10 October 2012

Book Review: Home is a Roof Over a Pig, by Aminta Arrington

As more Westerners have lived for extended periods inside China, more memoirs and documentaries have been published about everyday life there, almost completely displacing traditional travelogues.  A 2012 release continues this trend; Home is a Roof Over a Pig, by professor and blogger Aminta Arrington.

In theme and style, this work resembles a mashup of Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy, and Dreaming in Chinese by Deb Fallows.

Like in Michael’s book, Aminta is teaching university students in a low-tier city who find themselves caught between traditional rural family-centered lifestyles and urban personal aspirations, and also between the rigid ideology of the gaokao exam system and the need to form their own understanding of the world and its knowledge. In both of these books the author struggles with the Prime Directive of not trying to impose American political and cultural attitudes on students yet still have honest and challenging class discussions.

Like in Deb’s book, Aminta uses her time teaching and interactions with staff and community to delve into learning Mandarin to genuinely understand the cultural expressions of the expressions she encounters, and to examine how the words that are used affect the attitudes and worldview of their speakers.  In both of these books the chapters are organized around a particular Chinese word or phrase.

Is this book merely derivative, then?  Hardly.

A key difference, and one I haven’t encountered much of yet in “Americans in China” literature, is that Aminta’s relationship with China comes through adopting a child from that country.

As a father of an amazing girl who came from China, I’ve wrestled with the same dilemma that Aminta describes: foreign adoption gives a child a loving home and a universe of opportunities, but it takes away the relationships and culture that were developing in the child.  Many parents do feel some guilt about this, and many of us to some degree try to incorporate our child’s birth culture into our own family lives. (That’s part of what weninchina.com tries to address.)  

For us, we were very fortunate to enroll our daughter in an amazing Mandarin immersion charter school here in Minneapolis. In Aminta’s case, both she and her husband were ready for major career transitions, so they picked up and moved from the Pacific Northwest over to China, along with their three young children.

So the third theme of the book is about the struggle to adapt to changes in culture: The Arrington children enter local preschool and Kindergarten with no Mandarin abilities, and over two years, grow in fluency and social skills. Their parents fight against the structure and sacrifices of Chinese life until they come to find the moments of beauty and parallels to their old lives back in the States.  There’s an irony of course that the desire to give their Chinese daughter “back” some of her birth heritage meant taking away some of the other two kids’ “American” cultural heritage (but as the family hasn’t moved back yet, the implications are unexplored.) Taking that idea farther, though, isn’t there something essentially “American” about starting fresh in a new place and reinventing oneself?  Perhaps the Arringtons are really rediscovering their own cultural roots?

Overall, we see that for this family, America + China = something bigger and richer for both the parents and the kids. Is this something for every family to try? Certainly not, but after reading this book I hope more families would at least like to visit Asia for a while – it’s OK to step out of one’s home culture to try new things.

There were several spots where I became quite frustrated with what I was reading – but now that I’ve reflected more, am glad she included:

  • Her attempts to micro-control the placement date in the adoption process (so as to avoid peak Chinese travel dates), and finding ‘patience’ through the lens of faith instead of coming to trust those who were doing the work behind the scenes
  • Trying to find the exact location where her daughter had been abandoned, and the official who “found” her – trying to micro-control a situation and bureaucratic process that had happened years earlier
  • Her husband’s refusal for months after arriving in China to even try to adapt to their new lives
  • Using a ‘composite’ of people to create the character of her building superintendent, but only revealing that at the end of the book

I got over the frustration by realizing the irony that I was trying to micro-control something that someone else wrote… and that we humans aren’t perfect; we all react to situations differently, and that these were things that happened where the family did learn something from.  As far as the composite character, he seemed more real than many other people in the book, but that’s the power of good fiction and good editing, and I give Aminta credit for that idea.

As I’ve met other foreign-adoptive parents, I’ve encountered a wide range of attitudes toward incorporating birth cultures into family life – including some who outright refuse to acknowledge it. On the other extreme, our best friends have taught in several schools overseas, taking their four kids with them on multi-year contracts. Will we end up overseas? It could certainly happen in a few years…  This book is in many ways a description of my own family’s alternate-universe life, and that’s ultimately what I found so personally compelling.

While it helps to know something about China when reading this book, it isn’t essential, and many families will be able to relate to the situations of feeling lost in a new place, making new friends, and learning new ways to come together and be happy. Especially for those who like to travel, I heartily recommend it.

Standard blogging disclosure: we came across this book at our local bookstore and paid for it with our own funds.

For other reviews of media, food, and travel related to Asia and its cultures, visit http://www.weninchina.com/Reviews/Reviews/Reviews.html

08 October 2012

Recipe time - Korean Beef Skewers & Ramen Noodle Salad

We love to try new dishes at our local Asian restaurants - and on the road, of course - but we also have a lot of fun making favorites at home, too. Our recent Mid-Autumn Festival meal featured a couple of company-pleasers I'd like to share with you today:

Clockwise from top: steamed rice (from our Zojirushi rice-cooker), deep-fried sesame-red-bean balls, the Ramen Noodle Salad, carrots and edamame, grilled pork tenderloin marinated in Cha Siu sauce, Korean beef skewers, and a lazy-susan of various fruits.

My wife suggested I try making Korean beef skewers based on a recipe from Oprah's magazine. I compared it to several other recipes I found on the internet and ended up borrowing some of this, some of that...  The pear is the special ingredient, and it adds sweetness to the slightly spicy sauce. You'll want to prepare this the day before you grill; the marinade works best if you let it soak in overnight.

About 2 lbs. beef - a sirloin or similar grilling steak - cut into large cubes, about 1.5" to 2".

1/2 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons of sriracha (a common Asian hot sauce)
4 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil (check your Asian market for this)
2 cans of sliced pears - drain the juice
1 teaspoon five-spice powder (the ultimate Asian staple seasoning)

Everything goes in the mixer (except the steak... ) for a quick and rough blend.  Pour the mixture into a gallon Ziploc bag, add the beef cubes, and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight.

Grill these on bamboo skewers that you've soaked in water for about 20 minutes.  Rotate the skewers for even heating - I find about 15-20 minutes total cooking time is sufficient.

The marinade is a nice rich orange color going on.

This Ramen Noodle Salad has been a consistent winner at potlucks, and packed with all sorts of good nutritious things. You'll want to use your largest mixing bowl, as it makes enough for a full office party...

1 bag of pre-chopped coleslaw salad mix (or you could do it the hard way with a head of Napa cabbage, carrots, red cabbage...)
5 green onions, sliced (I like to cut them on the diagonal instead of straight down; this is a Cantonese cooking trick that brings out more of the oniony flavor)
1/2 cup sesame seeds (most recipes have you sautee them in butter; not worth the time & trouble)
1/2 cup roasted almonds
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup sunflower seeds (pumpkin seeds make a nice seasonal touch, you could use pine nuts too)
1 small head broccoli
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
3/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
1/2 cup salad oil (canola or something very light, I keep cutting back on the oil)=
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil (this adds unique nuttiness)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 cup cider vinegar (I've tried xiaoxing wine but haven't been happy with the results)
2 packages dried Ramen noodles, crushed

Thoroughly mix the sugar, five-spice, and liquid ingredients in a smaller bowl and set aside.

Place the coleslaw mix, ramen noodles (take out the seasoning packets...), and all the fruits, nuts, and vegetables in your large bowl. Toss these ingredients a couple times.

Whisk the liquid mixture again - you're wanting the oil, vinegar, and sugar to be well-blended - and pour over the dry ingredients.

Again toss the salad - thoroughly distribute the dressing and make sure the smaller pieces are evenly spread through the bowl.  Cover this with clear wrap and let sit in the fridge for several hours / overnight before serving.

Tonkatsu Ramen, a new family favorite!

My wife tried something new at the always-awesome United Noodles here in Minneapolis this weekend: tonkatsu ramen.  It's now one of her "happy foods"- and likely one she'll ask for when cold & flu season rolls around!

Look at that wonderful milky broth (it's not cream, but part of it's pork fat) - the bright red pickled ginger, the beautiful chunk of pork...  This bowl is HUGE - the same size you'd get a serving of pho in!
There's a tea egg in there too - nice rich flavor.  When you stir the ginger into the steaming broth, the whole bowl becomes sweetly aromatic. Plenty of bean sprouts and bok choy are mixed in with the chewy ramen noodles - this was easily a two-person serving.

07 October 2012

Urban wildlife likes the Zen Garden, too

It's been dry here in the Twin Cities, so I've been giving the trees a good soak before winter sets in. Over the past week or so, when I set the lawn sprinkler up to cover our Japan-inspired garden, we get dozens of these cute (and fairly tame) fuzzy gray birds who perform aerobatics in the spray and perch themselves on the pine boughs for a long soaking shower.

We get robins, blue jays, chickadees and more alongside this flock, but none are so darn cute or seem to take such enjoyment in what I'm giving them.  My wife says after they're done, they probably fly to a neighbor's yard to hang up her laundry, and then go tie bows on squirrels...

Wish I knew what species these guys are ... they have black eyebands and a bright yellow stripe at the tip of their tails.