Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chinese New Year

This past February was my first, and likely only, chance to spend the Spring Festival in China (I went home during my first winter vacation in China). The Spring Festival is the 15-day holiday that begins with the Chinese New Year, and is by far the most important holiday of the year, when practically all 1.3 billion Chinese people return home to spend time with their family. My friend Joy invited me to visit the home of her family and the families of some mutual friends in the area of Jiuquan (酒泉), a city roughly three hours from Zhangye.

Chinese holidays seem to mostly revolve around seeing family and eating, and I arrived on the evening of the Chinese New Year just in time for the large and excellent meal prepared by Joy's family. CCTV broadcasts a lengthy holiday show for the occasion, full of pop singers, acrobats, and skits that is the most-watched television event of the year, but I seemed to be the only one interested in it of the group.

Firecrackers are also a tradition of the holiday, to the joy of Chinese children and the dread of myself (for someone who doesn't like sudden, loud noises, China was a strange choice). The stroke of midnight on the New Year in China is the closest I ever hope to get to the sound of war.

The following day Joy and I took a bus well outside of town to the village where our friend Beth lives. Beth graduated from Hexi University and is now a teacher in her town. The people in Beth's family were as warm and welcoming as any I have met in China, and I really enjoyed my stay. Unfortunately, I could not say the same for the warmth of the unheated household--it was the coldest Chinese winter in 50 years, and we spent much of our time huddled around the cooking stove. I found her father to be a hard and silent man, but I gradually came to feel that he did like me. He was a farmer who only rested for five days during the year (for the Spring Festival) after all, a lifestyle that would leave me on the quiet side as well.

We passed the holiday much in the same way I usually pass time with Chinese people--chatting, eating a lot, pretending to understand the conversation, eating, and taking photographs. It was not action-packed but there was a simple charm to it that I appreciated. The Chinese I know in Gansu province always seem to act much younger than their age, and I don't when I've seen college students take that much pleasure in playing in the snow.

One of the moments that stands out in my mind was watching Joy play with a cat, an animal her own family had clearly never owned before. Not knowing how to pick it up, she firmly grabbed its front left leg and lifted it straight off the ground. The cat didn't seem too traumatized, however, as it did start to purr once she got it into her lap and started to pet it. But confused by the noise the cat was making, Joy exclaimed "he is very angry!" I told her it was purring because it was happy. "How would you know?" she laughed. "Are you a cat?"

When I left Beth's family after a few days, they seemed sad to see me go. Her two younger male cousins, who rarely spoke but spent much of their time around me, actually cried a little as I prepared to leave, which was touching and unexpected. Overall it was a relaxing and memorable experience, and I'm glad I didn't pass it up.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Chinese Food: Beef Noodles 牛肉面

Whenever I am asked "why do you like China?", there are two things I never fail to mention: the people, and the food. I haven't done quite enough traveling to know for certain, but surely China has one of the world's finest cuisines. But "Chinese food" encompasses a huge variety of foods. Each region in China has its own particular cuisine, and even particular cities usually have their own specialties. If I go to a nice restaurant in town, the menu will have dozens or possibly hundreds of dishes, some unique just to that restaurant. Though we undoubtedly have the occasional craving for Western dishes not available in such a remote place, I feel that we are pretty spoiled in the food category in Zhangye. In Shanghai for example, I'm not alone in thinking the Chinese food is at best mediocre, though of course they have the advantage of a fantastic international selection. At any rate, food being as important as it has been in my life in China, I thought I might write a few posts describing some of our favorite dishes, starting with niuroumian, or "beef noodles."

This is a local favorite with students, as it originated in this province (the city of Lanzhou) and is one of the cheapest meals you can get, usually going for around 2.5 yuan (or around 30 cents US). I didn't care for it at first as it is pretty spicy by American standards (note the red hot sauce in the picture), but I got used to it and it eventually grew on me. It's also not particularly filling, consisting mostly of some thin noodles and small scraps of beef in a soup, but it makes a great late lunch. Below is an old video I took at a small beef noodle shop during my first year in China. My friend Andrew and I befriended the owner, so he was happy to oblige my filming of some noodle making. Towards the end he can be heard announcing excitedly, "Lanzhou hand-pulled beef noodles!"