The Holly, the Ivy and the Palm Tree

This holiday season, I’m headed to the tropics. For approximately 3 weeks, I’ll be travelling in South East Asia. Spiritual and ancient, yet chaotic and messy in its adaptation to modernity, the countries we’ll visit will each offer its unique dose of traditional beauty meets modern-day growing pains. With white beaches, laughing Buddhas, spicy food and the weather never dipping below  80 degrees Farenheit, I’m more than up for the challenge.

First stop: the island nation of Singapore for a 2-day stint in what’s dubbed the “culinary capital” of Asia. Two words: bring it.

Second stop: Bali, Indonesia—one of the best beach destinations in the world, this exotic locale will be our home for 9 days as we hike volcanoes, play with monkeys, bike in a rainforest and (my personal favorite), lay on the beach 🙂

Third stop: Jakarta, Indonesia—this year, we will ring in the New Year in the “Big Durian” (instead of  the Big Apple), in Indonesia’s  urban capital. Pull back the concrete curtain, and you’ll find us living it up in this unique, skyscraper meets rice-paddy town (I’ll be the one with the huge Happy New Year’s hat on).

Fourth stop: Bangkok, Thailand—flying North to “the Land of Smiles,”  I’ll be meeting my older sister for 5-days of fun in the ultra urban, fast-paced city of Bangkok. My guide-book tells me to “fasten my seat belt” as this place is the supposed “interchange” of Asia’s past, present and future. Bold statements. I cant’ wait to see if they’re true.

With my laptop in tow, I’ll be popping by Foreign Exposure to update my travels. I wish everyone a very Happy Holidays and a special New Year.

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The Best Dish of 2009

On the coldest day to date this winter, the boyfriend and I bustled around downtown Shanghai in order to prepare for our holiday travel. Hair was snipped, last-minute items were purchased and bills were paid as we got our proverbial “ducks in a row” for the next 3 weeks in South East Asia. A quick itinerary of our trip to follow. But first, a note about food.

 As it’s becoming a bit of a trend that my posts gravitate around wonderful food consumption, I thought it worthy to quickly mention the dinner I had on the aforementioned evening. After a long afternoon spent shopping ‘round the chilly city, Ray and I decided to meet at Ninsei: a local Japanese restaurant on Nanchang Road. Hunkered down in our winter coats, with rosy cheeks and numb toes, we were delighted to find the ambiance of Ninsei dark and cozy and the sake piping hot. 🙂 Our entire meal (from the seaweed wrapped fois gras to the green tea frappe with sugar cubes dessert) is worthy of a blog post unto itself. But I’ll keep it simple and just highlight the rasion d’être for this post:  my order of Oh Toro Steak. Ever hear of it? Because we had not.

Oh it’s fish! Wait, is this steak? Hmm, it looks kind of like white meat…could it be pork? Oh wait, see how it’s striated? Maybe it is beef!

Such was our conversation when the Oh Toro Steak arrived. (The obvious solution is: ask the waiter, dummy! But the staff was the “real deal” insofar as they only spoke Japanese and a bit of broken Chinese). The second solution to this problem was to bite into this unidentified, but lovely smelling mystery meat. So I did…and then I died and went to heaven. When I came-to, I declared (with mouth still watering): “I think it IS fish!” Warm, rare, lightly grilled with a buttery taste that was the most wonderful thing I’ve eaten, possibly, ever, in my entire life…fish. After savoring every.single. last. scrumptious. bite. I went home and promptly googled “Toro.”

Wiki gave me an array of possible definitions, although the only ones edible being:

 “(rodent) a spiny rat in the genus sothrix”;

and

“fatty bluefin tuna belly” 

I’m praying for banking on the latter. For those of you that know what Toro meat is, I’m sorry to bore you with my culinary naivety. But for those that don’t, I suggest running to your local Japanese joint and ordering it pronto. I’d attempt to describe the taste in a bit more detail, but I simply wouldn’t be doing it justice. Just know that if you like awesome, savory, melt-in-your-mouth food, that’s better than anything you’ve ever tasted…well, enough said. The smell alone is so alluring that (like me) you’ll dive right in without even knowing what animal it’s from! (And let’s all keep our fingers crossed that it’s not spiny rat genus afterall).

As 2009 is drawing to its close,  I can finally declare what my best meal of the year was with absolute confidence—a bold statement coming from a girl that’s spent the past year eating her way through London, Paris, Edinburgh, Dubai, the Greek Isles, Taipei, the metropolis of Mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia.

What’s your favorite dish of 2009?

Academic Mile$tones

Today was ripe for a bit of academic reflection for a few reasons. First, I am now officially a Masters level graduate from the London School of Economics & Political Science (don’t let the school’s name fool you. I studied Global Media & Comm. there, albeit with an economic slant). My official LSE grades were  sent from London to Shanghai and….WHOOHOO! I was pleased.

Also exciting in nerd-world: my first term at Fudan University School of Journalism is officially over. I know this because I spent the last few days bleary-eyed and dazed in my typical end-of-semester “I just wrote 2 papers and a presentation in 24 hours” state.

So, my 20-seconds of basking in the glow of  two academic milestones are over and…well, it’s a bit of a let-down.

A quick run through of all the sleepless nights of studying and paper writing, all the missed opportunities to spend time with family and friends and (sigh) ALL of the money that has been thrown towards academia over the past 16 months and …hello? Where’s the parade here?

I know that these personal milestones are just that…personal. And they don’t need the praise of many to justify their significance. But it does seem a bit off, when you’re living in a culture in which the media hands out accolades for a celebrity’s choice of hair product.

Over in chilly London, my LSE cohorts class of 2009 graduated last night in an official ceremony. As LSE boasts a student body that is 90% international, LSE alumni and their family flew-in from all over the world to attend the event. Next year, I’ll have two graduation ceremonies, one in London and one in China,to celebrate the 5 little letters that now follow my name (it’s MSc and MA, for those wondering).  But I’m not sure I’ll be able to attend either (pending where I am living in the world), or for that matter, that I’ll even feel the need to.

The past two years have taught me that academic achievements, despite the $teep costs,  are strictly your own personal gains. If you need more than a “hey, good job!” pat on the back, then I wouldn’t venture into this marathon for the mind.

In the meantime, I’ll quit complaining and enjoy the plushier side of student life: TWO MONTHS OF HOLIDAY BREAK!

UPDATED: Where the Wild Things Are…

But I feel relatively neutral about New York

The first thing I noticed upon arriving in Hong Kong was Bing Crosby’s deep voice crooning through the airport loudspeakers: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.”

Then I noticed the three massive Christmas trees standing in the glow of festive colored lights, alongside a blinking sign that exclaimed, “Merry Christmas!” As I walked a bit dazed into the nearest convenience shop, I ran smack into a Chinese sales person wearing a Santa hat. What the…

“I’m so not in China anymore,” I thought to myself and, admittedly, with a bit of a smile.

While technically a part of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong enjoys its autonomy as a “special administrative region” or SAR—a fancy term allocating Hong Kong its own judicial, political and economic systems (in a nutshell, Hong Kong controls all state issues, except national defense and diplomatic relations).

A  British colony for over 150 years (this explains the Christmas cheer), Hong Kong was “re-unified” with China in 1997. This “one country, two systems” policy was the brainchild of  then leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, as a solution to dealing with Hong Kong’s advanced capitalist market and economy under Mainland China’s socialist system. (See? Only ONE China…2 systems, but only ONE China. Got it?)

One of the world’s leading international financial centers, this tiny speck of land is packed to the gills with people (over 7 million), business, retail, skyscrapers, glitz, glam, fashion, and FOOD of any type imaginable (seriously, you want Haute cuisine? Got it. Snake soup? Well they got that too.)

We enjoyed our first dinner at upscale CuCina on the 6th floor of the Marco Polo Hotel. Approximately 3 hours slipped away as we gorged ourselves on delectable fried crab in garlic crumbs, a large array of pork, crab and veggie Dim Sum with 3 incredible dipping sauces, rare beef fillets in wasabi sauce with spicy asparagus and, lastly, traditional Chinese fried noodles that put to shame the greasy variety I get in Shanghai (sorry, Shanghai, you lose in the chǎo miàn department)—all the while, licking our lips and gazing on arguably one of the best harbour views in the world. See below.

Fried crab in garlic crumbs

View of Victoria Harbour from restaurant

View of Victoria Harbour from restaurant

Victoria Harbour

Victoria Harbour

For our next large meal (and there were many) we decided to go the more traditional route and found ourselves in the most famous and long-standing Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong: Yung Kee.

The famous Yung Kee

Since the roast goose has been the talk of the town since 1942, we had to try this specialty dish which boasts a perfectly juicy and succulent experience for the senses. The restaurant itself was an upscale version of traditional Chinese “canteen” dining rooms and I was happy to see that most of its customers were locals:  businessmen and women and typical Hong Kong families

The menu was daunting, with over 10 pages devoted to its culinary awards alone (it is the only Chinese restaurant to ever make Fortune’s “Best 15 in the World” list). With over 30 award-winning dishes to choose from, many of which I had never heard of (Pig Trotter anyone?), we decided to play it safe and go for the “Deluxe Fixed Menu for Two.”

tantalizing geese in the window

This entailed the Roasted Goose with Preserved Pig Trotter (Best of the Best Culinary Awards 2002); Deep Fried Prawn with Mini Crab Roe (Best of the Best Culinary Awards 2001); Abalone with Mushroom in Superior Soup; Steamed Garoupa with Chinese Ham; Wonton Noodles; and for dessert: Fresh Mango Pudding.

The goose was by far the best dish and well deserving of its culinary blue ribbons. The rest of  the dishes served won points for their exotic nature and fun names (what exactly IS an Abalone and what makes the soup “superior”?). However, the general consensus was that our “fixed” menu was on the pricey side and perhaps packed  more fan fare than culinary punch.

Our succulent, crispy goose

I’d surmise that apart from its glorious food, the second most indulgent aspect of HK is its nightlife. Basking in the afterglow of our goose with 5 dish accompaniments, we decided to hit up Lan Kwai Fong—the epicenter of HK nightlife and hedonistic happenings. A set of narrow streets and winding alleyways, Lan Kwai Fong is dotted every few inches with swanky bars, mellow jazz clubs and bumping discos.

Much of the area is closed off from traffic, giving the bar patrons freedom to spill out onto the street with drinks in hand, resulting in a perpetual block party on every corner. The dancing, drinking, shouting street scene looks like New Year’s Eve debauchery , but to the residents of HK, it’s just your typical Friday night. The video below provides a quick soundbite of the scene.

We christened the night off with seductively sweet lychee martinis at the dark and heady 2121 bar. According to my guide-book, it’s the place to “see and be seen.” Well the people I saw were typical Western suits, drunk tourists and incredibly attractive and swanky Asian men and women—alright by me. From there we  wandered through the pulsing sea of street minglers outside and found ourselves at The Cavern—a music joint where we were able to catch a live performance of a hip-hop/pop group. Typically, Lady Gaga and Jay-Z covers are not my cup of tea when it comes to catching live music. However, with a 6 piece ensemble ranging from drums, base, keyboard, 2 guitars and an incredibly long-legged female singer with a great set of pipes, the band was surprisingly very good and we even stayed to catch a second set (although, this might have also been in the spirit of my fresh mango and gin cocktail).

The rest of the night involved various stops at lounges such as Dragon and Tivo (as well as befriending a guy named Vikram on the street and making plans to be friends forever). Although this might come as a total shock, we ended our night at yet another food locale (I think I have a problem)—this time an Indian dive located down a tiny alleyway where we sat outside at folding tables and slurped spicy masala while listening to stories about India from the owner and his adorable 5-foot- 1″wife. A perfect and delicious way to recover from chaotic Lan Kwai Fong.

The last highlight of my short jaunt to HK was a trip up to “the Peak”—the highest point in Hong Kong and the place to catch spectacular views of the urban jungle below and the water beyond.

View from the Peak

As I boarded the plane en route back to Shanghai the next day, I wondered what exactly made this trip to HK so….(I searched for the word and surprisingly found..) comforting? Hmmm, was it the warm weather, delicious food, vibrant nightlife or gorgeous scenery that tugged at my heartstrings and made it hard to leave this island behind?  Although all of those aspects made the trip pretty damn fun, I have to admit: what made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside from the very start of my trip until the last moments on the Peak, was the constant and overwhelming Christmas spirit. The cheerful decorations and fabulous lights around every corner, the families bustling in and out of shops carrying bags of goodies, those old but so familiar Christmas carols playing in the background—all of these cheesy and commercial aspects created a context of comfort for me that I reveled in for 4 days and was only cognizant of once it was gone.  Well, I guess living abroad for the past year and half kind of sneaks up on you sometimes… and suddenly, you find your eyes misting over at a “Merry Christmas” sign in the Hong Kong airport or a Santa Hat on a Cantonese child. Who knew?

Full digital album of my trip here.

Where the Wild Things Are…

futurama Hong Kong

I’m currently in Hong Kong until Sunday and whoa, is it pretty freakin cool. I’m staying in the Kowloon district, which just happens to be the most densely populated place on earth (51,000 people per sq km). Okay, perhaps that doesn’t sound too enticing as you’re probably envisioning massive crowds and the likes of NYC’ s Times Square on speed. But I promise, with the teeming maddness of this place comes the intoxication of a multitude of different shops and cafes, towering sky scrapers against steep green peaks, a harbour hosting dozens of boats lit-up like Christmas trees and 10,000 different restaurants of which to choose (that’s right, TEN thousand). Besides eating my face off, I plan to revel in the warm weather (currently mid 70’s  farenheit and sunny) and partake in some serious people watching as the crowd here is deliciously sexy, multi-cultured and definitely wild. Updates to follow.

My temporary hood--Tsim Sha Tsui

“Beauty is Pain” OR “the Subjugation of Women for Ridiculous Reasons”

I recently wrote an academic paper on a rather ugly side of Chinese history: the custom of footbinding (Or as it should rightly be called, the custom of foot binding WOMEN’s feet, since females were the only gender subjected to this painful practice).

Bound feet in silk slippers

The origins of footbinding within Chinese history remain part fact, part fiction. Some scholars trace its inception to the ruler Li Yu (970 A. D.), who was smitten with a prized concubine that danced a seductive, yet elegant dance with tightly bound feet. Not unlike a modern ballerina’s toe shoes, the tightly bound feet created a unique swaying movement that was later dubbed the “Golden Lotus” dance.

As is such with cultural phenomena, the practice of wrapping the feet to achieve this desired “lotus” gait took hold with vigor amongst the royal court and so was born a new cultural trend. As more women tried to achieve these “lotus feet”, the practice went beyond a mere fashion trend and became the new measuring stick of determining a woman’s status and overall sex appeal (sex manuals from the Qing Dynasty listed “48 different ways” of playing with women’s bound feet). Thus a widespread ideology manifested that emphasized a woman’s worth by the shape of her feet.

As the concept of “lotus feet” was spreading like wildfire amongst the upper class, it soon trickled down to the masses of China’s rural and agrarian community. In an attempt to emulate the upper echelon of society (similar to today’s celeb-obsessed culture),  these hard-working citizens literally cut their work force in half by insisting that all females have their feet bound starting from a young age.

Again, much of the origins of this practice (particularly the Lotus dancin’ concubine) are most likely based in fiction. What is fact, however, is that this practice existed for over 10 centuries, with 80% of the women population binding their feet during its height. Despite its painful process and resulting deformity, footbinding was encouraged by men and women alike as the ticket to a better life.

And so…the ugly ensued. Under the tutelage of a mother or a female elder, the girls—aged as young as 3 or as old as 11—had their feet systematically broken, contorted and physically shaped into deformity to achieve a specific “Lotus Foot,”or more precisely, a foot that measured no more than 3 inches long.

A foot no bigger than 3 inches could fit into these once popular shoes

The obvious reaction is ouch and gross and um,…how?

Please note that the below procedure is done without the use of modern anesthetics, or for that matter, even the common pain pills that we pop today.

  • After soaking the feet in warm water and herbs (as if this would actually relieve the excruciating pain that is yet to come) each toe but the biggest is swiftly broken and pushed under the ball of the foot.
  • The toes are then tightly bound in this position by winding long pieces of cloth around the foot in a figure eight pattern, creating the ball of the foot and the heel to almost meet.
  • With the broken toes pressed firmly to the heel, the arch of the foot is also forcibly broken.
  • After months of painful binding and re-binding the cloth to make it tighter and tighter, the arch completely folds over and causes the foot to no longer grow.
  • Although the toes are broken, the toenails continue to grow and must be meticulously tended to lest they grow into the skin and create severe infection.
  • Bound feet often smelled of rotting flesh and gangrene disease and thus were rarely unwrapped and certainly never exposed to male husbands, family members or friends.

broken toes pushed under feet

And there you have it. The desired 3-inch feet were created, and with it, a disability for life. Coupled with the physical and emotional scars of having both their feet broken at a very young age, these girls grew into women who could not properly walk, stand for long periods of time or effectively do household chores or field work without crippling pain. Consequently, women were confined to the home, dependent on their husbands/families and drastically limited in their mobility.

The desired "Golden Lotus" effect

With this gruesome practice revealed, one can appreciate the completely messed-up, backasswards irony that bound feet represent. Deformed and rotting flesh are  placed into delicate, embroidered silk slippers in an effort to appeal to men and meet the status quo of a woman’s supposed sex appeal. Paradoxically, the practice that initially began as a way to achieve an elegant, womanly dance, had become a practice in which women could barely walk normally, let alone dance freely. Teetering on mangled 3-inch stubs that were slipped into fine silk, women propagated the fantasy of beauty and elegance, and men chose to see this fantasy rather than the  the unpleasant reality veiled by its superficial exterior.

Another ironic point is the rapid pace at which this thousand year tradition quickly fell from grace throughout China.  As China began to awake to foreign influences at the turn of the century, the majority of middle and upper class society labeled footbinding as barbaric and turned its back on the practice almost as fast as they had once embraced it.

Thus as cultural tides and perceptions continue to change with the ebb and flow of society, what was once today’s status symbol might be tomorrow’s ritual of subjugation.  So the next time I squeeze my feet into those 3-inch heels or burn my hair with a flat iron, or refrain from punching the girl that stupidly states, “beauty IS pain girlfriend!” I’ll keep this phenomena in mind.