Big Mountain's daughter turned six on Thursday, and Little Miss Personality *loved* the attention showered on her--even more attention than usual! She got to have two birthdays: one on Thursday, with just her immediate family (and me) and a Chinese birthday cake, and one on Friday with extended family, friends, and an American birthday cake made by yours truly.
Excitement over her Chinese cake, with Grandma looking on:
The Chinese cake did not do it for me. The texture of the cake was angel food (never been a favorite of mine), it was barely sweet, and the frosting tasted like canned whipped cream that hadn't been refrigerated. In between the layers there were pieces of fruit, which was good, but otherwise I thought it would be no competition.
My mom sent a bunch of things over for Qiuyu, mostly involving helping her learn English. She absolutely loves to practice writing English (speaking not so much, but we're working on it) so the gifts my mom sent were a huge hit.
And now, of course, onto the cake. My cake. Baking this cake was an affair--I took my two hour mid-day siesta, which I guard jealously--to make the first layer, and made the second one before dinner (meaning I left work an hour early). The cake had nothing on what I'd be able to make in the States, since I used olive oil instead of butter and store-bought Betty Crocker frosting (from Guiyang) instead of making my own (no powdered sugar), but I was pleased with the result. Qiuyu loves white chocolate, so I chopped up a bar of Ghirardelli that Matt sent and threw it in the batter. Americans, who are trained in the art of cake-eating, would notice that something was a little different because of the olive oil, but I don't think anyone would necessarily think it was a bad thing. Overall, I was really quite proud of myself for this creation:
Click here for a link to the recipe!
Qiuyu's dinner party was huge--there were at least twenty people there. She was beside herself with excitement the whole night because we were all going to sing karaoke afterwards and she was allowed to stay up really late. Dinner concluded around 9:30, and we headed to karaoke, where it was determined that we would eat the cake. But apparently, karaoke was (for once) not what everyone else wanted to do. Big Mountain, his wife, his brother-in-law, and his brother-in-law's eight year old son were the only people who showed up to our karaoke room. And when it came time to have cake, Qiuyu's excitement ended with blowing out the candles. She did not eat a single bite of the cake. It broke my heart.Big Mountain and his wife made a show of eating a few bites (they both despise sweets), but everyone else seemed to really like it. And since I had made a rather large cake in anticipation of lots of guests, I took the remainder home with me to share with the people in my office. It was a much bigger success today after lunch than it was last night, and now, the only thing that's left is a few crumbs and a smudge of icing in the box. On a completely unrelated note, I just wanted to share with you a text message I received recently from a friend here that made me laugh. I hope it has the same effect on you!
Being friends with the head of the police force in Libo has its benefits. I met him at Nainai's funeral, and he immediately insisted that I call him "Liu Ge" (Big Brother Liu); at the time, I had no idea that he happens to be "kind of a big deal" in Libo. Like a lot of people here, upon meeting me, he insisted we take a photo together:
This past weekend, Liu Ge invited me to go on a hike with the local SWAT team. Let me be the first to tell you these guys were not messing around. The hike was conducted in full uniform as a training exercise. In other words, it was really, really hard! We hiked for five hours up (and down) four mountains averaging about 2000 feet each--a total of eight miles. The mountains were densely forested, but instead of being shady and cool, the forest acted as a humidity trap, ensuring that all of us were absolutely drenched with sweat within the first twenty minutes.
For the record, the mountains you see in front of us in the picture above are not what we were climbing.
This photo is of the last mountain we hiked over, taken from the village where we rested and had a late lunch before heading back to Libo:
Although the hike was a training exercise, the men acted more like boys on a field trip, singing traditional Chinese songs, whooping and hollering, and generally making mischief. Some of the more serious hikers engaged in a race, but most of us concentrated on not slipping on the rocks as we climbed (sometimes using our hands).
The Maolan forest is famous for "python trees"--trees whose branches have twisted around each other for a snake-like effect. Apparently, the forest is home to black bears and monkeys, but unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, in the case of black bears) we didn't see any animals (just insects . . . lots and lots of insects).
I once mentioned to Liu Ge that I am interested in learning kung fu; I figured since he's Mr. Badass Head of the Local Police he would probably know who could teach me. Little did I know that on the hike, I would be introduced to Zeng Shifu, my kung fu master.
He may not look like a crouching tiger . . .
but he is most definitely a Hidden Dragon.
My first lesson:
Another new friend, Deng Ge, proudly presented me with a tiny crab he caught in the river. He was so pleased with his gift to me that he insisted we document the exchange. Even more incredible than the fact that I'm holding a crab is the fact that Deng Ge is taller than me! I can count on one hand the number of people I've met here that fall into that category.
As we drove back into Libo, Big Mountain's daughter called me to invite me over for dinner. Even though I was exhausted, I find it nearly impossible to refuse her anything, so I took a quick (and mercifully hot) shower and headed to their house. By 9 pm, my muscles were yelling at me for having condensed an entire month's worth of exercise into five hours, and Big Mountain suggested we go get Thai massages.
Music to my ears! Had I ever had a Thai massage? No. Did I know what that entailed? No. But I was game--anything to ease the pain.
If you are a knuckle/neck/back cracker, then this massage is for you. Every limb was yanked, twisted, pulled and pushed into what I would have thought to be impossible positions. There was the usual kneading and massaging as well, although at one point the woman was doing chopsticks (with her hands, not actual chopsticks . . . funny that I need to specify) on my forehead. She used her knees, toes, elbows, and entire body weight during the massage; at times, I had a hard time keeping a straight face, especially if I looked over at Big Mountain having the same procedures done to him across the room. (By the way, in China, going to get a massage is like going to get drinks--you go in groups. Everyone in your party is in the same room, and you all change into silly looking pajamas and drink chrysanthemum tea and eat tangerines. It is as great as it sounds.)
Here are some images from the internet of Thai massages, to give you an idea:
Just kidding about that last one. But the second to last one? Yeah that happened.
After my massage, I felt like I had been hit by a magical bus that turns muscles into jello but also kind of hurts at the same time. But the next day, I thanked my lucky stars that I went. I expected to be immobile the day after, but aside from mild discomfort at the thought of going up or down a staircase, I was a-okay.
I know you were curious, so here's a picture of me in the silly pajamas.
Wee-ew-wee-ew-wee-ew! The fashion police are on their way.
It's time for another round of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Chinese Food Edition" . . .
Alexy and I went exploring one Saturday afternoon for a good spot for lunch that isn't the seventh floor of our office building. We found this gem around the corner, which is always packed and famous for their scallion pancakes (in the background). My go-to dish is a spicy beef and cabbage stir fry over rice.
This next one was a bit scary, but ended up being quite delicious. On our way back to the office from a meeting one day, the weather was hot and Alexy recommended we try a traditional Guizhou treat for sunny weather. I was of course willing to check it out, but when I saw the street vendor ladling clear, wiggling jello out of a bucket and into a bowl for me, I got nervous. In my head, I was thinking, "Kaci, this is exactly what you are not supposed to be doing. Eating food on the street that comes out of a bucket. If you get sick, you deserve it." But I didn't want to chicken out, so I went ahead and let Alexy choose my toppings: thick molasses, sesame seeds, peanuts, raisins, and some sugary candy. The result was certainly a unique blend of flavors, but overall quite delicious. And I didn't get so much as a stomachache! Win.
Last weekend, a friend of Big Mountain's invited me over to his home for dinner. His daughter is twenty-one and a student at a university in Guiyang. She's studying philosophy, English and Japanese, and loves to sing and play the guitar. She was too shy to speak much English, but we had a great time talking about music (she loves Green Day and Avril Lavigne--angsty or what?!) and travel. The family served the dreaded hot pot, but this time it was full of only things I like! Mushrooms, normal cuts of beef, stewed pumpkin, and cabbage were some of the hot pot ingredients. We drank wine that Mrs. Mo made herself from grapes in the family vineyard. After dinner, we headed out on the town for some good old-fashioned karaoke, where I once again confirmed the fact that I will never be able to sing Beyonce's songs. Ever.
To celebrate the Mid Autumn Festival, I went to Big Mountain's house for a special dinner. As usual, it was delicious--spicy chicken with bamboo (center), beef and celery, bitter melon, edamame with ground pork, and homemade sausages . . . The list goes on and on. After dinner, we looked at the moon and gave thanks, and of course enjoyed a traditional Libo moon cake filled with sweetened red bean paste.
The night of the Chinese tea party, Eric and I found ourselves hungry on the way back to the office. We stopped to sample some street food, and Eric recommended I try the infamous "stinky tofu."
Chinese escargot. The only way I am eating snails is if they are served in a French restaurant and smothered in butter and garlic thankyouverymuch.
Nothing like some good ol' raw fish heads to whet your appetite. Am I right?!
Mmm . . . Pig brain.
And now, I present to you: fried grasshoppers.
These are under the "Ugly" category because they don't look too good, but let me be the first to tell you that they were actually quite delicious! I ate two.
Here's a fun game for all you non-Chinese speakers out there! It's called, "Find the Dog on the Menu." (Hint: It's somewhere in the right-hand column.)
This game is also known by another name, which is, "Make sure you go out to eat with someone who can read Chinese."
The phrase "tea party" brings to mind several distinct images for me. The first is of playing 'tea party' as a child with my cousin and grandmother, using a beautiful old tea set and equal parts cream, sugar, and English breakfast tea. The second is of taking high tea in London with friends last year. And the third (for whatever reason) is of a page from a middle school history book about the Boston Tea Party.
My guess is that upon hearing that you have been invited to a tea party, at no point does your mind associate that with, "belly dancers," "braised pork ribs," or "grain alcohol." You can imagine my momentary confusion, then, when I attended my first Chinese tea party last Friday. The party was hosted at the "fancy" hotel in Libo following a conference between government officials and commercial investors. To the amazement of everyone who didn't know me, I gave a speech in Chinese about how thankful my company is for the government's support, etc etc. Then I sat back, relaxed, partook of the complimentary fruit plate, and understood very little of the rest of the meeting's proceedings.
After the conference, all 75 or so attendees filed out of the conference room and downstairs to the ballroom, where tea was in fact being served. The air quickly filled with cigarette smoke and the sound of fifty people speaking loudly on their cell phones at the same time, as is typical at Chinese functions such as this. After about 30 minutes of settling-in time, where the attendees found their assigned seats, enjoyed a moon cake or two in honor of the Mid Autumn Festival, and caught up on nicotine and voicemails, the party really got started. Performances by ethnic minority groups (mainly women in traditional costumes dancing and singing) were the main event, and to be honest, I was quite transfixed. I had never seen traditional Chinese dances like these or heard music like what was sung and played that afternoon.
Having participated myself in many concert choirs, I found the differences between American and Chinese choral performances striking. To have a nasal tone in the States is anathema; in China, it is required. Still, I wholeheartedly enjoyed the performance, especially the movements they incorporated.
The final performance startled me, as it was more reminiscent of Indian dancing than anything I've ever seen in China. It's fascinating to see how various Eastern cultures must have influenced each other over thousands of years.
After the performances, dinner was served and the toasting began. I was asked to give a karaoke performance, so in front of a large audience of Chinese businessmen and government officials, I sang Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now," the subject of which may not have been the most appropriate given the venue. I banked on the fact that no one would understand the words, and to my knowledge, no one did. Unfortunately, giving that performance meant that almost every single person in the room came over to toast me personally afterwards, which was becoming a problem until I managed to fill my grain alcohol pitcher with water instead of "baijiu". This also meant that I didn't eat dinner. Womp womp.
Gan bei! ("Bottom's up!"):
This title may be a bit of an exaggeration. Am I rich? By American standards, definitely not. I've got the equivalent of eighteen dollars in my wallet to last me more than two weeks, but I'm not even sweating. It should be plenty. Though I may have to give up my afternoon bubble tea towards the end . . . And as for the famous part, well, I'm getting to that. It's all relative, right?
This morning I took a bit of extra care during my primping routine. It went something like this . . .
8:15: My alarm wakes me from a dream in which I live in the attic of an old, colonial-looking house with a family of enormous spiders. I'm so tired I would almost prefer to sink back into my spider dream, but instead--
8:17: I enjoy a cold shower for the fourth or fifth day in a row. I've learned to judge the coldness on a special scale, which goes from This-Water-Is-From-The-Iceberg-That-Sank-The-Titanic-Cold to I-Can-Nearly-Convince-Myself-This-Is-Lukewarm-Cold. Most days the water is a tolerable Pool-Water-Cold; just like getting in the pool, it feels freezing at first, but once you're in long enough, it's actually colder to be out of the water than in it.
8:25: I shiver myself into my clothes, chosen with special care this morning. Instead of my usual capris, decent top, sweater, and worn-out Toms, I opt for a nice shirt/sweater combo, khaki suit-skirt, and (omg!) high heels.
8:30: In honor of the occasion, I put on make-up (a first since arriving in Libo) and brush my hair twice. I'm disturbed to notice that today of all days, after three merciful weeks of no bites, I've awoken with an enormous mosquito (or spider?) bite on my face, just below my left eye. It has the unfortunate effect of making me look like I have just been punched in the face. I hastily apply cover-up, which infuriates the bite and makes my eye water from the itching. But you know what the stars say--beauty is pain.
8:40: I consume my last protein bar. Sad face.
8:42: I clean my room, make my bed, and put all my clothes away. Today I imagine that I will be having visitors.
9:00: I collect my computer, cell phones, and notebook, pack my bag, and head down two flights of stairs to work.
Why all the fuss, you ask? Because--because!--today, I filmed a segment for a local TV station! "A Day in the Life of the Foreigner in Libo" will air as a short news story tomorrow evening, and as a longer spot later in the week. I completed a fairly long interview rather successfully in Chinese, talked about my work and my new life in Libo, and even let the cameraman into my room, where he filmed photos of my loved ones and shot Alexy and I playing a game of "American cards" (gin rummy). I received notice that this interview would take place today just yesterday afternoon; apparently two nights ago I agreed to do it during dinner with my boss and some of his friends. Clearly, my strategy of nodding, smiling, and cheers-ing people when I don't understand what they're saying has some room for improvement.
And of course today, for the first day in what seems like forever, I actually had work to do. The rest of the day was spent contemplating the merits of various life jackets, officially hiring my second staff member (a marketing assistant), and reviewing ticket designs, among other things. At 6:30, my coworker Sophie and I went upstairs to have dinner with Eric and (as usual) some members of the government. It was hot pot again, which means that all manner of raw animal parts were hanging out on the table for us to boil in individual hot and sour soup pots by our plates. As you might imagine, this is not my favorite dining experience, but I've learned to live with it. I almost feel like the fish and chicken heads are my friends, winking at me at various points during the three-hour dinner as they spin around and around on the mechanical lazy susan. The beverage of choice tonight was brandy, which was consumed in such large quantities that by the end of the night, the only possible option was to go sing karaoke.
And guess what?! Tonight, I sang my very first ever Chinese karaoke song! Check it out:
To me, this accomplishment felt every bit as exciting as the prospect of being on television is. It was a smashing success, and further solidified my place as coolest foreigner within a hundred-mile radius.
I'll try to video tape the interview tomorrow on my iPhone to share with you all. You will be extra impressed, because chances are, you won't understand what I'm saying, and it will therefore sound perfect. Everybody wins.
One final thing of import happened today: my Chinese name was changed. My Chinese name, Xiong Wenlu (shee-yong when-LOO), has thus far been met with mixed reviews. Some think it sounds beautiful and traditional, like a movie star name. Others think it sounds like a boy's name. I have no way of knowing; all I know is that the name belonged to a Chinese girl in one of my classes at Vanderbilt and happened to be the only name I knew how to write when I went to Beijing.
Today, a government official christened me Xiong Xiaoli (shee-yong shee-yow LEE), which means that my first name is now "Little Li" -- "Li" as in "Libo". Adorable!
Sigh. It's almost 1 in the morning, and the spider dreams are beckoning. I will keep you updated on my "rich" and "famous" lifestyle as it unfolds, but for now, I must bid you wan'an--good night.
Libo is located in Guizhou province, which is heavily populated by several of China's ethnic minorities. One of my bosses, Big Mountain, is a member of the Yao ethnic minority. Above, I am pictured wearing traditional Yao clothing. The Yao people are generally quite short, which explains the skirt length on me.
The clothes I am wearing, which Big Mountain presented to me as a gift, took six months to make. The embroidery is all done by hand, and it is a dying art: Only the old women of the villages know how to do it any more, because most of the younger women have moved to big cities in search of work, and young people in general have lost interest in these types of traditional handicrafts.
The people in Libo are very friendly, although they often seem at a loss for words when they catch a glimpse of me through the car window or out surveying the property. I am the first foreigner many of them have ever seen, or at least the first tall blonde American woman they've come across. As the property we are working on develops further, I suspect the locals will become much more accustomed to seeing Westerners than they are right now. But for the time being, I am trying to take the gawking and pointing as a compliment (and trying not to feel like I'm on the wrong side of a cage at the zoo).
Above is Big Mountain, bargaining for the Yao costume I'm wearing. It wasn't for sale, because (as I mentioned earlier) it took someone six months to make. They sell cheaper versions without the detailed embroidery and hand-drawn ink patterns, but he wasn't having any of that nonsense. Mine is the real deal.
If the strangers I meet on a daily basis are friendly, then the people I am coming to know, and with whom I will work closely in the coming year, are practically treating me like family. In fact, in China, the workplace is meant to be a community, and the lines between personal and professional life are often unclear. Lunch and even dinner are spent at the office with coworkers, and a Friday night off probably includes karaoke with the bosses. Maybe my company is a bit extreme because of its rural location, but I've heard from other people that they have had similar experiences.
Here's a shot of the whole gang having dinner at the office:
Not a bad crew, right?
I like to consider myself as a person who has taken the "road less traveled." I have made it my mission to explore places far away from home, to understand cultures once foreign to me, to communicate with people in languages that are not my native tongue. This is especially true in my new job, where I will be helping to pave the way for American outdoor leisure companies to expand to China (and in the process, teach Chinese people how to enjoy the great outdoors while preserving the environment).
But rarely do I get the chance to literally blaze my own trail, spastically waving a piece of dead bamboo in front of me to destroy any spider webs in my path. So thank you, Big Mountain, for giving me such an opportunity.
Libo is a place of dazzling beauty, surrounded by mountainous "karst" formations that make even those who are only mildly enthusiastic about hiking (cough cough, me) feel the need to climb something. The national park has already been somewhat developed, so much of my trip was spent looking at (and participating in) the various activities offered (rowing a boat, touring a cave, taking a leisurely stroll through a swamp) and working with architects to brainstorm ways to make these activities more enticing to tourists.
One of the more popular locations in the park is the Waterfall Forest, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Though rather slippery and unkempt in some spots, there was indeed a path to follow on the hike:
Little did we know, however, that the Waterfall Forest was a mere warm-up to the main event: the Feral Pig Bamboo Forest. (Feral pig is their translation of "Wild Boar," which has a slightly better ring to it.) Big Mountain showed off his knowledge of his namesake and took us quite a ways off any sort of beaten path in an attempt to show us the entrance to a cave where he wants to offer ziplining. We never made it to the cave, but we did see a lot of bamboo. Luckily, the feral pigs were nowhere to be found.
It's not quite clear from the pictures how much we were forced to use our hands as well as our feet on this hike. My chief concern was that one of us would twist an ankle and have to be somehow carried out (the hike went from the parking lot down a series of mossy old stairs, through the bamboo forest, into a riverbed, up a steep slope of mud, and to another riverbed, this one with water in it, which is where we chose to turn back.).
Big Mountain, who is a world-renown photographer in his spare time (no joke, he works for National Geographic), taking a picture of some mushrooms:
Tim lends Tai a hand crossing the second riverbed (which was larger than it looks like in this picture, and also where we decided to turn back):
Stop to smell the roses? Please, this is China. Stop to use your cell phone is more like it. Hey, at least there was service! Not bad!
Now that it's all said and done, and all of our ankles made it out of the forest intact, I can safely say that this hike was one of the best parts of my trip to Libo.