As luck would have it, the sun was actually out on BOTH Saturday and Sunday this weekend, so even though I was feeling a bit under the weather (from the cold, rainy weather we have most of the time), we spent as much time as possible outdoors trying to take advantage of the nearly Florida-like temperatures.
We spent most of Saturday just wandering around Huzhou, trying to find a new part of the city we’d never seen before (and searching for a birthday gift for our British ex-pat friend, Kasia, who just turned the big 3-0). We were happy to see that some of the cherry blossom trees around town were blooming! Unfortunately, not all of them were actually in bloom…
I also came across this incredible find! If there were ever a time when dumpster diving was called for, this is it! I can’t figure out why someone was throwing away perfectly good lanterns, other than the fact that there’s an image resembling a rabbit on the sides, and the Year of the Rabbit just came to an end in January. Justin kept urging me to leave them alone, and I deftly refused each of his logical arguments.
Justin: “But, they’re probably broken or dirty…”
Me: “So? I can clean them up!”
Justin: “But you already have some at home that are brand new.”
Me: “So? You can never have too many lanterns!”
Justin: “But people will see you digging in the trash…”
Me: “So? Let them watch!” (And Justin, out of arguments, doggedly pulls me by the arm, dragging me away from the trash can as I wistfully look over my shoulder.)
We also revisited a lovely park in the city center that has a giant Ferris Wheel, an assortment of carnival rides, and on a nice day, many children flying kites. We thought about riding the Ferris Wheel, but when we saw that the price was 40 RMB (that’s about $6.50 a person!), we said, “Tai gue la!” (“It’s too expensive!”).
At 6:00, we headed down to Aishan Square to meet with Kasia and the rest of her birthday party. She had chosen all English-speaking friends to invite to this gathering, so we had some nice conversation over a delicious dinner. At one point, I was ready to hand my camera over to the waitress to have her take a picture of the group. However, our friend Huolin stepped in and took my camera so that he could do the honors, and for some reason, he had the waitress sit down at the table in his place.
Here’s a closer one of the group:
We ended the evening with a round of KTV (the word most Chinese people use to refer to “karaoke”), which Justin and I had only done one other time during our stay in China. KTV is much more formal and “VIP” style compared to karaoke in the west. At any random bar in the United States, a person can wander in to listen to people sing karaoke on stage, and boo or cheer for them as the performance dictates. However, in China, a group wanting to sing karaoke rents a private room at an hourly rate, and they sing to their hearts’ content (which often takes several hours). Kasia’s Chinese friends seriously tried to convince her to rent a room for five hours (even though we would be arriving at KTV around 8:30 PM), but in the end, she convinced them that she only wanted to try two hours of singing. Below is a video sampling of some of the audio delights we heard that evening. Watch and tell me if you could endure five hours of KTV:
Bright and early on Sunday morning, we met up with a group of students and another ex-pat teacher named Len to make a trip out to Tai Lake. Len (short for “Arlena”) is from the Philippines, and has the unusual complaint of often being mistaken for a native Chinese. She is about as fluent in Mandarin as I am, but because she has the “Asian look,” Chinese people will often come up to her and talk to her in Chinese, and she will either awkwardly explain in broken Mandarin that she is actually a foreigner, or she will just nod her head politely and pretend to understand what they’re saying. This happened to her while we were on the bus to Tai Lake, but we were able to figure out just using context clues that the elderly woman speaking to her was about to exit the bus, and she was kindly offering Len her seat since Len was standing.
When we arrived at the lake, it looked much like it had when we last visited it in October. It’s filled with ritzy town-home developments, attractive-looking strip malls, and high-end restaurants, but most of them are completely vacant. In fact most of the Huzhou portion of Tai Lake (a huge body of water that rivals Lake Michigan in size) appears to be a ghost town, just waiting for wealthy residents to move in and make themselves at home. But the lack of people doesn’t stop the construction companies from building; we saw several new construction projects in the works while we were there. Who are they building it for?
A few of us decided to take a ride on a speed boat when we got there. The lake also had some large, ancient-looking dragon boats for rent, but we were pleased with our decision to take the tiny boat once we got out on the water. Our “captain” was quite a daredevil, making turns so sudden that our boat felt like it was about to capsize, and riding in circles through the waves of our own wake. I enjoyed our ride on the speed boat–it made me feel like I was back in Florida! Here’s a picture of me, Len, and a Chinese student on the boat:
When we got back to shore, we saw Justin and the girls who didn’t want to ride the boat playing cards in the grass. Of all the games they could be playing, I discovered that they were playing SCUM–a favorite of my family at home, and a cause of many bitter hostilities at Thanksgiving dinners every year. If only my cousins could see the crazy rules that these Chinese girls use to play! Justin is usually a champ at this game, but he was completely lost this time.
Our Sunday afternoon and evening was devoted to eating some of the strangest food I’ve had during the duration of my stay in China. Since we were at Tai Lake, we found a seafood restaurant that specialized in food that was only caught or grown locally. We had the chance to sample “drunken shrimp,” a rare delicacy that can only be found in Zhejiang Province. Drunken shrimp is soaked or pickled in alcohol, vinegar, and spicy peppers, and it is served not just raw, but…..alive. They brought the shrimp to us in a beautiful crystal dish with a lid. As soon as it was set on the table, Justin said, “Oh? What’s this?” and he opened the lid, and several twitching shrimp immediately took their opportunity to jump out of the bowl and flop onto the table. Justin jumped back in shock, and set the lid back on the dish to keep the rest of the jumpers at bay. Several of the girls (and possibly some of the guys) screamed shrilly and jumped back from the table, and I took comfort in the fact that I wasn’t the only one alarmed that our lunch was so….active. Most of us had a try at eating the live shrimp (which didn’t taste bad if you could ignore the fact that they were still wiggling in your mouth), and I’ve included a video of my tasting below:
Later on that evening, “the Chef” (who we met a few weeks ago when we learned to play Mahjong), made good on his promise to have us all over to his house for some authentic Chinese cuisine. And boy…was it authentic. This guy must have really hated having to down the spaghetti that we cooked for him, because he paid us back double and triple-fold. On the menu for dinner? We had a hot plate of squid (not the battered and fried Calamari that we eat in America, which is basically indistinguishable from an onion ring, but just barely steamed squid with the tentacles and the suction cups on his feet right there in plain sight). A plate of kidneys was also dished out (whose kidneys, exactly, I was too afraid to ask). There was also a bowl of tiny, pickled jellyfish, which I was almost too afraid to try, but once I gave them a shot, I actually really liked them and ate several more. (I also duly suffered a terrible stomachache the following day, though from the live shrimp, kidneys, squid, or jellyfish, I couldn’t say…possibly it was a combination of all of them.) However, he also served us some “normal” dishes such as corn, steamed fish, beef, pickled cucumbers, and something called “dou dou” which was very similar to lima beans. Here’s a picture of the group:
Drinking alcohol is very much a part of Chinese dining culture, even more so than in America, I would venture to say. Americans tend to drink alcohol on the weekends, when they’re wanting to “go crazy” or “get wasted.” I haven’t really seen any drunk Chinese people causing a scene in a restaurant (which can be standard fare on a Saturday night in America), but if they drink anything at all during a meal, it’s either hot tea or some form of alcohol. Whenever we’re invited out to dine or invited to someone’s house, there is always a lot of pressure to drink. I can sometimes avoid being served alcohol since I am a member of the fairer sex, but since Justin is a man, he is always expected to drink (and always offered a cigarette as well, though he politely refuses those). Even if we accept just one small glass to be friendly, a crazy, never-ending game of “Cheers!” usually ensues, forcing us to clink glasses with our neighbors and down sip after sip until our glasses are empty. Then, as soon as the host spots our empty glasses, he will immediately pour us a refill, even if we tell him, “Wo buyao!” (“I don’t want!”). The only way I’ve discovered to stop him is to cover the glass with my hand and refuse repeatedly, and possibly point to another drink (tea or juice) sitting on the counter that I would prefer. I’m sure it’s nothing like the drinking pressure one would find in a fraternity house, but I’ve still never seen anything quite like it!
Our host, “The Chef,” was pulling out all the stops with the choices of alcohol he had to serve his guests, in an effort to impress. He had red wine, white wine, Bai Jiu (which is simply Chinese for “white wine,” but is very strong and actually tastes much more akin to straight liquor), and….the daddy of all wines….snake juice!
We’ve seen liquor like this in the grocery stores, featuring some sort of exotic snake floating inside of the bottle like a laboratory experiment, and generally costing thousands of Yuan. This is the fanciest, most impressive wine that a host can offer his guests, and there is simply no refusing a taste of it (believe me, I tried). The Chef had some sort of deep-sea creature inside of his bottle, and he proudly held it up for examination as the guests murmured with approval. He poured us each a tiny shot of the stuff, and after a hearty, “CHEERS!” we all simultaneously drank something that tasted like battery acid burning down my throat. Mark, the Canadian ex-pat seen in the picture above, assured us that the snake juice was probably 50% proof or higher! I hope that’s my last encounter with snake juice, but if I have any more dinners with The Chef in my future, it probably won’t be.
On second thought, maybe the snake juice was the reason that I had a terrible stomachache the following day. Or maybe it was the combination of the snake juice, the live shrimp, the jellyfish, the kidneys….