Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hong Kong: A Tummy's Perspective

Last year, Chris and I spent Thanksgiving seeing the sights of Hong Kong. When an opportunity for a cheap weekend jaunt presented itself, we decided to repeat the experience with some friends. This new tradition seems fitting to us as Hong Kong arguably has the best food in all of Asia. So, it makes sense to spend this gluttonous American holiday there. We arrived Thursday night with empty bellies and high expectations. And, I will say, Hong Kong did not disappoint.

For our first meal, we stumbled into a restaurant that our friend had heard about and came highly recommended. The small dining room was packed with locals and the wait staff spoke neither English nor Mandarin, since the language spoken in Hong Kong is Cantonese. While a bit daunting at first, these are actually really good signs that point to good, local food. Luckily, there was some English on the menu and it was very simple: a choice of various meats served over rice. When our steaming plates arrived, all conversation came to a reverant halt as we dug into roast duck, pork, and chicken. We silently tore into crispy, glazed skin and meat, carefully dodging bits of bone that remind you that your meal was alive a few short hours ago. Finishing off with the perfectly cooked rice, conversation slowly returned to the tables. Satisfied, we explored the neighborhood around our hotel before calling it a night.

I have found that, especially when it comes to traditional local food, simplicity is the key. Our next food experience proved this to be true. With our tummies rumbling once again, we went in search of good, Cantonese food. The main street flashed neon signs advertising everything from fettuccine alfredo to lamb gyros. Since we were neither in Italy nor Greece, we decided to head onto one of the side streets to see what we could find. We followed our noses to an open door with delectable aromas wafting out. A line of hungry locals waited their turn outside the small restaurant. Stepping into place, we waited our turn as the smells tickled our noses and enticed our tummies. Patrons were led in as seating became available, one or two at a time. When two chairs opened up at someone's table, we sat down next to a couple of slurping strangers and were handed a menu of four different soups. We pointed to which ones we wanted and a few minutes later, two steaming bowls appeared. The tantalizing scents that had been tempting us for the past several minutes materialized into soft shrimp wantons and chewy yellow noodles swimming in a broth that can only be described as heavenly. The only sounds that could be heard in the dining room were soft slurps and sips interrupted only by loud calls from the waitresses calling in orders to the kitchen staff and directing customers to the newly opened seats. There was also the occasional yummy noise that was unable to be suppressed by an enchanted diner. Reluctantly swallowing the last sip, we asked for the check in a post-soup euphoric daze. The only thing that was able to snap us back to reality was the shock we experienced when we realized that this celestial repast set us back all of $4.

The best meal, however, we saved for last. This climactic approach, while poetic, was entirely unintentional. Chris and I discovered this Hong Kong speciality last year and have longed for it ever since. So, as soon as we landed in Hong Kong, we were on the prowl for dim sum. Dim sum is a Cantonese specialty and consists of a variety of buns and dumplings filled with all sorts of savory and sweet treasures. As it turned out, dim sum was much harder to find than we would have liked. After much wandering and asking around, we finally found a restaurant specializing in this delicacy. The smiling waitress poured our tea into thimble-sized porcelain cups and offered us the encyclopedic menu. Selecting a few favorites as well as some new, adventurous options, we sat back and waited for the food to arrive. Each dish is brought to your table in a bamboo steaming basket and contains three to four buns or dumplings. As with the more traditional Thanksgiving meal, everyone has their specific dish that is their favorite. Following his Southern roots, Chris' preferred treat is the steamed bar-be-cue pork buns. These are steamed bread stuffed with pockets of pork cooked in a slightly spicy, slightly sweet sauce. I agree that they are, indeed, scrumptious. However, in my book, nothing beats the egg custard buns. Again, these are steamed bread but they are filled with a creamy, buttery, sugared custard that drips down your chin as you bite into them. While nothing will ever be able to hold a candle to Mom's turkey and dressing, Hong Kong's dim sum can sure come awfully close.
So, we hope that you enjoyed Thanksgiving and have all recovered from your tryptophan-induced comas. From our Thanksgiving, we would like to offer our humble advice. If ever you are driving down the road and see a sign offering Cantonese style Chinese food, stop. It will be worth your while.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

We Need a Little Christmas

Yes, my dear friends, it is that time of year again. I expect that you are all aware of this because you have been barraged by sleighs, reindeer, and children's toy commercials reminding you of December 25 for the past several weeks. Now, as you may recall from our blogs last year, (or if you rely on your common sense reminding you that this is a Buddhist nation and, despite what Toys ' R' Us tells you, Christmas is a Christian holiday), Christmas cheer is not quite as prevelent around here as it is in the States. In recent weeks, the closest thing that I had to a Christmas reference was when a student wrote on a memory verse test, "And Jesus said to him, 'Get behind me Santa...'" While this fruedian slip might be able to be analyzed in a sermon, that is not the direction I intended for this blog.

Anyhow, there does exist one haven that endeavors to share Christmas spirit all around the island. No, it is not a local church or missions organization. Instead, it is, in fact, the retail giant Starbucks. Like the Yankees, Starbucks endures a rather mixed reputation. There are those who condemn them as the evil empire who has destroyed everything that was once good and pure about the coffee drinking experience. Then there are others who are deeply loyal to the five-dollar-per-cup liquid gold coffee. Whatever you think about them in the States, we tend to cling to any pocket of American culture that we can find here in Taipei. So, Starbucks, being conveniently located right on the way to church, has nestled its way into our Sunday morning routine.
And that brings us back to the point of this blog. Something very important happened this week. It is now officially the holiday season at Starbucks. Spray-on frost now christens the windows and a scarf-laden penguin greets you at the cash register. Coffee patrons warm their hands with the scarlet cups adorned with the white snowflakes that remind us of the far off places that actually have real snow. Much to Chris' chagrin, the light jazz background music that usually welcomes us in from off the street has been replaced by real Christmas songs. Since the Taiwanese are generally indifferent to the messages that these songs convey, Elvis' "I'll have a Blue Christmas" is mixed right in with "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing". I have to say, Christian-themed Christmas music is a nice change after all the politically correct tunes aired by radio stations in the States.
Another added to bonus to this Christmas season (brought to you by Starbucks) is the holiday themed menu. Two of our favorite beverages are now available to us, complete with the snowflake embellished scarlet cup: toffee nut lattes and dark cherry mochas. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it is a highly anticipated event for Americans all over the island. The day that the menu was unveiled, ex-pats from all over the city called one another spreading the good news. Chris and I were able to enjoy this special treat this morning and, I must say, it did indeed put us in a holiday mood. Since Thanksgiving is Chris' favorite holiday and he takes it a bit personally when people skip past it and rush right into Christmas, I will leave you with a happy holiday message from across the Pacific. Happy Holidays, and Starbucks cheer to all!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Language Barrier: Both a Blessing and a Curse

Though feeble, Chris and I actually have made an attempt at learning some of the Chinese language. However, our grammar leaves quite a bit to be desired and our vocabulary consists of varying coffee orders and saying “one of this” or “two of that”. While we accept all of the blame for this “ugly American attitude”, I will say that the helpful and English-friendly Taiwanese have added fuel to our lazy fire. Being a language teacher, I am obviously an advocate for learning the language of the culture in which you find yourself. On the other hand, I am going to admit that there have been times when I was glad that I didn’t speak Chinese.

One such occasion was the last time that I went to go get my hair cut. Getting a haircut in Taiwan is a glorious two to three hour ordeal that involves washing, massaging, pruning, and overall pampering (see Great Clips, eat your heart out blog). This is an event that I look forward to with great anticipation. The salon that I frequent is located in our apartment complex and is owned by a young woman who speaks about as much English as I speak Chinese. Typically, when I come in, she hands me a magazine and I point to which picture most closely resembles my desired coif and I hold my breath and hope for the best. Generally, she does a good job and is very friendly whenever I see her around the complex. The inability to communicate frankly doesn’t bother me that much as I am not a big small-talker. However, being a hairdresser, the owner chatters on continuously at me seemingly indifferent to whether or not I understand what she is saying. As I said, not into small talk myself, I am okay with the arrangement that we have. She talks, I nod, smile, or shrug as I think appropriate, she massages my shoulders and cuts my hair, I pay her, and we all end up happy.

This is not always how it turns out. Sometimes, the owner feels obliged to ask one of the other costumers in the shop to translate for her. This is awkward for me for two reasons. First, I hate interrupting another costumer’s relaxation time to come and interpret for the dumb American. Secondly, it is through these translated conversations that I experience a side of Taiwanese culture that I don’t see very often: their bluntness and their uncontrollable desire to offer unsolicited advice. In America, we tend to beat around the bush and sugar coat anything we say as to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. And, to be honest, I like it that way. But, at the salon, I get to find out what people are really saying about me.

The first translated conversation went something like this:
“She would like to tell you that the blemish on your forehead is very large. You must go to see a doctor about it and eat more vitamin C. You must go to the doctor before you come back.”

The next visit went something like this:
“Ah, I see that the blemish on your forehead is gone. Did you go to the doctor? No? Hm. You really should go. The blemishes that you have are unnaturally large. (directed to other costumers) Don’t you agree that her blemishes are unusually large? (nods of agreement all over the salon)”

My most recent visit:
“Wow, I see that your face is very pale but your arms are too tan. Why do you do it that way? Your face does not have as many blemishes but I don’t think that you should not go to America because America is very bad for your skin. You also must learn Chinese, it is very important.”

So, I am going to be honest. After hearing on several occasions how I need to seek medical attention for my apparently horrendous skin affliction, my motivation to learn Chinese and communicate first-hand with the Taiwanese dissipates a little bit. Though, it would be nice to not have to involve a third party in my berating. We’ll keep you updated on our communication as well as the condition of my leprosy.