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A magical night at the Sichuan Opera

I promised myself that I would see the Chinese opera. I made many such promises before my trip began. I guess you could call it my to-do list. When I arrived in Chengdu I knew I wanted to see pandas, and treat myself to the modern day version of Madam Butterfly.

I have never seen Madam Butterfly.  That was just another idea that was stuck in my head.

I arranged a ticket and a driver to the Sichuan Opera through my hostel’s tourist desk.  It was over 200 yuan, a price that made me gulp, but I paid up. I keep my promises.

Thirty minutes before the show I hopped into a boxy mini-van alone with a driver who spoke no English, and sped through the smog-orange night streets of Chengdu.

Among the crowd of early arrivers I found an usher who guided me through a sea of empty, unnumbered chairs, then by some magic, pointed out my seat. Planted solitarily in the row of wicker, I waited for the rest of the audience to arrive. In front of my knees there was a low table. Small white tea cups were in front of each place, along with a basket of peanuts to share. Two seconds after my usher departed, another appeared with a teapot and some loose leaves. She served me, and left.  I sipped the tea, not expecting much.

I must stop to make a brief note on tea in China.

This is not your average 12-month-old, shredded, over-baked, over-priced leaf peddled by Lipton. Oh, no. Lipton is only the sad, anorexic cousin of this tea.  The tea in China is festival of subtle and phenomenal flavor which constantly surprises the tongue. There are different varieties (the only name of which I can remember is Oolong...shame on me!) which can be strained with flowers to produce further layers of fantasticness. While I definitely enjoy Earl Grey, Chai, or the wide selection of herbal teas available in America I must say this, friends: you have not experienced tea unless you have had in China.

Delighted, I sipped my share slowly, savoring while the theater filled up. About halfway through my cup I witness something wonderful: There was an usher carrying a pot of hot water that had a long, thin spout so that he could reach over the legs of the guests easily, and fill individual cups without spilling a drop.

I drained my cup immediately.  Poof! More magic! The usher appeared 30 seconds later, and refilled it.

I began chugging greedily. It was a delicious game. It was wonderful and magical.

It was a mistake.

Before for the lights dimmed, I started to feel a slight pressure around my gut. In my tea-craze, I ignored the feeling. The lights went up. More magic! Enter, stage right a small woman with a mask-white face and dramatically drawn eyebrows, dressed in colorful gold brocade. The blue lights cast mystical shadows on her costume and then she sang - her mouth opened and she enchanted me.

The show was actually a sort of variety show. There was singing, acting, and acrobatics - the kind that always makes me hold my breath and pray to jeebus that no one gets killed due to the lack of safety nets.

About halfway through these antics, a singer hit a high note, and so did my bladder. I twisted from my seat and hobbled to the back of the theater, regretting my gluttonous tea slurping. More magic! There was a beautiful bathroom, full of western. style. toilets. Thank googly moogly! I returned quickly, resenting myself for the minutes lost. But before I could feel too bad, the lights dimmed again and a new act my began.

This is what happened.

Music rolled in and behind a screen there appeared a shadow man. He bowed, stepped out of the spotlight, leaving only his hands visible. As the music swelled his shadow fingers transformed into a bird, flying over a mountain. Stopping to groom itself on a branch. Transformed into a rabbit, into a horse, into many animals so fluidly that I could not even breath because my eyes took all my energy, watching.

Transform, transform, transform.

With every change, I gasped and gaped. I was five years old again, believing everything.  Then, the music sighed and fingers reappeared at last, the end. One collective gasp, then the audience laughed and clapped. We were totally delighted.

The rest of the show just continued to get more magical after that point, although I truthfully cannot say that I remember the details. Just the feeling: enchanted and happy. I was so elated that when it was all over, I did something so stupid, so touristy that I still shocked by myself.

I paid to have my picture taken with the actors.

The price was a little over 2 US dollars. Not much in the grand scheme of things, but in Chengdu 20 yuan could be a nice meal, 10 bus rides, or even half the price of a night at a hostel. The point that I am trying to make was that it was a stupid price.

And I paid it anyways.

The picture taking was even more fun than the show itself. Mostly because they actors, looking as bright and exotic as alien birds. were staring at ME in shock. And me, and I stare at the camera with a big cheesy grin.

I felt like...just so much happy, there wasn’t enough room on my face.


Buying baked goods is for the fearless

My experience of Chinese desserts in America was limited to almond cookies and fortune cookies. If you’ve never tasted either, they are basically dried out, slightly sweetened cardboard novelties that are thrown in with your MSG-ed Golden Dragon take-out like a consolation prize. You know, instead of a happy meal toy. Oh, and they come with bits of philosophy, lucky numbers, and/or cryptic glimpses of the future.
Utter. Rubbish.
My experience of Chinese desserts in Korea was non-existent. After a few ill-fated forays into the omnipresent “Paris Baguette” where I sampled delights like garlic bread coated in sugar, hard-boiled hot dogs wrapped in abusively doughy pastry, and chocolate chip cookies so hard they actually caused tears of frustration, I called it quits with all Korean experimental offshoot attempts at “foreign” sweets.
In Chengdu, on the way back from a Buddhist temple in a carefully preserved (read: tourist trap) district, there was a bakery bumping with so much traffic you would think they were giving away the goods for free. Thick wisps of sweetened steam coiled over the counter, tickling my tongue with fresh-baked-delicious smell. There was a glass partition behind which sat heavy silver trays, stuffed with confections covered in eye-catching sugar, nut, and chocolate details. Despite my previous, rather traumatic, introduction to Chinese sweets, I was compelled to stop there by one of my oldest, truest, travel rules:
If there is a crowd at a place, that’s where you want to eat.
The exchange of goods was terrifying. People were hustling up to the counter in no discernible pattern, shouting in rapid Chinese to one baker, taking pounds (seriously, pounds) of sweets by the bagful from another, and paying another. My friend, who accompanied me from my hostel, stood with me staring at these rapid transactions. The agile, suspiciously thin bakers balanced tall stiff white hats and wore pristine white aprons. With wicked precision they snatched the treats from multiple trays and tossed them into clear plastic bags. We watched this dance for about five full minutes before braving up. We turned to each other and said: “Let’s do this.”
We hopped in the line, which  was coiling from about 3 different directions, moving respectfully with the flow of traffic.
Ok, that’s a bald faced lie.
Fun fact: Living in Korea has caused me to lose some manors. I push in lines, I hop over short people, I elbow my way through the crowd. This story is not about that, though.
So, we got to the front of the line. I guided my friend ahead of me (she was too polite for pushing), and she stood looking helplessly from one bustling baker to another until one finally paid attention to her.
That’s where the fun began.
With pointing and finger counting, she indicated what she wanted: 1 of this, 3 of that, and 2 of that sugary thing there.
The baker stared.
My friend pointed again.
The baker stared, her face reddened, and she fired off fifty million unintelligible words in an incredulous tone that translated, to my mind, like this:
“What the hell did you just order, you idiot?”
Uh-oh. She hates us.
I watched my friend again indicate what she wanted, trying to search the situation for clues. What was she doing wrong? The pointing was direct. Finger counting was understood by all. Why would the woman not hand the bag to the cashier and move on?
Disgusted, the baker finally shoved the treats into the bag as directed, grunting and rolling her eyes. Then she turned to me.
I was totally brilliant, ordered perfectly, and she was super nice to me.
Her eyes bugged and her throat worked an angry, dry heave so rapidly I thought she was going to asphyxiate.
She flippin’ hates us.
As the people around me bought and sold, I realized that they weren’t just buying huge quantities because of their gluttonous desire for delicious baked goods. This was a bulk-only bakery.
Ha! Oops.
Too bad I couldn’t communicate that I understood. The only Chinese I had mastered was “Thank you” and “noodle”. Not useful.
Ok, that’s also a lie. I could never say noodle. I had it written down on a piece of paper that I kept in my pocket.
Still, you get me.
I didn’t then, and don’t now, know the Chinese for “my bad” and “I’ll take a kilo of that”. And to be truthful, given my experiences, I didn’t want a kilo. I just wanted a taste. So gave the baker my what’s-the-problem? eyes and waited her to fill my bag. I even managed to keep from flinching as she glared, withering my soul with the force of my own stupidity.
Turns out, the lady in the line behind us spoke some English. I know this, because Janey-came-lately ran after us after she’d bought her treats and said, “You bought too little.”
Thanks for the bulletin, lady.
Giggling, we shuffled away from there quick, leaving the muttering and resentment behind. I dug into my bag right away, getting sugar and flaky pastry all over my fingers and chin. I ripped through the puffed pastry and then chowed into an egg tart, the only thing on the menu I recognized.
And you know what? Egg tarts are fabulous.
It was totally worth it.


Sichuan spice

Photo credit: Hua Jiao Blog

Trying to eat vegetarian in China is unnecessarily tricky. It shouldn’t be, truly. The veggie dishes in Chinese cuisine are multiple and delicious. I stuffed myself with so many veggies, fruits, rices, and other non meaty things while I was winding my way up the east coast that it never occurred to me that a vegetarian would suffer trying to find suitable meal choices.

While I was in Chendgu, I met a girl who totally changed my mind. This girl had been on the road for twice as long as me in China, and she told me the most shocking, funny, awful thing ever: When you tell people that you’re vegetarian in China, they serve you rice and lettuce.

Rice. And Lettuce.

I actually laughed when she told me this, then felt sad for her stomach. So sad that I allowed her to drag me to a vegetarian restaurant that night, out of solidarity.

I was down for whatever, food wise. I had sampled a few Sichuan dishes already (including a beer soaked rabbit), and everything was yummy. Plus, most of the American Chinese food is Schezuan (which is just the American spelling of Sichuan) so whatevs. It’s all yums in my tums.

Spoiler: it is NOT all yums.

The Sichuan region of China is famous for having spicy food. Really, really spicy food. The spiciest food in China, to be exact. But whatevs, I’d just spent two years in Korea having my American taste buds blasted to oblivion, so I figured this “spicy” was just code for “whimp-nuggets”.

With my ego inflated, I followed my new friends to the restaurant. We had a slip of paper that said the Chinese character for “vegetarian” (written by the people who worked at our hostel). We pressed this paper against the window, eyebrows pleading. The lady working behind the window nodded.

Loaded up with veggie dishes, we carried our trays into the dining area and started eating. The food was cold, but palatable. I sighed internally and tucked in. It wasn’t the most delicious thing I’d had in China, but it wasn’t half bad.

About five bites in, I noticed a major problem: my tongue was going numb.

I contemplated this, eating more slowly. The numbness spread up to the roof of my mouth, coated my tonsils, and started to travel down my throat. This is when I realized that I must be eating the famous Sichuan flower pepper.

When I said that Sichuan was famous for the most spicy food in China, I should have been more specific. Yes, they are known for eating stupidly spicy stuff. But it’s the combination of numb and spicy that gives Sichuan food its distinct kick. The flower pepper (reportedly) contains the same ingredients as novocaine.

Imagine, putting novocaine in your mouth ON PURPOSE. For the nummy jollies that it brings.

Seriously, try to imagine that.

I was trying to wrap my mind around this thought, when I realized that my mouth was on fire. I mean, I could sense that my lips, tongue, gums, hell, everything felt like they were being eaten away by corrosive acid. The only reason I wasn’t totally panicked was because the sensation was overwhelmed by the medical grade numb-out I had going. This horrifying feeling was coupled with another realization:

What comes in, must go out.

I put my chopsticks down. I mean, I’ve done a lot of ill-advised things for the sake of adventure. But purposefully ingestive numbing, corrosive foodstuff that are guaranteed to numb my bum hole one minute and leave it burning the next - feelings I would have to navigate on a SQUATTY potty - I couldn’t go on. I began chugging water and shoveling rice, attempting to ameliorate the effects.

My friend laughed at me. “Too spicy for you?” She chuckled.

I didn’t wanna share my thoughts with her. She was enjoying the food, and besides, this was the first meal she’d had that didn’t include wilted lettuce. It seemed too cruel to take that away with my own paranoia.

So I just watched her eat.

It was actually kind of funny. I mean, that food was so spicy that despite the fact that it was stone cold, she kept sucking her spit and attempting to cool her mouth. The food, making her tongue more burned and sensitive with each bite, was causing pain. I mean, she was actually saying “ouch”.

This is not a sensation that I list up there with “good food” associations.

I slurped up a chinese medicine drink (a tip I learned from a beijinger - it instantly neutralizes spicy food), and she just kept eating.

When she finally declared herself full, words slipped out. I said,

“You’re braver than me. I’m too afraid of digestive problems to eat that much numb stuff.”

My words fell over her face like a dark cloud as my meaning sunk in. “Oh no!” she said, “why didn’t you say anything earlier?” she said.

“I’m sorry!” I said, “You were enjoying yourself!”

When ran to the 24 hour mart. We bought milk, bread and water. Neutralization was key. Also, I was still starving. I gorged on my snacks, then went to bed, terrified.

Nothing happened.

No burning, numbing digestive issue. A little tummy ache, probably from the entire tube of Chinese rip-off pringles I had bought as my bread item, but nothing more than that.

I know that’s anti-climatic for you, but for me?

Whew, lordy, I was so relieved. I mean, there is no way to escape fire peppers in Sichuan, and if I couldn’t eat them, it was gonna be in for a rough time.

After that, my attempt to avoid flower peppers was purely based on foodie snobbery.

Numb is not delicious, folks. End of story.


Red Pandas are jerks

This is what panda cahoots looks like.

The day I visited the Panda Breeding and Research Center in Chengdu, I fell  unequivocally, irrevocably in love with pandas.

Correction: GIANT pandas.

We're talking ooh-and-ahh love. Take-a-picture-when-they-stretch-and-yawn love. Watch-them-eat, watch-them-sleep, watch-a-video-of-them-being-born, run-out-and-a-by-a-backpack-made-in-their-shape kinda love.

You get me?

So I'm walking around with my dopey-love grin. I see the clumsy yearlings eat themselves into a bamboo food coma. I see the toddlers sleeping in the playscape of their "kindergarten". I see the baby pandas, so young that their fur is white and grey instead of white and black. And I am all click-snap-snap with the camera and feeling so much love.

And then we met the Red Pandas.

Did you know there is another type of Panda? The Red Panda looks like the bastard offspring of a raccoon and a panda bear, although how that coupling could have ever taken place, on the animal god knows.

The red pandas are allowed free reign of the nature reserve, which means you could be walking along and one could just pop on the walkway next to you at any point.

True story.

There are these holes in the fences (which led me to believe that the fences are more to keep the humans out than the pandas in)  and pandas just sort of swagger around and rub their bums on things, marking territory and scavenging for food.

“Make sure you stay away from them, at least 3 meters” said the guide, said the signs, said everyone, “because they bite”.

You don’t have to tell me twice.

I stayed away from the pandas. Let me repeat, I stayed away from them. It just didn’t occur to me that I would have to account for their actions as well as mine own. I mind my own business, and I expect other creatures to do the same.

Silly me.

So yeah, we’re walking along and I’m all snap-cl-CLICK with my camera when the impossible happens. A red panda hops on our side of the fence, and starts walking by us all like “sup?”  Just swaggering along while we all go “oooh” and “ahhh” and click-snappity-click.

I’m all Indiana Jones about my shot, crouching low and trying to capture his little face for National Geographic, when he looks right at me. And he’s got this little buddy, and they both look at each other like they’re in cahoots or something, and then he starts towards me. But I’m not looking at him, I’m looking at the buddy who is styling and profiling for me, and I’m hovering with my finger above the clicker, waiting for him to turn juuuuust a little bit, and not paying attention to his buddy who is swaggering up to me, nice and slow like, and I’m pushing the button and


That little jerk-face bit my ankle! I tumbled over and he bolted - swear to god - CHUCKLING and sh*t, and his buddy bolts too. They both belly slide under the nearest hole in the fence, high five each other, look back at me rubbing my ankle, and laugh.

True story.

And it’s not like I can chase down those little punks and give them the thumping they deserve because they’re all ‘endangered’ and sh*t, and even though they approached me instead of me approaching them, they can just walk away smirking while everyone “ooh”s and “ahhh”s and snaps more pictures of me on the ground and the pandas high fiving.


On the orient not-so-express

A big part of the “adventure” of a trip to China is using the toilet. Even a veteran traveler, seasoned in Korea, will be in for a few surprises. Travelling between Yangshuo and Chengdu, I took a hard sleeper train. The ride was 18, possibly 19 hours. It was too long of ride, let’s just say that.

I struggled a bit with picking up my ticket from overcrowded ticket window, then completely failed at understanding what was written on it once I received it. I defaulted to the “dumb foreigner' mode which means that I mutely shoved the ticket towards every conductor on the platform until one grunted and shoved a thumb towards the door, which I took to mean, enter here. 

The train car was a galley of small, numbered, open faced berths that had six beds each. The beds were stacked, three to a wall. I figured my ticket must say “bottom bunk” “middle bunk” or “top bunk”, but considering the only Chinese character I can read is one for “noodle”, the ticket didn’t help me much. A nice girl in my berth helped me out, letting me know I had the middle bed. I bowed to her, despite the fact that I really didn’t see much bowing in China, because after two years of inculcation, my me-no-speakie body language is defaulted to Korean mode, where a lot can be conveyed by bowing even when you have no clue what’s going on.

I settled my duffle onto the shelf, removed my shoes and put on my train-issued slippers, then folded into my too-short bunk space and propped my kindle in front of my face so that I could study the people around me surreptitiously.

As soon as the train groaned into motion, people started opening up their travel sacks, breaking out plastic forks, rubbing spoons clean on the corner of their sweaters, opening to-go bowls of ramen, filling them from the hot water tap on the train, unscrewing glass thermoses full of green leaves or spindly looking roots, filling those too, peeling oranges and unwrapping rice cakes. Everyone was talking, introducing themselves, giving treats to goodness-knows-whose children, starting card games, fanning the steam of ramen from their faces.  

It was a big train lunch time party! I wanted to buy my first bowl of chinese ramen from the lunch cart and participate, but I had my reasons for resisting.

I was on a food strike.

Why would I do something so foolish as try not to eat on an 18 hour train ride? Well, the answer to that question brings us right back to the Chinese toilet challenge.

I happened to peek into the toilets early on, and notice something that shocked me to the core of my american soul: they were squatty potties. Now, I’m no stranger to squatty potties. But I wasn’t terribly skilled at using them even when they weren’t moving. The idea of trying to test my muscle control by “dropping off the kids at the pool” while squatting in a moving vehicle seemed like a deliriously stupid idea. So I decided to hold it instead.

Holding your bladder for 18 hours requires strategy. Mine was simple: nothing in, nothing out. I clutched my kindle to me, opened up a sci-fi novel, and dug in for the long haul.

The scenery on the train ride was incredible. I attempted to capture it with my phone camera, but of course all I got was blurry green fuzz. I am sorry that I don’t have photos to share with you because it was really something: a visual treat. Every few seconds I would wake from a reverie thinking, “Wow, I’m really here.”

When my throat became painfully sticky, I would allow myself a ration: 3 sips of water. Or 3 slices of orange.

Sleep was out. The bed was only a inch wider than my hips. It was also about 7 inches shorter than my feet, which, because of my position in the middle bunk, constantly smacked people in the head when they walked by unless I pulled them up. Even if I had managed to find restful comfort in a cramped fetal position, the sampling of Chinese pop music that played for five minutes before and after every station was enough to make sure I was up all night.

So there I was, riding in the light, then in the dark. Reading and clenching my sphincters into submission.

I ALMOST made it. I held things together for 17 hours by sheer force of will, and then I simply couldn’t take it anymore. I ran like mad for the squatty potty.

When I tell this bit of the story, people always say to me “I could never!” or “How did you use that thing?”

I’ll tell you what I discovered 17 hours into bladder hell, holding on the handrail for dear life. When you gotta go, you’ll get over it.

It might take reserves of muscle strength you didn’t know you had.

It might take inelegant, fervent prayers like “Dear lord, don’t let me sh*t myself.”

But you’ll get it done.

Having finished, I felt like a hero. Scratch that, a ROCKSTAR. If I could handle this, I could do my business anywhere. “Bring it on, China,” I said to myself. Opening the door, I felt like the people in line should congratulate me over my accomplishment, but all I got was shoved out of the way by the next toilet user, desperate to relieve herself.

So I moved outta the way, washed my hands thoroughly and ran back to my bunk.

I was flippin’ starved!

"I'm a new soul, I came to this strange world hoping I could learn a bit 'bout how to give and take." ~ Yael Naim