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On hormones

7 Nov

I had a truly very easy pregnancy, for which I am really grateful. Unlike some of my friends, I’ve barely had any nausea or experienced any major complications or discomfort, which allowed me to remain very active well beyond my due date. I guess like any expecting woman, I had bouts of doubts and anxiety, especially after watching the news and all the crazy things going in this world (ISIS in the Middle East; global warming; pollution of air, food, water, you name it in China, etc.), and wondered why on earth would I bring a kid into life. But mostly I felt I was very serene during the whole nine months. I didn’t have any cravings or repulsion for particular foods or didn’t behave crazily at anytime. Or so I thought. In hindsight, the hormones did play some tricks on me, albeit on punctual occasions and isolated, but specific, events.

The crystallisation of these tricks happened to be T. the driver at J.’s office. The poor chap had of course the very best intentions at heart but the fact that he is culturally conditioned, his overzealousness and occasional nosiness during my pregnancy just got the best of me at a time when I wasn’t in full control of my reactions.

My resentment for him didn’t come gradually. It was triggered by his reaction when J. told him we were expecting a girl. He reportedly nearly choked on the spot in disappointment for J. Any remark on the fact that I was expecting a girl really put me off as much then as now, as a woman to start with and for my baby, unborn and already subject to prejudice. The guy couldn’t get over it and enquired a few times throughout the remaining months whether it was certain that we were having a girl. He really thought we were kidding or that results couldn’t be trusted. When I was nearly 8 months pregnant, he asked me: “So you are having a girl?” to which I calmly replied “yes”. He pondered for a minute and said, as if I had been pulling his leg: “nah, it’s a boy!” Even after S. was born, he texted J. enquiring whether the baby was indeed a girl.

That in itself, each time, drove me absolutely crazy. Unknowingly, he made matters worse for himself by sending me text messages telling me to take care of myself, rest, etc. It was out of consideration and fondness for J. and very well intentioned of course but by then I couldn’t stand the guy and would throw a fit every time he did anything at all. Whether he sent food, vitamins, text messages, told me I shouldn’t go swimming, or gave advice on which hospital to go to because (after having chatted with a nurse in our hospital and enquired about prices) ours was far too expensive and there were cheaper options. I had to tell him that I needed a doctor and staff with whom I could communicate and luckily the insurance was covering the costs.

My anger towards him became so irrational and obsessive that I once dreamt that he was going to pop into my hospital room unannounced and tell me and the nurses how to handle the baby. Or even try to impose his wife at home to help take care of the baby because we non-Chinese didn’t know any better. I would have to be very rude with him and tell him to fuck off and that I didn’t need him or his wife because my parents were here and that in other parts of the world people had newborns too and knew how to take care of them. Yes, the whole thing got very far in that little hormone-injected head of mine.

This self-winding up of mine continued for some time after S. was born and I would refuse that we go with him to the clinic whenever S. was due for a check-up. Thankfully, for him and my sanity, I’ve since then come back to my senses and do feel some degree of remorse.

Not that it recently occurred to me or that I am trying to justify the still fairly widespread tendency in China to prefer boys over girls, but I’ve given it some thought in the case of T. He has one child, a daughter, who lives in Beijing with her husband, child (I assume she has only one) and most probably her in-laws. In China, it is the tradition for the parents of the husband to move in with the new couple, so that the younger generation can take care of the older one and the older one can help out with the grand-child(ren). So T., as much as he loves his daughter, probably feels a bit screwed by the one child policy and the fact that he had a girl. In his early 60s, he doesn’t seem to have a comfortable retirement pension, if any and no one to take care of him and his wife but himself. He is sort of “doomed” to working many more years into his late age. Had he had a second child or, “better”, a boy that would’ve been his insurance for his old days.

With the abolishment of the single child policy last week (end October 2015, couples can now have two kids), 37 years after it was instated, the Chinese government intends to curb the forthcoming pension crisis. Hopefully it will also give a fairer chance for this working generation to be taken care of by their kids when they get older. In the meantime, T. happened to get in the way of my hormonal imbalance.

Thick skin and dilemma

21 Mar

I have been spending a lot of time with H., S.’s nanny. She started working for us three weeks ago. She is a soft-spoken and kind-hearted lady in her late forties with a lot of experience with young babies.

Both H. and I like to cook and I think that’s how we hit it off. We have a natural curiosity for each other’s cuisines and are keen to learn from one another. She cooked a few jiāchángcài (home dishes with pork mainly, including the famously delicious Shanghainese dish hóngshāo ròu) using many of the ingredients I already had (dried mushrooms and dried tofu) in my pantry but didn’t know how to use. She’s also explained to me at length which foods you should eat when according to the heat or lack thereof within your body (basic principle of Chinese medicine). Unfortunately, I am ashamed to say that so far I think I only understand 60% of what she tells me and am therefore not in a position to faithfully relate all of it but I get the jinx of it. I hope that with time I’ll get used to her accent (very Shanghainese whereby all the sh become s and the zh z) and build up my vocab.

Two days ago, I saw a small box in our fridge containing some kind of shapeless black paste. I didn’t ask H. about it, she’s welcome to put whatever she needs in our fridge. Over lunch, she asked me whether I had seen the box and offered me a piece. Looking at it, the paste could be many things; the first thing that came to my mind was a brownie with very dark chocolate. As I took a bite of the piece she gave me, I naturally asked H. what it was. She said it was lǘpí but it didn’t ring a bell. While she was trying to explain and even mimic something, the paste’s taste invaded my mouth. It wasn’t particularly horrible, though not good either. Mostly it was very strong. I continued chewing and trying to make sense of what she was telling me, I knew pí can mean skin but still wasn’t sure what it was. Then I finally understood, took my phone to double check the translation and suddenly my heart sank more than a little bit, when I figured that I was eating donkey skin!

As I was trying to recover from the shock and hide it, H.’s explanations started to become clearer. Basically she told me that eating lǘpí is very helpful during winter if you have some sort of deficiency (don’t ask me which one). She added that this one in particular came from the province of Shandong (northeast of China) and was of really good quality. I told her that the taste was too strong for me and that I wasn’t used to it, to which she replied that she couldn’t feel it but that her family thought likewise and wouldn’t eat lǘpí. She laughed when she said that they even ask her how she could it! Very kindly, she told me that if I didn’t like it, it wasn’t a problem.

I now have this remaining piece I bit into in my fridge. As much as I like to be open-minded or to think that I am, I am not quite sure what to do with it. I would hate to throw it, out of respect for H.’s kindness. What I am sure of is that I don’t feel like eating it. I don’t look forward to its taste and now that I know it is donkey skin (I have eaten Italian donkey salami a long time ago) I can’t stomach it.

Sigh.

What would you do?

Donkey skin

Lǘpí

Year of the Horse – Part 2: Dinner with my Chinese teacher’s family

3 Feb

The day after our Chinese new year baptism, last Friday, we, along with our friends L. and M., were invited to have dinner at my Chinese teacher S. and her husband K.’s house with their family (his side of the family to be precise – Spring Festival is celebrated with the husband’s family). This is the equivalent of being invited to spend Christmas at your friend’s place, so a real token of friendship (by my standards at least). Just for information, as K.’s was explaining to me, the first day of Chinese new year, Chinese people do fireworks but also stay at home and usually watch the national show of the Spring Festival on national television during which celebrities sing and entertain. This year, wearing a red dress for good luck, French actress Sophie Marceau, apparently a real celebrity in this country, was part of the show and sang “La Vie en Rose” in French with Liu Huan (singer and song writer) for the good people of the People’s Republic of China. See it on YouTube here.

But back to our evening.

We had already been invited to dinner at S. and K’s place some time before Christmas. J. and I had arrived about 10-15 minutes late and found all the guests already sitting at the table and waiting for us to start. There was no small talk or drinks before sitting on the dining table. It was a little bit embarrassing that everyone waited for us to start eating. This time, I insisted that we get there on time, especially that K.’s whole family would be around. We got there only five minutes late and thankfully, although many dishes were already laid on the two tables, we were not the last ones to arrive and nobody was sitting at the dining tables yet.

We were introduced to the family and were very warmly welcomed by everyone. There were four generations, with the grandmother, two of the mum’s brothers and their children and grand-children. One of the uncles was particularly talkative and we chatted with him for a while. He commented on our understanding of Chinese and encouraged J. to be more “nǔlì” i.e. hardworking at studying Chinese. He asked us about our drinking capabilities (how many cans of beer) and showed us the báijiǔ (Chinese white alcohol distilled from sorghum or maize, a traditional and VERY strong drink reputed to be absolutely vile), a very old one in small bottles, they had selected for the occasion. I was a bit nervous at the idea of tasting it. It is a much-dreaded drink amongst the lǎowài* community of China as it is a very acquired taste for us. Somehow I managed to escape it after over two years but tonight, clearly there was nowhere to hide.

The evening was lovely. Surprisingly, I liked (this) báijiǔ! Then again it was a very special one. We had fun conversation with K’s cousins at our table, tons of great food, with K.’s mum and other uncle tirelessly cooking as the rest of us were eating. The friendly uncle went back and forth between the two rooms to do “gān bēi” (bottoms up) with us and make sure we were eating well.

As other Chinese occasions, things tend to end up fairly abruptly. So around two hours after we had arrived, when we started to feel stuffed, some members of the family started to leave. We lingered an extra 20 minutes or so and then started to make our way out. We were the last ones to leave. I guess the sudden end shocks us less (after attending S. and K.’s wedding and having already had dinner at their place) but we probably still need some time to get our act together and actually leave.

Just as we were putting on our coats and L. and M. getting their son I. ready to go, K.’s mum gave us bags filled with a huge bags of home-made crisps (with white and black sesame seeds), two different (and big) pieces of beef (one cold-cut and another salted and dried one), as well as a full lotus root stuffed with rice (sweet and chewy).

What else to say… We were very moved to be so well and so generously received by a very special friend and her lovely family on the most familial celebration in Chinese culture. Good times!

* lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

The Year of the Horse – Part 1: Celebrating with noise!

2 Feb

On Thursday and Friday, China and a few countries around celebrated the Chinese new year and the forthcoming year of the horse. After the year of the dragon and that of the snake, it is our third lunar new year – or Spring Festival –  since we moved to Shanghai. For the first time, we decided to stay around, first because we took too long to buy our plane tickets to Cambodia and second because we thought that we ought to spend a Chinese new year in China at least once. We had been told or warned by a few foreign veterans that spending Chinese new year in Shanghai was great, was terrible, was a bad idea, was a “special” experience, etc. etc. etc. The most precise information I got though was from a colleague who told me that she loved it because, overall, Shanghai is very quiet because most people head back to their hometowns. At the same time of course, one should expect a lot of fireworks. Not the pretty kind done by professionals in a wide open space for everyone to see. The small, noisy, non-visual type that anyone can buy and blow on the street. She also said that the only way to enjoy it was to take part to the hype. So I decided that we should embrace the whole idea. This year the holiday started on the day of Chinese new year (that was Thursday 30th of January). Those of us who didn’t flee the country went to work on that day. The city had already considerably emptied up and, after a short day at work, I ran a few errands before going for dinner with friends. At 5:30ish, the normal rush hour, streets were empty. Commercial activity, which never ever stops in Shanghai, was practically non-existent. Eight if not nine out of ten shops were shut, anywhere you looked. In addition, the very high pollution levels and consequent low haze and glaring light gave the city a pre-apocalyptic atmosphere,  intensified by the either distant or closer sound of fireworks interrupting the general, heavy silent. Truly an apocalyptic atmosphere suited for movies…

The AQI levels on that day

The AQI levels on that day

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

All shops closed on Kangding Lu, near home

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

Normally due to all sorts of activities, you avoid walking on this side of Kangding Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

At the corner of Kangding Lu and Changhua Lu

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Jiangning Lu, normally really busy at this time of the day

Oddly our friends managed to find the restaurant they wanted to go to open – Di Shui Dong (very good incidentally) on Maoming Lu. The restaurant itself is quite a warm place in terms of its décor and relaxed atmosphere. It was quite full and lively and therefore a welcome contrast to the outside vibe. There we met other friends, a group of six boys arriving with their stash of fireworks. Although J. was not keen about the whole fireworks thing, I insisted that we join them later as part of my embrace-the-event plan. And so after dinner, I asked a friend where we should actually pop the stuff (I might’ve spent too many years in France and the UK, being so mindful about health and safety issues) and was a bit disturbed when he found the question a bit stupid and replied “Just here… anywhere… on the street…” I didn’t quite have the time or space to tell him that we should perhaps look for a suitable place, we were already out of the restaurant and one of his mates was already lining firecrackers just at the entrance of the building. The guy wouldn’t listen to anyone telling him to do it elsewhere and just lit it here and there, causing more noise and smoke than anything else.

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

At the entrance of Di Shui Dong

We then headed to a nearby (small residential) street close to another group of lǎowài (turned out it was my colleague, her family and friends) who had already started their festivities with their young kids and who were greeting one another with “Xin nian kuai le!” – happy new year in Mandarin. Our stock lasted half an hour I guess. It was fun, convivial, noisy, unconscious, slightly dangerous, spontaneous, childish, traditional, not very mindful of local residents or traffic, smoky, scary, not environmentally friendly at all and brought back childhood memories of celebrations of Eid el Saydeh (the Virgin Mary’s Day) in Lebanon… J. and I then headed back home while the others split to continue their evening. At midnight, all hell broke loose with noise levels truly high and fireworks reaching us all the way to the 18th floor and lighting up our flat with their colours. It lasted for a while into the night. But since then (3 days now), I can’t say that there have been more fireworks than the usual. I liked the whole experience and I will remember it fondly. We may not be locals and never will be but after the third one, Chinese new year is now part of our calendar and the lunar signs of the dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, etc. siding next to the scorpio, taurus, pisces, virgin, balance, etc. * lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

The acupuncture diary 2

15 Dec

Shortly after my first acupuncture session, about 36 hours to be precise, I woke up around 2:00 am with a burning and irritating sensation on my upper lip. I got up and discovered that not only I had one cold sore but two! Needless to say, one, I was so angry I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night; two, I wasn’t exactly thrilled when, two days later, the doctor asked me if I was feeling better on my second acupuncture appointment. Also one of my lymphoma under my jaw had grown back, so I was in a very dark mood… (The theory of J. and another friend was that perhaps the point was to get it out of my system.)

Not looking the least surprised, the doctor asked me if I was “feeling hot in my body.” I knew what she was referring to but could not relate to the sensation she was describing, so I just said: “… In winter I feel cold most of the time…”, fully aware it was not the answer she was looking for. The Chinese believe the body has a natural balance between hot and cold. Different kinds of foods are also hot (oranges) or cold (grapefruits) and should be eaten to preserve the balance which is affected by outside elements. For example, if I remember correctly, chicken soup should be eaten in autumn to prepare yourself for winter and such things.

After the chitchat (I’m sparing your some details), she said: “Today we need to step up a notch, so I’ll put some needles near your lips. I took it easy last time because it was your first time resorting to Chinese medicine.” Given that I was ready to anything to get rid of cold sores, I was almost expecting it and so didn’t bulge. She proceeded to position needles on my arms, shins and ankles like last time, as well as two needles near the sores on my upper lip. It did hurt a bit and made me quiver, but it was ok.

I was getting ready to relax and snooze like last time, but felt things moving around me. I opened my eyes and realised she was putting wires on the needles near my mouth. She explained she was going to turn on a mild electric current. Me of course: “Will it hurt?” Her again: “You will feel the sensation but it will not hurt.” And again she spoke the truth.

And so I lied down for about 15 minutes, feeling a swarm on my upper lip, which varied when I moved my lip. It was a bit trippy. When the session was over, she said that it should help me recover quicker. I don’t know if it’s in the head or for real, but I think I did feel my wounds drying faster than the usual… So maybe it does work after all.

More next time.

The acupuncture diary 1

4 Dec

This summer two of our very good friends, L. and M., told us they tried acupuncture and recommended it. L. was towards the end of her pregnancy and feeling back aches. After her treatment, she wasn’t anymore although the pain should’ve increased with the pregnancy advancing. M. was feeling nervous and restless and he felt acupuncture calmed him down. The doctor told L. that acupuncture could be used to cure all sorts of little aches and pains and “boost your immunity system”. This in particular stuck in my mind and, being open to alternative and less chemical healing methods, I thought I’d go try it out to help me go through winter. In addition to feeling permanently cold in the winter (permanently cold hands, feet and tip of the nose, bad blood circulation), 2013 has been an annoying year as I have suffered from unusual incidences of cold sores – sorry for the details but the story doesn’t make sense otherwise and hey, we all have our little health issues. Although it seems we can now cure AIDS, we still can’t get rid of the two viruses of cold sore and, apart from trying my best not to be stressed or tired, there’s nothing I can do to prevent them. So this summer, I decided I’d try acupuncture to give a kick to my immunity system and fight the insidious yet inexplicable chronic fatigue.

acupuncture 140

And so last week, I had my first session. The doctor, a very nice lady speaking a perfect English, started by asking me all sorts of questions about my health, lifestyle, eating habits and (in)tolerances, level of stress in Shanghai compared to other cities I lived in, etc. I told her what brought me to her, she listened carefully and took notes on the little booklet the receptionist gave me. She asked me whether I had tried Chinese medicine before. I said no and she explained to me that the symptoms I described above were due to my lungs not functioning in an optimal way. Being my normal cynical self as well as realistic, I thought that was hardly abnormal given the high pollution levels we’ve been experiencing over the past month. But I refrained from commenting and nodded politely.

The doctor then invited me to lie down to start the acupuncture session. Being highly sensitive and squeamish when it comes to body manipulations, I naturally asked whether it would hurt. She said not really, you have sensations but it’s not pain. I lied down and, as requested, moved my sleeves and trousers up to my elbows and knees respectively. She then wiped with alcohol the areas where she was going to put the needles, i.e. 4 pairs on either sides of my nostrils, just down the elbows, on my shins and on the inside of the ankles. As she said, I felt the needles being positioned (I closed my eyes obviously) but no pain whatsoever. Then again, they’re not planted very deep – thankfully. She then switched off the light and, much to my surprise, asked me to relax for the next 20 minutes.

She checked if I was not too hot or too cold and then left the room and let me be. At this point, I was wondering “hmmmm bullshit, not bullshit? Hmmmm… now that I’m here, let’s not over-think it.” And so I half fell asleep until she came back. She delicately and unpainfully removed the needles and told me it was over and that, for optimal treatment, I would need three other sessions. We set up the next appointment and as I was leaving she said that I might feel a little surge of energy after this session. Again, true to myself, I thought that if I did feel revitalised it was probably because of the snooze rather than the needles, but whatever… In fact I actually felt quite exhausted on my way back home.

To be continued…

Mooncakes

18 Sep

Those who know me and with whom I have discussed living in China know how enthusiastic and in what state of salivation I can get when speaking about some Chinese cuisines. Not that I have become an expert at it, but after nearly two years I have come to looooooove parts of it. I say parts of it as, I may have mentioned it before in this blog or at least in conversations, when you arrive to China you quickly realise that there is no such thing as Chinese food. China is so wide and diverse (geographically, topographically, climactically, linguistically, etc.) that it is absurd to assume that it is homogeneous in any way – it is after all as big as Europe! This is a common mistake, and one which I was certainly a culprit of before and when arriving here. Thankfully, I’ve realised a few things since then.

So far, I have liked or loved most dishes I have tasted, particularly dishes from the Sichuan (super spicy), Hunan and Yunnan provinces. Fortunately I guess, I can’t say I have been pushed to my relative or absolute limits in terms of tasting bizarre foods. With J., we are regular jellyfish eaters, but we haven’t yet tasted chicken feet or, to address the common and somewhat lame joke, dog, cat, rat, snake, monkey and the likes. Those harsher dishes are not common in Shanghai and known to be more the speciality of the Guangdong province or, in other words, of Cantonese people.

Nonetheless, one common and national, if punctual, pastry I have to admit I do not enjoy are mooncakes. As their name indicates, they are small cakes which are round or square and which look very pretty on the outside. They are generally produced and consumed around this time of the year, in September and October, as part of the Mid-Autumn Festival (literally zhōng qiū jié) honouring the moon goddess of immortality and celebrated on the day of the full moon. During this time, families are meant to come together and eat round foods, such as (round) mooncakes or grapes. In the corporate world, any self-respecting company also usually offers mooncakes to its employees and sometimes clients. So far, J. has received two boxes, one from his own company and one from a supplier. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a third one.

Corporate mooncakes always come in fancy boxes.

Corporate mooncakes always come in fancy boxes. You can barely see it, but the top of this one is embossed.

Mooncake 1

This is our third Mid-Autumn Festival. I have tasted mooncakes when we settled in Shanghai and, since then, I have stayed clear from them. The reason I do not enjoy them is because they are Forrest Gump’s chocolate box, but with far more surprises. First, mooncakes can be savoury or sweet. However, from their shape or colour, there is no way (for us at least) to know what you’re gonna get. Second, you can be in for a big surprise. The mild version comes filled with some sort of bean paste which is either neutral in taste or vaguely sweet. But there are mooncakes filled with cooked egg yolk, maybe even duck egg yolk which can be extremely salty, or worse: fish. The trouble is that when you are expecting bean paste, you taste buds are in for a wild ride if you get fish or egg. J. is far more courageous than me and goes for it with the risks it entails. That’s how I know what’s in them. He did insist that I taste one yesterday, which was filled with sweet coconut paste and was therefore very nice. But it’s the first mooncake bite I had since I got here.

Most likely, egg yolk filling.

Most likely, egg yolk filling.

As in other countries, the year is punctuated by delicacies, dishes and foods that announce the time of a season or some festivities. Next in line in November are the hairy crabs which, unlike the mooncakes, do announce the real arrival of autumn in Shanghai as they coincide with a drop in temperature and, incidentally, are far more appreciated by my palate.

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