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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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.
When I think of shaobing, the fried flatbread that has become a favorite treat of mine from my mother-in-law’s kitchen in rural Zhejiang province, I often recall a sultry August afternoon a few years back, when, amid the drone of late-summer cicadas, she invited me to sit at a wooden stool beside her well-worn cutting board to teach me how to prepare it from scratch.
Making her shaobing involves frying with oil at a high temperature, which might seem an unsuitable thing for the month of August, especially when the “autumn tiger” pounces across the country with its ferocious summer heat that lingers around.
But if you had ever sank your teeth into a piece of my mother-in-law’s shaobing just fresh from the pan－where the crispy, golden exterior gives way to a savory filling of onion mingled with salted bamboo shoot－you would understand that this irresistible delight inspires cravings that know no season or circumstances.
Besides, preparing her shaobing proved easier than expected－something welcome on those muggy days when you’d prefer to spend less time in the kitchen.
Shaobing, a fried flatbread stuffed with savory salted veggies and then pan-fried until crispy, is a treat enjoyed in China. This Zhejiang-style recipe is from my mother-in-law -- it's totally vegan, and wonderfully delicious!
Pickled or salted vegetable of choice(such as bamboo, mustard tubers or even olives)
Cold-pressed oil of choice(such as canola oil or olive oil)
Mince the onions and your salted vegetable of choice. Then mix them together with a spoonful or two of oil. (They should not be too oily – just enough to bind them together.) If the mixture is not salty enough for you, add salt to taste. (Note: There should be a half-half mixture of the onions and the salted veggie.)
Pour flour into a bowl and add in just enough water to make dough that you can knead without having it stick to your hands. On a cutting board surface, knead the dough until it is elastic, shiny, smooth and without lumps.
Roll the dough into a roll with a diameter of about four inches. Then, at about two-inch intervals, cut the dough with a knife into rounds.
Cradle the rounds in the palm of your hand, and using your fingers create a bowl-like crater. (Note: don’t make this too thin – the edges should still be around a half-inch thick.) Stuff it with the vegetable mix, then pull the edges of the dough over the top to seal it inside.
Place the stuffed rounds on a floured surface. Using your hand, press down first in the center of the dough, then out to the edges. Keep flipping it over and repeating this process, making sure to shape it into a circle, until it’s thin enough to roll out.
Using a rolling pin, roll the dough from the center to the edges applying medium pressure. Flip it over and repeat. Keep flipping and rolling out the round until the edges are very thin. (Note: the vegetable filling may occasionally poke holes through the round; this is expected with this type of flatbread and doesn’t affect the final product.)
Heat a spoonful of oil in a non-stick pan or wok over medium heat, or on electric fryer. Add the flatbread, cooking it until it no longer sticks to the pan and is crispy and slightly browned (about 1 and a half to two minutes.) Flip and repeat for other side.Once done, cut the flatbread into four pieces and serve immediately.
Imagine that, while riding the bus, a passenger approached you and told you to “go back to your country”.
That’s what happened to a friend of mine during her brief stint living and working abroad in the United Kingdom, a time that shattered the idyllic notions she once harbored about the West.
The animus behind this and other similarly racist encounters she experienced had shocked her. She had never thought people could be capable of behaving like that in public.
Her story, however, didn’t surprise me－and not just because I had seen many reports over the years on racism in the UK, or that I had read Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, British journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge’s award-winning deep dive into race relations in her country.
Rather, it was because I had lived a version of it in the United States with my husband Jun, when we resided there for nearly eight years. That period served as a painful education in just how widespread racism and discrimination was in my own country. I saw the many ways, both covert and overt, in which people treated him worse than his white peers.
I shouldn’t have needed an education like this to realize that the scourge of racism and discrimination still thrived in the US. And my friend shouldn’t have had to spend time in the UK to discover the truth there.
The protests that have emerged in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other people of color have made it impossible to ignore what has been dubbed the pandemic of racism, an epidemic that didn’t begin in 2020. It has infected societies like the US and the UK for hundreds of years－and it is not a relic of the past that has magically disappeared.
Author Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang recently kicked off a project titled Creatives in a time of Covid 19, and I was thankful she reached outto me for an essay about how I’ve been creative during this time. She just recently published my piece, titled When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Cooking. Here’s an excerpt:
The shiny new pressure cooker propped up in the corner of my kitchen in Beijing, China had become the latest cooking gadget I was swooning over before Chinese New Year’s Eve in 2020, when my husband and I would prepare a dinner to mark the holiday.
Days before this paramount holiday, as I was beginning a flurry of online searches under the keywords “pressure cooker vegan recipes”, news surfaced that Wuhan was going on lockdown because of a novel coronavirus outbreak.
Days later, the rest of the nation was urged to stay at home, avoid gatherings and wear masks due to the virus.
Most restaurants had already closed for the holidays, but my boss nevertheless urged us to avoid those eateries still doing takeout. “It’s safer to cook for yourself,” she said.
Even before the coronavirus, I preferred my own kitchen to dining out. Yes, part of it was my fussy vegan palate, which the Beijing restaurant scene could never entirely please. But cooking had also long served as a creative ritual that comforted and grounded me through ups and downs, as I tapped into the power of a delicious meal, which could redeem an otherwise mediocre or even disastrous day.
So as the virus threatened Beijing, I turned to the kitchen.
And since the virus is still threatening Beijing once again, you can guess where I’ve found my sanctuary these days. 😉
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