Back in the USA

All my bags were packed and ready to go…

I put my key on the table, hefted my backpack over my shoulders, turned off the lights, grabbed my guitar with one hand, pulled my suitcase with the other, and left my apartment. I had to use some Vaseline on the latch to get the door to close without the key, but with one final click I closed a chapter in my life.

It was 6:45am, quiet and dark outside, giving me time to enjoy my last walk to the subway. I passed lots of young couples just heading home after a long night out, and food merchants ready to serve the early-morning revelers as well as the early-rising workers.

Traffic was so light that the occasional honk surprised rather than soothed, as if saying “goodbye” instead of “I like you.” I walked by the Consulate, watched carefully by the guards at attention, my guitar perhaps decreasing suspicion of my trundling suitcase.

Had to carry the bag (just under the 50 lbs allowed by the airlines) down the stairs to the subway, but had no trouble passing security screening. I did have to run carefully through the electronic turnstile, worrying that I might be perceived as two people trying to squeeze through on one ticket.

Waited only a couple minutes for the subway, got to my station in under 10, and was on an airport bus only 30 minutes and 12 yuan after leaving my apartment.

Arrived at the airport, chose (correctly) Terminal 2 (Air China), stood in the wrong line for 10 minutes, then told where to check in for connections to international flights (I was flying to San Francisco via Beijing). I got window seats for both flights, and was through security and at my gate 8:45.

Flight left 30 minutes late, went through border control and customs in Beijing, and made it to my gate 15 minutes before boarding started.

Flight to SFO was long (6 movies, two meals, several naps). I kept comfortable by taking off my shoes, doing my calf exercises, looking out the window for the Northern Lights, and napping as needed.

To sleep I would roll up my sweatshirt, wrap it around my neck for support, and pull the hoodie over my face, backwards, so that my face was covered, giving my eyes complete darkness and my nose a rest with the moister air of my own breath.

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Example of Flight Hoodie

I smiled as the plane flew over Petaluma, passed Marin, the Golden Gate. Even San Francisco looked like a small village compared to the mega-cities of China; so many single- and double-story buildings.

The plane banked at Sunnyvale, and landed at SFO, green hills and blue skies! I was back to familiar territory, comfort food to a wayward American.

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Asheville Airport Welcoming Committee!

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Posted in Chengdu, China, Sep-Nov 2016 | 2 Comments

Potato Fish Feast

Thursday, November 10th, one day left.

I had my last Mandarin class this morning. Taught by a young man who spoke very little English, I learned about Chinese culture, including the Chinese knot. My teacher gave me a completed knot, and a long length of red chord to make my own!

I liked the way my teacher taught me how to write the Chinese characters, patiently showing me the stroke order and correcting me as I learned each step. He also showed the evolution of several Chinese characters, from pictures to squiggles over 2,000 years. It’s the kind of historical context I came here for, where each character carries meanings across time.

But the big news for today was my lunch with Matt. We had found a restaurant at the Wushan Monastery (just upstairs from where we had been before) where they made a version of the traditional Buddhist potato fish.

I met him at the subway and we followed our previous route through the market and old town. Inside the monastery, where the buffet lunch was served, there were the stairs. The restaurant was as unmarked as before. We went up the stairs, which led to a beautifully redecorated restaurant. At our table, the waitress handed us an Apple iPad with pictures of the available dishes. Tapping on the thumbnail image brought up details about each dish. Another tap on a check-box and the meal was added to our order.

We got four dishes: the potato fish, pork rinds (smoked bean curd skin), a shrimp/seaweed soup (contents unknown), and a lemon-filled sesame bun.

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Porkish Dish

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Shrimpish Seafoodish Dish

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Potato Fish Dish

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Lemony Bunish Dish

It’s hard to describe what I was feeling as my expectations, the result of 44 years of anticipation, swirled on my tongue with my first bite of potato fish. It was a bit surreal, really.

I loved the sauce, a wild mix of sweet, sour, spicy pepper, and coriander. And the bean curd sheet skin was crispy and delicate. But the potatoes were gummy and flavorless, not at all flaky, as if Goldens were used instead of Idahos. And there were no bones, or imitation bones of carefully sliced and placed bamboo shoots.

Overall, the meal was excellent: well prepared, fresh, inventive, exotic, all vegetarian. I loved every minute of every bite – a dream come true! And I was redesigning the dishes from the moment they hit my mouth. I can’t wait to try my hand at the potato fish. Watch out, North Carolina!

I had a delightful conversation with Matt, then had to say my goodbyes. I still had some packing and cleaning to do.

Back at the apartment, I put all my purchased kitchen supplies and remaining foodstuffs carefully into a large bag. I boxed up the almost new rice cooker and put the bag and the box where they would be appreciated (next to the communal garbage can). By the time I had washed the floor, all my offerings had been taken.

I later found the instruction manual for the rice cooker in one of my dresser drawers. I put it out where I had left the rice cooker, and like the rice cooker, the instruction manual was gone when next I looked.

The first time I weighed my suitcase it was 59 pounds. Out came all the heavy books and foods, loading my backpack until my suitcase was reduced to 49 pounds. My carry-on backpack was now over 30 pounds!

I looked around the apartment one last time. I was ready to go.

I crawled into bed early, preparing for my pre-dawn departure. I was already missing my men’s chorus and honking car alarm clock!

Posted in Chengdu, China, Sep-Nov 2016 | 2 Comments

Hot Pot

Wednesday, November 9th, two days left.

Met Jenna (Chinese teacher) for lunch, my first and only “hot pot.” We had to try several places before finding one that didn’t use beef fat in the broth. I loved the retro look to this place: Mao posters, rifles on the walls, and every staff member was wearing a red star.

We got the “white broth,” which was vegetarian, and served with only vegetables. The sauce being served with the hot pot was a mix of chopped cilantro leaves, minced garlic, minced green onion, minced hot peppers, all floating in sesame oil.

The idea is to cook the vegetables in the white broth, then pick them out, dip them in the sauce, and eat.

After lunch we walked down to the oldest part of town, and walked back. That’s about 6 miles! Along the way I said goodbye to owls, Mother’s Kitchen, and a shooting gallery using crossbows.

Posted in Chengdu, China, Sep-Nov 2016 | Leave a comment

Last Week in Chengdu

Tuesday, November 8th, three days left.

This morning I listened to the wake-up call of the men’s chorus knowing that soon I would not hear them any more. My time in Chengdu is going quickly. With my computer down, I try to keep connected through my tablet and cell phone, using them for my internet connections. But I have lost Jeremy’s phone and e-mail address. I have no way to contact him to say goodbye.

Luckily, Matt e-mailed me about setting up our visit to the vegetarian restaurant at the monastery. We agreed that Thursday would be the day, after my last language class.

Today is election day, and Matt will be watching the election results Wednesday morning at the Bookworm.

I went to my language class, set up a lunch for tomorrow with Jenna. I donated all my English-language magazines to the language institute (some 20 issues, including a year of Scientific American and my statistics magazines).

Today my lesson included current culture, a popular love song known by all Chinese (or so the young teacher told me). The English translation is “The Moon Represents My Heart,” but it is a poor translation, because the moon carries much more meaning in Chinese than in English. I prefer my own translation, “The Moon Speaks For My Heart,” but who am I to argue with thousands of expert translators?

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The Moon Represents My Heart

The song was made famous by Teresa Teng, a famous Taiwanese singer who died at age 42 from a severe asthma attack. Here is her version of 月亮代表我的心 (yuè liang dài biǎo wǒ de xīn) “The Moon Represents My Heart.” If ever there was a song I should learn to do for Chinese karaoke, this is it!

After class I stopped by the university store and bought more trinkets for the kids, then stopped by for my last visit to Wal-Mart. Goodbye, bar-coded live fish!

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Tagged and ready for sale

Once back at my apartment, I cannot find the motivation to explore any more of Chengdu, imagining instead that I am in the arms of my lovely wife in our cozy home in North Carolina.

Posted in Chengdu, China, Sep-Nov 2016 | Leave a comment

Computer Hard Drive Failed

Well you might be wondering why I haven’t posted recently. While in Thailand my computer hard drive decided to die. I tried to resurrect the poor thing for two days, and again once I returned to Chengdu, but it is in need of more help than I can give it here.

This means that I have to use my tablet to type, which is very frustrating and slow. Therefore, dear readers, this is my last post until I get a computer.

Until then, thank you for your interest in my blog.

Love always,

Jim from Chengdu

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Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Posted in Chengdu, China, Sep-Nov 2016 | Leave a comment

Sunday Thailand

Sunday, November 6, five days left.

Sailai took me down to the big market. I couldn’t stop taking pictures!

 

 

 

This large piece of machinery was the moveable form for constructing the new roadbed for the “skytrain,” Bangkok’s elevated train.

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We went to Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand, and visited Sailai’s house. I was surprised at the size of the kitchen, especially the great number of large pots! Sailai says they are for when they feed the monks.

When asked what I wanted to have for lunch, I immediately replied, “Pad Thai. A proper Pad Thai.” So we went down to the river, a restaurant I had eaten at before on my last visit.

It was delicious!

And I got to meet Tan’s new wife. They drove 1/2 hour just to have lunch with us. It was good to see Tan again. Only 17 last visit, he was now 24 and married.

 

After lunch we stopped by a couple monasteries. An older one:

 

 

And a newer one, dedicated to the King only a couple years ago. In the back were thousands of rooster statues, thank you gifts for wishes granted.

 

 

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Flower in Sailai’s House Garden

We drove back to Bangkok, and dropped me off at the airport. After such a wonderful trip, it is always hard to say goodbye. I promised to return.

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Bangkok Airport

 

Posted in Chengdu, China, Sep-Nov 2016 | Leave a comment

Thailand Saturday

Early morning breakfast, then a van ride to the monastery for the Kathina robe-giving ceremony.

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Van Party

 

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Ceremony Hall

 

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Sailai lighting candles

Lunch was served half-way through the 5-hour ceremony.

 

The last part of the ceremony was done outside, traditionally done in the woods, where one of the monks discretely donned his new robes.

Monies were collected in an effort to complete the main hall, here showing bamboo scaffolding, bricks, and the carved main doors.

What would a monastery be without its loudspeaker tower and chickens?

Sailai’s brother was a mover and shaker in the fund raising, honored with a gift from the head monk.

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After the ceremony we made a quick stop at a friend’s lovely gardens.

Then it was off to the home of an eccentric world-renowned Chiang Rai artist.

Flew back to Bangkok that evening. Love the Nok Airlines jets!

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Nok Airlines

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Airport Polish

Had to take a picture of the elevator at Sailai’s condominium, where the 13th floor is called 12A.

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What happened to the 13th floor?

 

Posted in Chengdu, China, Sep-Nov 2016 | Leave a comment