Wowed by Ningxia ‘Wonder Woman’ at Poverty Relief Plant – Pub’d on China Daily

Recently, China Daily published my most recent column titled Wowed by Ningxia ‘Wonder Woman’ at poverty relief plant. Here’s an excerpt:

Late into the evening during a recent trip to Ningxia Hui autonomous region, I couldn’t stop thinking of Hai Yan, a “Wonder Woman” I had met at a factory in Minning, operating in support of poverty relief efforts.

Her Cinderella-like transformation, which I had learned about in the course of a video shoot, left me feeling so inspired that I gushed about her to my husband in our usual nighttime video call, even though it was nearly 11 pm and I had to get up early the next morning.

As a child, Hai grew up in an arid, mountainous village deemed one of the most inhospitable places in the world for living. Photos of her at the age of 5 or 6, rosy-cheeked and dressed in a festive red down jacket, seemed to belie the hardships of her youth. She never finished primary school, dropping out to start working, along with her older sister, to support the family after their mother had become disabled and confined to a wheelchair.

Eventually she and the family migrated to Minning, moving into a Hui community with neat rows of one-story brick homes and willow trees, but even then her life trajectory diverged little from that of the typical local woman.

“Before I joined the plant, I was just a housewife and didn’t really have a lot of thoughts about my life,” she shared with me.

Initially, when Hai entered the factory as it first opened in Sept 2019, she was an average worker at the plant, sorting and packaging local specialty foods such as the region’s celebrated goji berries.

But when COVID-19 arrived in early 2020, a shift in strategy at the factory suddenly paved the way for her debut in the spotlight. The management decided to train the workers, of whom 99 percent are young women, to do livestreaming to promote products online.

You can read the full column here (and also listen to a recording of me reading it too). And if you like it, share it!

P.S.: You can see more photos of my trip to Ningxia in this photo essay.

Troubled Expat In Bed w/ Tokyo Gangster: ‘Lost Girls & Love Hotels’ Film

When Margaret (Alexandra Daddario), a self-destructive white English teacher in Tokyo, starts a kinky affair with Kazu (Takehiro Hira), a Japanese gangster, the last thing she ever expects to find is love — and the experience might just push her to the brink.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Catherine Hanrahan, “Lost Girls & Love Hotels” offers a seedier take on expat life through the troubled lens of Margaret, who spends her days barely hanging on to her position and her nights boozing and partying with friends, and stumbling through pay-by-hour love hotels with the Japanese men she picks up, in pursuit of unconventional sexual pleasures. But Kazu becomes more than just a one-night fling — and will falling for one of the yakuza put Margaret in even more danger?

Though “Lost Girls & Love Hotels” has drawn mixed reviews, earning less than 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, Daddario and Hira have good onscreen chemistry and make for a captivating couple. If you’re the kind of person who might enjoy a moodier film that drifts through the dark side of expat life in Tokyo, with a little unusual cross-cultural /interracial romance and S&M thrown in, give “Lost Girls and Love Hotels” a watch.

See the trailer on Youtube or, if you’re in China, on Acfun.cn.

P.S.: Looking for more films to watch? Take a look at my list of critically acclaimed AMWF movies.

Photo Essay: A Stroll at Beijing’s Summer Palace in September

Recently, Jun and I spent a leisurely September afternoon at Beijing’s Summer Palace.

We’ve missed the West Lake all these years living up in Beijing, and found strolling around the Summer Palace to be Beijing’s answer to our favorite destination in Hangzhou.

The Summer Palace is built around a lake (Kunming Lake) with many features recalling the West Lake — from its bridges and willow-lined causeway (modeled after the West Lake’s Su Causeway) to the pagodas and towers perched along the hills that frame the lake.

And did I mention the Summer Palace, like the West Lake in Hangzhou, also includes a number of osmanthus trees, which were just beginning to perfume the air with their heavenly scent?

One wonderful thing about the Summer Palace is that you can enjoy it at your own pace — and even take time to smell the flowers along the way — despite how many people there are.

It took us a few hours to circle the lake, and the experience left us with plenty of good memories — and the hope that we’ll return again soon!

Have you ever visited Beijing’s Summer Palace? What was your experience there?

Post-COVID Air Travel in China: Easier Than I Imagined – Pub’d on WWAM BAM

The group blog WWAM BAM just published my piece Post-COVID Air Travel in China: Easier Than I Imagined. Here’s an excerpt:

It was less than 24 hours before my flight to Ningxia was scheduled to take off from Beijing Capital International Airport, and already I found myself grappling with a new form of travel-related anxiety.

What was it like to go through the airport in China in the post-COVID era? Did I have everything I needed to ensure a smooth check-in, security check and boarding experience? Would I have a harder time as a foreigner?

I was already bracing for delays and hiccups, after being advised by a colleague to arrive at the airport at least two and a half hours ahead of departure because he said processing foreign passengers was “more trouble”.

So imagine my surprise the following day at the airport, when I breezed through every procedure in record time, without so much as an unexpected holdup of any kind. Going to the airport in China in the post-COVID era proved far easier than I expected.

Here’s a rundown of what I experienced while going through airports during my trip — to help you know what to expect next time you do any domestic air travel in China.

To find out what my experience was like with domestic air travel in China — and why it turned out to be easier than I ever expected — head on over to WWAM BAM to read the full post.

P.S.: If you’re curious about how the rest of my journey went, check out my post Photo Essay: Ningxia Video Shoot (More Than Just Goji Berries).

Photo Essay: Ningxia Video Shoot (More Than Just Goji Berries)

I just returned from a weeklong trip to Ningxia to do a video shoot, where I learned more about how the province is doing poverty relief, with the help of the internet.

Prior to heading to Ningxia, the greatest impression I had of the province was through one of its most renowned agricultural products — goji berries or wolfberries (枸杞,gǒuqǐ).

And, yes, I did get a chance to get up close and personal with goji berries, even enjoying the rare opportunity to pick fresh goji berries right from the plant. (Goji berries only stay fresh for about two to three days after being harvested, so they are generally sun dried into the wrinkly red-orange berries that end up in your kitchen pantry.)

But I discovered Ningxia offers so much more, in terms of specialty agricultural products — and also in terms of how those products have helped power poverty relief by the internet.

First stop — Minning Hemei Factory, which packages and sells direct a variety of local specialty products (including goji berries) which mainly come from Ningxia. All the products are natural with no preservatives, and purchasing them helps support efforts to relieve poverty — including at the businesses that make the products as well as the factory itself.

The factory, built right beside a Hui minority community, hires only Hui people to work for it, and 99.9 percent of the workers there are women.

Hai Yan is the young woman at the factory I got to know. She’s been working there for a year. Before coming to the factory, she was a housewife. And the working opportunity there completely changed her life.

She invited me to experience the factory, which meant getting suited up to dress just like her and the rest of the workers. Love the flowered gloves!

Initially, Hai Yan (standing beside me) worked on the lines in the factory, assisting with sorting and packaging. Here I’m experiencing what it’s like to package goji berries while talking to another woman who works at the factory.

But then, when COVID-19 emerged, the factory changed strategy and decided to train these women to do livestreaming. Most of the women, like Hai Yan, haven’t received education beyond primary school. But they were eager to learn and work hard. Through this training, the factory chose the six best women in livestreaming skills and created a team they dubbed the 巧媳妇 (qiăo xífù), which means skillful wives. And these women take turns doing livestreams throughout the week, where they promote the factory’s products. This is a screenshot from the livestream I did together with Hai Yan.

Hai Yan (standing at front) gave me a quick lesson in how to do livestreaming. Before, she used to be very nervous about livestreams — and now she’s teaching me how to do it!

We did a livestream for over 30 minutes together, where we promoted a number of the products at the factory, including goji berries and black goji berries.

Through the experience, I feel like I made a new friend!

She also showed me around her charming community, with its neat rows of brick houses. Her home is just a five-minute walk from the factory, and so are the schools for her kids. It’s incredibly convenient, and that’s a big reason why so many of the young women love working there.

We also had a conversation at her home, sitting under an apple tree. In my hand I’m holding an apple picked from her tree — so crisp, sweet and just a little tart, which is exactly how I love my apples.

Hai Yan wore her favorite hat. She told me that Hui women, after marrying, should cover their head. Traditionally they would wear a kind of hijab — but nowadays they may also wear fashionable hats too.

Then we ventured out to the beautiful big sky country of Ningxia in Yanchi county, where we visited the Ningxin sheep ranch run by Feng Huan (the man in the white jacket). He raises organic mutton that also helps support poverty relief.

The ranch has a specific flock of sheep raised to support impoverished families, where the proceeds help to pay for school tuition, health care or more nutritious food. And the sheep are sold online through an app, which allows customers to see what the sheep are doing 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the cameras set up all around the ranch.

The sheep are given high-quality feed and daily exercise to maintain an optimal weight, and listen to music each day. All of this care ensures the sheep are happier, which in turn leads to better mutton.

I got the chance to meet a sheep named Princess, who is a pet sheep around the ranch. Given the darling outfit of overalls and red striped shirt, Princess clearly gets the royal treatment around the ranch. She follows the senior man, Feng’s grandfather, around the ranch like a puppy and lives a charmed life (without, of course, worry of slaughter).

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for animals and had so much fun playing with Princess.

I even made friends with a bunch of other sheep, which astonished everyone, including Feng. The sheep usually fear strangers, but they warmed up to me and soon I had an entire crowd of sheep nuzzling my hand. Feng joked that the sheep “gave me good face”.

The landscape, covered in brush and hundreds of different herbs, such as the gorgeous purple huangqi (黄芪, huángqí) or Astragalus membranaceus, brought back memories of some of my favorite trips out in the western US, cruising through the prairie lands of states such as Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.

I couldn’t help snapping a few shots of the huangqi flowers, which looked dazzling in my favorite shade of purple.

Then we made our way to Xiamaguan village in Tongxin county, home to a factory producing a variety of grains, from oats to buckwheat and more. There I met the factory owner Wang Dejun, who quizzed me on the different grains they produce. I had to guess which name went with which product on the table. (I guessed right!)

And if you’re wondering why I’m still wearing that same purple jacket, it was really chilly that day — and even raining a bit in this very scene.

This factory employs people from impoverished households to help them improve their lives, and also assists poor families by raising crops for them and then giving them the proceeds. The grains they produce get sold directly on the internet through a variety of platforms, including my favorite of Taobao.

Wang took me out to the buckwheat fields, which were so beautiful and vast, surrounded by mountains, that I was inspired to belt out a rendition of the song the “Sound of Music”.

The fields actually sit on a high plateau nourished by the rain, and have never been developed, so they are unspoiled and produce high-quality grains.

Overall, I discovered Ningxia offers so much more than just goji berries, and is also making great efforts to help more people live better lives, thanks in part to the internet.

Traveling to China’s Ningxia for Video Shoot

This week I’m in the Chinese province of Ningxia (which is in the west, with desert areas, mountains and the Yellow River running through, and also the land of the wolfberry/goji berry). I’m in the midst of a very busy video shoot — but I promise to return next week with plenty of photos to share. In the meantime, hope you are staying safe and healthy wherever you are, and wishing you a wonderful week!

A Helping of ‘Guoji Jiaoliu’ Over Tasty Noodles in Hangzhou – Pub’d in China Daily

China Daily just published my latest column, titled A helping of guoji jiaoliu over tasty noodles in Hangzhou. Here’s an excerpt:

Years ago in September when I first started working in the city of Hangzhou, I had an unexpected encounter at one of my favorite pulled noodle carts.

One night several Chinese soldiers with short buzz cuts and light-green buttoned shirts displaying their military ranks sat down at one of the plastic tables beside me, as I was enjoying my usual bowl of vegetarian pulled noodles.

They asked where I was from. After I told them, the tallest and most muscular man of the bunch said: “I don’t like America. Americans don’t respect China.”

His words unnerved me. I knew Americans weren’t universally beloved around the world, but it was the first time anyone had ever admitted it to my face in such blunt terms. On top of it, the admission came from a man trained to fight and defend his nation against other countries, such as my own.

I didn’t doubt this man’s resolve to safeguard China – there was a razor-sharp look in his dark and steady eyes. Yet he also smiled at me at the same time. This expression of friendliness, though at odds with his response, moved me to continue the conversation, even if my fledgling Mandarin Chinese was still on shaky ground.

So I attempted to suggest an alternative explanation. “Americans just don’t understand China. If they really knew China, they would like China.” It was a very simplified version of my own journey from an outsider wary of China to one who had gradually come to embrace and appreciate it. “We just need more international communication.”

Read the full piece here. And if you like it, share it!

American Woman’s Chinese Husband Has Leukemia, Needs Help

Lita, the Atlanta, Georgia native who many of you may remember from a few years back when I featured her as China’s WeChat Cookie Queen, is facing great difficulty. Her husband was diagnosed in August 2020 with acute myeloid leukemia, and the family has no health insurance to cover the expenses for treatment:

Lujun “Lawrence” Wang is my brother-in-law, married to my sister Shalita. Lawrence was recently(August 2020)diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). The diagnosis has been extremely hard for our family. Unfortunately, during this uncertain time of the pandemic, we were informed that he needs to start treatment immediately. He will need a bone marrow transplant and 3 months of chemotherapy; all of which is very expensive. Of course, as we all have experienced, they have a financial strain due to quarantine and lack of work. They are paying out of pocket because health insurance was 1 of the expenses they cut back on earlier this year(prior to the diagnosis)to get through the financial strain that coronavirus has brought to this world. Lawrence & Shalita, being  faithful believers in God are both trying to stand strong and weather through the storm.

Here’s the Chinese version of the story:

尊敬的广大社会爱心人士,您们好:
我叫王兵,今年35岁,得病的是我哥哥叫王路军,今年39岁,家住湖北省枣阳市。2004年,父亲永远的离开了我们,让人没想到的是,如今厄运又一次降临在我大哥身上,他被诊断出了急性髓系白血病,不得已,我只能怀着沉重的心情在此写下这篇求助信!

2020年8月9日,我大哥工作的时候,突然觉得身体非常不舒服,恶心,头晕还有点发烧,感觉像中暑了一样。就赶紧去了浙江大学医学院附属第四医院做检查,经过几天住院检查,被确诊为急性髓系白血病,由于当地医院治疗手段有限,我们于2020年8月17日来到北京治疗。

2020年8月19日,经过一系列防疫检查,我们住进了解放军总医院第五医学中心南院(原307医院)。

从我大哥开始看病的那一天起到现在,身体一天比一天虚弱,一天比一天消瘦,而且在这一段时间里,我大哥反复发烧,最高烧到40.2℃。有时候一烧就是一晚上,根本休息不好。因为父亲离开的早,大哥就像父亲一样照顾着我和妹妹,看到大哥现在这个样子,我心里非常非常难过,我们全家人都在为我哥祈祷,祈祷他的病赶快好起来!

经过这几天在307医院的治疗,我哥的情况有所好转,他马上就要进行化疗,昨天还把头剃了,看着光头的大哥,我的心里有一丝想笑,但更多的是心酸。医生说化疗几次,要看我哥的情况,能不能把病情控制住,如果控制不好,甚至还需要骨髓移植手术。

由于我大哥社会保险和商业保险都没有上,所以他看病的费用完全是自费。我们只是普通的家庭,根本无力承担四五十万的治疗费用,如果后期需要移植总费用甚至高达80万。我哥平时工作就是给个人打工,我嫂子也没有固定工作,收入都不高。我也只是公司的一个普通职员,经济有限。

实属无奈,为了救我哥,我只能在此发起社会求助,希望广大的爱心人士能够帮帮忙,帮助我们顺利渡过难关,您的每一次转发都是对我极大的帮助,您的每一次捐款我都将永生铭记!未来我也会尽全力帮助更多需要帮助的人,让爱在人间传递,让困难不再无助,我急需大家的爱心帮助,感恩有您,祝您一生平安!恳请各位好心人士伸手相助,多多转发,您的每一次转发对我们都至关重要,每一次转发对我们来说都是莫大的帮助!

They are currently trying to raise funds to cover the treatment expenses through online fundraising on GoFundme and WeChat.

You can donate to help support them at GoFundme — or, if you have WeChat, you can donate through a fundraiser on Shuidichou.

But if you’re low on funds at the moment, even just sharing this on your social networks or with people you know will be an enormous help to the family.

 

Guest Post: My Parents’ Beautiful Interracial Love Story

Today I’m running a guest post and video from Youtube vloggers Pooja and Robbie, where Robbie shares a little about the story behind his parents’ interracial romance, along with a video.


When it comes to dating, most people find their partners through a dating app or social media. But what was it like to find your life partner before the internet?

My parents have been in an interracial marriage for the past 30 years, and they have a truly unique love story that started with a chance encounter with a complete stranger.

Just to give you a little bit of background, my father is Caucasian and lived in the United States while my Chinese mother lived in Singapore. Despite geographical barriers and cultural differences, they made a miraculous connection in the 1980s and are still happily married today.

This video is a tribute to their love story and how they met. I hope their story can bring encouragement to all of us. Our YouTube channel is about the unique experiences as a (Chinese + American + Indian) multicultural family living in Singapore.


Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

Recipe: Vegan Cilantro Pizza w/ Shiitake Mushrooms and Savory Eggplant Sauce

Jump to Recipe

There’s something magical about cilantro — something that will inspire you to new creations in the kitchen.

Here in Beijing, like many parts of China, cilantro is one of the most ubiquitous herbs. In fact, if you patronize local vegetable vendors, they often give it to you free of charge with your purchases, resulting in a treasure trove of the stuff in your crisper in the refrigerator.

Even better, my husband and I both adore cilantro. Just a whiff of the stuff, with its slightly peppery aroma, gets my mouth watering and often thinking about what to make for dinner.

So I started experimenting by adding chopped cilantro to bread recipes I was making from scratch. Yes, cilantro!

I got inspired from those recipes that typically call for you to add basil or oregano — but instead of those, I turned to the surfeit of that fragrant cilantro in the fridge instead.

As it turns out, fresh cilantro, paired with generous amounts of minced garlic, will transform any humble bread into something so fragrant and delectable that it could grace the menu of an upscale restaurant.

In any event, after discovering the super powers of cilantro, naturally I had to see what it could do when applied to one of the most beloved foods around the world — pizza.

However, pizza — at least the typical variety — can be a tricky proposition in our home for a number of reasons. First off, my husband isn’t a huge fan of tomato sauce (except on those rare occasions when it doesn’t taste sour). Second, I’m vegan. And third, sometimes the ingredients we have on hand don’t always correspond to what you might find at your typical neighborhood pizzeria.

But who says you have to follow the beaten path of pizza purists?

I noticed I had a round eggplant, which of course reminded me of the baba ghanooj (Middle-Eastern eggplant dip) that I prepare almost weekly at home. It suddenly occurred to me that I could use a sort of baba-like eggplant sauce — with, of course, generous amounts of cilantro and garlic — to slather on the pizza.

And the meaty shiitake mushrooms in the pantry would round it all out as a savory topping.

The result — pizza perfection for this vegan in Beijing.

Jun and I each took one bite and declared it the finest pizza we had ever sank our teeth into, with fluffy, aromatic crusts bursting with garlic and cilantro flavor.

Even better, it recalls flavors from the East and West, and brings them all together, a beautiful representation of my own life and marriage, right on the plate.

If you happen to have a bread maker, you can whip this up easily for an amazing pizza night. But no worries if you don’t — see the notes for instructions on how to do your own dough from scratch.

Also, if you love the dough but not the sauce and toppings, see the notes for some inspiration on how to build your own heavenly cilantro pizza.

Let’s make some pizza and rediscover the joys of cilantro!

Vegan Cilantro Pizza w/ Shiitake Mushrooms and Savory Eggplant Sauce

Jocelyn Eikenburg
Fragrant cilantro in the dough, a savory eggplant sauce and shiitake mushrooms as a topping make for a uniquely delectable pizza that's vegan and also echoes flavors of the East and West. Make the dough in your bread machine for an easy pizza night at home!
Prep Time 1 hr 30 mins
Cook Time 25 mins
Resting Time 30 mins
Course Main Course
Servings 2 people

Equipment

  • Bread machine (optional - see notes)
  • Food processor
  • Pan

Ingredients
  

Pizza dough

  • 15 grams fresh cilantro
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 360 grams bread flour
  • 24 grams olive oil
  • 6 grams salt
  • 24 grams sugar (I prefer brown sugar, but white is also fine)
  • 220 milliliters water
  • 5 grams yeast

Pizza sauce

  • 15 grams fresh cilantro
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 1 medium-sized eggplant (I prefer round, but any kind of eggplant that's good for baking is fine)
  • 5 grams lemon juice (fresh or bottled is fine)
  • 10 grams olive oil
  • ¼ small onion
  • 7.5 grams tahini or other sesame butter of choice
  • 1.5 grams salt

Mushroom topping

  • 5 shiitake mushrooms finely sliced

Instructions
 

Prepare the dough

  • Finely chop all the cilantro -- for dough and sauce -- then set aside in a bowl.
  • Finely chop all the garlic, then set aside in a bowl.
  • Add half the chopped cilantro and half the chopped garlic into your bread machine pan. Then add the flour, 24 g of olive oil, sugar, 6 g of salt, water and yeast into your bread machine pan as per your breadmaker's instructions (see notes for alternatives, should you not have a bread machine). Select the dough setting and start the machine (for mine, the process takes 1 hour 30 minutes).
  • Once dough is finished, let it rest for up to 30 minutes for fluffier dough (though if you are in a hurry, you can use the dough right out of bread machine).

Prepare the sauce

  • While dough is in progress, cut the eggplant into four equal pieces. Rub olive oil on the exposed meat of the eggplant, then place on an oiled baking tray. Bake for about 45 minutes to 1 hour at 230 C (450 F), flipping the pieces at least once during the process, and ensuring both sides are seared. Let cool for about 5-10 minutes
  • Peel the meat of the eggplant off the skin, then place eggplant meat into a mesh bag. Twist the top of the bag to place pressure on the eggplant, squeezing the majority of the water out of it. (Be careful not to squeeze too much -- otherwise you'll reduce the amount of eggplant).
  • Add the remaining half the garlic and the cilantro to a food processor, along with the lemon juice. Then add in eggplant, onion, tahini, 10 g of olive oil and 1.5 g of salt. Pulse it until the eggplant mixture has the consistency of a paste; the onion may still be in small chunks or pieces, which is fine.

Prepare topping

  • Finely slice the shiitake mushrooms.

Assemble pizza

  • Lightly oil your pizza pan. (I use a rectangular one that measures 22 cm x 30 cm (9 in x 12 in)).
  • Work the dough into the shape of your pizza pan, then transfer it to the pan and continue working it with your hands, pushing down from the center out to form a crust on all sides.
  • Spread the sauce generously on top of the pizza base.
  • Top with the sliced shiitake mushrooms.
  • For a crispier crust, brush the crust with olive oil.
  • Bake the pizza for 20-25 minutes at 200 - 215 C (400 - 425 F), until the crust is golden brown. Cut and serve immediately.

Notes

No bread machine? No problem -- you can still make this pizza by using the same dough recipe, but following instructions for making dough by hand. 
To make dough by hand:
  1. Dissolve the yeast in the water (making sure you use warm water) and let it sit for 10 minutes, until the water looks creamy. 
  2. Add the flour, olive oil, sugar, salt, garlic, cilantro and yeast/water to a large bowl. Mix everything well to combine all the ingredients, until you have a sturdy dough. 
  3. Cover the dough and let it rise until it has doubled in size -- for at least 30 minutes.
If you can't make the eggplant sauce, the cilantro pizza dough can pair well with other sauces. You could add a classic tomato sauce, or an olio e aglio (olive oil and garlic), or even a vegan pesto of your choice (I also love cilantro, olive oil, garlic and walnuts).
Shiitake mushrooms make for a savory topping, but they're not the only option. Any classic veggie pizza topping you happen to have on hand works great too.
Keyword cilantro, eggplant, pizza, shiitake, vegan

What do you think?