A Travellerspoint blog

On Fulfilling Childhood Dreams

And the Power of Art and Literature

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I’m on a China Southern Airlines flight to Guangzhou, China, the first stop on my Asian summer. I should be sleeping or working on the guest lecture I’ll give in South Korea, but instead I’m dreaming of the trip and realizing how long I’ve wanted to visit Asia—China and Japan in particular. My love of Chinese and Japanese art and literature began decades ago with a family dinner at a Chinese restaurant when I was about four or five years old. My mother tells me that there were no Chinese restaurants in the little town in North Dakota where we lived, so we must have been away on vacation at the time.

I remember entering the restaurant dining room through a wide doorway filled with long strings of bamboo beads hanging from ceiling to floor. As the beads parted around me, I caught my first glimpse of what looked to me to be the most beautiful, fanciest room on earth. Plush red carpet covered the floor; shining golden dragons hung on the walls; fringed white, yellow, and red silk lamps hung down from the ceiling, each painted with intricate intertwining flower patterns. We walked across the dining room and sat down at a large round table. As the conversation swirled around me, I stared up, transfixed, at the lamp hanging nearest me. More than forty years later I can still picture that delicate red lamp.

Around that same time back in North Dakota, my nursery school teacher, Mrs. Teninenko, read the picture book Crow Boy (Taro Yashima, 1955) to our class. Crow Boy tells the story of Chibi, a country boy who walks miles through the rural Japanese countryside each day to attend school. The other students laugh at his country manners and his inability to comprehend school lessons. I can still feel the empathic twinge I felt as Mrs. Teninenko sat in her rocking chair, reading about the children’s cruel teasing, and I can still see in my mind’s eye some of the glowing colored pencil, watercolor, and ink illustrations that covered the pages: Chibi at his school desk, Chibi in the rain, Chibi walking alone along the long road home.

By the time I turned about six or seven, these two watershed events among others and a continuing fascination with China and Japan led me, like so many other dreamy children, to hatch a plan to dig a hole straight through earth to the continent of my dreams. I imagined digging down, down, down, until I reached Asia, popping my head up through a sidewalk on the other side of the globe to see what the people there were doing (little realizing that China and Japan are in the northern hemisphere).

Determined to carry out my plan, I enlisted my neighbor to help, and we spent much of one summer digging underneath a lilac bush in my backyard, until one day we abandoned the project, forgotten in favor of some other youthful ambition. Who knows--the hole, which we managed to dig several feet deep with an old trowel--may still be there under the lilac bush, waiting for another wide-eyed child to pick up a trowel and continue the dream.

So here I am today, on an airplane headed to China, and later this summer heading to Japan and Korea as well, to live out the dream of that awestruck little girl in that Chinese restaurant all those years ago.

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Click here to learn about traditional Chinese silk painting.
Click here to read about Taro Yashima, a highly acclaimed author-illustrator and lifelong political activist, and the author of Crow Boy.
Click here to read about the importance of providing children with literature representing diverse cultures and groups.
Click here to figure out what’s located on the other side of the globe from you.
Click here to buy yourself a trowel.

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Posted by dagosto 11:48 Comments (0)

On Chinese Cooking and Being in the Know

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Food is an important part of the travel experience. As I continued this past week to prepare for my upcoming trip to China, I spent several hours trying out recipes from Fuchsia Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking (W. W. Norton, 2013), which I borrowed from my local public library.

I highly recommend the book--easy, tasty recipes. I have no idea if they are authentically Chinese or not; check back with me in a few weeks when I'll actually know what Chinese food in China is like and I’ll tell you then. For years I have asked my Chinese graduate students what the food in China is like. They have all given pretty much the same maddening answer. They stare thoughtfully into space for a minute and then reply cryptically: "It’s nothing like the Chinese food here, but I can't describe it. It’s very different." One of the reasons I want to go to China is so that I can finally find out for myself what they've been hinting at for all of these years. And so that when I come back and friends and family ask me what the food in China is like, I can stare into space for a minute, give them a sly half-smile, and then murmur knowingly: "It’s nothing like the Chinese food here, but I can't describe it. It’s very different."

My favorite recipes from Dunlop's Every Grain of Rice were two tofu dishes and a green bean dish. (Of course, I only tried the vegetarian dishes. The meat, poultry, and seafood recipes might be great, too.) I changed the three recipes a bit. I can never follow a recipe exactly--I always end up winging it somewhat, no matter how hard I try to get myself to stick to the printed instructions. My versions of the three dishes appear at the bottom of this blog entry, in case you'd like to try your hand at them yourself.

Click here if you want to buy the book from Amazon, or here if you want to read it online. You might also try checking it out from your public library, where I’m sure you’ll find a wealth of other great Chinese cookbooks as well. Some of them might even reveal the mystery of authentic Chinese cooking.

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SILKEN TOFU WITH AVOCADO (E’li dou fu)

about 7 or 8 oz. silken tofu
2 T soy sauce
1 T water
½ t sesame oil
1 nicely ripened avocado, peeled and sliced ¼” thick
wasabi powder

Cut tofu into ¼”-thick slices. Fan it out nicely on a medium-sized serving platter. Stir together soy sauce, water, and oil in small bowl. Pour the sauce over the tofu slices. Top with fanned out avocado slices. Sprinkle lightly with wasabi powder. (Substitution: If you can’t find wasabi powder, you could leave it out and instead add one thinly sliced green onion to the sauce.)

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SPICED TOFU WITH GREEN PEPPER (Qing jiao dou fu gan)

1 large green pepper, cut into 1½-inch by ¼-inch strips
1 T peanut oil
4 oz firm spiced tofu, cut into 1½-inch by ¼-inch strips
2 T dry roasted, unsalted peanuts
soy sauce
cooked rice

Heat wok or frying pan over high heat. Dry-fry green pepper until slightly blackened and nearly tender, about 2 – 3 minutes. Remove green pepper pieces onto a plate. Add oil to hot pan. Lower heat to medium-high. Stir-fry tofu until nicely browned but not blackened, about 1-2 minutes. Lower the heat more if the tofu starts to burn. Add green pepper and peanuts to pan. Heat briefly, stirring, to warm up the green pepper. Add soy sauce to taste. Serve with rice.

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SICHUANESE DRY-FRIED GREEN BEANS (Gan bian si ji dou)

¾ lb green beans, ends trimmed, cut in half
2-6 dried chilies or 1-2 fresh chilies (depending on how much heat you like)
3 green onions, sliced about ½-inch wide
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
½ t Sichuan pepper (If you can’t find any, you can use black peppercorns instead.)
peanut oil
1 t sesame oil

Use scissors to snip open dry chilies or a knife to slice open fresh chilies. Remove and discard seeds. If using fresh chilies, mince them. Bring a medium pot of water to boil over high heat. Add 1 t salt and a dash of peanut oil to the water. Blanch beans until tender but not overcooked, about 3-4 minutes, depending on the width of the beans. (Thin beans cook more quickly than fat ones.) Drain well.

Heat wok over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon peanut oil, chilies, and Sichuan pepper. Let sizzle until fragrant, about 15-30 seconds. Add green onions, garlic, and ginger. Stir-fry until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes, being careful not to let the garlic burn. Add green beans. Stir-fry about 1-2 minutes more, or until beans are just tender. Add salt to taste and stir in the sesame oil.

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Posted by dagosto 06:25 Comments (0)

On Language, Past Travel Disasters, & Pesky Back Left Molars

As the big trip draws nearer, I am trying to learn some basic Mandarin phrases for the Chinese portion of my travels. Although I was a linguistics and Portuguese double major as an undergrad (a fact I hesitate to mention in public), in truth I have always been lousy at learning languages. This time, though, I am determined to do better than I did the first time I ever visited a Portuguese-speaking country. I was a high school student then with no formal Portuguese training. I spent weeks before leaving to study abroad in Portugal memorizing phrases from my little Berlitz Portuguese phrase book. As soon as I stepped off the plane onto Portuguese soil, I forgot all the Portuguese I had learned except for two sentences: 1) “Do you happen to play chess?” and, 2) “Doctor, my back left molar hurts.” Those are not, as it turns out, particularly useful sentences. I didn’t use either one even once the entire time I was in Portugal, which was probably good, as I myself don’t play chess, and I’ve never been too eager to show unknown dentists my teeth.

So here I am again, thirty years later, listening to Mandarin stock phrases over and over in the hopes of at least being able to say “Please” (Qing), “Thank you” (Xièxie nǐ), and “I don’t understand” (Wǒ tīng bù dǒng) when I hit Chinese soil. That last one should come in handy pretty often—especially if someone asks me to play a friendly game of chess.

Click here if you want to study Chinese along with me: http://www.fodors.com/language/chinese/basic-phrases/.

Click here if you feel like learning the basic rules of chess to teach me some time: http://www.uschess.org/content/view/7324.

Click here if you need to find a local dentist in your area: http://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/find-a-dentist.

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Posted by dagosto 03:42 Comments (0)

On Visas (Again), Bicycles, & Hope for a Vegetarian Traveler

Good news: My Chinese visa has arrived! I'm supposed to be writing today, but I'm so excited that I keep popping up from my desk and going over to where my backpack sits, packed and waiting for the big trip, to pull out my passport and stare at the lovely inked rendering of the Great Wall. Soon I'll be wandering around its storied pathways....

I've been reading up on Guangzhou, my first stop on the Asian Summer. The city bus system has over 100 bicycle rental stations around the city, with bike rental costing just 50 yuan per day (about $5 US). I am now dreaming of biking around the city to see its many sites. And it looks as if I'll be in town for the nation's annual Dragon Boat Festival, with dragon boat racing along the Pearl River. That's sure to be a highlight of the summer. I've also found a list of local vegetarian restaurants, which is a relief. Guangzhou (known to many in the Western world as Canton) is famous within China for its superior cuisine and for its food-adventurous residents, who eat:

“'everything with four legs except tables, [everything that swims except submarines,] and everything that flies except airplanes....' Things that are rarely eaten or rarely seen on Western tables are commonly used in Guangdong dishes. Snake, cat, and pangolin (scaly anteater) are considered by the Cantonese people to be most delicious food" (China Daily, 2011).

As a long-time staunch vegetarian, I was finding this concept rather alarming (Will I be served pangolin?!?), but I was relieved to locate the list of vegetarian restaurants, including several Buddhist temples that serve meat-free meals to paying visitors.

Just two and a half weeks remain until I head to the airport and the adventure begins....

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Posted by dagosto 00:46 Comments (0)

On Visas, Ulcers, and Other Trip Details

With just about one month left before I leave for my trip to China, South Korea, and Japan, I'm continuing to work on getting my tourist visa for China. Thanks to Mandie at Travel Dreams, I finally have my flights paid for for the trip, my hotel reservations booked, and my ground travel set, which means I can use all of the booking information to apply for the visa, so today I'm filling out forms and making photocopies to hand-deliver my visa application to the visa agent in Philadelphia. Apparently the Chinese government shares the U.S. government's deep love of tedious paperwork. As I continue to work on these forms, it's getting down to the wire to secure the visa. I'm really sweating it out, as you can probably tell from the stressed out look on my face on my visa photo....

Denise passport photo (2)

Denise passport photo (2)

Posted by dagosto 07:27 Comments (0)

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