Strawberry Picking

We went strawberry picking this last Friday.  Like all things to a Westerner living in China it was an adventure like never before.  I’m sure most of you have visited a farm or an orchard and maybe even been strawberry picking yourselves.  Get that picture out of your head and let me paint for you a picture of this experience:

Excitedly we get in the van, stocked piled with snacks and books to keep the kids satisfied as the strawberry picking place is an hour drive away.  Everyone is settled in and the adventure has begun.  Ayi Zou is sitting up front, conversing with Mr. Xu, the kids each have a precious beef stick in their hands and are as content as can be so the focus goes from them to out the window.

As we drive along all you see is a grey, dull landscape – and I truly mean grey and dull.  You will have never seen anything as grey or as dull as our area in China.  Even on a clear day the sky and landscape are dull and grey it truly makes you think wasteland, as if you are driving through doldrums.  Driving out of the city you will find random high rises that have popped up here and there without a real sense of belonging – as everything around them seems extremely baron.  You would expect to see villages but you do not as towering high rises have taken their place.  There are small crop fields scattered around, a small house/hut here or there, and more out of place high rises clustered at random places on the horizon but not much else.  So as you are driving there really is nothing to see, but you cannot keep your eyes from looking out the window as it is all still completely foreign to you.

About forty-five minutes later, it is evident that we are starting to get closer to the strawberry patch as the roads we are on become much more narrow and poorer in quality.  The baron land makes way to small walled structures and all of a sudden we are driving around an actual village and not just a random cluster of high rises.  The poverty and living conditions are astounding as you can see each dwelling is an extremely modest rectangular house with maybe two rooms.  Trash is everywhere, it is already everywhere in China, but you notice much larger piles of it as we drive along.  Stray cats and dogs are prevalent and what I can only assume what are irrigation ditches are littered with trash and discarded concrete and building material.  On the edge of the village are many elongated greenhouses with large rectangular concrete entry ways, that I must say are as much lacking in aesthetics as they possibly can.  The roads are down to one lane now and it becomes clear that our driver, Mr. Xu is unsure of where exactly we are going.  Luckily for us, Mr. Xu is excellent and when I sent him the business card for this place, he programmed the number in his phone.  So Mr. Xu got on the phone and got directions to the exact place where we were to pick berries.  This may raise the question of where the heck did I get my hands on a business card as such?  Most all information is passed down from expat to expat here.  From what I gather there may have been a school trip in the past which is where the card was obtained.

Soon we are on the road by a lady on a scooter.  Mr. Xu rolls down the window and I can only assume directions are being communicated.  We follow along for probably two or three more kilometers and stop just beside her greenhouse.  We all excitedly hop out of the van and prepare to pick strawberries.  As we enter the green house, we are given Styrofoam containers to pick berries.  The smell of strawberries is in the air and we begin to pick some of the most beautiful strawberries I have ever seen.  It does not take long to fill two containers, between the kids, Ayi Zou and myself.  The boxes are then weighed and paid for, and this is where it stung.  Strawberries are extremely expensive here.  In the stores you will pay around $3 for 16 strawberries.  Here I got two nice sized containers for about $40.  So as I’m reveling in the sticker shock of this little adventure, I start to notice that Ayi Zou has found celery and is excitedly picking stalk upon stalk of celery.  Meanwhile the lady that owns or operates the green house is neatly arranging a box of strawberries.  Not thinking much of this, I round up the children and head towards the van.  Mr. Xu at this time is holding and playing with the Newbie at the van and Ayi Zou is still in the green house picking celery.  So we finally get settled into the van and get ready to start the journey back and Ayi comes up with two arm fulls of celery, and communicates to Mr. Xu to go to the green house, in which he comes back to the van with the box of strawberries that was being prepared by the strawberry lady.  It then hits me.  We paid the Western price – Mr. Xu and Ayi Zou were getting compensated for us paying the Western price (insert mental note to self to negotiate next time).   In all honesty I am very grateful that Ayi Zou and Mr. Xu were given the celery and berries as I’m sure I paid for it, and if it were not for either Ayi Zou or Mr. Xu our lives would be so much more difficult than they already are.  We pay the ‘foreign’ or ‘Western’ price on many items here.  It is widely known that we get charged much more for the same goods and services received by locals – but hey what are you going to do?  It is not like you can complain, nor put strawberries back on the vine. 

Anyway, we finally get back on the road and start for home.  Only now, as we are trying to get back to a main road there is a cement truck parked at the next intersection and cement is being dumped in a huge pile on the road.  We are not able to go anywhere until the cement truck moves, so to Bear’s delight we get to watch cement being poured.  While all this is going on a worker moves beside the van and relieves himself for all to see.  And the only thing you can do is shake your head and mutter the words, “Only in China.”  Finally the truck moves and we start back.  Except this time Mr. Xu is taking us home a different way.  We turn left instead of back right.  This is no big deal except as we travel along we run out of road, and from what I can see Mr. Xu is trying to get us from the back roads to the main roads quicker.  And as we have run out of road, we just keep driving, much slower as to avoid all the pot holes and dips in the dirt/gravel.  We cannot turn back as this is clearly the way to go as there are semi trucks ahead of us, behind us, and on both sides of us all trying to drive the same direction.  This goes on for two to three kilometers and then miraculously a four lane highway appears.  Half an hour later we are safely home with our berries and Ayi’s celery.

Off roading in the van!
Off roading in the van!

Happy Easter!

Happy Easter everyone!  We have been busy busy busy!  Spring is finally starting to spring here in Teda, which means full blown allergies for this girl.  The cherry blossoms are out and the temperatures are becoming increasingly more consistent in warming up.  Today was a beautiful clear day.

We hosted Easter Mass this morning.  It was wonderful!  There were around 20 of us in attendance.  I find Mass to be very special here as it is always in someone’s home.  We have a Colombian couple that sing all of our hymns in Spanish, most of us take turns with the readings, and the children are often asked to participate in someway during the Mass.  Mass is very intimate with such a small group!  The large Catholic Cathedral in Tianjin is over an hour away, and we are fortunate enough to have Fr. Rindo come and visit us once a month and on special occasions for Mass in Teda.  Fr. Rindo often reminds us that this is how the early Christians worshiped before churches were built.  As it is Easter, we Catholics renew our baptismal vows to God.  Just as water is used in baptisms, holy water was sprinkled over us.  As we do not have all the tools an actual Church does, Fr. Rindo decided a pastry brush and a glass mixing bowl worked just fine.

After Mass we had a pot luck lunch.  As we are a very diverse community, the dishes brought to share were equally diverse.  It amazes me how a common religion can bring a group of people together, to create a bond between members that becomes so familiar.  Not always do we share a meal after Mass, but this time, and because it was Easter, it was very important to me that we did.  These wonderful people are my family in faith here.  By sharing food you get to know people just a little bit more as conversations arise.

After our meal, we held an Easter egg hunt for the kids.  We sent JD and Bryan down to hide the eggs then the rest of the group came down to watch the hunt!  I always enjoy watching the hunt – especially with the little ones.  The is the first time Bear actually understood what was going on and I think it is safe to say he had a fabulous time.  After the last egg was found, we headed back in for more great conversation and before too long Fr. Rindo had the kids arm wrestling.  I cannot tell you how much having this wonderful community has helped me personally with living here.

Tomorrow is actually Easter Sunday.  We will be having brunch with our neighbors as well as Warner and Baron (our New Chinese friends – the ones that took us to the Ukulele demonstration).  I made homemade cinnamon rolls.  It has been a pretty great holiday so far even being so far from family and friends!  Happy Easter everyone!  (I have to get to bed so the Easter Bunny can come!)

Happy Chinese New Year: Year of the Monkey!

I apologize for this post being late.  Between visitors, apartment problems, school break, and new baby I have not had a chance to publish this post about Chinese New Year.  Technically the Chinese are still celebrating even though work and school have started back up.  Anyway, I hope you enjoy:

Happy Chinese New Year!!!!  We celebrated the Chinese New Year at the Renaissance Hotel (our home away from home) thanks to another leak in our apartment.  We actually had a pretty dang good view of the fireworks from our executive apartment.  There were fireworks going off all night, starting early in the evening and waning during the early morning hours.   Fireworks are rather inexpensive here, so as you glanced out over the city skyline you could see many large firework displays at one.  Some were rather close to the hotel and would go off right outside the window.  I’m not sure I have ever seen so many fireworks in the air over such an extended period of time.  Unlike the Fourth of July in the States where towns put on large firework shows, businesses and individuals light their own fireworks.  Also unlike the States fireworks are lit off in the middle of streets.

This morning after breakfast, the hotel hosted traditional Chinese dancers to welcome in the New Year and bless the hotel (or bring good luck in the new year with lion dancers paying homage to one of the gods and warding off bad spirits and giving blessings to the hotel, staff and visitors).  It was fantastic to watch.  We had the opportunity to ask Fiona more about it.   The large gold boat looking object is actually a representation of what the Chinese currency used to be.  Depending on status and wealth the ‘boat’ could be gold or silver and it could also very in size (the larger the heaver and more valuable).  This would also denote class as rulers and upper nobility (per say) would have gold, business and trade smiths would most likely be able to obtain silver, and peasants would use coinage.  The character at the hotel represented good fortune and wealth to be spread throughout the hotel.

This past Friday we visited the Ancient Chinese Culture Street in Tianjin.  Walking down Culture Street right before New Year reminded me of the festive atmosphere surrounded by the anticipation leading up to Christmas.  Street vendors were out selling their wears.  You could purchase small animals made of bent palm branches, carved whistles, paintings, carvings, tea pots and tea sets, hats, scarves, toys, Chinese New Year decor, and much much more.

Ancient Culture Street Tianjin

It was rather chilly, but still enjoyable as we strolled along the street.  We came to a cross roads per say and there was a massive area set up with vendors selling New Years items including lots of signs and cut outs to hang in doorways and windows.  There was also a sugar artist creating different Chinese characters out of melted sugar.  The creations were amazing! This was a high light for the kids (both Chinese and my own).  According to Fiona this very traditional and the Chinese children look forward to having a sugar sculpture made for them each year.  We got a panda and Bear was lucky enough to have a small bird made just for him.

We also tried a traditional Chinese dish from a street vendor.  It was recommended we try this particular type of dish by one of JD’s colleagues.  I wish I knew what the proper name of it was.  It was served hot (which was nice as it was chilly) and it was almost like very sweetened finer porridge.  A few of the things I could pick out in it were dried fruits and sesame seeds.  I’m so glad we tried it – it is hard to describe but interesting all the same.

trying a traditional dish