China Trip Preparation (and irony)

Our 16 year old son is going to rural China (Yunnan Province) for 6 weeks as part of a school program called China Fieldwork Summer. He is very excited about the trip (which makes him a better person than me).
There was a meeting the other night regarding the trip with parents and many of the students who are going. My favorite moments from the meeting:

– when the faculty member announced there would be no smartphones allowed on the trip (audible gasps of horror)
– a follow up question about whether the ban would apply to smartphones with the SIM card removed (removed—yeah, right)
– when the faculty member said, “Don’t bring hair products. There are plenty of hair products in China.” A collective shudder rippled through the row of high school girls. (Needless to say, the faculty member is male.)
– after being told that the area was socially conservative so no tank tops or short shorts are allowed, a girl raised her hand and asked, “How short are short shorts?”
– a follow up question about workout clothes and whether they were exempted from the tank top/short shorts ban
– a question from one of the students: “Is this trip like camping?”

and last but not least:
– parents who had expressed resentment that our son speaks Chinese (ruining the curve in Chinese class) are now ecstatic that our son speaks Chinese (additional translator on the trip)

A Palo Alto Wedding

I took our 12 year old son to Palo Alto for a cousin’s wedding on March 15.  We arrived in Palo Alto late Friday night (which was made even later with a request for a late-night snack of black truffle French fries).  Once we finally got up on Saturday, we made the obligatory brain-washing visit to Stanford and walked through the Engineering Quad.  It was one of those gloriously sunny 80 degree days that Palo Alto specializes in (what a woman I talked to briefly called “stupid nice”).

the Stanford Quad

the Stanford Quad

an aspiring Nerd Nation member

an aspiring Nerd Nation member

The wedding itself was one of the loveliest ceremonies we’ve been to.  I was only sorry that Jim and our daughter couldn’t be there, too.  And it was wonderful to see my parents and all my relatives and catch up on what they’ve been doing.  (Although our son, after being presented with a plethora of cousins he never knew existed, decided we had too big of a family.  He wasn’t reassured on being told that this was the less populated side of my family.)

the kayak wedding cake

the kayak wedding cake


note the Chinese Coke cans

note the Chinese Coke cans

Naturally, after a weekend of glorious weather, we came back to DC and had 10 inches of snow overnight.  School was cancelled on Monday, and I suspect it will be July before school finally lets out!

Year of the Horse

The Chinese calendar is a lunar calendar and so Chinese New Year falls on a different day every year (calling it Chinese New Year is actually inaccurate as many Asian cultures celebrate the Lunar New Year).  This is the Year of the Horse, which is supposed to be a year of high energy.

Different parts of China and Taiwan have different customs, although growing up in Kansas meant that our celebration was somewhat limited.  But there were still certain dishes that had to be part of the New Year celebration.  Noodles were required, as the length of the noodles represented long life.  Oranges were also part of the meal, as the word for orange (or, rather, tangerine) sounds like the word for prosperity or good fortune in Chinese.  We also often had dumplings (which are shaped like the gold coins from the Yuan Dynasty) and duck (because we like to eat duck).

We also lit incense to our ancestors, who had their pictures set out amongst bowls of oranges and other food.  Children were given red envelopes containing money.  Red is the color of celebration in China (traditionally, Chinese brides wore red as their wedding dress).

But, overall, New Year’s for us is what it is across many cultures.  An opportunity for family and friends to get together and celebrate togetherness, good food, and family.

Happy New Year!!


Sips & Suppers 2014

We attended one of the Sips & Suppers that were hosted last night.  Sips & Suppers benefits Martha’s Table and D.C. Central Kitchen.  Chefs from across the country (and sometimes from around the world) cook meals in private homes to benefit the charities.

Our dinner was prepared by Scott Drewno of The Source and Peter Chang of Peter Chang (he has pop up restaurants throughout Virginia).  The theme of the dinner was Chinese New Year (which is actually on January 31 this year–the Chinese calendar is based on the lunar calendar so the date changes every year).  It will be the Year of the Horse.

We started the evening with a variety of hors d’oeuvres, most of them very spicy (a specialty of Peter’s).  Accompanying these was a 2005 Vilmart Coeur de Cuvee champagne.

The amouse bouche was a Chinese tea egg custard, consisting of a lapsang souchong tea-smoked egg served with caviar on top.  I am afraid that all I can show you is the empty egg shell because I ate all of it before I thought to take photos (this will be a recurring theme in this blog post).

tea-smoked egg with caviar (empty)

tea-smoked egg with caviar (empty)

The first official course was a quartet of Chinese New Year dumplings.  The crescent shape of the potsticker dumpling is a similar shape to the gold “coins” from the Yuan Dynasty and symbolizes prosperity.  Accompanying these dumplings was a 2007 Louis Latour Corton Charlemagne.

assorted dumplings

assorted dumplings

The second course was a Chinese-style steamed lobster.  Red (the color of the lobster) is the color of joy and happiness in Chinese culture.  The wine served with this course was a 100 point wine, the 1999 Chapoutier Ermitage Cuvee de l’Oree.

Chinese-style lobster

Chinese-style lobster

The third course was a dry aged New York strip accompanied with a spicy five vegetable stir fry.  The five vegetables represent the five blessings of the New Year (longevity, riches, peace, wisdom, and virtue).  You’ll have to take my word for it that the presentation was beautiful, as I was too busy eating the dish to take a photo.  The accompanying wine was a 2001 Rudd Oakville Estate Proprietary Red.

The final course was a Chinese New Year tangerine cake and house made fortune cookie served with a banana custard with a blood orange glaze.  The pronunciation of the word “tangerine” in Chinese is similar to the pronunciation of the word “money” and symbolizes prosperity.  There were two dessert wines served with this—a 2009 Doisy Daene L’Extravagant and a 1927 Alvear Pedro Ximenez Solera.

tangerine cake, banana custard & fortune cookie

tangerine cake, banana custard & fortune cookie

The meal was a smashing start to what I hope is a fabulous New Year!

Another Authentic Chinese Restaurant (in northern Virginia)

100 Degree C (3903 Fair Ridge Drive, Unit H, Fairfax, VA 22033; 703-537-0788).  Its website is, and it is an appropriate website title.  The restaurant specializes in spicy Hunan cuisine, and it’s a great addition to the several Chinese restaurants in Fairfax that serve authentic spicy cuisine that gives no quarter.

Most Chinese restaurants have a “secret” Chinese menu, with authentic dishes listed and nary a word of English.  100 Degree C lists its secret menu at the front of its menu (in English and Chinese) with its American-Chinese dishes towards the back of the menu.  We strongly encourage ordering from the front.

We started off with the hot and sour soup, which was both hot and sour and generously laced with tofu.  It was good but didn’t stand out.  However, the spicy cucumber appetizer brought us immediately back to memories of Beijing.  Smothered in spicy chiles, the appetizer is not for the faint of heart but tickles the taste buds and challenges the palate.

The potstickers were not the restaurant’s finest moment.  The filling (you can choose from several types, but we had the pork and cabbage filling) was flavorful and generous, but the skins were too thick and a little gummy.

The dish that we judge all Chinese restaurants by (especially those that specialize in spicy food) is mapo tofu, stir-fried tofu with spices and chiles.  You can order this dish with or without ground pork.  Unlike the version served in Beijing, the Sichuan peppercorns are not served whole but ground.  The result is a more subtle pop of flavor in your mouth than you typically get with this dish. So, rather than a bite full of fire, you get a pleasantly tingly afterburn that grows with each mouthful. There is also less oil than in comparable versions (see my other DC reviews), but a quick reminder that the standard has a low bar.  We gave the dish our hearty approval.

One of our favorite dishes was the hot and sour chicken.  The hot is easily deduced from the hot peppers, and the sour is a result of the diced pickled green beans sprinkled plentifully throughout the dish.  It was a definite pleasure to eat.

Another favorite was the cumin beef. You obviously have to like cumin to like this dish.  The beef comes in tender slices, coated with cumin and stir fried with scallions and garlic.  (Very little that we ordered did not come with garlic.)  I like—I don’t love—cumin, and this dish was excellent.

Service, as with many Chinese restaurants, can be brusque and a little perfunctory.  It helps if you order knowledgeably (*not* shrimp fried rice, for example), and it helps even more if you speak Chinese.

We definitely plan on going back to try more dishes from the front of the menu!


Beijing & Hong Kong 2012

We had a fabulous trip to Beijing and Hong Kong!  In Beijing, we finally got a chance to see the renovated National Museum.  Jim and I had last seen it in 1987, and the museum now has more than 5,000 square feet of exhibit space.  The Chinese government had hoped to have it open in time for the 2008 Olympics, but differences on how to cover the various political events delayed the opening until about two years ago.

The museum has two wings–the Hall of Rejuvenation and the Chinese antiquities wing.  The Hall of Rejuvenation covers the history of China starting with the Neolithic age.  The more recent the events, the more amusing the commentary.  (Did you know that Sun Yat-sen’s revolution overthrowing the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 was incomplete because it was not a workers’ revolution?  Neither did I.)  The Chinese antiquities wing has some stunning pieces.  In fact, the exhibits are so extensive that we did not have time to see them all.  (A return visit is on the list.)  One of the more stunning pieces is this large bronze vessel from the Shang Dynasty (16th – 11th century BC).

National Museum bronze

For more about what to see in Beijing, you can go to the Travel section of my webpage.

We then flew to Hong Kong.  After several hours there, our kids independently announced that while they couldn’t live in Beijing, they could live in Hong Kong without a problem.  And it’s quite easy to understand why.  Hong Kong is a unique blend of British and Chinese culture.  It has the order and cleanliness of Britain with an overlay of Chinese culture, language, and commerce.  It is an amazing city!

We went up to the Peak to see some stunning views of Hong Kong:

the Peak

But, without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was Hong Kong Disney.  It was interestingly unique to see Cinderella’s Castle amid the surrounding countryside (typically, Disney likes to have the parks be a world unto themselves, but space constraints made that infeasible here):

Hong Kong Disney

I’ll have my Hong Kong travel tome up in the next couple of days with more details of where to go and what to see.

Chinese Water Clock

Our 10 year old is studying ancient China at school this year, and as part of the curriculum, he had to make a model of a Chinese water clock (being a boy, he was bummed that he didn’t get his first choice, the crossbow).  Fortunately, Jim is really good at these projects, and after a trip to Michael’s for the necessary materials, several copious applications of gorilla glue, and many, many tests on the accuracy of the markings, here is the water clock in all of its glory!

Chinese water clock

For those of you interested in the basic engineering of the water clock, water is poured into the top bucket, which then drains into the bottom two buckets.  The bottom bucket contains a stick inserted into a sponge.  An arrow is attached to the stick.  As the water rises in the bottom bucket, the stick also rises, marking the passage of time.  Sundials were used to calibrate the early water clocks, and the most famous Chinese water clock was constructed in 1088 by Su Song and took 12 years to construct.


Recovering From Family (not that I don’t love them!)

Thanksgiving is a holiday that we try to celebrate in the spirit that it was intended (no, not the Native Americans rescuing the Pilgrims and then getting destroyed by disease) but the spirit of gratitude and thankfulness.  This year, the celebration was a lot of fun.  We went to the Inn at Little Washington with some friends for the meal.  We were gone the weekend before to Miami for the Best Buddies Miami gala and going to Miami that weekend meant that Jim did not have time to brine a turkey, and we ALL know that you can’t have un-brined turkey for Thanksgiving.  My parents then came into town as my aunt and uncle who live in Bethesda turned 80 this fall (by Chinese counting, anyway–by American counting, they are 79).  Other members of the Liang clan also descended in the area.  It was really lovely seeing my parents and cousins, aunts, and uncles that I hadn’t seen in a while.  However, I am also thankful that Thanksgiving is a short holiday.  🙂  My cousin, Lucy, gave a speech in honor of her parents and asked me to interpret for the non-English speaking relatives at the dinner.  This was an immensely stressful obligation.  It’s much easier for me to translate from Chinese to English, so I spent most of the Monday of Thanksgiving week looking up all sorts of words in my handy-dandy translator that we got when we were in Taipei last summer.  And, of course, when I asked Lu, my co-founder who grew up in China how to say “with gratitude and appreciation,” he looked at me and said, “I have no idea.  Chinese people don’t say things like that.”  It’s nice to know that the lack of positive reinforcement in our family is a cultural thing, not a personal thing.

P.S.  The translation went over better than expected.  My aunt and uncle were certainly appreciative!