Over the past few months, I’ve made some local friends.
One is a successful Asian Chef with several top restaurants in China. Being a tasteful fusion of Gordon Ramsey and Kung Fu Panda, she invited me over for a few personal cooking lessons.
After an evening of chopping, marinating and grilling in her kitchen, I got to taste test five different types of kimchi. This was followed by a feast of Korean BBQ, all chased with homemade plumb wine.
While I played the role of a global glutton, her seven-year-old was unimpressed with our edible endeavors. He turned up his nose at the spread and said, “Can we have hot dogs instead?”
My friend also introduced me to the world of Chinese tea, which is a bit more complicated than selecting a foil wrapped bag from a Celestial Seasons box.
There is an entire ritual to pouring, steeping and sipping or should I say slurping Chinese tea. The accoutrements included several miniature clay pots, a special table with a built-in drain plus an assortment of tea cups about the size of a thimble.
After tea, we went for a massage. For about the price of an american happy hour appetizer, you can get every kink worked out of your six-hundred-plus muscles. While some massage parlors are frou-frou, other are just chairs on a street curb.
The place we went to was neither. It was like walking into a Diane Arbus photograph, complete with dingy lighting, smoky massage rooms and a cast of characaters.
First, there was the smoking masseuse. He had a cigarette with an inch long ash dangling from his mouth. Amazingly, it didn’t fall off and maim the old man he was slapping like a bongo drum.
Then, there were the blind masseuses who seem to have a sixth sense: they can tell if you’re American by the smell of your skin…and the fat on your butt.
But my masseuse wasn’t blind, either. Mine–as explained to me– was a “man who was born a woman”. He had soft facial features but hands like a vice grip.
Along with working out knots, the masseuse worked out the five types of kimchi.
Like everything else in China, it was pleasantly weird and a lot more entertaining than eating a deep fried onion blossom at Applebee’s.
And, a great way to kick off the weekend.
Kunming, China, has its own charm, but in some ways, it reminds me of my old stomping grounds in Chicago. All it takes is a little imagination.
For instance, getting to my yoga class. I take a bus a to Qingnian Lu. Sycamore and pine trees line this busy street along with major hotels. There’s also overpriced shops such as Nike and Hermes. You hear cars honking, traffic guards whistling and bus breaks squeaking, all trying to avoid hitting pedestrians texting.
But if I squint, hold my nose, and walk briskly, it reminds me of strolling down Michigan Avenue after work.
That is, until I catch out of the corner of my eye the toddler taking a dump in the gutter.
At the end of Qingnian Lu, there is a big department store called the Golden Eagle. It is five floors of hoity toity merchandise at American prices. The first floor, like department stores everywhere, is swarming with ambitious sales ladies squirting bottles of the latest smell.
Now if I squint and don’t hold my nose, it reminds me of Nordstrom’s at Northbridge.
That is, until one of the Chinese sales women says to me, “Good Morning!” at 4 clock in the afternoon.
Then there are cabs. Cabs in China are aqua blue VWs, with a red light in their window when they’re available for hire. Cabbies cut out the seat belts then drape beads and sheets over the vinyl cushions. Then there’s this metal gate that separates you from the driver. Many cabbies think traffic lights are optional and don’t understand what lane lines are for. Luckily, I can now speak Cab Driverese: I can direct a taxi to our xiaoqu and squabble over the fare if needed.
Now if I get into a cab, squint and say my prayers, it reminds me of taking a taxi from Union Station to 3550 LSD.
That is, until we’re cut off by a family of five on an electric bike.
Then there’s this fermented fish head appetizer in our fridge, a gift from a Korean friend who is a former five star chef. It’s a golden crunchy sweet mixture of dried fish parts, walnuts and what not.
I was told that if I squint, eat it with my hands instead of chop sticks, it’s pretty close to the taste sensation of Kellogg’s Nut ‘n Honey cereal.
That is, until I remember cornflakes don’t have bones.
Finally, there’s the infamous public squatty. Every street has public squatties , costing you five Mao a squirt. That’s 6.5 cents, not including the paperwork.
If I squint, hold my nose, ignore the “No pooping or 5O RMB fine” sign on the door, and aim with precision, it reminds me of a Porta-potty at the Taste of Chicago, one that has been tipped over a few times, puked in and swarming with flies.
That is, until I notice there’s no toilet seat, just a porcelain hole with two little ledges for my feet.
Yes, a little imagination goes a long way in China. I’ll be back in Chicago this summer. So when I miss Kunming, I can go to these places and feel at home.
One of the most interesting things about teaching in China is hot lunch. It brings mystery meat burgers to a whole new level. A chili dog could literally be a chili dog. Johny Marzetti casserole is replaced with Chung-He Choi’s Surprise. SWR sandwiches (seaweed and rice) take the place of the classic PBJ.
Actually, the school lunch food is quite tasty.
The school cafeteria does not have an industrial kitchen: just a few sinks, a glorified Easy Bake Oven plus lots of tables and stools suited for miniature spines.
So each day, lunch ladies pull up in a van next to the school’s cafeteria to unload a plethora of rib stickin’ food. The food is hot, teen-tested and tasty.
The best part is, it won’t send you to the squatty potty.
It’s clean cuisine.
There are two lunch lines: the first being the western line, catering to those addicted processed tastes such as twinkies, big macs and anything wrapped in cellophane. This line sells Trans Fats Du Jour specialties such as: mac ‘n cheese, pizza twists, chicken fingers and glazed donuts the size of a first grader. You can also get coke, fanta, juice and other sucrose elixirs that will make for an ADD afternoon.
Then, there is the Korean line, catered by the “Korean Ladies.”
I don’t know their names but I do know this is the line to be in. These women are living breathing Betty Crockers, who’ve replaced the trademark red spoon with wooden chopsticks.
They know how to wok.
For the price of a bowl of tater tots, you can get fresh sushi, pot stickers, dumplings, sizzling satay or a Korean corn dog.
There’s spicy homemade kimchi (fermented cabbage otherwise known as Korean Sauerkraut) and bowls of bibimbop –my new fav– a mixture of rice, crunchy veggies topped with a fried egg.
The Korean meals are served on traditional Korean dinnerware (not Styrofoam containers).
Instead of a plastic spork, you are given real chopsticks.
There is also Gimbap sandwiches (triangular rice sandwiches wrapped in seaweed, otherwise known as SWR). They are amazing but create farts that could wake Chairman Mao.
Another daily special, is bibimgukso. This Koean cousin to mastacolli is swimming in a sweet red sauce. Your eyes think it’s Spaghettios but it’s switch and bait when it comes to taste. The noodles are not pasta but chewy and bland.
As for the sauce? It’s definitely not Franco-American.
Most days, I pack my own lunch. It’s the same cold lunch I’ve had since the days it was packed in my Herman Monster lunchbox. A Skippy peanutbutter sandwich (the real deal, not the bootleg) and a cruncy apple, instead of a red plaid thermos filled with Campbell’s Tomato Soup.
It’s still Mmmm Mmmm good.