Lunch In A Chinese Home

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While in China I had the unique opportunity of experiencing several home visits with everyday Chinese people. On one such visit, I got the chance to go to an apartment in what is considered an upscale neighborhood of Changchun to have lunch with a Chinese family.  Even though I was in such a foreign place, I found unexpected familiarity and warmth, reminding me once again that we are more alike than different.

Upon arriving, I couldn’t get past the fact that the apartment building was bright pink. It looked like something right out of Miami Vice, but I decided it was better than the usual grayscale color schemes of communist architecture.

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A very pink apartment building in Changchun, China
Photo by: c.b.w. 2005

No elevator meant climbing several flights of stairs in a series of concrete hallways. The drab and industrial surroundings made me wonder about the Chinese definition of “upscale.” However, when the hosts opened the door to their home, I saw a beautiful little apartment with wood floors, modern furniture and “stone” decorated walls. Before stepping through the door,  I was asked to remove my shoes and wear slippers. Apparently, the floors were new and the family didn’t want them scratched!

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A living room in a Chinese apartment.

After spending time in hutong homes and rural farmhouses, I now understood why this neighborhood was considered wealthy. This family had more money and domestic conveniences than many Chinese will ever see, including a big screen TV, a portable A/C unit, and a state of the art Western bathroom.  Most Chinese bathrooms consist of a hole in the floor that requires some skilled squatting, so this is a really a huge luxury. However, I was a little put off by the glass doors. The Chinese have a very different sense of privacy than the West in that there is little or no privacy!

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I’m a little jealous of this bathroom!

Despite many conveniences, the family had to hang their laundry out to dry on the patio. The concept of in-home washer and dryers is almost nonexistent for the everyday person in China. Hand-washing and line-drying is the most common way to clean clothes. In almost every window in every town, I saw clotheslines!

In comparison to the rest of the house, the kitchen was very simple. On one side there were small cabinets and counters, while the other side had a small dining table.  There were no full-size appliances. The stove was inset in the counter and consisted of two burners, while a small refrigerator and pantry were outside on an adjoining patio.

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Super small cabinets and counters didn’t hinder these master chefs!

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Getting ready for a buffet in the dining area of the kitchen.

Despite the small space, the entire family set about making the traditional and delicious meal of meat-filled dumplings.

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A few more stirs ought to do it!

Once the filling was cooked, the family taught me how to make the perfect Chinese dumpling. A spoonful of meat filling goes in the center of a thin dough circle. Then, the circle is folded in half and the ends are pinched together. It sounds easy, but it takes some practice! Too much filling can make the fold split and too few pinches can cause the whole thing to fall apart. After stuffing and pinching, the dumplings are steamed to cook the dough.

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Yes, they are as good as they look!

Dinner was served buffet style and the family insisted on incredibly full plates. It is considered rude not to sample everything on a host’s table, so I loaded up my plate and ate everything! Every bite was incredibly tasty.

As with many Chinese families, multiple generations live under one roof. In this instance, the grandparents on the mother’s side lived with the family. The Grandfather was a particularly colorful character who loved to talk to anyone who would listen. Even with a language barrier, he was a chatty one. Towards the end of the meal, he started a drinking game in the kitchen. He could down a beer faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. After chugging more than a few, he was the life of the party.

Even though I was wearing slippers instead of shoes and I was surrounded by a language I didn’t understand, I strangely felt right at home. Good food, good people, and a funny Grandpa can make the distance of an entire ocean disappear.

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Just curious . . .

Any ideas on why stuffed animals in plastic bags are on display in the living room?

I noticed the cabinets were different colors in both the bathroom and the kitchen. Is there a reason for this or does it simply not matter that they don’t match each other or the house decor?

Is lack of privacy the result of cultural evolution or is it related to high population density? Or both?

Got a question, observation, or reaction? Leave your thoughts in the comment section – Let’s get a great conversation going!

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Previous “New Familiars” posts:

Grocery Shopping in London

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c.b.w. 2013

Grocery Shopping In London

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Every evening at about six-thirty, I walked through the doors of  the local food store on Muswell Hill Broadway.  During my extended stay in London,  it was my evening ritual to pick up something for dinner and a snack for the next day. While I fell into the groove of a London grocery store rather quickly, the first few days were an interesting experience of learning the norms of a different culture.

Back home, grocery shopping is usually a once a week thing, but I realized very quickly that weekly shopping in London does not work.  First, like many Londoners, I relied on walking and public transportation to get around town, which makes carrying a week’s worth of groceries next to impossible. Second, the house where I was staying had a teeny tiny refrigerator that I had to share with another roommate and the homeowners. It was about the size of a mini bar, so I had no choice but to adopt the London lifestyle of daily market trips.

There were two grocery stores in the Muswell Hill area: Marks and Spencer’s and Sainsbury’s. I went with M&S mainly because it had a large array of fresh produce and a healthier variety of food products. And it was cleaner.

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My “local” grocery store on Muswell Hill Broadway
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

My budget constraints left me with about £10 a day for food, which  included my daily Cafe Mocha, (£2.90).  Breakfast and lunch were a snap –  a bagel smothered with Nutella in the morning and a fresh apple in the afternoon. Those two meals together cost me about £10 a week.

Dinner, however, was a bit trickier.  All I had to cook food was a microwave and a toaster, which was actually more restrictive than the budget! Thankfully, Marks and Spencer carries a wide array of frozen prepared meals that are reasonably priced and somewhat healthy (few preservatives or artificial ingredients). If I could get to the store before 6:00 p.m. I picked up a freshly made sandwich or salad. They were just as inexpensive as frozen dinners, but they were in short supply! Just ten minutes past six meant an empty shelf.

I think I tried just about every variety of the single-serve frozen dinner. The store brand chicken casserole, bangers and mash, and shepherd’s pie were my favorites, though I’d stay away from anything Italian (the noodles never cooked right). For £2.29 – £3.29, I got a pretty decent meal with enough left over to get a little dessert.

The candy rack is usually where I found that dessert. Candy bars are typically Cadbury or Mars, but in varieties that were totally foreign to me, (see The Junk Food Tourist for a complete rundown on my candy adventure).  Depending on the brand or size, they go for about 55p or £1.00.

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nom-nom-nom . . . The Double Decker is my favorite!
Photo by: c.b.w. 2011

Shopping in the store is about the same as it is in the U.S. It’s crowded, people don’t always move, and it has that urban food smell that dominates all grocery stores. However, things get interesting when it’s time to wait in line and pay. British people take waiting in line (or queuing up) pretty seriously. There is no whining, line cutting, or standing too close to one another, nor is there tolerance for obnoxious conversations on a mobile phone. If any of these unspoken rules are broken, the British are not shy about voicing their disdain.

What I found most fascinating was the courtesy of placing the conveyor belt divider for the person standing behind you. Whether I was carrying one item or five, the person in front of me never failed to  place the divider. It didn’t take me long to adopt the policy both in London and back home. A little kindness goes a long way.

The cashiers sit instead of stand as they scan purchases. They sit on ergonomic stools that actually looked really comfortable!  People either bagged their own groceries or the cashier took on bagging duties once money changed hands. Bags are not free, but rather optional and for a fee, (5p). It didn’t take long for me to wise up and bring my own bag in order to avoid being charged extra.

After a while, I got to know the cashiers and I no longer got lost trying to find the snack aisle. I knew the left door always got a little stuck when it slid open and there was always a huge puddle in front of the exit after it rained.  I’ll bet if I went back today I could still find the Nutella and the best frozen bangers and mash a girl could ever want. This little store, along with so many other things became part of what I call my “new familiars.”

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Just curious:

As this series progresses, I’ll being using this section to ask questions to clear up my own curiosities. However, please feel free to leave your own questions and comments below.

Are small refrigerators common in London homes?

What’s the story behind having to pay for a bag?

How would locals describe food prices – high or reasonable?

Londoners, what did I get wrong?

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c.b.w. 2013

Favorite Thing Friday: Blog Refresh

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After two and half years of blogging, it gets tough to keep things fresh with interesting topics. Admittedly, my muse is focused on other things, so I’m finding it hard to keep this space filled with quality posts and content. In many ways, I don’t think I’ve been entirely successful, but I’m hoping to change that over the next few weeks.

Over a cup of coffee, I asked my mom, “What do you think I should write about?” It took her less than a second to answer, “Travel.” I rolled my eyes because that is a topic I’ve explored time and time again with articles, fiction, poetry, and photography. Everybody gets it, I’ve traveled a lot. She stopped me right in the middle of my eye roll and explained that she wasn’t interested in the stuff she can find in any tour book, but rather the everyday life of people in other places. What do they wear? What do the houses look like? What’s in a grocery store? You know, the little things that are so normal for some, but strange to visitors.

I have journals full of those “little things” because my favorite thing to do when I travel is people watch. Part of my motivation for staying in London for an extended stay was to get a sense of what it’s like to live as a Londoner. Furthermore, wherever I travel, I am always more fascinated by local custom and the neighborhood experience than I am of the tourist trap. My mom is right – I should write about what I’ve observed and open up candid discussions about cultural perspective.  There are things I’ve seen and experienced that I still don’t understand. What better platform to explore those curiosities than blogging?

Starting next week, posts about the “little things” from around the world will fill this space on Wednesdays.

Some topics on upcoming agenda include:

  • Why Europeans wear shorter pants
  • What it’s like to shop in a communist grocery store
  • Shopping in a Chinese Wal-Mart
  • What Londoners do when it rains
  • Queuing up in a London post office
  • Water calligraphy in Changchun
  • Why left-handed people are clever in China
  • What a bed is like in Prague
  • The French are not rude
  • Dogs in China / Dogs in Prague
  • What Americans look like to Europeans
  • Riding the Tube
  • Eating at a pizza place in Prague

The list is endless and this is only the beginning. In addition to my own posts, I will also be inviting guest bloggers to share their observations and insights on the places they’ve traveled. If you are interested in contributing, please let me know!

Aside from this adventure into international normalcy, all the old favorites my readers enjoy will still be around. My writing journey, creativity, poetry, and photography will fill in Mondays and Sundays, while Friday will continue with Favorite Things.

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What’s your favorite thing this week?

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c.b.w. 2013