Saturday, March 19, 2011

Reflection #6: Avoidance Maneuvers

This week, each of us was to do something we'd been avoiding. I know of three things I've been actively avoiding, and two I was willing to do something about (sorry, Dr. Westhoff, only if it's an absolute emergency will I use a squat toilet): Speaking at least a little of the language, and cooking.

I promised myself I'd learn at least one new phrase each day this week. Once I embarked upon this undertaking, though, I had flashbacks to trying to learn Mandarin via computer program: The crying, the difficulty of working on my phrases even ten minutes at a time, the arduous hours of work I put into learning the few phrases I do know. A phrase a day just wasn't feasible. I ended up mastering "I speak a little Mandarin" and "Wow!" At least now I have something to say to the taxi drivers who just start talking when I get in ("I speak a little Mandarin," that is, not "wow!" though that could be just as useful, considering driving practices in China). I plan to build on that, though, it's just going to take me some time. By the time I leave, I might be able to have a carefully choreographed conversation with someone else.

Which brings us to cooking. We've eaten out a lot. I've changed a lot of my behaviors here in China (mostly out of necessity, but that's OK - if I can break some bad habits because I have no choice, hey, they're still broken), but it takes a lot more than a different hemisphere to change who a person is fundamentally. I'm still me, I'm totally OK with me, and I'm just not much of a cook. By and large, when I take it upon myself to make something, I do a pretty good job, but it's not something I enjoy doing, and I avoid it when I can.

I wasn't necessarily avoiding cooking because we were in China, but that does add an element of difficulty. Cooking anything I would normally make at home is nearly impossible (even with the bags of tomato sauce I found at the grocery store, and the noodles that are everywhere, spaghetti is out of the question, since the requisite spices are at least one continent away), so my only other choice is Chinese food. One thing we haven't had since we got to Fuxin (if only because we don't know the words, so they're tough to order) is egg-and-tomato dumplings. Which are exactly what they sound like - tomato and scrambled egg inside dumplings. So I took it upon myself to make these for dinner one night. Jamie joined me in both my effort to embrace cooking for this week and my disgust for squat toilets. We were cooks. We would cook.

We went to the market, cameras in hand, for our adventure. I had looked up the words for everything we needed online, and written them down in pinyin Chinese. Except with Mandarin being a tonal language and all, no one understood a word I said. We did a lot of pointing and holding up fingers, which worked pretty well until we got to the flour lady. I pointed to the bag of flour (labeled, mercilessly, in English), pointed to the half scoop of something she was holding in her hand, and signaled that I wanted two of those. Except instead of giving me two half-scoops, she gave me two whole scoops. We have a lot of flour now and are considering making pancakes with the extra.

I looked up dumpling recipes online, and found out that the dough is really simple, which of course means it's also extremely complicated. Without proper measuring implements, I had to eyeball the water-and-flour mixture, and I think I did OK-ish. I couldn't get the dough as thin as it is in restaurants, and where I did manage it, the dumplings burst. They ended up a lot doughier than I wanted, and I thought they were bland, although everyone else said they were good. Jamie gets credit for the fact that only one exploded in the boiling process, because I'm not a great sealer; she went back through and made sure all the dumplings were properly closed up (the one that did explode did so because of a weak spot in the middle of the dough).

The process was simple enough, but time-consuming. It took us nearly two hours from beginning to end, probably because I insisted on having minced garlic, and since I couldn't find a jar in the store, I minced my own, by hand, with a knife. A pain, to be sure, but it was worth it to me.

Overall, I think the endeavor was pretty successful. We have four bulbs of garlic left, two extra tomatoes, and I threw a bunch of green onion out (you have to buy those in enormous bunches). Considering Jamie and I figure our obligation fulfilled, I doubt anyone will use any of the leftover ingredients; they'll probably get thrown out.

I might make dumplings again when I'm back home, but all the things that I dislike about cooking are magnified 10x in China, due to the language barrier. I cooked in China, I'm glad I did it, but I'm never going to do it again.


  1. We (Donna) cooked almost every night. We used the rice cooker a lot. It's easy to put lentils or rice in the cooker with veggies and spice (soy, garlic, salt, etc) and just let it cook while you do whatever else. I think that might have helped us out a lot too as a group - we ate dinner together in our kitchen almost every night.
    P.S. - there are LOTS of yummy places to get dumplings in Fuxin, many of them close to the dorm or school. It should be simple since everything is a picture menu.

  2. We are having a hell of a time finding places with picture menus! There's a restaurant caddy-corner to us that has awesome ones, but we really only get beef ones there.

    We don't all eat together at all (unless we go out), and due to some dramatics in the house, it's pretty much boys and girls split up from each other.