Winter is coming and I could not be happier. I mean the season, not the David.
It’s been a lovely 20 something degrees for a few days, we’ve had rain, we’ve had a reason to close all our windows and dust off the winter duvet again. There is just something better about sleeping under a heavy duvet than a light sheet. That said, though, it is looking quite miserable and the air quality has decreased visibly.
(I wrote the above a few days ago. It is now back to over 30 degrees.)
As you may have guessed, this marks the middle of autumn. The holiday is a time for families to get together. The festival date changes according to the moon, but it always falls on a day of full moon. It was traditionally a day to give thanks to the moon as moon has a close relationship with the seasonal changes and the harvest. Nowadays, it is a day when lots of moon cakes are eaten. These are little round pastries filled with nuts, red bean paste, meat, eggs, jam…anything really! They come in lavish boxes and can cost thousands of Yuan. They are given as a gift to family, employers, bosses and to anyone who needs to be bribed. I haven’t met many people who actually like these cakes, so I have gathered that the act of giving the moon cakes is more significant than actually eating them.
Bonding time at EF
We have been working hard throughout the summer, so EF decided to send all the staff on an outing. All four EF schools of Xi’an got together in the north of the city to relax, have fun and bond. It was nice to have both the foreign and the Chinese staff attend, however groups divided by nationalities occurred quite naturally nonetheless.
We arrived at a nice hotel/resort in the morning and had a tug-of-war (köievedu) competition on a concrete square. We were a bit worried at first by falling all over the concrete and injuring ourselves, but luckily the only injured one was my broken shoe. It was really nice seeing the Chinese staff get very excited and competitive as they yelled ‘come on’ in Chinese. After this we had a three legged race and then it was time for the group photo, which took longer than I expected thanks to lack of logic and organisation.
The place we stayed at was surprisingly nice in a village-style setting. We were surrounded by ugly apartment buildings. We had lunch, where we ate like kings and some of the offerings included clotted pig’s blood soup with chillies, extremely deep fried whole chicken, persimmon pancakes (very nice Xi’an speciality), meat with cake sprinkles and so on.
All the EF Xi’an bosses were there and came round to each table to toast with us, which was nice of them. We then noticed all the tables of Chinese staff later going over to the bosses’ tables. Apparently this is to tell the bosses how much they enjoy working for EF and what a wonderful place it is. David and I found this kind of employee behaviour quite subservient. It felt very forced and unnatural for them to do this, but it was expected, so they did it.
Once we had been sufficiently stuffed we all went to a “park” together. To name this place a park is an exaggeration. It is an area of land where you can do various activities from bowling, to go karting, to camel riding to sliding down a grassy hill using a chair with wheels. The place looked like it had been left unattended for years – it was overgrown, dirty and just strange. There were some fields of vegetables in the middle of it, a huge field of corn left to dry, roadworks going on and things being built. Welcome to development Chinese style. I believe that piece of land used to belong to farmers, who were kicked off for “the greater good of Chinese people”.
David brought his tennis racket in the hopes of being able to play, but we only found some overgrown badminton courts. Playing tennis for an hour in Xi’an costs 900 RMB, which is about £90! I decided to go camel riding, but found out that the camels were malnourished and badly treated and decided not to go.
So we all headed for the go karting only to find a huge queue. We decided to do bowling while the queue reduced, but after a few hours we found the queue had increased. We decided to wait anyway. There were two types of karts – slow and cheap and fast and expensive. David got very excited and went for the fast ones. He believed he was Mika Häkkinen for a moment. He beat all the others on the road and didn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the day. I also kicked ass.
We headed back to our hotel, had a buffet dinner, sang some songs and went to sleep. The next morning we were faced with Chinese breakfast. I like Chinese food a lot, but I cannot handle their breakfast. It is basically a cold dinner. They have noodles, fried rice, fried vegetables, pickles and so on. No tea, no coffee, only lukewarm UHT milk. Luckily they had some biscuits, so I had about ten of them for my breakfast.
We went back to work for a week and now are on holiday again – this time for National day, which marks the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The whole town is decorated with Chinese flags, we are expecting lots of fireworks and patriotic speeches and military parades in the next couple of days.
The compulsory food section
Food is very plentiful right now. Pomegranates are in season and they are everywhere. The main street running from south to north Xi’an is lined with pomegranate trees, which are laden with fruit. People usually just eat the seeds by themselves, but there is a lot of pomegranate juice being made in the Muslim quarter.
Grapes are in season as well, but I am not a big fan of Chinese grapes. They are not very sweet and have big pips inside. And then we have what are called Chinese dates or jujube, which taste like very dry apples. The taste is sweet and pleasant, but the dryness makes your mouth uncomfortable. They are part of the buckthorn family, which has recently become very popular in Estonia (astelpaju).
I have also found another Xi’an speciality called biang biang mian. The word ‘biang’ is meant to represent the sound of slapping the uncooked noodle against a table while pulling it to make it longer. It is one of the most difficult characters to write in Chinese as it has over 50 strokes.
The noodles themselves are very long (up to 3 metres) and about 3cm wide. They are served with meat, stewed vegetables, vinegar, oil and sesame seeds or peanuts. It’s a nice change of flavour to the usual chillies and Sichuan peppercorns.
And finally and most importantly – I bought an oven. I made a roast, which took half a day because the oven is too small and I can only cook one thing at a time, but it was worth it. I’ve been eating roast potatoes nearly every day.
My mum will arrive next week, so the next blog post will be all about the touristy things we did.