My New Dog and My New Chinese Grandpa

I’ve been in my new place for a week and a half now and I’m starting to get used to it. My living quarters are on the third floor of the house pictured above. The night picture of the gate on Dali’s west side was taken from the third floor.

The dog. Sigh. This poor little guy is chained to his cage all the time just to the left of the door as you enter the house’s courtyard from the street. The first few days I stayed here, he ran to the end of his chain, barking and jaws-a-snapping, every time he saw me. I kinda thought I could make friends with him, especially if I controlled the food supply…

Which brings me to my new Chinese grandpa. How to explain this? This house just outside of Dali Old Town (大理古城) belongs to one of the students in my adult class. The whole family, including her parents, live together in the city of Xiaguan (下关) about 15 miles to the south. But Grandpa – or as I’m supposed to call him, Lao Su – comes to this house every night to feed the dog, clean up a bit, spend the night, feed the dog in the morning, and then go back to Xiaguan for the day. I’ve tried to explain that he doesn’t have to do this now that I’m here, but so far he’s come back about three-quarters of the nights I’ve spent here. That included the first three nights I spent here, which didn’t give me a chance to feed the dog.

Finally, the fourth night I spent here, I had the house and the dog to myself. I had bought myself some frozen dumplings to fry up for dinner and had enough left over to give some to the dog. I walked to a point just a few feet out of his range and held up a dumpling. He barked like crazy at me for a while so I ate the dumpling in front of him, put the plate of dumplings down where I’d been standing, and walked back into the house.

I went back outside about a half an hour later and tried again. I’d watched him from the window a bit as he strained for the food and sniffed the air, so I knew we might be getting somewhere. Sure enough, he was a little calmer this second time. He ran back into his cage as I approached. This time he kept up a constant low grumbling in his throat. I tossed a dumpling within his reach and watched for a while. I was freezing my ass off but he was going to watch me watch him eat that dumpling, or he wasn’t going to eat it. I think I waited 10 minutes or so, and then I used a stick to retrieve the dumpling. I put it back on the plate and went back inside.

I watched him from the window strain and sniff again. I went back out a half an hour later, he went back into his cage, I tossed a dumpling within his reach, and sure enough after a few minutes he slinked on out and ate it! Emboldened, I got in a crouch and extended a dumpling in my hand but out of his reach. He sniffed and stayed relatively calm, so I tossed it to him. He quickly ate it. I left the plate with four more dumplings out in the courtyard and went to bed.

Next morning, before work, I went out and tried to feed him some breakfast. I grabbed a dumpling and crept closer and closer towards him, in a crouch. He was grumbling the whole time. All of a sudden he snapped and came at me. So I stood up and threw the dumpling over the wall, put the plate down, and left to teach my class.

When I got back at about 1:30 pm the dog didn’t bark at me as he heard me approach the door. Good sign. I opened the door, poked my head in and said hello. Still no barking. But as I wheeled my bike in he went nuts and lunged for me. I put my bike on its stand and picked up the plate of dumplings. He quieted down. This time, he ate the dumpling out of my hand! I put the other two in his food bowl and left him to eat alone. (The bike still seems to freak him out).

I’m not really going to pretend I know what I’m doing here. But it seems the dog and I have reached a bit of an accommodation. I no longer feel threatened enough to need a stick. He only goes for me if the family is around. I guess he kinda loses his mind and it’s not clear to him if I may be trying to murder them or not. I don’t know. Or, if he’s penned up in his cage he barks at me. The one time I found him like that I used a stick to undo the cage latch. As soon as he got out, he stopped barking at me.

Otherwise he doesn’t bark at me anymore, and he’ll even eat things out of my hand. I haven’t tried to pet him yet, and the last few days Lao Su has been around to feed him, so there hasn’t been much progress recently.

Now back to my new grandpa. Lao Su is in his eighties and doesn’t hear very well. He’s very into the idea of us being language partners. This morning, as I was making my oatmeal, he grilled me on what I was putting in it (raisins, honey, and milk), and asked me about my bedtime and waking habits. Later, he came back and gave me a paper with three Chinese sentences on it and asked me to translate them into English for him. So I wrote the English translations:

  1. I get up at half past six.
  2. For breakfast, I eat oatmeal with milk, honey, and raisins.
  3. I go to bed at half past ten.

He wants to study my habits as well! I think he was intrigued by how I prepared my oatmeal. I notice he has a stash here as well.

Lao Su is just a very nice guy. His wife told him she’s afraid I’m lonely here in this big house by myself. I tried to tell him not to worry about me, that I can feed the dog and he should take this opportunity to spend more time with his family in Xiaguan. But I’m sure I’ll see him at least half a given week.

He’s only annoyed me once, but I was nice about it. One morning, an off day for me, I got up at 8 am and went downstairs. I was going to try to speak with my wife (13 hours behind now on US east coast time) over Wechat so I made coffee and skipped breakfast. After the phone call I reheated my fried rice from the night before. This was about 10 am. Lao Su informed me that this was very late and expressed dismay about how this would affect my lunch. I guess Chinese grandpas gotta Chinese grandpa.

The left-most picture above features two containers of alcohol sitting on the coffee table in the first floor living room. One is a clear liquor inside a water bottle. The other is a dark liquor inside a decanter with about a dozen unidentifiable objects soaking in it. It’s Lao Su’s habit to have a shot of each at night, for his health. I’ve joined him on a few occasions, at his insistence. He’s here again tonight, but I’ve excused myself to bed before he had a chance to bust them out.

I think living here will be a pleasant way to spend my last few months in China. If I take advantage it will help my Chinese, I’ll make two friends, and I’ll get to hear a lot of terrible karaoke (the house is on a street parallel to a street full of KTV – Karaoke TV – bars).

 

 

 

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

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I’m wearing the oven mitt. Another one of our teachers, Collin, is standing to my left. Next to Collin is one of our Chinese teachers, and the rest are students. We were trying to pose for a couple of cameras at the same time, which explains how nobody seems to be looking at the same place.

Thanksgiving came early this year to Dali, Yunnan Province, China. That’s because Thanksgiving is not actually a holiday in China and not wanting to teach our Friday morning classes in a post-feast stupor, Collin (pictured with me above) and I decided to host Thanksgiving dinner for students in our adult classes on Wednesday night and give ourselves actual Thanksgiving Day to recover.

Unfortunately, fewer than half of our adult students were able to attend (again, Thanksgiving is not an actual holiday here and the day we chose ended up working out poorly for quite a few of our students). But the ones who came seemed to have a good time and enjoyed the food, or so they said!

They definitely liked my wife’s sweet potato pie, which you can read about here if you’re interested. If they were only pretending to like it, well, they deserve Oscars. My wife’s pie was definitely the star of the dinner.

It’s hard to choose between the two funniest descriptions, overheard in Chinese, of our strange foods. One student said that my stuffing tasted like Chinese medicine. Actually, I thought it turned out well, especially since I used enough bread for this batch. Maybe it has to do with the seasonings (thyme and rosemary) that they had never heard of. Or maybe it was so bad that it really did taste like Chinese medicine.

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My stuffing is in the big tray on the near end of the table, next to my wife’s sweet potato pie, the unquestioned champion of the evening.

The other funny description was of Collin’s sourdough bread. This was also very new for the students, and while they seemed to like it (and I thought it was good, too, FWIW), they kept calling it “ugly bread” in Chinese.

I guess the winner for funniest description is saying my stuffing tasted like Chinese medicine, if only because it turned out exactly as it was supposed to but didn’t quite bridge the cultural gap in culinary taste. The stuffing was the only leftover nobody wanted to take home (except for me, and Collin if he wasn’t just being nice). Collin’s bread was in a little more demand.

Our menu also included roast chicken legs, which I marinated in lemon and lime juices, olive oil, garlic, garlic powder, dried oregano, dried rosemary, salt, and black pepper. Collin made a huge batch of mashed potatoes, which were excellent. And I made a gravy from the chicken drippings, butter, flour, milk, salt, and ground cayenne and black pepper. We all ate too much and have too many leftovers, which I guess is what Thanksgiving is all about!

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I roasted 60 (!) chicken legs. I put way too many at a time in our small ovens, which is why they took more like 45 minutes rather than the 20-30 minutes (at 450 degrees) called for in the recipe I referenced.

And, Thanksgiving is also about being thankful. This year, I’m thankful for my wife, Ligaya Beebe. We’ve been together for more than seven years now, and married almost two and a half. We’re in the process of trying to move back to the US, and it is stressful at times, but I’m really happy and thankful that we’re doing it together. I’m a lucky guy.

I’m thankful for my parents and my brother, who have all been supportive of me in spite of my decision to live abroad for so long. I couldn’t have asked for better, more loving parents, and I’m grateful to my brother for picking up my slack over the years.

I’m also thankful for the friends I’ve made in China over these 11 years. They’ve helped me spend nice Thanksgivings away from home and family. I often regret that I haven’t been home for more Thanksgivings, and it’s been a real help to celebrate my favorite holiday with friends both foreign and local while living in China.

I’m also thankful for the opportunity Shambala Foundation has given me to play a lead role in creating an English-language training center. It’s very rewarding. We moved to Dali in 2013, started designing from scratch, opened Ivy Language Academy with 18 students in March 2014, and now we see a training center with 60+ students enrolled, plus we designed and are implementing the English-language curriculum for a private primary school, and we have our foot in the door of the educational tourism industry thanks to my wife’s leadership and hard work. That’s success by any definition. I’m thankful for the opportunity to make it happen, and I’m grateful to the organization’s leadership and the team that really made it all possible.

Finally, I want to say thank you to everyone who reads this blog. Honestly, the blog doesn’t have much of a readership in terms of numbers, but I’m very grateful for both the encouraging words and the challenges to think things through more deeply. Writing this blog is fundamentally an egotistical exercise, and if it somehow attracts readers who find it interesting and/or want to debate the ideas, well, that’s more than it deserves, and I’m thankful for it!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sweet Potato Pie Guest Post

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Our Thanksgiving spread, with one of the sweet potato pies on the near end of the table, wedged between gravy, spicy radishes, and stuffing.

The following is a guest post by my wife, Ligaya Beebe. Her sweet potato pie was the star of our Thanksgiving dinner, which I’ll write about later in my own post. Anyway, take it away Ligaya:

This recipe is a relatively faithful adaptation of this recipe which is itself an adaptation from Cook’s Illustrated.

Pie Dough

1-1/4 cups flour

½ tsp salt

1 tbs sugar

4 tbs unsalted butter, chilled, cut into small pieces

3 tbs bacon fat, chilled

4-5 tbs ice water

I watched a few youtube videos before making this because it was my first time making pie dough. My favorite advice came from Hands That Cook. She suggests you only make pie dough if your heart is light and merry. If you’re angry, you risk taking out your anger on the dough and overworking it.

Whisk together flour, salt and sugar in a bowl. Use hands to incorporate butter with dry ingredients by squeezing butter into smaller and smaller bits. Do this until the mixture turns into a coarse meal. It’s okay if there are large chunks of butter left.

Incorporate bacon fat using the same method.

Sprinkle ice water into the mixture a little at a time. Fold water into the mixture until the dough barely comes together into a ball. I followed the original recipe’s advice for testing for dough readiness:

Test for readiness by squeezing a golf ball size portion in the palm of your hand. It should hold together, but not be sticky. If it’s still crumbly, add up to 1 tablespoon more of the ice water.

Gather the dough ball together and flatten into a round disk. This will make it easier to roll out later. Wrap your dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (or up to two days).

 

Pie shell to pie crust

Roll out the dough and place into pie pan. Make sure dough is flush with the pan. Trim excess dough around the edges and flute (either pinch around the edges or use a fork to press around the circumference). You now have a pie shell!

Put the pie shell in the fridge for 40 minutes. The original recipe calls for freezing the pie shell for 20 minutes after this, but I couldn’t wait and skipped this step. Heat oven to 375 f (190 c). While pie shell is chilling start cooking the sweet potatoes for the pie filling.

Cover pie shell in foil so foil is flush with pie shell. I don’t have pie weights, so I used 2 cups of uncooked rice. Place pie weights/uncooked rice on top of foil and bake at 375 f for 17-20 minutes. Remove foil and pie weights and bake for another 9 minutes until the shell turns golden brown. You now have a piecrust! Reduce heat to 350 f.

 

Pie Filling

2 lbs sweet potatoes

2 tbs unsalted butter

3 large eggs

2 egg yolks

1 cup sugar

½ tsp freshly ground nutmeg

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp vanilla extract

(2/3 cup whole milk)*

¼ cup packed dark brown sugar

Boil sweet potatoes until tender (around 40-50 minutes). They’ll boil faster if they’re in smaller pieces, but mine were practically whole. Drain sweet potatoes and let cool for ten minutes.

While potatoes are cooling, whisk together eggs, egg yolks, sugar, nutmeg and salt. Add vanilla extract. Forget about adding milk because you left it in your scooter.

In a different bowl, mash butter into sweet potatoes and mash to your desired level of creaminess.

Add egg mixture to sweet potatoes a bit at a time and mash to incorporate.

Sprinkle dark brown sugar evenly onto the bottom of your piecrust. If brown sugar gets on the edge of the piecrust it will caramelize and burn. The brown sugar on the bottom of your crust creates a gorgeous sweet layer between the crust and the filling.

Pour pie filling into your warm piecrust.

Bake at 350 f (177 c) for 45 minutes and let rest for 2 hours.

I had a ton of leftover filling so I made a quick crumble (2 cups flour, 1 stick butter, 1 cup brown sugar). I poured the leftover filling into another pie tin, topped with the crumble, and baked at 350 f (177 c) for 45 min.

I suggest you eat this incredible sweet potato pie as a side dish rather than a dessert.

*note: I made this recipe twice and completely forgot the milk the second time. The first pie was creamier, but much richer (actually I used heavy whipping cream instead of milk). The second pie’s filling was drier and had a more bread-like, rustic texture. I prefer the second, sans milk version.

On Recipe Comments and A Simple, No Yeast Bread

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Finished product.

If you’ve looked at many recipes online, you’re probably familiar with what I’m about to describe. I’ll read a recipe, then glance down at the comments to make sure there’s no “this recipe sucks” consensus. Often, there are some really funny comments, though unless they are master trolls I don’t think making me LOL was what the commenters intended. Almost every other comment seems to be of the “this was a good starter recipe, but…” variety. I’m sure some people are just genuinely sharing their preferred version, but whatever their intentions they often come off as “this was a good starter recipe, but you’re an idiot and this is how to make it better.” The best is when the commenter describes the changes he or she made that essentially turn the recipe into a different thing altogether. I swear I’ve seen stuff like “This is a good starter recipe for chicken enchiladas, but instead of chicken I used pork and instead of a tomato-based sauce I used a honey glaze. 2 out of 5 stars.”

(By the way, any musing about recipe comments MUST include a link to this epic comment thread about a rainbow cake. If you’ve never read this, read it. You won’t be disappointed!)

Because I’m a cranky old man apparently, I’ve stopped going to a bakery here in Dali that has okay bread and instead my wife and I have been making our own for the last few months. The problem with Sweet Vanilla, the bakery in question, is that every time you walk in there it’s a different bread shop. One day they’ve got decent rye bread, wheat bread, and white bread; the next day all they’ve got is a couple of stale baguettes. And recently, when I’ve bought loaves and asked staff members to slice them, they come back with a paper sack full of four brick-sized “slices” of bread. The third time I received these bricks I uttered “This place is dead to me” under my breath and I haven’t been back since then.

Too cheap to go to another local bakery, the relatively expensive Bakery 88, I’ve been using this recipe for Exquisite Yeastless Focaccia once or twice a week. Exquisite is a tad ambitious, but it’s very good!

Following is my first ever “This was a good recipe but…” I already hate myself.

Really though, the way I make it is very similar to the linked recipe above. We just thought it was a little salty, which might not even be the recipe’s fault. It’s very possible that in a mindless moment I mistakenly used two teaspoons instead of the one called for in the recipe. I don’t know!

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (your preference), divided in half
  • 1 cup (not hot) water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • seasonings to sprinkle on the dough before you throw it in the oven: black pepper, oregano, garlic powder, cayenne pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 220 degrees Celsius (425 degrees Fahrenheit). Grease a pan (I use butter, but olive oil or whatever should work).
  2. Mix the flour, salt, baking powder, and half of the parmesan cheese in a bowl.
  3. Gradually add the water to the mixture and use a fork to help it form a dough.
  4. Shape the dough into a ball. It should be sticky, but not too sticky! Coat the dough ball in the olive oil.
  5. Spread and press the dough out on the pan into a half-inch thick rectangular/circular shape.
  6. Sprinkle on your preferred seasonings (mine listed above).
  7. Bake for 20 minutes on the middle rack. Take it out, sprinkle on the rest of the cheese, then bake for 5 more minutes.

Great to spread cream cheese or pesto on, or to just eat as is along with a meal. I used this bread and Steve’s Artisanal Reduced Carbon Footprint Pesto to make a sandwich I brought to work last night. Check it out below.

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Spread and pressed onto the pan.
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Finished product.
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Sliced in half it makes a really nice sandwich bread. Last night’s dinner was a pepperoni, pesto, and tomato sandwich

More Food; Canada

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Don’t have a food processor? Smash your pesto ingredients together using the end of a rolling pin. Takes about 10 minutes.
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Finished product.
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Spaghetti with pesto, chopped tomatoes and grated parmesan cheese.

I’ve been babbling for years about making pesto. For some reason tonight was the night. Here’s Steve’s Artisanal Reduced Carbon Footprint Spinach Pesto:

  • two cups finely chopped spinach
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped almonds
  • 6 cloves garlic, finely chopped (though I’d heed my wife’s advice and use half that amount next time!)
  • X amount grated parmesan cheese
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil

Directions: Dump the spinach, almonds, and garlic in a bowl. Grate X amount of parmesan cheese into the bowl (for me, X = shit ton because parmesan cheese smells like the feet of God). Mix it all together. Start smashing it with your rolling pin as you drizzle in the olive oil. Smash for 10 minutes or until your arm gets tired. Then go buy a food processor already, you cheapskate!

It turned out well, though a little strong on the garlic. I like that, actually, but don’t trust me. If I have a superpower it’s probably being able to eat something heavy on garlic without really being able to tell that it’s heavy on garlic.


Can Democrats learn anything from Justin Trudeau’s impressive victory in Canada? I think so. Of course our cultures and systems of government are different (very different in the latter case) but it never hurts to see what works elsewhere and wonder if it could work here. Like, explaining your proposed policies and their probable beneficial outcomes for most of the public in simple-to-understand ways could work in the States too, maybe.