Sunday, May 13, 2012

Birthday at the Fire Palace and Orange Island

The last couple of days have been very good.  I have now been in Changsha for one week.  In some ways, it feels like I just got here.  In other ways, it feels like I've been here for a month.  Being away from my family is certainly the hardest part.  It's much harder than anything I'm facing culturally.  I know the time will eventually pass and I'll be reunited with my wife and children and have many stories and experiences that will benefit us all when we return next year.  I'm really trying to immerse myself in the language the best I can, but it's really difficult.  My mandarin teacher is tutoring me about an hour and a half to 2 hours every day and then I spend a couple of hours on my own in the evening reviewing the words and characters I have learned.  I have been writing my new words in a little notebook and I carry it everywhere.  I don't pull it out much when I'm actually talking to someone, but I'll look at it to refresh my memory and then try to engage in conversation without it.  When I do try to engage in conversation, I sometimes feel really good about myself for being able to communicate a little bit.  I'll say three or four complete sentences and be understood.  Other times, I'll repeat myself a few times and they don't know what I'm trying to say at all.  I know it's because  my tones are off, but it's really tricky when you've learned several words that are spelled the same exact way, but have different tones.  

Yesterday, I was invited by Brenna and her two friends Vanessa and Naomi (their English names) to a Brazilian/Chinese restaurant.  I have been to both kinds now, but never the hybrid version.  If you have ever been to a Brazilian restaurant, the key characteristic is that waiters will come around with different kinds of meats and ask you if you want any.  The side dishes are generally salads, fruits, and vegetables.  In Changsha, the Brazilian restaurant also had some very delicious meats being taken around by the servers, but all the side dishes were pretty typical of things I had seen at other Chinese restaurants.  It was by far the most expensive place I had eaten at so far since I have been here and it was 68 yuan per person (about $10 dollars).  I'm not sure why I keep taking pictures of all the food, but I have attached some more. Vanessa has been accepted to UCLA for the fall and Naomi is off to Notre Dame.  Their English is very good.  Vanessa is the daughter of the dean of the Foreign Studies department, who is also the woman whose class I have taken over for awhile.

Later that night, I invited a few of my new friends to go to the Fire Palace for dinner to celebrate my birthday in China.  Stacie is probably going to laugh because I already had two birthday parties in the U.S. and I didn't really need another one.  However, I thought it would be fun to do some birthday celebrating in China.  I invited Chance and Brenna, Li Ya Lun (my mandarin teacher), and Li Li Jun (my other friend who picked me up from the airport and showed me around campus).  I told them ahead of time that I was paying for everything and that I wanted to go to the Fire Palace, which is the oldest restaurant in China and serves food that is very native to the area.  Also, everyone says they have some weird stuff there and I wanted to try some of those dishes, particularly the one with the fried bees.  I supposed I have watched too many episodes of that show Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman.  When we arrived at the restaurant, I was immediately overwhelmed by the environment.  It was really crowded and the servers come your table with these carts of food and most of it is a bit unrecognizable.  My brother-in-law, Cory, would probably refer to them as "food pushers" because they were really in our faces about trying different things.  The dishes are on very small plates and you're encouraged to sample a whole bunch of them.  So they are really trying to give you things like chicken hands, duck heads, and also some safer foods of course.  The problem is that you can't tell what is safe sometimes just by looking at it.  I'm so glad we had some native speakers to yell "women bu yao zhe ge" to the servers ("we don't want this one").  Eventually, we had a table full of many dishes.  A great many of them were very delicious and others were not so good.  The strangest things I tried (unfortunately they did not have bees) were the stinky tofu (hard to describe but fairly awful) and one hundred year old eggs.  The eggs have been buried for a hundred years and, not so interestingly enough, they tasted like rotten eggs. Go figure.  

Once we were finished eating, Chance and Brenna got out a cake they had bought from a bakery downtown.  You can see from the picture that it looks delicious.  It had dragon fruit, kiwi, and some other fruits on top and had a white cake inside with some whipped cream and pineapple.  It was really good and I don't know what it cost.  It was probably about ten dollars based on what everything else is costing around here.  They sang happy birthday to me in Chinese (the tune is the same just different words) and tried to get other Chinese people in the restaurant to sing, but they would not do it.  

Today, I had a chance to go to Orange Island, which is fairly large strip of land on the Xiangjiang river.  Apparently, it's a spot where Mao Zedong used to sunbathe and write poetry.  It's also famous for its orange groves (hence the name).  I really enjoyed seeing this part of Changsha and it seemed very peaceful compared to the hustle and bustle of the city.  I was accompanied on the tour by another American man from St. Louis (here teaching English) and his "partner." They were very nice gentlemen and we seemed to have a lot to talk about.  There is a path that goes from one end to the other and you can either walk it (probably would take about 30 to 45 minutes or take a bus.  One end of the island has a huge head of Mao and it was a pretty impressive structure. Some parts of the island had many trees, other parts contained wide grassy expanses, and other parts had paths for walking along the river. Overall, this was a beautiful place that I could picture myself going with the Stacie and the kids and just letting them run around.

Vanessa (left) and Naomi (right).  Very sweet girls.  Brenna says they are rich and they think Americans are rich too so they always take her to nice restaurants.

Ok, let's see.  Top right is cauliflower.  Green stuff is green beans.  Pink thing is like a fish flavored styrofoam.  Not very good.  Below the pink thing is some delicious chicken.  Purple thing is a kind of root that tastes like a blend between a carrot and a potato.  They are very good.  The mussels were terrific, but some people don't like mussels.  I do.  The two balls in the front were like donut holes with fish in them.  Not a combination I appreciate very much.

Dessert plate.  From top and then clockwise.  Jello cup, dragon fruit, apple, watermelon, banana bread, and chocolate cake.  

Statue of Mao Zedong outside the fire palace. 

Me with Li Ya Lun (left) and Li Li Jun (right)

This picture doesn't show how busy it really was.

Here is what the food cart looked like.  The advantage with this style is that you can see the dishes instead of trying to read characters on a menu.  Check out those duck heads on the top in the middle.  

Happy birthday to me :)

Some old boats on the river.  The camera was giving me some trouble at this point, so it's kind of washed out.

Our tour guide Qu Jin.  She said I could just call her Jin (pronounced Jean)

Orange island had lots of bamboo.

Picture doesn't capture how huge the statue of Mao is.  The other American teacher on the tour thought he looked like Christopher Walken.  I don't see the resemblance. 

These kids kept running up behind me and touching my arm and then running away.  I chased them for a minute and tried to take their picture, but they were too fast.  So, I pretended to give up and then sneaked up behind them and took this one.  

View up the steps from the riverfront.  I like that the temple and Mao are visible from here.

I promised my little Jeanie some Chinese candy.  I will get more, but here is a start.


  1. Jean says:"Thank you for buying me candy, and I can't wait for you to come home! And I miss you so much! And I can't wait, can't wait, can't wait!"

  2. Thanks for the sweet mother's day call!