Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chinese Mexi-Dip

We love Mexi-Dip in the Allison house. Growing up, every Friday night was spent on the den floor, sitting cross-legged in front of two piping hot oven pans of re-fried beans, covered in sauce, covered in tomatoes and onions, covered in cheese. There's even an art to eating it. If eaten incorrectly, one chip can drag the whole sheet of cheese off the top of the dip in one swoop, essentially ruining the entire evening. It's been a family tradition since the days of TGIF and remains one even today. I asked my sisters to send over the ingredients that we lack in China, along with the recipe, and I made it myself for my friends here. Even without sour cream (had to use yogurt with lemon juice as a substitute) and proper tortilla chips (had to use Korean kimchi-flavored potato chips), the dip was incredible. The result in pictures:


I found this piece of fake money on the floor of my classroom just after the last student had turned in her exam. If you look closely, you'll notice miniature notes on The Great Gatsby and Freytag's Pyramid. Looks like cheaters can prosper after all...

Friday, February 19, 2010

the deep south part 1

"Don't spit," Robert told me as we walked down a clean, tree-sheltered street in Shenzhen, "people will think you're from the North."

"I'm a foreigner," I responded, "it doesn't matter," and spit anyway.

Robert is a close friend who grew up in Shenzhen, a city which borders Hong Kong on the southern coast of Guangdong, and moving to Baoding was as close to culture shock as one could get moving from one Chinese city to another. Shenzhen is known across China for its wealth. Walking down its streets, I couldn't help but feel like I was in some American city. The streets were clean and there was a Starbucks and 7-Eleven nearby. I even bought a hoodie in H&M there. That was a year ago. Last month the entire IECS team returned to Shenzhen for another Conference, which kicked off the Baoding team's 3 week trip across southern China. Before we traveled to the South the team met in Beijing for two nights, one of which was spent at a restaurant listening to Tim's engagement tale, which, like a fine wine, gets taller with age. His story inspired all the other couples to tell their stories and by the end of the night everyone was swooning (So tie down the sails! We're going downtown!).

While we stayed in an ocean front hotel in Shenzhen, most of our time was spent in meetings. While I wasn't too excited about that with the sound of the ocean crashing a mere football field away, we had the opportunity to listen to some incredible teaching from wise (ie, old) men and women. Our main teacher happened to have been a Chaplain of the Washington Redskins; so, needless to say, I was spellbound at his every word, hoping the next one would be "Joe Gibbs" or "Art Monk." (why OH WHY did my iphone have to run out of memory just as he was telling a great Joe Gibbs story so I couldn't record it?!)

It was a time of challenging spiritual thoughts and ideas, and meaningful conversations. One of them occurred over a game of Majong in a private room in a neighboring hotel. It was one of those incredible electronic Majong tables that shuffled the tiles for you. All you have to do is push a button on the table and the center piece raises up, waiting for you to push the tiles into the center of the table. After you do that the center piece slowly descends back down and your newly shuffled tiles rise up in front of you, perfectly stacked into four walls. The waitress served us each free piping-hot tea and Tony (pictured right), our Chinese co-worker, promptly won three games in a row. Ryan started talking about the prospect of going to Graduate school to study the Scripture full time.

"I don't want to be an intellectual yuppy," Ryan said," just studying for knowledge's sake."

"I think studying is important," Tony said, feeling a tile with his forefinger and discarding it, knowing what it was without even looking at it, "but I want a simple faith."

At this point I couldn't concentrate on the game and I interjected.

"So, there's a balance to being a believer then," I said, always feeling the need to draw a conclusion for the sake of argument, "the renewing of your mind is important, but it's also critical to merely trust Him."

"I don't think there's a balance," Tony responded, "just the Holy Spirit."

I remained silent and drew and discarded tiles robotically for a while. Tony won again.

The rest of the week in Shenzhen was a blast, but I hard time resting at night because everyone was talking about next year. Many are not returning to China. What to do? I kept thinking. I'm still not sure, but I think ideas and dreams in my mind about it are becoming ever more coherent. One of the final nights was spent on the roof of our hotel with Tim and Stephen, a teammate in Tianjin. We smoked cigars from Emerson's in Norfolk I had brought all the way from the States and we called the gathering "Entmoot." The conversation ran deep as it always does when Stephen is around. He is a catalyst for all sorts of Joy and I'm so glad he and his wife, Beth, stuck with us for the next leg of our trip to Guangxi. But first the group split up for a couple days due to divided interests.

After the Conference, a small group traveled to Hong Kong for a couple days while the Baoding team went to Macau, a city very near Shenzhen and Hong Kong which was returned to China about the same time Hong Kong was. Like, Hong Kong, Macau was owned by a European country for over a century, but Portugal had had a hand in Macau a lot longer than Britain had been a part Hong Kong. Despite now being a part of China, Macau remains an expensive city and is known for being the eastern version of Las Vegas, actually generating more revenue in its casinos than its western counterpart. We stayed in a hostel in a border city called Zhuhai, a typical southern coastal city; though, not nearly as nice as Shenzhen. For two days we stayed in individual bedrooms that were so small it felt like sleeping in lockers, but they were clean and the room felt cozy rather than cramped. The border between Zhuhai and Macau is the most-crossed border in the world and we added to the statistic for those two days. We ate massive burgers the first night and explored the Venetian casino, never sitting down at any tables because we couldn't find the right minimum bid. Our goal was Blackjack, which remains my only real experience with gambling, but the Venetian was too affluent for our wallets; so we decided to wait until the next day and try another casino. The next day we visited St. Paul's Cathedral and saw disturbing paintings of St. Augustine and Japanese martyrs. Later we almost bought "ObaMao" t-shirts. We ate Portuguese food for dinner and afterward Ryan almost got in a yelling match with a passing driver who nearly ran over Kerry in a cobblestone alleyway. We then returned to our goal: an affordable Blackjack table. It took a few casinos before we found our table and it was worth it... well, it was for me. Tim wasn't so lucky. The dealer got 4 blackjack hands in the first seven or eight hands. I'm not sure how I survived the onslaught, but I was about even after them; Tim wasn't. Eventually the crowded table emptied and it was only Tim, Ryan, and me. We gave Kerry and Amelia a few chips to play with and we were promptly joined by a bald elderly Chinese man who spoke fluent English. He rarely bet on his own hands, but would toss chips onto ours and we eventually called him "Master" because of his unsurpassed knowledge of the game. With his astute advice and a few strokes of luck, I doubled my money. I actually had to get Bethany to take my chips away from me after I doubled up so that I could get up from the table, which is always the hardest part. It was worth the trip; even Tim would tell you.

Next we rejoined the Hong Kong group for our trip to Yangshuo, Guangxi, famous for its unnaturally shaped and beautiful mountains. If you google "China" you'll find pictures of the Great Wall and these mountains pretty quickly. It was a return trip for me, as my first two short trips to China were to the same area. I'll write about that later and I guarantee it will be one of the few instances when a sequel is even better than the original!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

when Sceviours attack

"Nobody cares about me," I said countless times. Melissa visited Tim. Dan visited Emily. Bethany's parents visited her. Me? No one missed me, I thought. Just when I thought for sure that I was forgotten; when I thought I was forsaken, forgone, forsworn, the Sceviours came. Greg and AJ cared. They braved the treacherous drive to New York; they sat snuggly and patiently on a 14 hour flight to South Korea for a "short" layover. Then when the word "delayed" donned the electronic departure board, they didn't snicker or mope! No, they strolled right up to the Korean Air desk and were promptly rewarded for their optimism with an offer for a free night in a four star hotel in Seoul. They turned to one another and with grim faces said, "Jon would have wanted us to," and they acquiesced, begrudgingly, "Alright," they said to the beautiful Korean desk attendants with the red scarves around their necks, "if we have to," and they took it for the team, for me. The next morning they boarded that last flight beleaguered with exhaustion from their unfortunate extended layover and they sat, once again. They endured the jet lag, the staring, the donkey burgers, all for me...

Greg is an old friend, one of my dearest. But AJ had always been Greg's brother and over the years it was impossible for me to look beyond their similarities. I had always seen AJ as a Greg clone, another strapping young heart-breaker who might at any moment invest your money or take a nap on your bed. I learned more about AJ during this trip than I would care to mention to you. Let me just say this: AJ has read The Hobbit (more than once) and he listens to Sigur Ros. While he does have some of Greg's admirable qualities; ie, Greg's looks, and the desire to save rather than spend, (which resulted in his ability to purchase his own Macbook Pro and travel to China at the ripe age of 16, something Greg might not have even been able to pull off) AJ is his own man. Don't be fooled.

It was great to be able to take them to my favorite places and show them all my favorite foods. We got massages, which they loved, and the fire cups, which Greg abhorred. They loved the Coke Chicken and the dumplings, but they didn't really enjoy the Donkey Burgers and the cow tongue (but who did?). They were able to appreciate the cafeteria that's only a two minute walk from my apartment and all the different foods there: the gai fan (dish over rice), the dishes, the knife-cut noodles, and the fried rice; all for under or around $1. They met my close friends, like Ken, Vince, and Robert. They got whooped by Sophie in Ping Pong, as we all have (she plays on the school team and is my student). We held a special "English Corner" for the two of them, which was attended by about 20 girls, not surprisingly. A few of them joined us for dinner and it was such a delight to share Sophie and Ivy, two of my students, with them. Unfortunately, for about 4 days straight I was sequestered to my apartment, grading exams. It was a frustrating time for me, but AJ and Greg were able to find their own fun in the city, which was special (I hope) for them.

For the final week of their stay we decided to travel. It might have been counter-intuitive, given how cold it already was in Baoding, but we traveled even further north to Harbin, a city near the northeastern tip of China, bordering Russia. Our intention was to see the famous Ice Festival, entire buildings and replicas chiseled out of ice and lit by florescent lighting. As it turned out, our favorite part was a surprise to most of us: the Tiger Park. We spent an entire morning in a van with barred windows driving around snow covered landscapes, dripping with bengal tigers. "This is like Jurassic Park," someone said joyfully as we drove into the park and the massive fenced gate closed electronically behind us, locking us in with the tigers. Most of us held each other even tighter after that comment. The tigers were massive and sometimes they would come up to the windows and sniff us. "AJ!! Keep your hands in this car!!" Bethany would scream at AJ as he grinned back. At the final section of the tour, we were presented with a verbal menu of animals to feed the tigers, alive. So, we purchased the pheasant because it was cheap. An armored jeep drove out to the middle of the park and, as the tigers were crawling all over it, someone tossed a live pheasant out of the sun roof. One of the tigers leaped and grabbed it and it was over. So, we decided to step up and buy the lamb. It was the most revolting and mesmerizing spectacles I've ever seen. For about thirty minutes several tigers held the lamb in their mouths (don't worry, the lamb died early), each of them holding it still but gently pulling in their own direction; they each wanted it for themselves. One of them tore a leg off and ran away with it. Eventually it was pandemonium and the lamb was in pieces. The three girls in our group at this point were looking away, their cheeks streaked with tears, as the guys remained engrossed. The whole time the driver kept stupidly driving into the gathering of tigers to break them up. At one point our van was stuck and he kept backing up and pulling forward to get out with no luck. We all trembled at the thought of being stuck in a park of feasting bengal tigers. Overall, it was incredible and it was definitely my favorite part of Harbin. Well, that and Cameron riding an electronic bull in a sketchy mall.

Finally, the Sceviours had to leave and, while it was bittersweet, as parting always is, I was so happy that they had come. Certainly, as close as Greg and I are, there were moments of strife and we had to deal with them, but it felt good to be close enough to him to have to go through those moments, to apologize and to forgive. I truly felt loved by their visit, and sometimes that's a hard thing for a person to accept: another man's gracious love. It's hard to know what to do with it. I accepted it this time and can't wait to see those guys again. Maybe next time we can experience something a little less disgusting together.

(see left for more photos)