thought we were enjoying “little dragon buns”.

dumpling collage 2

Top right- Jiao zi; Middle right top- Guo tie; MIddle right bottom- hun tun; Bottom left- Xiao long bao

So there you have it my friends- a full Chinese culinary journey right on the streets of Nanjing. I haven’t even managed to cover all of the dishes, snacks, or delicacies such as Beijing duck, Nanjing salted duck, Yunnan fried goat cheese, malatang (麻辣烫)(spicy numb soup) or all the varieties of dofu (豆腐) (tofu).  Chinese food is as diverse in taste and variety as its people. Sometimes the best dining experiences are not at pricey, fancy restaurants but at homey, local rustic holes in the wall or from street vendors. Witnessing the preparation around the cooking of the food, the owners as well as the interaction between other customers can be a unique cultural experience and insight into life in the Middle Kingdom. These experiences I will cherish and take with me from this Chinese chapter in my life.

A Chinese culinary journey along the streets of Nanjing: Part 2


Carnivore’s delight: Chicken, “hamburgers” and barbeque

Many basic eateries here in Nanjing and throughout China have different forms of meat cooked in sauces and topped or fried in rice, noodles, or in noodle soup. Chicken of course is available in many restaurants. It is not an unusual sight to see live chickens crammed into a cage in front of some restaurants, especially hotpot restaurants. While this may be a little bit shocking, some restaurants will proudly display chickens in front to attract customers who will then be able to pick a chicken of their choice to be cooked up in hotpot shortly thereafter. Perhaps outsiders may see this as unsanitary but here in China, it may be preferred as you can know exactly where the chicken or duck you are eating is coming from and how fresh it is. In contrast, the American way of buying a whole bird like a chicken or turkey, completely frozen and wrapped in plastic from the supermarket and then kept in a deep freezer for weeks may seem absurd as well as a waste of space. Also, Chinese won’t waste any part of an animal and eat every part of the duck or chicken, including the neck, feet (a favorite snack), various organs, and bone marrow.

Ducks from the local farmers' market

Ducks from the local farmers’ market

Caged, live chickens in front of a local hotpot restaurant

Caged, live chickens in front of a local hotpot restaurant

Unless you are savvy with chopsticks, be prepared to wrestle with a piece of chicken and its bones. My two favorite boned chicken dishes are Sichuan specialties called kou shui ji (口水鸡) or “saliva chicken” and another chicken dish simply known as “happy chicken” to me and my friends. “Saliva chicken” is called that because it makes your mouth water and was introduced to me by my friend Ryan who heralds from Sichuan himself and who shared the dish with us at a local Sichuan joint that he claimed was very authentic. Saliva chicken is cold poached chicken dunked in a spicy, dark sauce with peanuts (I could order the dish just for the sauce). Ryan tried for a long time to dupe the owner of that local Sichuan restaurant to share the recipe for her “saliva Chicken” but I think she’ll take it with her to her grave. “Happy chicken” is served in one of the hole in the wall restaurants in the basement of the shopping center near my university. A favorite lunchtime spot for some fellow teachers and me, the “happy chicken place” (as we called the restaurant) serves an assortment of mostly Sichuan dishes. “Happy chicken” is a delicious whole rotisserie chicken (with head and everything) with a nice salty dark glaze with caramelized onions. My friends and I tear the thing apart in minutes and when it gets difficult for us to pick at the thin remaining morsels, the proprietor is nice enough to hack the remaining chicken into smaller, more manageable parts for us to grab with our chopsticks.

A sauce with ji ding, or cubed chicken, is a solution if you want a quick and easy to eat dish with chicken pieces sans bones. This is probably why gong bao ji ding (宫保鸡丁), or “imperial fried spicy diced chicken” (and the original and distant cousin to Kung Pao Chicken), a basic but tasty sauce of diced chicken mixed with cubed pieces of carrot, cucumber and peanuts served on rice, is a very popular dish with foreigners in China. During my first year in China, I must have eaten gong bao ji ding at least every other day for both lunch and dinner.

Pork or rou (肉)(and simply translated as “meat”) is also common in gai jiao toppings over rice. You can easily eat it without bones if you order a sauce mixed with vegetables and rou pian (肉片)or sliced pork. At our local Sichuan restaurant, we frequently order a very basic but yummy sauce called tu dou rou pian (土豆肉片)or “potato pork slices” which is basically cooked potato slices and small pork slices in a brown gravy sauce which we eat on top of rice. Another cut of pork is rou si (肉丝) or shredded pork. Rou si is almost like ground pork but the pieces are just big enough to grab with chopsticks. My favorite rou si is another Sichuan dish called yue xiang rou si (鱼香肉丝) or fish fragrant pork strips. Despite its name, yue xiang rou si is not fishy tasting and is a nice dark sauce mixed with strips of carrot and garlic.

Tudou Roupian- Potato pork slices

Tudou Roupian– Potato pork slices

China’s answer to the hamburger is rou jia mo (肉夹馍) or pork pressed (in a) bun. Also coming from Shaanxi Province in northern China, rou jia mo is a very unique and delicious pulled pork sandwich which can be bought from street vendors. The pork is stewed for hours in a pot of soup broth with a variety of spices. To prepare the sandwich, the vendor will take a piece of pork from the pot, chop and mince it up into slivers and smaller pieces with a cleaver on a wooden cutting board. “La de? 辣的?, he’ll ask wondering if you can handle a little extra seasoning of chili powder. Pouring the chili powder and adding some sprigs of cilantro and grated cucumber, he’ll continue to chop up and mix the pork with the other. A small flat and round wheat bread called “mo” is sliced open to form a pocket and the pulled pork is then stuffed into the pocket bread and placed on a grill for a few seconds to be flattened so the flavors of the meat and seasonings can be combined.

Rou jia mo

Rou jia mo

Beef or niu rou (牛肉)(literally called “cow meat”) also can come both with and without bones. The basic beef dish is niu rou chao fan (牛肉炒饭), beef fried rice or niu rou chao mian (牛肉炒面), beef fried noodles. But the best way to enjoy beef in China is at an outdoor barbeque stand or shao kao (烧烤). Quite different from American barbeque, Chinese barbeque uses dry seasonings rather than marinades. In the past couple of years, an outdoor but covered shao kao gallery was set up along the river nearby my university. An entire line of perhaps thirty barbeque stalls were set up with picnic tables placed in front of each of the stands. Entering  the gallery from the street, barbeque chefs and their wives block our way as we walk down the aisle passing the different stalls, competing to woo us to their table instead of another’s. We have our stand we always visit and once we arrive, the wife squeezes us into their table among other customers so that she is able to seat as many people as possible. We grab a metal tray and load it up with a couple dozen beef and lamb skewers as well as an assortment of vegetables like green beans, cauliflower, mushrooms and potatoes as well as my favorite treat at shao kao- grilled mantou (馒头), a steamed bun that has been cut into slices, seasoned and then grilled. Pretty girls in white boots, miniskirts and green blouses slowly make their way to our table selling big glass bottles of beer and easily crushable thin plastic cups. The wife and daughter of our barbeque stall juggle to draw additional customers to their table, while also slicing, seasoning and then delicately threading the vegetable, meat and seafood ingredients onto metal or bamboo skewers. The wife at the neighboring stall always shoots us a dirty glance having passed up their stall yet another time (this is always part of the entire shao kao experience though). Preparing and burning the coals on the long grill and then fanning them to the right temperature is an art and is also strictly the man’s domain. The men are always the barbeque chefs. Always with a cheerful, calm and collected demeanor, our man takes turns greeting usual customers, fanning the coals of the grill, and slowly grilling the skewers of the different customers, being careful not to mix up the orders. He is methodical about grilling our different ingredients in stages so that we don’t get a pile of all of our food at once. His wife brings out a handful of skewers in intervals, carefully but efficiently piling the meat and veggie skewers on a metal tray in front of us. As we dive into our ever growing pile, we pick off pieces of meat with disposable bamboo chopsticks or just thread and rip an entire skewer in one swoop in our mouths, discarding then a growing pile of now clean skewers on the side of the tray. Burping, rubbing our bellies, and very satisfied afterwards, the hubbub inside the shao kao hall has begun to die down. As a ritual, our chef hands the men in our group cigarettes to smoke with him as a gesture of male friendship, to show appreciation of our continued patronage and perhaps as a reward to himself for another job well done that night. The night is not over, indeed the shao kao tent will be open until the wee hours of the morning, but he can allow himself to kick back and relax for a little bit.  How crestfallen I was when I returned from the US at the end of the summer this year to see that the entire shao kao gallery had completely vanished and cleared out, as if it had never existed. Every time I walk or ride by that now empty strip by the river, I remember fondly the evenings we  spent their among friends and witnessing the community of the families who got their livelihood from their shao kao operations there.

Fun times at the shao kao hall

Fun times at the shao kao hall

For a while, we also visited a Xinjiang barbeque place in our neighborhood. Xinjiang is the farthest, most western province of China and borders Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and Russia. Many of the people from this part of China are not ethnic Han Chinese but are Uygher- a Turkic people who look very similar in appearance to people from the neighboring Central Asian countries and speak a Turkic dialect. Admittedly I have romanticized about visiting Xianjiang for three years, picturing myself riding on a camel into a bazaar in an ancient desert town along the Silk Road. While my dream of visiting Xianjiang has not yet been fulfilled, I vicariously experience a little bit of Xinjiang at local barbeque eateries and stands. The Xinjiang barbeque restaurant in our neighborhood that we visited for a while was strictly a place we enjoyed eating at during the summer and warm autumn months when we could eat at a foldable table outside on the sidewalk. It being a Muslim establishment, lamb skewers or nanrou chuan (羊肉串)were the main meat being barbequed. Outside, one of the young guys grilled the lamb and vegetable skewers forming a cloud of smoke that enveloped passersby. A few meters away, his sidekick prepared balls of dough for naan– a round flatbread with sesame seeds pressed in. A deep, open clay kiln glowed in front of him as he then formed a flattened disc of the dough onto a flat, cushioned hand mitt and then pressed the dough onto the side of the kiln to bake for a few minutes. The fresh, warm naan complemented the seasoned lamb and vegetables nicely. Our visits to our local Xinjiang barbeque restaurant ended, however, as the outside temperatures got colder and we had to retreat indoors to the restaurant where we were welcomed by a cockroach on the wall adjacent to our table. Luckily, makeshift Xinjiang barbeque stands are set up at various locations all over the city, so if I ever crave any lamb skewers and naan, I know where I can get my fix.

Xinjiang barbeque: grilling of lamb skewers and preparation of naan

Xinjiang barbeque: grilling of lamb skewers and preparation of naan

Next in this series on Chinese food:
Part 3: Dumplings

For further reading and recipes:
Sichuan “saliva” chicken recipe

Yu xiang rou si Recipe (Fish fragrant pork slivers)

A Chinese culinary journey along the streets of Nanjing: Part 1


Happy New Year! 新年快乐! This is my last week in China so I would like to present over the next few days some of the dining experiences and culinary treats I have enjoyed during my three and a half years living in Nanjing. Enjoy!

Regretfully during my time here in China, I have not been able to travel as extensively to other regions of China as I would have liked. Fortunately, I can experience some of China’s rich diversity right here in Nanjing through a wide selection of local restaurants and eateries that represent cuisine from the near and far reaches of the country.

A good part of China’s 1.3 billion people live predominantly within urban centers spanning north to south of its east coast thanks to the economic opportunities available there. Millions of transients migrate from all provinces of China in search of better paying jobs and education opportunities in the booming east coast cities. Some will eventually settle in the East, others will come and then vanish as quickly as they arrived likely seeking other opportunities elsewhere in other booming cities or returning to their distant home provinces. Many of these migrants will run small restaurants, eateries or other small shops to help support themselves and families back home. That’s how it’s possible to experience cuisine from all of the different provinces right within a neighborhood’s limits.

China’s cuisine is as diverse as its people. Many of the typical Chinese dishes you might enjoy in the US or elsewhere outside of China only represent a small fraction of the dishes you could experience in China itself and have also probably been altered so much to meet the tastes of the adopting country, and are nowhere near in taste or appearance to the original dishes. I also rack my brain trying to think of the quintessential dish in China itself because Chinese dishes and cuisine really are delineated along regional lines. In the north of China, north of the Yangtze River, noodles and wheat based food is the basic staple. South of the Yangtze River, rice and rice based food is the basic foundation. Nanjing is just on the south bank of the Yangtze so we can easily enjoy both noodles and rice based dishes. When ordering rice dishes, you can either ask for chao fan (炒饭)or fried rice dishes or gai jiao fan (盖浇饭)or rice with a “lid”, which is plain cooked rice topped (hence the term “lid”) with a sauce with mixed vegetables; a sauce with vegetables and meat; or a sauce with tofu. Noodles or mian (面)are served in soup unless you specify chao mian (炒面)(the original and distant cousin to Americanized “chow mein”) or fried noodles or gai jiao mian  (盖浇面).

Oodles of noodles

For an interesting take on noodles, the people from Gansu Province in the north central part of China are the experts in my eyes. Although Han Chinese in features, some of the people from Gansu are practicing Muslims, perhaps a legacy of the days long ago when traders travelled and spread the religion along the northern route of the Silk Road which bisects right through Gansu Province. In my neighborhood surrounding my university campus is a restaurant we have dubbed the “Muslim noodle place”. The family who runs the place speaks a foreign, exotic dialect which seems to have no remote connection to Mandarin. As for their noodles, you can either choose la mian (拉面), pulled noodles, or dao xiao mian (刀削面), knife cut noodles. It’s fascinating to watch the cook in the back quickly and effortlessly prepare either type of noodle. La mian or pulled noodles are made by kneading and then repeatedly folding, pulling and stretching dough into thinner and thinner and longer and longer strands until they become several arm length noodles. The cook will then toss the noodles into a separate metal basket inside a bubbling, boiling cauldron. With dao xiao mian, the cook takes a big piece of dough about the length of a forearm and quickly downwardly shaves strips of the dough into the boiling pot of water. Dao xiao mian are shorter and fatter than the la mian, but equally delicious on a plate mixed with vegetables or beef or in a bowl of steaming hot broth.

Another unique noodle dish from the northern province of Shaanxi is Liangpi (凉皮) or “cold skin”. This is a cold noodle dish mixed with peanuts, cilantro, bean sprouts, vinegar, chili oil and flakes, and some dried compressed tofu. It gets the name “skin” because the noodles are made from the leftover starch made from producing gluten and resembles a layer of skin. Liangpi is especially perfect in the hot summer and can be bought from little street stalls right in the neighborhood.

Some like it hot

Something to consider when eating throughout China are the five tastes- tian (甜) – sweet; xian (咸)- salty; la (辣)- spicy; suan (酸)- sour; and ku (苦)- bitter. Many of the local restaurants from any particular region especially seem to cater to a diner’s personal spiciness preference. It’s not unusual for a table to already have on hand a small metal dish of la jiang (辣酱)- or chili oil. Ground up dried chili steeped deeply in oil, a person can scoop as many or few spoonfuls of it onto or into their dish as she wants to reach her desired level of spiciness. A bottle of dark vinegar (xiang cu香醋)is also frequently on hand to provide the desired level of sourness. Strangely I have never seen or heard of soy sauce being provided to diners in any restaurant in China, no matter which region the restaurant is representing. While you can easily buy dark and thick soy sauces (literally translated to “sauce oil” 酱油) in the super market, just like you can buy bags of salt and MSG (called weijing (味精)or “refined flavoring” in Chinese), soy sauce in restaurants is probably kept on hand by the cooks themselves who use it to braise beef and pork. This method of braising in soy sauce is called hongshao (味精)or “red-cooked” because the meat comes out looking brownish red after it’s been marinated and cooked in the soy sauce.

Speaking of spice, if you are looking to boost your tolerance of it, food from Sichuan, a central province of China (and home to the panda bear), may be just your ticket. Sichuan cuisine is popular throughout China and indeed there are several Sichuan restaurants right in our neighborhood. We frequent a local Sichuan restaurant at least twice weekly called Xiao Sichuan (小四川)or “Little Sichuan”, a rustic back alley family-run establishment located in the shadows of our university’s outer wall. It’s popular among both students and locals (and a couple of foreign teachers as well!) and has a menu of several pages long of gai jiao fan dishes as well as various sumptuous pork, chicken or cabbage dishes drenched in spicy oil. There is nothing fancy about Xiao Sichuan but it’s intimate, relaxed and very accommodating. The family cooks up the dishes quickly in woks over gas stoves outside and on the side of the restaurant. Within a couple of minutes an order of gan bian si ji dou (干 便 四季豆), dry fried green beans, or shui zhu rou pian(水煮肉片), water boiled pork slices, will be placed in front of you and your companions.  Sichuan dishes are typically stir fried, boiled, or cooked, and then served in very generous amounts of chili oil and then heavily covered in dried chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns. You’ll be left sifting through the chili peppers with your chopsticks to pinch the remaining morsels from the plates, bowls or pots in front of you. Sichuan dishes are complemented with rice which helps dissipate the tingling and spicy flavors in your mouth.

Top right clockwise: Sichuan dish shui zhu rou pian; la mian or pulled noodles from the Muslim noodle shop; and an assortment of scenes from various street vendors

Top right clockwise: Sichuan dish shui zhu rou pian; la mian or pulled noodles from the Muslim noodle shop; Sichuan dish tudou rou pian (potato pork slices); a local street vendor cooking chao fanpreparing of la mian and dao xiao mian; Sichuan dish of cabbage and pork strips cooked over a flame

As for Xiao Sichuan, we have always enjoyed it not only for its food but for the chance to see an extended multi-generational Chinese family under one roof. Indeed, the family unit is a central, structural part of life in China and it’s fascinating to see through the example of this restaurant how much of a powerful team they all make together. Mom, dad, son, daughter in-law, grandson and other cousins, brothers and sisters all live and work alongside one another in this restaurant. In the center of the universe at Xiao Sichuan is the little grandson, a three year old boy we have witnessed over the past couple of years coo at and give toothless smiles to the customers as a baby; take his first steps and learn to walk on the floor of the restaurant; and gradually form words and learn to talk; and eventually gain the full command and attention of all of the additional family members working in the restaurant. When Grandpa is not away in Sichuan, he and his toddler grandson are partners and crime. They have their quiet moments together when the older man bounces his grandson on his knee and they watch Chinese action war movies on the TV in the corner wall of the restaurant (there is always a different movie on but always with the same plot of a heroic Chinese town defending itself from evil Japanese invaders during World War II).

Huo guo (火锅)or hot pot is also popular throughout China and the Sichuanese are again noted for being king of hotpot. Truly a group dining experience, hot pot is when a large pot of broth is placed at the center of a table. Spicy chili oil, bay leaves, and a cornucopia of other spices are added to the broth when it’s cold. A waiter will turn on a heat element at the center of the table. Gradually the broth will begin to bubble and boil at which time, thin slices of frozen beef, frozen lamb, potato, fish balls, cabbage, vegetables, bread balls, tofu and any other variety of raw ingredients are added into the pot to cook. Diners fish and pick out the ingredients from the pot with their chopsticks after they have sufficiently cooked. There are a variety of dipping sauces such as thick sesame oil, peanut sauce, chili sauce, or minced garlic which can be mixed together to a person’s individual taste for dipping cooked ingredients in before eating.

In addition to the food itself, I always enjoy watching the other parties at a hotpot restaurant. Typically at other tables are groups of male friends and their girlfriends or wives. Or perhaps new business associates will get to know each other and begin to build relationships and trust over a meal of hotpot. As the dinner progresses, the baijiu (白酒)(Chinese rice alcohol) flows and cigarettes between the men are exchanged and smoked, the men become redder in the face, drunker and chummier with one another while their girlfriends gossip and chat on the side. Happy, drunken men wobble and stumble out leaning on the shoulders of one another, bellowing, “Pengyou!! 朋友! (My friend!) to one another. While this may seem like a curious and amusing spectacle and form of machismo to an outsider, it is at the very core and central part of doing business in China and an age old ritual dating back hundreds of years. The Chinese are also very sentimental when it comes to friendship, especially between the same sex. A friend once told me that to some Chinese men, the bond and friendship with other men is sometimes more sacred than their own marriage (this is what I call a “bromance”). A hotpot restaurant is the perfect setting for building and fostering new relationships and also a place guys can go to just let go and let loose with one another.

Next in this series on Chinese food:
Part 2- Omnivore’s Delight: Chicken, “hamburgers” and barbeque

For further reading and recipes:
Fuchsia Dunlop’s blog on Chinese cuisine

Delicious Knife Cut Noodle (Dao Xiao Mian) Recipe

Traditional Chinese Recipes: Gan Bian Si Ji Dou Recipe (Dry fried green beans)

Reflections on Parenting


This week I read a blog post called “The Ugly Side of Parenting in China” penned by a fellow female expat blogger in China. I started penning this post below as a response to her blog posting. However, I realized I had a lot to say about this topic so I have turned this into a blog posting of my own below.

A few weeks ago, I witnessed a wailing, crying boy about three years old at the side of the road with no guardian to speak of with him. I wanted to go to the boy’s side and comfort him but thought perhaps that the sight of strange, tall foreign women during his moment of trauma would only make it worse for him so I carefully stood near him a couple of meters away just to make sure he wouldn’t be completely alone. Various people walked by or stood on the sidelines watching, unsure how to handle the situation. I noticed across the busy road a woman with an angry look on her face staring down the boy. I guessed she was his mother. Busses and cars whizzed by separating them. I felt helpless and confused. Eventually, another older woman came up to the boy with a child’s bike in hand nonchalantly trying to calm him. I myself was shocked and horrified that someone could just abandon their child at the side of the road like that. My two Western male friends were also surprised, one of them wondering aloud why no other people came up to help the boy or at least ask who or where his mother was. In sharing this story with friends a few nights later, my other Western friends were not impressed. However, my Chinese friend piped in and commented that her mother had meted out the same punishment to her when she was a child. My friend explained that it was probably necessary because the boy had probably been naughty. The mother may have had to make a point and wasn’t going to back down. It was interesting to get the different perspective of the situation from a Chinese friend compared to my other foreign friends. I wish I could have gotten the take on it from more Chinese people. Based on the lack of involvement of other people on the scene, it also made me question whether it is frequently the Chinese stance to not get involved in other people’s affairs.

2012 photos 721

For the most part, I can’t say I have seen a lot of other examples of what I would call “bad parenting” here in China. Usually, I am more in awe of how committed and dedicated parents and grandparents are to their children. I have seen so many displays of very loving tenderness. On the flip side, perhaps many children are indeed spoiled here, especially those of the one-child generation. But at the same time, many Chinese children may often have to live the life their parents mapped out for them without the opportunity to discover their own interests, friends, and how to recover from mistakes. I understand that many parents are also very critical of their children while also having the contradictory attitude that their children can do no wrong.

At the end of the day, bad parenting happens everywhere in the world. It’s hard for me to completely judge what “bad parenting” is as I have never been a parent myself or walked in a parent’s shoes. Some parents will do things that seem horrific to others but perhaps the parent him or herself has no choice. I had to bite my tongue this summer when a friend in the US angrily commented on the “bad parenting” of some young parents we witnessed taking their little boy out for Burger King at 2 am in the morning. I wanted to comment, “Don’t judge.” Perhaps the parents had to both work late and the only chance they had for a semblance of family-time was at that hour where they could get a quick and inexpensive bite to eat.  A few years back, I felt awful for having to call Child Protective Services on a woman I learned had left her two year old child alone in a dark car on a freezing, December night while she took an exam at the local community college where I was working that night. Awful because this woman was only trying to improve her life and therefore her child’s life by taking the course and the exam and she couldn’t find anyone else to care for her child that night. Reflecting on this situation, if I had known, I could have told her that she could have brought her child into the classroom. Perhaps I could have pushed a letter to the college inquiring about daycare and babysitting services during classes for struggling, single parents like her.  These very circumstances make me question whether others should indeed intervene and interfere or stand by on the sidelines and watch while judging.

In addition to witnessing what some might call questionable parenting, I have been fortunate to observe amazing parenting as well. I like to think my own parents raised me well. I have also watched many friends and family members become parents in the last few years. Like other things I “catalog” into my brain, I have unconsciously catalogued moving moments I have witnessed between parent friends and their little ones, perhaps because I hope to try my own hand at parenting someday.  A couple of years ago here in Nanjing, I felt privileged to quietly sit in the backseat of the car with my friend and his wife as they sang a song to their little girl who beamed up at her parents during the serenade. I also catalogued how another friend seemed like a natural, applying sternness while also infusing compassion and love in his voice while handling a situation with his young son. Additionally, not so much in China but definitely in the US, I have also witnessed some wonderful parenting and role-modeling by non-parents. A teacher, family support worker, guidance counselor, foster parent, principal, or YMCA coordinator- all of these people have in some ways helped build communities for some children, imparting important values, and sometimes being the only people to listen and provide guidance to a child during her or his time of need.

In the end, I will probably remain conflicted as to what is good and bad parenting and what is acceptable and unacceptable both outside of China and in China. I can’t entirely put my finger on whether most Chinese people prefer to not interfere or intervene in other people’s affairs, especially parenting, or if that stance is prevalent in cultures worldwide. I do believe it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between judging and interfering, helping others and doing what is right. I also can’t decide if I prefer the notion of a family-centered support system like what is so prevalent here in China or the notion of an entire community reaching out to support and help others like what I witnessed at times in the US. I am grateful that I have had the chance to witness all of these takes on the different walks of life while here in China and that this has also helped me reflect on aspects of living as I know from the US and other corners of the world. I guess it’s also okay that I don’t have a clear and definitive stance on any of these aspects of living, parenting, growing up, love, romance, growing old, or community. I’ll keep questioning and discovering and I’m okay with that.

Ordinary Moments


Sunday afternoon I sat in my favorite dumpling restaurant in Nanjing. A popular and crowded joint every day at lunchtime, we squeezed into the only remaining seats in the corner next to the front window. Trapped sun beat down my back making me perspire and fan myself as we waited for our food to arrive. Each time we have lunch here, I always seem to find myself in the best seat in the house to watch fellow customers. There is a full spectrum of life and family affairs in this crowded eatery. Last week, a young boy sat across from me curiously and shyly trying to suss me out while grabbing his mother’s sleeve and slurping his soup. His mother carefully cut up his dumplings and asked him questions about how much or little sauce he would want with his food, compassionately and lovingly tending to his needs and whims. Opposite me this week Sunday was an old, gentle and feeble man also eating his lunch of noodle soup. This man seemed to look past me and the world, perhaps reflecting on nothing in particular or perhaps reflecting on a time when he was also a young boy like the one across from me the week before. His son, a man probably in his late fifties, sat next to him and quietly ate his own lunch. They silently and efficiently ate their lunches, oblivious to the hubbub and goings-on around them.  No sooner had I started to observe them that the older man finished his soup. His son silently but tenderly wiped his father’s face and his stiff, plain navy blue button up shirt. He then wiped the table where his father had eaten, helped lift his father’s arm and guided him to his wheelchair outside.  Like that, they quietly slipped out the door and quickly blended into the crowd among the other pedestrians on the sidewalk.

During my time here, I have often admired how strong and unified the family unit is in China. Family and its legacy seem to come first and foremost. It is why you will see two or three generations of family living together under one roof. It is why that entire family will unite behind a pregnant mother, ensuring she gets the best possible prenatal care and then the young child receives the best possible pediatric care and education. It is why young and middle age parents will work hard to ensure their child will get into the best possible school. It is why you will see throngs of devoted parents and grandparents waiting outside school gates, rain or shine, when school is released for the day. It is why parents will push their children to study, study, study even on weekends so that they can then get into the best middle school, high school and university to then hopefully secure a good stable job in the future to then support the next generation of the family. It is why you will see parents and grandparents anxious to see their young adult child courting with the prospect of marriage on the horizon. It is why you will see adult children encourage their elderly parents to retire after years of so much sacrifice to enjoy life with their grandchild and friends in the park. It is why you will see a grown up child so devoted to taking his elderly parent to a dumpling place or for a stroll in the park to enjoy quiet shared moments.

Comparatively, modern American society may seem so much more individual-oriented than the family-centric society across the ocean in China. My Chinese students may find it surprising how their peers in the US will frequently never live with their parents again after they graduate from high school. Perhaps it seems strange that young Americans are frequently not expected in this day and age to marry so young and start a family before 30. It may seem completely foreign that some senior citizens willingly work into their 60’s and sometimes their 70’s or spend their golden years traveling and taking up outdoor activities on their “bucket list”. I think about myself and how hard it would be for Chinese parents to swallow having a 38 year old, unmarried daughter with only vague plans of when and how she will settle down and start a family.

While it may seem that I or some of my peers from back home live very individual-centered lives, in actuality my family has been and is with me every step of the way through my life journey.  Perhaps my family does resemble some aspects of a Chinese family as well. I am so blessed to have had many happy years with my grandparents who like many Chinese grandparents, were like second parents to me and my older sister while we were growing up. They instilled in me important values and mantras to live by such as honesty; fairness; doing right by others; eating and living healthily; living within my financial means; valuing education; having compassion for others; and, yes, finding time, pleasure and intimate moments with family. My own mother also seems to live by the mantra “family first” devoting almost all of her time and life to making sure all of her family members are happy and fulfilled. Throughout my life, my stepfather has often helped me see clarity by listening and then giving me stern, matter of fact advice on not losing sight of my own dignity when I was once spurred by a fleeting love-interest or to not be so overdramatic about something I thought was unfair. My older sister has moved heaven and earth to come see me in several far off corners of the world I have inhabited, always getting right to heart of the matter with any pain, uncertainty or happiness I may feel in my life. My younger sister is so wise beyond her years and I’ve admired how she has grown into a woman who is well grounded and helps others discover the love of nature and simple pleasures in life. I believe that each of my family members is a product of one another.

Throughout my life, my family has always been by my side to guide me through life’s transitions. They have helped guide me through difficult times such as my struggle with a career transition or the breakup of a long-term relationship. They have also always been my biggest champions as I have made decisions to move across country or to China or soon to New Zealand.  “Go! This is your life!” were the words of my grandparents when I sought their approval to move far away to Seattle in 2005. And while my family has also guided me through transitions, they have each shared with me so many moments that may seem ordinary. I remember my grandmother comforting and soothing me during a thunderstorm when I was a child. Or learning how to swim with my grandfather. Or recently looking through old photo albums with my grandmother as she reminisced about her own childhood, parents and grandparents. These moments have all been permanently catalogued into my memory and will someday be replicated in some form or another again with loved ones.

While my life may still seem ostensibly individual-based, I realize it is my family members’ steadfast support and our continued presence in one another’s life that have given me the courage to do the unexpected, to not conform to the norm, and to sometimes seek a path of my own.  And while I may be geographically distant from my family, I take comfort in their legacy and lessons they have taught me. I am reminded of their role in my life’s journey even far away in China as I witness ordinary and shared moments between a mother and her young son, grandparents waiting under umbrellas on a rainy day outside of a school gate, parents dropping their children off to college, or a grown man quietly caring for his aging father in his twilight years.


Family matters: Ordinary but meaningful moments between family members in China remind me of my own family.

ImageDedicated to my loving family
In memory of my grandparents George Stephan (1914-2005) and Katherine Stephan (1914-2013)

China: A Haven for Outdoor Enthusiasts?


Living in a large, bustling city in China, I sometimes yearn for the quiet solitude of nearby outdoor realms that were easily accessible to me in cities back home in the US. Some days I lose my cool and give menacing stares to incessantly honking motorists that bully their way into the back alley close to the campus where I live in Nanjing. Although I have grown accustomed to the occasional and random fireworks that go off from neighboring buildings at any given hour on any given day or the large university buses that barrel by my apartment several times a day, on some such days I try to mentally escape and picture myself in my imaginary happy place- a beautiful, lush field of rustling grass overlooking a pristine lake with snow capped mountains in the background.

Other than family and friends, what I miss most about the US is being able to easily escape on my own from the stress of daily life and recharge in a nearby outdoor get away- whether it’s on a hiking trail in the mountains, a nearby park in the city, or in a swimming area along the shores of a nearby beach. That’s how it is in Seattle where connecting with the outdoors is part of the everyday fabric of life in that city.

In Nanjing, I recharge and rid myself of stress through a much more different approach. Sometimes, I need my alone time and I hole myself in my apartment for a day or two. But other times, I get re-energized by going for afternoon walks around the district where I live. I poke around city parks and tucked back neighborhoods where several generations of families live in apartment buildings. School age children run ahead of their grandparents who carry their heavy school bags after school has been released for the day. Several older men squat around a small collapsible table playing cards as a small crowd encircles them to watch this form of sport. People connect with ancient traditions such as playing the two stringed erhu or patiently brushing the beautiful strokes of Chinese calligraphy into the pavement. I am a curious fly on the wall trying to get a glimpse into the lives of my Chinese neighbors and rather than getting energized from being alone, I become invigorated from the activities of others around me.


Being a “fly on the wall” and enjoying day to day city life in Nanjing.

Solitude or Companionship?

Nanjing does indeed have many beautiful parks and green spots in which one could connect with the outdoors. I have yet to explore all of the tourist spots on Zi Jin Shan, or Purple Mountain.  Xuan Wu Hu, or Xuan Wu Lake, also has beautiful parks and bridges and is a real treat in the late fall when orange and red leaves cover the paths as you walk along Nanjing’s famous city wall that lies next to part of the lake. However, on a beautiful day, everyone and their mother (literally) will also descend upon these spots and it’s easy to feel more frustrated from pushing through the crowds than to feel like you’ve recharged and gotten away from it all. Recently reading Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster, I chuckled at his assessment of the “Chinese conundrum that if a place has a reputation for being beautiful, the Chinese will flock to it and its beauty is disfigured by the crowd.”


Nanjing’s Xuan Wuhu with Purple Mountain in background.

Such was the experience some friends and I had two years ago while visiting China’s famous Huang Shan or Yellow Mountain in neighboring Anhui Province. For me, the most enjoyable part of our two-day trip was the rather secluded and isolated hike we took from the base of the mountain to the entrance of the park. We walked through lush, bamboo forests and stuck our feet in clear mountain streams. We encountered a few people along the way, but nothing like the crowds we ran into once we entered the park. While the views of Yellow Mountain were truly breathtaking- jagged peaks reminiscent of what you would see in ancient Chinese brush paintings, the experience was not solitary.  Spending the night in a hostel next to one of the mountain’s cable car stations, we set out early the next day to try and beat the crowds on the steps and on the trail descending the mountain. Starting off at a rather good pace, we soon found ourselves edging step by step behind families or large tour groups in which everyone wore the same color shirt and hat and the guides herded group members with a flag while barking directions through portable microphones.

Chinese tour groups on Yellow Mountain (Hunag Shan). Courtesy of

Perhaps I am alone in my desire for escaping from others and enjoying nature’s breathtaking views either by myself or with only one or two companions. Meanwhile, some of my Chinese friends may prefer traveling and enjoying nature’s splendor in groups. According to various psychology studies, people are happiest when they travel in groups. Whereas some of us may thrive and get energy by being alone or with one or two other people, others may be happy to go along for the ride and follow along with the herd.

Getting back to the outdoors: A Western or Chinese experience?

Over the last three years I have lived in China, I have witnessed the growing popularity of camping and outdoor recreational gear. When I first arrived in China, I recall being told that camping was a strange and foreign concept in China and campsites were non-existent. On that same trip to Huang Shan in early 2011, I noticed visitors could be enticed by the novel experience of roughing it for a night in rented tents along the pavement surrounding one of the pricier hotels. Meanwhile, outdoor clothing, backpacking and camping stores have also sprouted up all over the place. Tents can easily be purchased in supermarkets, and on nice days, you can see families relaxing in their tents in popular Nanjing parks like Purple Mountain or Xuan Wu Hu.

The novel experience of camping on Haung Shan (Courtesy of

Western outdoor and recreational companies especially seem to be making a foray into the Chinese market, especially among the middle class and wealthy Chinese. Companies like LL Bean, Northface and Columbia target Chinese consumers with flashy ad campaigns in taxis and subway stations of Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing of blonde and brawny gods running through evergreen forests and mountain streams. Other ads seem to romanticize the wide open spaces and exotic minority groups of Western China. Then some ads depict handsome Chinese businessmen loosening their neckties as they take off from their Shanghai office buildings and jump into their Range Rovers just in time to snap some pictures with their expensive Canon cameras of the sunset on the steppes of Tibet.

Western outdoor gear brands campaign to entice Chinese shoppers (Courtesy of

All of these ads seem quite effective in enticing people to buy various Western companies’ cool products and to be seen with them. But are Chinese people really connecting with the outdoors or is the outdoor craze really a trend embraced by mostly foreigners visiting or living in China rather than Chinese people themselves?  Setting out to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge in January, 2012, I was pleased that the trail was relatively empty but surprised that most of the other hikers I encountered along the way were not Chinese (save for the Chinese girlfriend of an American guy; and a nice father and son from Nanjing) but came instead from all other corners of the world including the US, Columbia, Korea, France, Israel, Germany, Austria and Australia. Meanwhile, all of the Chinese tourists I had shared the minibus with from Lijiang to Qiaotou (where I hopped out to start the hike into TLG)  preferred to continue on the bus to Walnut Garden where they could snap some pictures of the gorge from the end of the trail.


Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province. January is the best time to visit to avoid the crowds.


While hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge, I met many other travelers from around the world. But where were the domestic travelers and outdoor enthusiasts?


Tiger Leaping Gorge was well worth a visit and hike inside its interior!

In the end, I do believe that there are indeed Chinese people connecting with the outdoors. The outdoor experience, however, may be different from that of travelers from other countries. Who am I to judge people’s choices? Whereas I may sometimes prefer going off the beaten track, roughing it, and also being somewhat secluded, many Chinese adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts may prefer to travel in large groups and visit popular sites that may have significance in Chinese history of which they may be and should be proud.

What is your experience with connecting with the outdoors in China?