25 February 2013

Yummy nougat candy from Taiwan

For Chinese New Year, we have a tradition of getting together with the other Minneapolis-area families who were in China to adopt their kids at the same time we were. It's always fun to see how all the kids have grown and what the similarities and differences are as more of their lives are spent in the States. It's a potluck dinner, and I always try to bring a few unexpected treats.  I came across this charming little box of candies at United Noodles - I didn't need to know the character for "milk" to know what was going on here...
Given the size of the illustration on the box, I had thought that perhaps the nougat-with-peanut bars were going to be a bit bigger, more like a "fun size" Snickers - but as you can see in this photo they are closer to Tootsie Roll size. However, the carton was packed full of them and all the families and kids were able to have as many as they wanted.  The texture is semi-hard but it softens up after just a moment in your mouth, and then it tastes just like a Snickers but without the chocolate and caramel...  Everyone liked them & I only had a handful to bring back home :)

17 February 2013

Book Review: Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin

Grace Lin has followed on to her Chinese fantasy-adventure novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon with a prequel, Starry River of the Sky, set about 150 years before the events in the first book and sharing some of the same characters, places, and artifacts.

Again, Grace writes children’s literature with unconventional structure and against conventional wisdom of how to tell stories to pre-teens. She devotes significant amounts of time to the actions and inner thoughts of adults; matter-of-factly shows behaviors like drunkenness, child abuse, and kidnapping; and demonstrates the psychological impacts those behaviors create. The story does not persist on negativity, however; the characters do what they think they need to do to move on (perhaps a good lesson for adults and children alike.)

Like the first book in this series, the key theme in Starry River is “running away.” Here, the main character, a boy named Rendi, has escaped his father’s tyranny. The family he encounters has suffered from its eldest brother running away, and the father running from his own feelings. The town he lands in has almost completely fled from environmental tragedy. Two mysterious travelers he befriends are far from their mythological roots, and even the moon itself has fled from the sky.

The structure of the two books are similar as well, as characters regularly pause in the action to tell stories of personal history and myth, in between events that happen in the story’s “real time.”

But in contrast to the first book, with all its characters in constant motion across vast distances, here the action stays mostly in one building (fittingly, a hotel), and all the characters have come to a stop in their travels.

And while Where the Mountain Meets the Moon incorporates elements of Chinese New Year folktales (defeating a supernatural child-eating beast, festivals involving an entire town, the yearning to go home to one’s family), Starry River of the Sky dives into tales of the Mid-Autumn Festival ( Earth having multiple suns which had to be destroyed, gathering to watch the moon, a pill of immortality).

At the end of both books, those who have run away decide to return to their homes, their hearts, their destinies. Starry River does not explicitly tell us what happens immediately afterward, but those characters’ later actions directly affect what happens in Mountain.

I wondered how my first-grader would handle the lack of “action” through the main part of the story, but I need not have worried: she was captivated with the well-paced character development and side stories. When the dramatic events finally come, it is the satisfying culmination of both what the characters have done in “real time” as well as through the long arc of mythology.  Like the earlier book, I’d say a third-grader would be able to handle most of this independently, and again it makes for great bedtime reading as the chapters are about 5 to 10 minutes long.

  • Do you need to have read Mountain to follow the events in Starry River? 
While it helps, each story can stand on its own. In fact, the books could even be read in opposite order without spoiling any surprises!

  • Do you need to be familiar with Chinese mythology to enjoy Starry River?
If you do know some of the stories and language, you’ll recognize some foreshadowing in character names and have fun comparing how the myths parallel what’s told in the book. However, Grace has given the gods some breathing room and a fresh interpretation. And in fact, for any given myth or historical person at any part of the year, you’ll find there are a number of folktales, some of which completely contradict each other!  

With this rich cast of characters’ families and well-imagined landscape of cities and countrysides, there’s plenty of room for several more books. My daughter is already asking if and when Grace will release the next volume!

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

For other reviews of books, media, and products about Chinese and East Asian culture and travel, visit our Reviews section of weninchina.com.

10 February 2013

New Year meal: Obento-ya, Minneapolis

I took my wife out to Lunar New Year / Valentine's lunch yesterday at our local Japanese izkaya Obento-ya. The food was wonderful and the service super-prompt and attentive.  (They were having a rough patch this past summer but the operation seems to be back on top.) Business has picked up for them, too - if going to dinner you'll definitely want to make reservations.

Prices are quite reasonable - we got all this and a pot of tea for just $30:

This is the "house ramen" - as you can see this is a pho-sized bowl with lots of kelp and noodles, and a generous amount of pork! The tea egg is extra & was done perfectly; beautiful golden yolk that blends perfectly with the broth.
This is the Makunochi bento - their "combo" platter showing off all the wonderful things they can do to protein. The yakitori beef could be put on a bun & put Arby's out of business... the salmon was crispy on the outside and wonderfully chewy inside... shrimp the perfect combination of savory and sweet.  In the upper left corner - Japanese potato salad, creamy like mashed potatoes with Qupie mayonnaise and bits of apple (!) in it.  They could sell this by the tub.
The bento combo comes with a cup of their miso soup, too; just the thing on a cold wintry day. So simple but it gives me such joy to smell and taste this!

05 February 2013

Travel Haiku

Inspired by a post by @japantouristjp ...  #trahaiku are travel-themed 5-7-5 syllable poems about travel, Japan / East Asia, or the intersection of the two...  Here are a few I wrote today:

Coffee, cream, sugar
Waiting for the boarding call
Clouds swirl in my cup

Yamanote Line
brings me where I need to be
and circles back home

Narita Airport
All laid out so precisely
Model, or real life?

Lunar New Year blooms
with fireworks, laughing, smiles, and
 hope flowers again

03 February 2013

Book Review: Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

We want clever, resilient, globally-savvy kids, right? Kids who use their initiative, practice compassion, and try to solve problems? Kids who honor their parents, seek knowledge, and earn others’ trust?

But what if your preteen daughter – motivated to improve your family’s dreary and difficult life – decides to strike out on her own, with no map or communications home, with no companion or protector?

Books for younger kids are “supposed” to show easily-classified motivations and actions, with just one ethical viewpoint and no moral ambiguity. Running away from a loving albeit poor family? Unheard of!

In classic “hero’s journey” tales, we never see the effects of the main character’s actions on those left behind. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon is unusual for children’s literature in that so much of the book is focused on adult characters and their own internal challenges. And yes, there’s a lot of exposition, which ordinarily would turn a first-grader off. But here, it works, because the stories the characters tell each other are where much of the conflict and action takes place.

Also unlike typical kids’ stories, told in a straightforward this-happened-that-happened fashion, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon uses a deliberate narrative structure that parallels the main theme of the book: the characters’ stories and relationships weave a tapestry that adds insight and meaning the further you read – telling a story of the literal threads of destiny.

There’s also another parallel element at work to notice in the book, too: many characters are in some way “running away” – some from physical danger, some from uncomfortable emotions, some chasing a dream.  This movement – from place to place (across China) and time to time (over hundreds of years) – provides the framework where the characters’ stories come to life.

In a “hero’s journey,” the main character eventually completes a task and returns in triumph, and readers will not be disappointed with the hoped-for outcome of this story. And in the “returning” there’s an important lesson that many characters come to grasp: that while one can strive for something better, one must appreciate the elements that are good about the situation they are in right now.

Author Grace Lin (well-known and loved for her illustrated children’s books like Dim Sum for Everyone) draws from traditional character types and motifs of Chinese folktales – but this epic adventure is her own original story, set in an ancient China with great cities and vast stretches of unpopulated wilderness – where legendary creatures and supernatural beings have moved from everyday life into the realm of legend, but still exist for those who know where to look.

The chapters in this book are well-sized for bedtime reading (and easy to “read just one more” to your child without committing to another half-hour before lights-out.) My first-grader followed along with great interest and asked many insightful questions along the way – and a third-grader should be able to independently read most of the book. There are no Chinese characters or words used in the text, so it’s completely accessible to English-speakers. Even if you know nothing of Chinese legends you’ll still grasp everything that happens in the story.

Whether you’re new to Asian stories, or are well-versed in the films, anime, and novels based on old legends, this book is enjoyable for kids and adults alike.

(There’s also now a “prequel”, Starry River of the Sky, which we’ve also just read and enjoyed - review to come!)

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

For other reviews of books, media, and products about Chinese and East Asian culture and travel, visit our Reviews section of weninchina.com.