JD and I headed back to our secret forest this morning and were delighted to find our Den in remarkably good shape. I reinforced it and added a side compartment while JD dug a hefalump trap outside with his newly bought digging tool. Then afterwards we headed into town for fish 'n chips - a late birthday treat to myself.
A friend of ours invited us (Jiajia, JD and I) to a barbecue out in the countryside with some colleagues of hers a couple of days ago. I wasn't expecting too much, but, when we arrived, there was a whole suckling pig spread-eagled on a grill in the middle of our table! Other dishes came a little later, but we started off by tucking into this juicy piggy. JD was particularly keen to cut off its ears, tail, leg and snout! I sometimes worry about that kid!
After yesterday morning with JD in the hospital, we were delighted to meet up with Fintan - the son of friends of mine - who is travelling around China for the first time, and alone too! We picked him up for a dumpling lunch at our house, before heading for YuanTong Temple (the hundreds of turtles all seem to have gone) followed by people-watching (and JD boat driving) on Green Lake. It was a lovely, sunny day and great to get to know Fintan better. After a "Cross-the-bridge-noodles" dinner, we parted company, although a goodbye meal later today is planned before he heads off on his onward journey.
We've been eating out in Shenzhen quite a bit and often our friends will insist on ordering the food (and then paying for the meal). With a menu like this one, I'm glad for the help. In Kunming they usually have pictures to point to, if not some English.
In today's hotel, I had a quandary. Preparing to wash my hands in the toilet, I saw two signs above two sinks. One said, "Only for customers of X restaurant" and the other said "Only for customers of Y restaurant". With X and Y both being Chinese names, I didn't know which restaurant I had been eating in. Not wanting to break the rules, I just rubbed my hands on my trousers and left with my head down!
I was delighted to be invited to Robert's School's Spring Festival Meal today. Although I only work for the school periodically they still treat me as "part of the family" and it was great to meet up with past colleagues. JD was on his best behaviour, chatting politely with folk, helping to hand out the raffle prizes and playing with balloons with the other children. It was a delicious meal with every table having a hot pot and barbecue plate, plus an all-you-can-eat (and drink) buffet.
Jiajia, JD and I enjoyed a nice meal with JD's class teacher yesterday evening. Teacher Gen invited us to join her for a hotpot along with her private student (English name, Grace) and her student's mother who, rather conveniently, owned the restaurant. We had good food and a nice chat about teaching, JD and life in general. I was interested to hear Gen Laoshi say that JD's Chinese is at, or just above, the level of the others in his class and that he often explains things in class in Chinese that he has learned in English (such as how a plant grows or why planes need to travel fast). I know his English is about the level of a 5-year old (and he's not yet 4) too, so in the language arena he's doing well. Less so in the dancing and singing, apparently!
Today was our Open Day where we invited a lot of friends and family to come to my Mum and Dad's house for a chat over food and drink. We welcomed ex-work colleagues [eg Susie from Futurekids and Alan from National Power, in picture, left], family [eg cousins Maureen and Dorothy, left side below] and friends from College days [eg Ratch and Catherine, below] plus many others. It was a lovely event, held outside in the sunshine with a gazebo for those who preferred the shade. Thanks to everyone who travelled from near and far to come see us. It was terrific to catch up with you all again.
We spent most of today at a mushroom farm owned by a friend of ours. She has bought a disused school in the countryside and set up shelves of fungi in the old classrooms and in purpose-built sheds outside. It felt rather odd for me to be walking around an educational establishment which didn't hum to the sound of students and teachers,
The school's old playing fields have been reworked into vegetable patches and areas for a couple of cows and some chickens. JD enjoyed digging for potatoes, picking runner beans and dragging out squash. He was fascinated by a grasshopper and faced off against the grumpy bull. It's only an hour or so drive from our house, and we were given a very warm welcome, so we are thinking of visiting again quite soon, for the fresh air, fresh food and to give JD a chance to get his hands dirty.
We have only praise for the generosity of our friends here, but our daily routine of breakfast, 2hr drive to a village, a banquet, play mahjong or wander around, another banquet and another 2hr drive back to the hotel ...it can get a little tiring after a while. We try to keep JD amused as best we can [the photo on the left was taken on the back of a pick-up jeep over bumpy roads] and look for things of interest along the way. His big love at the moment is construction machines of all types and thankfully (or not?) XiShuangBanna is developing very fast and we play a version of "Excavator I-spy" on our travels.
XiShuangBanna still has some untouched forest areas, but they're disappearing fast and more commonly seen now are banana plantations and rows upon rows of rubber trees, which we enjoyed seeing up close.
The food we have been treated to has largely been local dishes, fresh from the fields. Apparently, our hosts have tried to "dial down the chilli" for my sake, which is kind, though I hadn't noticed! The occasional dish has raised eyebrows, however, such as these bamboo grubs. Crunchy and with a smoky flavour, they are a bit like a packet of Monster Munch ...with legs.
Today is Mid-Autumn Festival in China and Ava's family celebrated with our good friends, the "Dancing Family", and their relatives in a Muslim restaurant yesterday evening. JD and Ava are front right. The woman in green, centre, is Ma-in-law who is still begging to be allowed to live with us again after her "final straw" outbursts a couple of weeks ago. On her left is "Drunkle", Ava's permanently drunk pseudo-uncle whom JD calls "Smelly Man" as he never washes. Yes, we do have a rather weird and dysfunctional family here!
As ever, when the most of the food has been eaten and the conversation gets too fast or heavily dialect for me to keep up with, I usually take JD out for a look around the restaurant grounds. We both get bored at these sort of events after a while. This sign caught my attention, with it's completely unnecessary "mess" in the middle". Now what's all that about?
Ma-in-law won't be entering Masterchef anytime soon. Today's lunch [from top right, clockwise] was pig fat, fried pig fat in breadcrumbs, week-old chicken (reheat 'til you eat!), dried chilli, and lotus root soup (with added pig fat). I couldn't stomach much to be honest. So guess what's for dinner later...
Some of Ava's well-to-do customers go to quite extraordinary lengths to show their gratitude for her special help and generous discounts. Last week, one such lady had a box of live crabs airmailed to us from Suzhou, 2500km (1600 miles) away. So yesterday we invited some friends over to help us eat them. I didn't partake myself, because of possible gout repercussions, but I did enjoy watching JD's mix of curiosity and revulsion as he gingerly fingered one of the (dead) hairy creatures. Very funny.
If there's one area where JD is often less than well-behaved, it's feeding time. He makes a huge fuss when offered milk or solids, and shows little interest in snacks, juice or fruit. We think part of the problem is a quickly-bored mind and a burgeoning desire to do everything for himself. Having cartoons (or Chinese "X-factor") on the TV has kept him distracted enough to be fed up to now, but he increasingly prefers to be given a spoon, a fork or a pair of chopsticks and have a go at feeding himself. It inevitably ends up in a huge mess, but he seems to enjoy the process!
Tomorrow is mid-Autumn Festival where Chinese families get together to exchange over-priced, but lavishly packaged, pastry cakes and gaze at the full moon (clouds permitting). The mooncakes can be filled with meat, meat/sugar(!?), fruits, bean paste or egg. Not being able to read the box means it's always a bit of a lottery and, being dry and mass-produced, I've never eaten one I've really enjoyed. However, that didn't stop me entering an online competition to win 300RMB (£30) of hand-made mooncakes from a top Kunming Hotel and, lo and behold, I won! They made a good gift for a generous friend of ours and she, in return, gave us a box of eggs, which are much tastier.
Dave and Esme spent some time watching me teach today. It was great for my students to meet other foreigners and quiz them.
Some of them thought that Esme was Dave's wife which was quite amusing. They couldn't believe Esme was only 16 - let's just say she isn't as conservative in her looks as most Chinese teenagers are! It was fun for me too, to have Dave and Esme there sharing what is obviously a very important part of my life. And, of course, plenty of dumplings for lunch!
I had a nice meal with Glyn (Head of Lattitude Australia) and Kelly (Lattitude China Co-ordinator) last weekend. It was good to get a sense of Lattitude's bigger world picture, as I often only focus on the volunteers to China whom I train every 6 months. We may think that the authorities and schools here cause big issues, but when you hear about Lattitude's problems in, say, India and Vietnam and you realise that Chinese bureacracy is comparatively efficient and honest!
The new restaurant we tried had tasty food, attentive service and some glorious Chinglish on the menu. The "Lazy food" looked fun but we finally decided against a glass of "Iraqi Cloud Water"! Apparently the Chinese makes no sense either!
A British town is only a city when it has a cathedral. In China, the main indicator of civilization is the level of fast food (in my mind, anyhow!). And Kunming made a leap forward from MacDonalds & KFC when Starbucks arrived last year and Burger King opened here last month.
I finally found the BK this week and had myself a bit of a Whopper. The meal tasted great, but the service was chaotic. The electronic tills were all broken, so staff were writing down orders on scraps of paper, handed to the cooks, and customers were given handwritten IOUs, as there was no access to the change in the tills. Laughable. I'll be back though!
I spent today acting the role of a manager of an international French company! A friend of Ava's needed to convince some farmers in a town outside Kunming that she works on behalf of a French agricultural company. Indeed she does but, for countryside folk, seeing is believing and papers can be forged. A real life foreigner is indisputable, however. and thankfully it seems English and French are indistinguishable!
After a couple of hours of negotiation, contracts were signed (or fingerprinted in the case of some of the less literate workers) and then we all went off for a meal. The land is being rented to grow thorny bushes which are higly prized as burglar deterrents in France and cost a lot as a result. They say it looks more beautiful than fences and barbed wire though, in my opinion, not THAT much more! Still, mission accomplished. By way of a thank you, I was given a bag of potatoes, a leg of ham, two dozen eggs and a live chicken. Result!
Jiajia's friend gave us a box of organic vegetables as a Spring Festival gift a couple of days ago and, to my surprise, it contained a small bag of Brussel sprouts. I've not seen them for sale in Kunming before - for Christmas dinner we buy them from Shanghai (1500 miles / 2400 km away!) and get them shipped to us! But it seems there's now a farm in Kunming who grow them, and other vegetables, for export. I asked Jiajia to ask her friend where the farm was, so that we could try and buy some more in the future. Then, four hours later, her friend turns up at the house with a huge box of Brussel sprouts. 10kg (22lb) of them!! Now I like a Brussel sprout as much as the next man, but I think it will take me a year to get through that many! Thank goodness for the freezer. And no naked flames in the bedroom please!!
We've had this odd-looking vegetable a couple of times at home recently. It looks a bit like Brussel Sprouts and tastes similarly yummy. I'm a big Brussel sprout fan, so I was intrigued to find out exactly its English name, if it has one. Inspired by recent Holmes TV series (both "Elementary" and "Sherlock") I started my investigation...
Ma-in-law mumbled something like "Urgh! Sigh!", and the nanny later confirmed that "er cài" (儿菜) is its name in local dialect, literally "children vegetable"!? Ava couldn't help - she didn't even know how to write the local name in Chinese characters. The first two colleagues I asked at work had no idea what I was talking about. The third said it's proper name was "Da tóu cài" (大头菜), which translates literally as "big head vegetable". However, further investigation revealed this to be swede or rutabaga.
Another fellow teacher, "Kelly", agreed to look into it for me and came back with a proper name of "bào zǐ cài" (抱子菜) which translates literally as, "holding babies vegetable"! And the English for that comes back as "Brussells vegetable". Bingo! And that seemed to be the end of the trail. Until, that is, I typed in "Brussel sprouts" into another online dictionary and found a totally different name, "qiú yá gānlán" (球芽甘蓝). The mystery continues...
While Britain gets all upset when microscopic traces of horse meat are found in its beef lasagne, China has to face up to the bizarre news that its much-loved donkey meat(!?) has been found to have been contaminated with ...errr ...fox!? Click here for more!
One of the big perks of my job is my bosses' hospitality and my colleagues' cooking prowess, which combines to make an outstanding Christmas meal each year. Andrew [far left] is an ex-pro chef, with Julian [far right] a keen amateur. Robert [middle] opens up his huge house and well-equipped kitchen, while his wife Rachel buys copious amounts of food, including ordering Brussel sprouts online!
So, fifteen of us enjoyed a wonderful Christmas meal this evening. We indulged (rather too heavily in my case) in a huge turkey, Brussel sprouts cooked in three different ways, gravy, bread sauce, carrots, beans, pumpkin soup, roast potatoes, stuffing, onions, apple sauce, red cabbage, caramel flan, Christmas pudding and cartons/bottles of various beverages! I think it will take me a year to digest, but you don't often get such high quality western food here, so why not make the most of it?
The last whole school meal was to a very classy buffet, but fellow-teacher Kelly and I weren't able to attend because of Lattitude training duties. So yesterday, we had a catch-up lunch at the school's expense. And boy, what a meal. The restaurant (amusing called "Gloden and Silver Jaguar"!) lays on between 200-300 different dishes to choose from, and it's all-you-can-eat. They specialise in seafood, and as well as oysters, shrimp and various shellfish they also offered sea cucumber, shark and crocodile! I'd deliberately not eaten for 18 hours before, and so the temptation to gorge was immense. The seafood I could ignore (gout dangers), but there were still 200 other dishes to try. After 2 hours I could barely walk! Didn't even bother with dinner that evening. or breakfast today, come to that!
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