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A Mysterious Chinese Fragrant Pot

A common mistake some foreigners make is thinking their Chinese friends are all experts when it comes to their native cuisine. I will admit that I have been guilty of that in the past. There are many errors to this way of thinking. For example, which Chinese food? It’s a huge country with many different regional cuisines. Once you factor in local delicacies, you can live a lifetime of trying a new dish everyday and still not have gotten to everything China has to offer an adventuresome eater.

In the end, some dishes are harder to research than others — even in Chinese. The restaurant 筋牛坐筋头巴脑香锅米饭 Jīn niú zuò Jīn tóu bā nǎo xiāng guō mǐfàn has been very difficult to figure out. Let’s start with the name, as half of it is easy to miss-translate into Chinglish. Following the rule of translate the easy stuff and leave the specifics in Chinese, I would call it Jin Tou Ba Fragrant Pot and Rice — or just Jin Tou Ba as a short form. The official sign outside the place says “Ribs, Head, and Brain.” I don’t feel comfortable saying that, so for me, it will be just Jin Tou Ba going forward. The other option would be the place’s actual Chinese name, Jin Niu Zuo.

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The frustrating thing is I really like the food here, but none of the Chinese people I ask know anything about this restaurant or the style of food. That’s weird, because every time I go here, the place is busy. I even asked my students at Hohai, and even they didn’t know. Hohai University is national institution and draws students from all over China. I often joke that while I am their English teacher, they are my Chinese cultural instructors. To use an extremely Chinese expression, it’s a win-win situation. Not one of my students said, “Oh, I know Jin Tou Ba!”

Okay, so enough of the personal mystery. What is the food actually like? The closest comparisons would be malatang 麻辣烫 and malaxiangguo 麻辣香锅. Even that comparison is not entirely accurate. Malatang is a soup, and Malaxiangguo I think is a spicy stir fry. The point of comparison with all three involves self service.

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Jin Tou Ba has a similar set up, but it results in a beef stew. A diner walks in, grabs a bowl, tongs, and selects from meat, vegetables, and dumplings. Then, they must choose from a series of pots of braised meat. A lot of those choices are organ meat like tripe, but the first pot is essentially braised beef. The woman behind the counter weighs your selection, gives you the price, and then asks your preferred spiciness level. I tend choose weakest option above “not spicy,” but you can get Sichuan levels of heat if that is desired.

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The quality of the food is very good. Jin Tou Ba has become a reliable and convenient lunch or supper option for me, as of late. The braised beef has always been tender and not over cooked and chewy. All of that is served with a simple side of white rice. However, I like that they have a hot pot condiment station. I always prefer mixing minced garlic and scallions into sesame seed paste (think, tahini).

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Changzhou currently has two of these places. One is on the pedestrian street at Xinbei Wanda Plaza. The other is in the basement of Injoy Plaza downtown. My average meal here has averaged somewhere between 40 to 50 RMB, but I have always left full and satisfied.

I still haven’t figured out what this food actually is. I have now sort of given up on figuring this puzzle out. It comes more from a memory of my mother. She had been experimenting in the kitchen, and I had been poking her creation tentatively with a fork. “Stop analyzing your food, Rich, and eat.” Sometimes, I just need to do exactly that.

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Obscure Tea in Tianning

I once used to search out antique markets in Changzhou. I did this because these shops are often places of forgotten history. Often, there are stories behind what some consider to be old junk, and I used to regard these things as puzzles to be solved. I would often buy an old poster, take it home, try to figure it out, get thoroughly confused, and then send a picture of it to a Chinese friend and ask what it was.

I actually no longer do this and prefer to find other ways to waste my money (beer). However, when I did, I ended up finding nearly every antique market in Changzhou. Like I do with everything else, it was a case of trying to find the right Chinese keywords and inserting them into Baidu Maps. In this case, it was 古玩 Gǔwàn. It didn’t always work. We are, after all, talking about Baidu Maps, which has had a penchant for red herrings and sending me into weird places.

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One of those locations involved tea. This would be in Tianning and down the Lanling Road from the Jiuzhou New World Plaza. It’s an obscure alleyway next to the Changzhou Revolutionary Martyr’s Cemetery.  Did I find the aforementioned educational junk here?

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No, it’s just a concrete set of alleys with places that deal in what looks to be gourmet tea.

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Did I buy anything? No. I normally rely on coffee or energy drinks for caffeine. I am an American, after all.  Also, the culture of tea in China is rich and complex, and even if I entered any of these shops with a Chinese pal to translate, I seriously wouldn’t know what I was buying or how to appreciate it. Then again, I never really knew what I was buying in my average Chinese junk shops. It’s just a matter of perspectives, I guess. So, forgive this outrageously bad pun, because I can’t resist: This area is not my cup of tea. For others, however, it might be.

Regarding Honorary Changzhou Citizenship

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Awards mean more when you never asked for them in the first place.

This is something my mother once said to me a long, long time ago. It was towards the end of my senior year of high school, and I had been named Athlete of the Year and was handed a trophy. Privately, I complained to my mother that I didn’t deserve the award. I only played football and wrestled because her and my father made me. I considered myself a punk rocker more than a jock. I never felt like I was a serious athlete, and my high school had plenty of people that were passionate about sports.

She countered by pointing out that I received a regional award earlier that year as a football lineman, and that I had placed sixth in Europe as a junior heavyweight wrestler. In short, she was saying, “Shut up and take the compliment,” but in a more diplomatic and motherly way. What can I say? I have been a stubborn person nearly all of my life. Part of my innate nature is to downplay everything I do as not important.

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That has to change. Recently, I was given the title of Honorary Citizen by the Changzhou government because of this blog and other things. This is the highest award a Chinese municipal government can bestow upon a foreigner. Part of me wants to shrug this off and scream I’m not worthy, but the ghost of my mother that lives in my memory — as well as my close friends — are basically telling me to stop trying to be humble and to just shut up and take the compliment. And, that’s what I am doing. It’s also part of a life lesson I have learned, recently. I don’t know how to take compliments. I always want to disagree. Yet, arguing with somebody about this is highly insulting to the person that wanted to give you the compliment first place. That’s not humility; that’s just being a obnoxious jerk.

I am grateful for the recognition. I feel honored in ways I could never fully articulate. I am also grateful to every person who has told me that Real Changzhou provides something meaningful to them. When you are a creative person, sometimes you tend to forget that the content you produce takes on a life of it’s own once you put it out into the world. Writers, painters, songwriters and artists in general have no way to control how people interpret the content they produce. Nor should they.

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So, where do I go from here? It seems to be the best way to show gratitude for such a big honor is not change anything — keep doing the thing that brought recognition in the first place. For me, that’s trying to learn as much about this city, it’s culture, and it’s history as possible. I always tell people this: living in China and writing about it in English is a never ending source of article, essay, and blog topics. The other thing is this: I really haven’t scratched the surface and I have so much more to learn. That road of discovery is one I plan on following for a long, long time to come.

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This vase, with “Changzhou Honorary Citizen” written in Chinese, was presented to me by the city. I am going to ask Hohai University if I can donate it to the library as a way of showing them gratitude for being a great place to teach.

 

Introducing Real Jiangsu

Real Changzhou will be a year old, soon. It’s kind of hard to believe one whole year has passed, both with leaving Wujin for Xinbei and starting this blog. However, I started to realize a limitation. This is not a self critique, but really an objective statement of personal reality. I love wandering around this city and writing about it, and I will continue to do so.

However, I also love wandering around Wuxi, Nanjing, Shanghai, and pretty much everywhere else in the area. And, there’s only so much of those experiences that can be used on Real Changzhou. So, it’s time this blog had a sibling. I am calling it Real Jiangsu. It’s the same concept, but it can be a home for posts about other cities, as well as Changzhou. This doesn’t mean I’m quitting this blog. I am just expanding my focus.

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A Cautionary Tale

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“You haven’t been updating your blog quite a while. Is anything wrong?”

I have heard this in last couple of weeks from people in person and via Wechat. The answer is usually the same. So, here has been what is up with me, lately.

The body and mind craves routine and pattern, and sometimes, when habitual things become disrupted, it’s hard to try and find that sense of balance again. About a month or more ago, I hurt my foot while writing something extremely meaningless for money. It may sound silly, but a person really can hurt themselves while writing. Being a writer requires long hours in a chair staring into a laptop monitor. It’s the incremental drip-drip of bad posture over a prolonged period of time — especially if you are sitting with your foot in a bad position. Like this…

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Because of this, I woke up one morning back in October with an extremely sore foot. It’s an affliction I like to call “Writer’s toe.” Essentially, after a long time in a bad position, the ligaments in your foot become sprained. It makes it hard to walk. You end up limping for a few days and it goes away. This was not the first time I had this, and it likely will not be the last. Instead of staying off my feet and letting those inflamed ligaments heal, I did something very stupid. I was up against a deadline for a magazine article I had to write. It was about Wuxi, and I needed pictures to submit with my text. So, I had to get on a train, go to Sanyang Plaza and take photos. For five hours, I limped around Wuxi with my camera. To make matters worse, I had to go to Qishuyan the next day on something related to my day job. More hours of walking on a bad foot. The day after that, I couldn’t walk. At all. But, like the hardheaded moron I can be sometimes, I tried to go on with my day to day life without properly resting and staying off my feet.

Then, I made matters even worse. This is the “cautionary” part that the title of this post refers to. After weeks of hobbling around Changzhou, I decided to let a traditional Chinese medical doctor “fix” my foot for me. He explained what he wanted to do via Wechat, and the translation function garbled it. I really didn’t understand what I was consenting to. He first gave me a general massage, and that was relaxing. Then, he started scraping my food with a piece of plastic. That was a bit painful. Then, he started stabbing my afflicted toe and ligaments with a push pin. It was excruciatingly painful. When I looked down at what he was doing, I saw he was squeezing out blood — almost as if he were milking my big toe. As a result, I limped out of the massage place in more pain than what I went in. More time went by, and I finally listened reason. I spent a lot of time on my sofa watching horror and sci-fi movies and eating delivery pizza. In short, never let a TCM doctor do something to you when your really don’t know what he is actually telling you. Had I knew he wanted to do actual bloodletting, I would have said no.

So, this issue with my foot was one matter. The other issue is balance in life. Once a routine becomes disrupted, it’s hard to put it back together. Plus, I have been trying to add new routines to my life recently. I also have monthly column in Open Magazine, and there are other things like Steemit.com where I have been blogging for money. I am going to the gym everyday, and today I saw that I was down to my lowest weight ever in China. Yay for me! Also, I am trying to learn a lot more about the technical side of computers and technology — which means my mind has been swirling with talk of motherboards, PCI slots, and driver software as of late. So, really, it’s a case of trying balance all the new behaviors and endeavors with the old ones of like my love of wandering.

Introducing Real Jiangnan

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There are two magazines about China in English that you can find around Changzhou. One is City Weekend. It covers Shanghai, and you can usually find it on the magazine racks at Starbucks. The other is Open Magazine. This one you can usually find at hotels and western bars and restaurants. The focus of that one is Suzhou, but in recent months, they have broadened their editorial focus to include Changzhou and Wuxi. I know this, recently, because I have agreed to write an ongoing column for them.

So, my monthly pages in Open will be called “Real Jiangnan.” For those who do not know, Jiangnan is a region of China that consists of parts of three different provinces. Changzhou, Wuxi, and Suzhou are all in the Jiangnan region. There will be a slight difference, though. Magazine articles and blog posts are not the same thing. Typically, the content on this blog ranges between 300 to 500 words. Things written for Real Jiangnan will be much longer, because the reading experiences between print and internet are much different. Also, I have agreed to not post any of those Real Jiangnan essays here. They are exclusively at Open. So, if anybody is curious, seek out a copy. They are free at their points of distribution.

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Pardon The Dust: Welcome to realchangzhou.org

So now there are two Real Changzhou blogs, The .com site is hosted out of  America, and the .org site is separately hosted out of Hong Kong. Some people could read the American hosted site, and many just couldn’t on their cell phones. It would load slowly and “hang” on a blank white screen. The idea was to have a mirror side on the Asia side of the Pacific to make pages load quicker in China.

Has it worked? I don’t know. I have been working on this all day and am getting cabin fever. What I have noticed is that this new site loads on my phone quicker, but then lags on WiFi — the complete opposite of the American site’s problem (quick on Wifi and sometimes not at all on data plans). There are a number of issues to also be ironed out. I am just saying these now …

WordPress as a content management system has been spotty in China as of late. This is not the WordPress that’s blocked by the Chinese government, but the system that can be inserted into an independent hosting plan. However, after spending an agonizingly frustrating day trying out other platforms like Drupal, I am going to try and make a go of it with WordPress. There are certain things in this platform that are tengentially linked to Google, like display fonts. Anything remotely linked to Google will slow a website down in China. The idea is to track those things down and switch them to alternatives to Google products. So, even this “new solution” is now a work in progress. I guess that’s Murphey’s Law. And, next time I see Murphey, I am going to punch him in the face!