Monday, January 7, 2013

So this is Suzhou?

Mini-Experience / Catching up part two: Our second trip to Times Square, December 14, highlights – Burger King & the Gold Fish.

On our second trip to Times Square we were in search of some Western food. So we scoped out all of our options and found ourselves looking at KFC, Pizza Hut, or Burger King. We decided on Burger King because it had the only menu we could point at and therefore the most likelihood of us actually being able to order food. I got a chicken sandwich and Tommy got a Whooper. Now, here’s the thing, had we been in the US we would never have gone to Burger King. I don’t do the BK Lounge and neither does Tommy, just not our kind of fast food. So I was mildly nervous about eating there in China since this seemed like a step backward or something. But still, it was Western food in theory. So I bite into my chicken sandwich and the first few bites are fine, then it starts feeling like rubber, then it starts tasting like rubber, then I notice mysterious grey spots in the chicken and I’m done. Tommy’s Whooper was okay, he assumes that means it’s the same as the US. I felt super gross after my food and we vowed to continue not going to BK in either country.

As we were walking over the bridge after Burger King, Tommy points to this little girl who is standing at the edge of what in the US would be a dock but in China is a sidewalk. Bear with me. All along the river that divides the parts of the mall is a sidewalk. What I mean is, even though you are right up against the river, there is no wall or railing, there is just sidewalk and then a drop into the water.

So this little girl, younger than three, is standing at the very edge of the sidewalk, her mom is literally holding onto her by her hood. Tommy asks me if he is going to have to save her if she falls in the water, I say no because he would probably die from the pollution in the river. (I.e. When Tommy asked his students what color water is they said: White (meaning clear), brown, and black. Blue was not among their responses) This water was no different, it was straight brown. Now we are at the end of the bridge, coming up fast on the little girl. Tommy asks me what’s she’s holding and several things happen at once.

I see that she is holding a clear plastic bag, I have a split second glimpse of an orange gold fish just before the little girl over turns the bag and violently shakes it. The fish plummets to the ground, it’s little fishy head smacking against the sidewalk. The shock of the fall bounces it into the brown water. The mom is screaming, pulling the little girl toward her, checking the dock for the fish, making sure the fish is in the water. Tommy and I are dying with laughter.
The goldfish release happened on the right of this photo

I’m not sure if the fish was already dead and therefore they were like returning it to its home or if they had bought the fish for the sole purpose of returning it to nature. Either way, the result would have been the same. Even if the fish hadn’t died from head trauma, it would have died from the pollution level of the water. But whatever, it was the funniest thing I’ve seen in a year!


Catching up part three. We are still in the past, it’s December 22, we wake up at 9am so we can meet Lemon at the Lindun stop on the Subway at 10am. Lemon is an English teacher at Tommy’s school who has offered to show us around so that she and her boyfriend can practice their English. Obviously, we readily accept.

We take the thirty minute subway ride to Lindun and wait for Lemon. When she gets off the subway, she runs over to us and we go to the street where her boyfriend picks us up in his car. Lemon tells us we are going to the Suzhou Museum first. Now, normally, a trip down three blocks and parking would be boring. But this is China, so it’s anything but.


In Suzhou, the streets are divided in four parts. On the far left and right is a bicycle / scooter lane. There is a median then two lanes of traffic then another median and two lanes of opposite moving traffic, then a divider and the opposite moving scooter lane. This is essential to the story, I promise.

So, we drive down three blocks to the street with the museum which is a no car street. Cars are parked all along the scooter lane. Lemon’s boyfriend (we have no idea what his name is) drives into the scooter lane and a parking-ish attendant runs up to us. I say –ish because I have no idea if this is his real job or if he is just a guy who makes a couple bucks on the weekend directing parking traffic. Anyway, so he and Lemon’s boyfriend duke it out about where he can park. This ends with Lemon’s boyfriend putting the car in reverse. I assume this means we are moving down the street to look for more parking. Silly me.

We reverse down the scooter road which literally fits exactly two cars side-by-side. We are driving in reverse past the other parked cars so close to us that if we rolled down the windows, we could touch the cars or, you know, break their side mirrors off. We don’t reverse for one or two car lengths. No, no. We reverse for an entire half block! The whole time the parking attendant is calling directions in Chinese, waving frantically when we get too close to some cars and finally heralding us into our own parking space.

Then we’re off to the museum. Lemon tells us it is very big and very famous in Suzhou. We’re thrilled because it’s free. So we get to the museum and go in. It was built by a very famous Chinese architect and looks really cool. We walk around the first floor which shows artifacts from China that date all the way back to 500 A.D. which is just crazy to think about. Granted, you’re looking at smoothed, rounded rock with a hole in the middle that was a hammer . . . but still, it’s fascinating that it’s that old! We saw two golden dragons from 1000 A.D. They were very thin, but detailed, very cool. Then we saw old clothing. But the thing is, there isn’t much of this stuff in the museum. There are four rooms and probably 50 artifacts in total on the first floor. The second floor was dedicated to pottery and china which was all from 1700 and onward. All very pretty and cool because there were dragons coming out of pots and stuff like that.

Then we go to the third floor which Lemon is very excited about because it’s a collection of a very very famous Chinese artist’s work. He was making these paintings on silk in the 1700s. I’m prepared to be astounded. And I am. Because we are all ooing and ahhing and taking a million pictures of art that just does nothing for me. My mind is thinking glorified stick figures because that’s what it amounts to. Very simplistic images with little stick people and stick animals. Tommy was far more optimistic pointing out that it must be very hard to paint on silk. Either way, it was a bust for me. But Lemon and the boyfriend were very happy and that’s what mattered.

And that’s it for the museumy part of the museum. The museum itself is connected to another old living area which Lemon and her boyfriend take us to. Now, I didn’t want to break it to them that we had been to a way cooler living area / garden with Uncle Leon, so we quietly went along. But this place is way lame in comparison, expect that for some reason they also keep artifacts in the old buildings which were really cool, cooler than some of the stuff in the actual museum. As we are walking to the opera room of the living area we pass this stagnant pond. And I mean stagnant. I covered my face and said, “Are you serious?” And Tommy elbowed me because obviously that wasn’t polite, but seriously. It stunk. However, the opera room are was really sweet and made up for the stink.

Once we leave the museum, Lemon asks us where we want to eat lunch, I eagerly say McDonald’s. Lemon’s boyfriend laughs and Tommy says we can go where ever. And I’m like no. I want McDonald’s. The last Western food we had was the weekend of December 7-8 when Uncle Leon took us to Shanghai. I need French fries stat. So we drive to the Suzhou walking street Guanqian Street.

Enter street parking segment two. New parking attendant, same car, less space. Lemon’s boyfriend and the parking attendant agree he should parallel park in a space that I can guarantee will not fit his car. They begin the five minute saga of getting the car into place which involves tons of shouting in Chinese, lots of hand motions, and the constant alarm beeping of Lemon’s boyfriend’s car saying we are too close to objects behind us. Somehow they manage this remarkable feat even though Tommy and I thought it a literal impossibility. It was seriously like a magic trick.

Anyway, Guanqian street! This place is fabulous! It has a bunch of stores and tons of people and food vendors. It’s very awesome and so much fun. We go to the McDonald’s there and order two cheese burgers. I devour mine in no time flat, Tommy is close behind. It’s delicious.

After lunch, we walk to Pingjiang street which is an old street where all of the street vendors come and mark out a space where they sell their little things. People are selling hats (this is where I eventually buy my Panda hat), clay figures, flowers, ear muffs, little crafts, a plethora of little things.


From Pingjiang, we walk to the Beisi Pagoda. We have to walk past weird construction and by creepy cat to get to it, but once we do it is majorly impressive. The pagoda is 8 floors high and you get to climb up to the top then look down over Suzhou. Now, I have this bizarre phobia of stairs (ask my dad, I climbed St. Paul’s Cathedral a funeral dirge pace), but there’s no way I’m going to let new friend Lemon know this. So I stick to the back of the group and inch my way very slowly up each flight of stairs. We get to the top and the view is amazing, even though it’s so cold at the top that I think my fingers will break off. We walk around the entire top of the pagoda then head back down.

We walk around the garden of the pagoda which is great because they have all of these little hills with steps carved into the rock of the hills so I get to feel all Lord of the Rings. Lemon gtes all excited about the white pigeons we see and makes me take pictures of them. I don’t get it. They are pigeons. The only thing I know about pigeons is that you don’t let them drive the bus (Natalia & Juliet shoutout*).



After the garden, we walk back to the car and drive to Shiquian street. This is a nice street that also has Western elements. There is Cheers bar and a Pulp Fiction bar. They have shops all along the street and Lemon takes me to the ones that sell boots because I needed to buy new boots. Mine all have heels and were killing my feet. I caved to the Uggs because literally everyone wears them here and there was no other option. We went into a shoe store that sold the Uggs I wanted and the sale’s woman asks my size. I tell her I’m a 38. She and Lemon flip out, going on and on about how HUGE my feet are and how do I find shoes. I blandly explain that I wear a 6 ½ in the US which is considered fairly small. They don’t believe me. *le sigh.

Now that we have wonderful shoes and I am doing my happy new shoes dance, Lemon gets us Coco. Coco is super popular here, like a walk up starbucks minus the coffee. They specialize in teas, specifically milk tea. I had really wanted to get Coco because it’s what everyone does and their drinks look good, but I had been afraid because I didn’t know what to order or how to order a drink from them. So I was thrilled when Lemon got us milk tea. And my life was forever changed.

Milk tea is AMAZING. It’s exactly like the tea I make at home (black tea + milk + sugar), but with more milk. It’s warm and sweet, and delicious. I was ecstatic. Walking around in my new boots and drinking my Coco. The trip was a great success. We walk through the campus of Suzhou University and Tommy and I remark that it looks like a small version of MSU and Lemon and her boyfriend laugh, telling us that it was built by an American.

Lemon tell us her boyfriend wants a real Chinese dinner (clearly he was still holding a grudge about the McDonald’s run from earlier). So we are like, yeah, okay. WORST. MISTAKE. EVER.

I will tell you now, all I ate for dinner was rice. And then Lemon told me, “You are eating too much rice.” -___- The meal started out hopeful with the waitress giving us a basket of popcorn as an appetizer. Then Lemon and her boyfriend let us look at the menu and we picked a few items, since all the food is shared at dinner. I chose fried rice and what I thought was chicken with green beans. We left the rest up to them.

Anyone who knows me mildly well knows that I don’t eat pork. I don’t eat fish. I eat chicken and I eat turkey. Pork is a big deal here. They love pork. Color me blue. So when the food comes, we get fried rice, creepy fish soup, even creepier fish soup, barbecued pork, orange pork, the chicken with not green beans, and rice soup. So I’m out for everything except the chicken and rice.

This lands Tommy with having to try everything. And he did. He was very valiant. He almost died.

Dish by dish analysis:
The fried rice was delicious. Amazing. I could have eaten it every day. Tommy agrees.

The first creepy fish soup. Huge chunks of fish floating in a reddish broth. I ask if you are supposed to scoop out the broth with the fish since it’s soup. Lemon and the boyfriend just stare at me. They pull the fish out with their chopsticks and eat it. So I guess that’s a no to the broth.
Tommy: The best part of this was that Lemon and unnamed boyfriend warned me about the bones inside of this one while I was eating it. What they didn’t tell me was that these bones were razor sharp and really thin. Basically barbed wire bones. C-
The second creepier fish soup. Lemon tells us we need to try this because it’s a Suzhou delicacy made from a fish that only lives in their lakes. I’m like no. Sorry. No. Tommy ladles some into his bowl. The fish floats to the top. It’s literally a ( as in it looks exactly like a parentheses. Not thick. Tommy eats it. I die a little on the inside. We should have known something was wrong because the Chinese leave all the bones in their food, they believe they add flavor. So tell me please, what kind of fish doesn’t have bones???
Tommy: Though this soup looked like it had some promise, especially since I’m still not sure if it was an eel I ate or if this eel/fish is still living inside of me as some type of tape worm or something, I’m going to have to give this a D in taste.
Update: After doing research, we have discovered that the fish was not cut, the fish are actually the tiny parentheses!!! Which honestly, is even more terrifying. (Again. Where are the bones??)
I was under the impression that I was eating strips of fish. I was wrong.
The barbecued pork. This was pretty normal, except it was very very small chunks of pork with a huge bone in the middle. Lemon’s boyfriend was talking to us and just casual as you please spitting these bones out as he did so.
Tommy: This dish may have been best food except I’m not quite the professional at chopsticks (Being left handed/ ambidextrous also doesn’t help), but after I realized that you didn’t have to remove the leftover bone from your mouth with them it didn’t matter. I just spit those bones out like how I imagine any African carnivore would do. Overall this food wasn’t bad. I just have to get used to the culture of enjoying things as close to being alive as possible. B-

The orange pork. Basically orange chicken but with pork. Still had bones it that you had to spit out.
Tommy: I liked this pork but it was one of the last things I ate and I only ate it because Lemon and Bf really wanted us to eat everything. B

The chicken with not green beans. So my dish finally arrives and I’m excited. Something besides rice. I chopstick a green bean eager pop it in my mouth. And my mouth is instantly on fire. Sooooooo not a green bean. Oh no. Definitely some kind of pepper. So I’m freaking out and needing water because I don’t do hot. (Flashback: Earlier we had asked for water because for some reason I have yet to learn the Chinese don’t drink anything with their meals. I explained we couldn’t drink tap water and needed bottle water. This ended with getting to steaming mugs of boiled water. I took one sip and realized I was quite likely drinking mud, because that’s exactly what it tasted like.) I by pass the mud water and go straight for the water bottle in my purse not caring that that is probably a serious faux pas. Lemon asks what’s wrong, I explain, her boyfriend then pops two peppers in his mouth and chews them happily. Cheeky internet store nerd! (He runs an online store that specializes in all the street vendor stuff like Panda Hats and is apparently very successful at it judging by the fact he owns a car). I let Tommy try the chicken because I’m way wary at this point. He tells me it has too many bones and I won’t like it. So I don’t bother.
Tommy: I definitely thought Michelle was just being weak/picky when it came to the fake green beans. I popped a couple in my mouth (slowly due to chopsticks skills being low) and to my surprise they were really really hot. I played it off cool though because I didn’t want to lose street credit with the locals and just downed my glass of water. (Michelle – Correction, Mud Water) C-

The rice soup. Rice in wonton soup broth. The rice is therefore weirdly soggy, but I ate it anyway because I had run out of fried rice.
Tommy: I had my fill of soups at this point. No more mystery food. N/A

*I gave all ratings a Chinese culture rating bonus due to me being a foreigner.

That was the meal. Then they took us to a large supermarket because they were worried we didn’t know where to buy groceries, it was nice but awkward because we didn’t need to go. While we are walking around, Tommy bravely asks Lemon if she eats turtle. She says no and we are all relieved that she is way Western normal like. I say, yeah, we never eat turtle in the USA. She looks at me funny and says, “But you eat it for Thanksgiving, yes?” And I’m like …………. Oh no. “We eat turkey.” And she is all embarrassed and says oh yes, turkey. I don’t eat turkey, I eat turtle. And my relief is nowhere in sight.

As we walked past the seafood section and I saw an eel. I nudge Tommy and show him the eel, joking that it was probably the special fish in the creepier fish soup. He goes green.

Once home, we both pop Tums and call it a night. Neither of us felt good after having been poisoned with the authentic Chinese dinner and to this day, I am forbidden from mentioning the creepier fish soup. Bright side: The next day Tommy and I returned to both Guanqian and Pingjiang to explore on our own. We did this beautifully successfully. We ate at McDonald’s again, trying to divest ourselves of our dinner memories, then went back to Pinjiang. This is when we bargained for my panda hat, feeling all cool because we got it for less than she was asking, even though we probably still over paid. We made it back to the subway and returned home to work on our lesson plans for the week. A weekend well spent.

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