Xi’an: Not Before my Pomegranate Juice

One of Xi’an’s seasonal products is pomegranate juice. Tom told us this during his introductory speech about Xi’an. It vied to be capital of the entire country, it has several rivers running through it, and it is known for its pomegranate juice. I’m not sure why, but the idea of a glass of pomegranate juice sounded so enticing at that moment, that I decided I would not leave Xi’an without sampling it. Beijing was pushing peaches. Xi’an was proud of its pomegranates.

(By this point, you should want pomegranate juice too – goodness knows I’ve typed the word enough times to be beyond subliminal. This is outré of me.)

So my quest, small as it was, was to obtain some of said juice. I would even risk taking it with ice, because it sounded so damn refreshing. Our second day in Xi’an – our second morning that is – included visiting the Mosque in the Muslim Quarter, and the city walls. Xi’an is close to the Uyghur autonomous region, another area of China with a distinctly non-Han ethnic majority which was never the less absorbed into the greater country. There has been some friction since then, though certainly not as famous at Tibet’s.

The Muslim Quarter was vibrant and loud. Music blared from windows, and the taffy shops had the mallets out. I’ve seen taffy pullers and taffy machines, but never two men with giant wooden hammers beating the ever-loving fun out of taffy. There are lamb kebabs and giant flat disks of unleavened bread with sesame seeds. And pomegranate juice. Tom assures me that I can get some on the way back.

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Once off the main street things grow far more subdued. The change is so abrupt I have a fleeting feeling of being led astray, compounded by the fact that we turn off to walk down an empty alleyway. It’s interesting, the influence of words and rumor. I’d been reading and hearing about attacks in the region (as well as in Sichuan), about the anger of the Uyghur Muslims. The Chinese newspapers at once minimalized the violence, and emphasized that the attackers were Muslim and that was probably why they were violent. And my initial nervousness in the alley stemmed in part from being bombarded with negative imagery and stereotypes. Never mind that the justice system is so strict and unyielding that violence towards a Westerner is unheard of. It’s difficult to be told something over and over and not have it influence you.

The Mosque is beautiful, with teal rooftops and scroll work. Much of the mosque is antique, preserved throughout the years by meticulous care. I liked seeing the Arabic script with the Chinese characters – two languages I don’t know together. Makes me feel hopeful, because there is so much that I could learn.

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On the way out, I see a set of small kites I want to buy. Earlier, in Beijing, I had passed on some tissue paper kites, and it was eating at me because they had been very pretty, very cheap kites. The timing had been wrong. This time, even though we were on a schedule, I stopped to buy some. I haggled the fastest I’ve ever haggled:

Me: I like these kites.
Man: Yes. You want two?
Me: No, just one. How much?
Man: Fifty.
Me: Ha! No. Fifteen.
Man: Thirty.
Me: I have to go. Twenty.
Man: Ok.

Ted was impressed by this, as normally kites are, in fact, thirty. BOOM. He also feels compelled to hurry us along, as my two-minute haggling, and Dad’s desire to stop and admire all the eclectic shops. I stop him, and remind him I would like a pomegranate juice. He assures me I’ll get it. We keep walking, discussing the local food and drink. All the way back to the entrance of the Muslim District, and I’m juiceless. This will not stand. I giggle and make a joke of being insistent. Underneath my giggles, though, I am iron about this juice thing. I will get that garnet-colored juice of the underworld, or I will not budge.

I don’t regret my insistence. The glass of juice is tart and sweet and wonderful, like ambrosia. Content, I pile back into the crazy white van.

Dad does not want to climb the old City Walls, and I do not blame him. It’s hot again, and it’s noon, but we paid to see the damn walls, so I am climbing the damn walls. I have my juice – what’s fifty more stairs? These are city walls in the traditional sense – great thick ramparts in a square around the old city. They have an annual marathon, or at least a half-marathon, on the wall. Ted suggests that if I come back to teach in Chengdu, I should go to Xi’an in April and do the race. I agree to do so, and I mean it. Though it had an unforgiving climate, I really enjoyed Xi’an, and would like to see more of what the city has to offer.


Ted takes us to the train station four hours early and unceremoniously drops us off. This is my complaint about the tour overall – there’s a certain feeling of being unloaded as quickly as possible. It happened in Beijing, and it’s happening here. CITS tours manages to make me feel like a cash cow in the most unattractive way – get rid of me once the “official” stops are done, and don’t forget to request a tip.

Back on the train, speeding back to Beijing. I demanded a car to get us to the hotel before we departed for Xi’an. Joe said that our tour technically ended once we got on the train back to Beijing, leaving us on our own to make it back to the hotel. I argued that according to the official itinerary on the website, transportation back to an airport was included, so why not a hotel? After some admittedly Western obstinacy on the subject, I got a car and I got it without additional charge.

We leave day after tomorrow. I am starting to feel excited by the prospect of going home.

Night on the Xi'an Promenade near our hotel.

Night on the Xi’an Promenade near our hotel.

Dime in a Dumpling

And now dumplings.

I am eager, in my last days here, to learn cooking. I mention as much to the teachers, and suddenly Wednesday turns into a cooking class. I was typing, working (of a fashion – I mean as we get to the end there is less and less which needs to be done), when Lily and Kate come in with bags and bags of ingredients. Summer and Erin arrive later, carrying Lily’s portable cook. I watch, pleasantly dumbfounded.

So, here’s how we all make dumplings. First, you will need a filling. Lily has prepared three – one with mushrooms, one with shrimp, one with veggies and pork:



The preparation of the actual dumpling is pretty straightforward. You put a small bit of filling in the dumpling wrapper, fold it up, and make it look pretty. Observe:

Take a wrapper

Take a wrapper

Fill with filling

Fill with filling

Fold over the wrapper

Fold over the wrapper

Crimp the edges

Crimp the edges
























You can fold the edges different ways – Stone makes his look like coin pouches and he purses the top shut like it has a drawstring. Summer makes hers look like envelopes by pinching the edges together. I attempt to mold one to look like a pig (my Chinese zodiac sign), and fail utterly.  My efforts meet with much enthusiasm, however, and we’re all having a good time.

Then you boil them for a few minutes a batch – enough to cook the filling.

We make too many. How many is too many? This many:




This isn’t all of them – this is what we had to cook after cooking the initial plates of dumplings. I warned Lily that two hundred dumplings was a bit much for seven people, but she laughed and nodded, agreeing and doing exactly what she was doing before. In keeping with the celebratory tradition, I put a dime in one of the dumplings. They do it in China – a coin in a dumpling for luck. They do it in Greece as well, only there they bake a coin into a bread on New Year’s.  Maybe an American equivalent would be breaking the wishbone on Thanksgiving? We borrow lots of ideas, but we don’t bake money into our food.

Correction: Easter Eggs – We put money in those plastic Easter Eggs.

I thought we were just having dumplings, but there’s an accompanying spread of vegetables, rabbit (maybe), pork, and peanuts. I provide bowls (I knew buying a dinner set would pay off!), and we compare our sauces. I take a moment to preen and show off that I can, in fact, make my own dumpling sauce. You mix a little chili paste with soy sauce, sesame oil, scallions, garlic, salt, sugar, and “flavoring” (a processed product which looks like what you use to grow crystals).

Somewhere towards the end, with a whole mess of dumplings left uneaten. Lily exclaims, “Oh! I am lucky!” from her seat. She’s holding the dime aloft, and everyone cheers.

This whole thing – from beginning to end – makes me wish the teachers and I had started visiting each other a lot earlier. I’ve been living the life of a hermit for a few months now, with limited human contact. I admit I am accustomed to being by myself, and can get annoyed with company. But I am not so much of a loner as to wish away laughter and learning. I forgot how much fun it is to eat with company. I forgot about my belief in food – I am a firm believer that food is a medium to get communication moving. It could cure so many problems, if world leaders made their own food in each other’s kitchens. At least, I think it would.

Full, the teachers put the rest of the dumplings in my freezer and refrigerator. To be precise, they put the dumplings directly on the freezer’s surface, so that all the dumplings immediately adhere as though glued (I spent a long while cleaning it out). Luckily I am able to salvage most of them.

I will have lunch until I leave for Beijing. Or until I invite everyone back to help me finish.



A Plum Bum

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“Oh…the way you eat!” Kate says to me. With her accent it’s difficult to tell what she means. We haven’t been walking through Jiezi Ancient town that long, and my hosts keep stopping at every food stall asking if I’m hungry. I’ve said yes once or twice, and now I’m holding two glutinous dumplings and a brown sugar cake thing. Kate’s exclamation came after I took a healthy bite out of the dumpling.

“Should I take smaller bites?” I pick my words carefully. I mean, what could that mean? Do I look gluttonous, or perhaps I missed a social clue somewhere? Me, the meaty-pawed American, devouring gentle Chinese food?

“No, no – you eat so easy, with much passion! I like it!” She says brokenly. I look at the glutinous dumpling in my hand, filling starting to ooze out of the middle. I can’t begrudge her that. I do eat with passion. I reserve dainty eating for high teas and formal wear outings. I know all my forks and spoons – none of which are required for street vendor dumplings.

We walked on, and I eat bean curds and more bean curds. The first set is fried on a skewer, the second is served like hot jell-o in a bowl with scallions and peppers. I was going on a cup of coffee and a cup of black sesame insta-porridge, but I tell myself that this is a great chance to live like the locals. If savory and spicy is what’s for breakfast, then bon appetit! People stare. Lily says that some in the crowd have me pegged as a Russian beauty. I love the quaint idea of me being a Russian beauty – it is so far from reality.

Jiezi Ancient town is meant to emulate old Chinese villages. Some genuinely old structures exist, like the paper burning tower and the Lucky bridge, but around it spring “traditional” tourist shops, statues, and carnival games. The sight of tourist shops makes me very happy. Souvenirs! I can get all my trinket shopping done now! Lily and Kate agree that it is better to wait until the walk back to buy things, so my arms don’t get tired. This doesn’t stop over-eager Lily from assuming I must want to purchase everything I stop to inspect. I stopped to examine a key chain, and suddenly she’s rifling through the basket, asking me if I want to buy every sample she holds up. She wants to be helpful. I go back to being more discreet in my interest.

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We walk and make small talk. Lily and Kate are eager to practice their English with me, and I need to remember how to make small talk.
“Jean, do you like mountains?” Kate asks at one point.
“Uh, sure.” I reply. Truthfully, as soon as that baited hook hit the water, my brain was yelling for me to abort, to lie. Claim an injury. You want to shop! This is going to be an easy day! Souvenirs and dumplings, damn it!
“There is a small mountain here. Would you like to climb it?” Lily asks.
“…Ok, if it’s a small mountain.” My brain throws its hands up in exasperation.
“Oh, yes. Not very tall. I’ve never climbed it – only been up in a car,” Kate says. Off we go. About two hours into the ascent, it occurs to me that there were any number of follow up questions I could have asked. Like how small is the mountain? How high does it go? Are you sure you want to climb in plastic shoes? But I like nature, and goodness knows I’ve climbed some small peaks here.

It’s pretty – there are bronze colored lizards and more of those red and black millipedes. Bamboo arches over us in a thin canopy, and black and yellow butterflies flit through the sunlight.



All of these things I saw and appreciated during the first half of the climb. But after two hours of unexpected mountain climbing, my shirt is soaked through in sweat. It’s not very hot, but it is humid. My non-climbing appropriate bra is doing the best it can. I didn’t bring a hat, or sunglasses, or my walking stick. I haven’t stretched. I am not in a mental state for any sort of strenuous activity, but at least I’m wearing what I think are good shoes for climbing. They have to better than Kate’s jelly sandals, or Stone’s canvas boat shoes.

Then I slipped and fell on my ass. Hard. The steps were slick with moss, and I got preoccupied thinking about everyone else’s feet while going down one such flight. My first thought, strangely enough, when I hit the ground was Fuck. Now Lily is going to have a heart attack. Lily, the maternal teacher, does indeed grip my upper arm as though she thinks I’ve killed myself on her watch. Later, she would explain that she feels responsible for me, since she took me from the school on this trip. As though she could have stopped my foot from losing traction through sheer force of “not on my watch.”

At that particular moment, however, I wasted precious energy on making sure I didn’t yell at her as she tugged at me. In the few times in my life where I’ve been in sudden and great pain my response is to withdraw to do inventory, and to snap at people. It takes so much more effort to reassure everyone else that you’re ok! But I do, I reassure everyone, repeatedly. I tell them to let me sit for a moment, and then I ignore them. They chatter because they don’t know how else to express their worry, I tell myself. The same as most people.

I have this theory on pain. You have to face it straight on – nitpick it immediately. It will either stay strong or get worse, which suggests that you’ve really hurt yourself. Or it will hurt, but you’ll be able to see through it a little, which suggests that you might actually be as ok as you keep not-screaming at the clucking hens around you. I go through each joint, and each is undamaged. But my butt – Jesus Christ what have I done?! It’s not my tailbone, or my hip. But I have decidedly damaged a part of my backside. It’s a deep, stinging pain. I can almost feel the bruise forming already. But I can feel it dilute ever so slightly as the seconds tick by. Lily and Kate are debating whether to hold me the rest of the climb – no way. I put on my cheeriest “What me, worry?” face and push on. I will not be coddled.

As we reach the 902m marker – the summit? – I look at my watch and realize it’s been over three hours of hiking. Worse, they let the saplings grow all over the “scenic” area, so that you can’t see anything at all. We press on, and eventually reach the temple at the end of the way. It’s pretty and peaceful, removed from the town. We sit for a break in the shelter of tall, leafy trees and drink tea. Lily tells me she really does love me, and Kate wants to know if Tommy Hilfiger costs as much in the US as it does in China. Stone is happy to pour the hot water and shrug whenever I look at him.


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We took a bus down the mountain. Lily tells everyone on the bus that I am the greatest English teacher from America, that I could teach them all English. I’m just trying to sit correctly so that searing pain doesn’t make me wince and reveal I’m still in pain. A little girl sings a counting song for me – it’s cute, but also I feel like I’m on show again. Everyone watching me, watching this little girl who looks exactly how I feel. We both wish for a moment of peace.

Upon arrival we search for a clean toilet. Once we find one, I check my back in the mirror – a red and purple patch the size of my hand blossoms like a ripe plum. A plum bum.

By this time, most of the shops have closed – primarily all the souvenir shops. I don’t try to hide my disappointment. Four frickin’ mountains I have now climbed, but I still don’t have the tiny glaives for my friends back home. Resigned, I walk back to the parking lot.

Having said earlier that I like hot pot, Lily chooses a “chicken hot pot” restaurant. My excitement returns. I haven’t actually gotten to eat proper community style hot pot since my arrival because I usually dine alone. I give Kate and Lily free rein to order what they want.

The waitress brings our pot, filled with chili oil, broth, and chicken bits (including the feet). Accompanying this is a tray with our dishes. Here are some of the dishes added to the pot: lotus root, potatoes, rice noodles, duck intestine, baby octopus, cow’s stomach, chicken blood, chicken liver, mushrooms, another type of noodle, and what appeared to be bacon. Everything starts raw. I think of witch’s cauldrons.


Here’s how it works: First, you build your own small bowl of “soup” using the contents of the hot pot, mixed with scallions, parsley, garlic, oyster sauce, vinegar – however spicy or bland you want it. Then, you either dunk a raw something into the big boiling pot individually, or pour the whole plate in (we did this with the lotus). Once cooked, you put it in your own concoction for added flavor, then eat it.

Before I do this, I have another accident – apparently I was in fine form. The manager comes by to talk to me. He’s saying something about Nixon, but it’s really noisy and I lean closer to hear him. Then my eye is on fire. Somehow, I got the chili broth in my eye – probably because I was leaning closer to the boiling pot. I practically jump out of my chair with a hasty “excuse me” and then I’m in the bathroom frantically trying to rinse burn out of my eyeball. Fan-tas-tic, let me tell ya. I return, and try not to feel like the klutz I have suddenly become.

We eat. I was exhausted by this point, and gleefully tried everything. I don’t get the inherent contradiction that is chicken’s blood. Lily said they serve the blood so you know the chicken is fresh, but when I asked how they get it to cook solid, she said they add salt and let it sit. So technically that means the chicken is only as fresh as the blood takes to congeal? Anyway it tasted fine. The digestive tracks of the cow and duck were also tasty.

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They bring out porridge, a welcome blandness to the spice of the meal. I am sated and full and praying that I don’t get sick. Or, if I must get sick, that I don’t throw up. That would be awful.

“Oh, Jean, you are a very good eater!” Says Lily. I look at my bowl. Again, I really have no idea how to interpret this. I get the sense that it is a complement, and thank her.

“Yes – it’s good you try all the foods,” Kate agrees. “Shows you are open-minded person!”

I send a silent thank you to my grandparents. All those lamb roasts at the Croatian center, sucking marrow from bones, and those livers and gizzards my other grandma cooked have made me hearty. There’s something to be said for having Depression era style food as part of your ancestral heritage. Makes eating pasta-like intestine not seem so other worldly.

On the trip back, Kate wants to know about movies. Lily drives slowly in the fog, asking me multiple times if I had a good day.

I broke my posterior. I got chili oil in my eyeball. The shops were closed and I somehow climbed yet another mountain. I discussed oolong tea and Sichuan opera. Some guy gave me a free piece of metal frame which I am going to try and use to keep my shower from flooding my bathroom.

It was a wonderful day.


PS: It is really hard to take a clinical picture of your own backside.


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One Ugly Snack

One Ugly Snack

Of all the fish to put on a bag of fish flavored chips – why the one that looks like a shaved dog with an eye fried out of its socket?

I wanted to buy them and try them for you, my good readers, but at the time I just couldn’t justify it. I mean – look at that fish! It looks like one of those fish from Planet Earth that lives in the darkness, sucking down dead skin cells from other fish that trickle down from above.

Maybe another day…

Hot Pot!

The Sichuan specialty cooking style is called “hot pot.” Have you ever had fondue? Maybe visited the Melting Pot at some point? Hot pot is essentially fondue, except instead of cheese or chocolate, you’re given a broth mixed with chili oil, chiles, and other spices. Chili oil seems to go into most dishes here unless you specifically ask for something not to be spicy (bu la de). Spicy is the default level.

I eat spicy in honor of my friends who are not with me and who love spicy food. I could do without it, but I can’t thumb my nose at the jealousy which accompanied me here over spicy food. So yesterday I went for hot pot with Bill, Vega, and the visiting investor Mr. Wu and his wife. Hot pot, at least in the street restaurants, is served communally. In the center of the table is a big, boiling vat of oil and broth, and families just dunk and cook meat and vegetables all together. We went to a “fancy” hot pot restaurant, where each person got their own little cooker. Mrs. Wu was kind enough to stop me before I drank my “soup” which was actually soy sauce and peppers. Mr. Wu ordered food for the table, and asked me to approve the wine.

Chinese wine – well, alright, it was a good effort at a red wine. I mean, it was a fine table wine and I am not a snob. I think a good table wine is important – it has to be able to go with a wide variety of foods. The red wine we had was nothing noteworthy – wow, guess you can’t describe wine without sounding superior. And I haven’t even mentioned the bouquet or the legs…

Anyway, so raw food starts arriving. There are artistically carved cucumbers, baby octopus, a sort of cone of shaved beef which is a really artificial red, pureed shrimp paste, chicken meatballs, salmon, veggie trays, some sort of Chinese root vegetable which has a slimy exterior, greens, snails served with chili peppers, and a second “marinated” beef plate (it looks like they marinate it in fruit punch).

I love baby octopus. That’s how this happened:

Me: Mmm! (Grabs baby octopus in chopsticks) I love these!

Mr. Wu: Ah, you don’t need to cook it.

Me: Excellent! (Takes big bite of tentacles)

*waitstaff chatter*

Mr. Wu: Oh, no, wait…

Me: (tentacle mouth)

Mr. Wu: They say, yes, you should cook that.

The only thing that keeps me from spitting out my octopus is remembering I’ve eaten it raw before. It’s a sushi dish. Should be fine either way, right? Mr. Wu confirms this once I plop the rest of my cephalopod into the boiling pot. He assumed it would be alright because in Japan he ate it raw too. I take it in stride, and we all have a chuckle at the timing. There are only two parts of the creature which revolt in my mouth – the eyeball (which I spit out, optic nerve attached), and one tiny, curly end of an arm. The latter just felt weird – like I could feel the curliness on my tongue.

Nearby is a buffet of additional spices and flavors. I get some peanuts and sesame paste, add a little hoisin sauce and oil, and make a tasty dipping sauce. For my meat, it’s scallions and garlic. I don’t add any more peppers.

I break the rules and don’t cook all my veggies. I’m eating some of them raw. I haven’t had a raw carrot in a month, and damn it you only live once! So yeah, let’s eat a piece of cold, crunchy carrot and have one of those artistic cucumbers! Viva la vida! It’s not like I’m drinking tap water. I try the salmon and cucumber dipped in soy sauce. I feel all the eyes of the table on me again – I have missed another important yet to be translated message. All at once I stifle an “Oh my God…” My mouth is coated in burn – icy, horrible burn! The wait staff whisked a liberal amount of wasabi sauce right into the soy sauce. Vega explains this to me as I try to delicately put a hand over my face to stifle my liberated sinuses. I haven’t hit the point where I feel like I’m making a real idiot of myself, but I’m getting close.

Other than this and the octopus (and maybe almost drinking the soy sauce – but why put it in a soup bowl and give me a soup spoon if it is not, in fact, a soup?), the dinner goes nicely. I make sure to cook my meat a little more than necessary, perhaps as compensation for the raw vegetables. The snails are not that good – they’re like the freshwater kind which don’t really have shells, and they’re coated in chili peppers – like hot gummy bears. Now I will be totally snobbish and say I prefer the snails in France.

For dessert – fried ice cream (fried ice milk, but you understand). The conversation, from what I can gather, is pleasant. Little of it goes my way, and I am comfortable with that. These are learning opportunities of a different sort. Normally, I carry the conversation and keep people entertained. It’s good to sit back and observe, to be invited to talk every once in a while. I ask Mr. Wu about his visits to the United States. I practice a few Chinese sentences. I drink a lot of hot tea, and miss ice water.

And so, the fullest I have been in a long time, I arrive at my hotel. Babiface is having a big party – the theme appears to be Transformers. Or haunted amusement park – April 1 is sort of like our Halloween. But I don’t have heels, so that exploration will have to wait.