hei/hey there!

When I was living in China, I met a ton of non-native English speakers. Not only Chinese people, but also a lot of European foreigners, many of whom had a very tenuous grasp of the English language. Some of their English was near-native. Some of their English downright sucked. But even if their speech was flawless, spelling and written grammar often proved massive hurdles.

I’m not disparaging them in the least. Goodness knows my Mandarin is merely decent and my French is just a step above abysmal. To even know (or attempt) a second language is a massive feat—one that many, many Americans don’t even bother trying. So when I got a letter from A, a French woman who has lived in China for a really long time, I couldn’t help but smile at her opening: Hei.

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I’m guessing she was going for “Hey.” The funny thing is that in China, “Hei” that would actually be somewhat correct. “Hey” is a loanword that many young people use, and when written in Chinese, the character 嘿 (hēi) is used. The character is basically just a sound word/interjection that places a 口 (mouth symbol) next to 黑 (word for the color black), visually representing the sound (but not meaning) of the word for black. And when written in pinyin (romanized), it’s h-e-i.

So basically, it’s kinda like playing telephone. From English to Chinese to Chinese-tinged Franglais, hey becomes 嘿 which becomes hei.

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uniquely asian: the potato chip saga

A while back I had remarked about the weird flavors of potato chips on offer in Shanghai. Well, I thought I’d take things a step further. So here’s my review of Wasabi Shrimp and Spicy Green Peppercorn Fish. Ah Lay’s, I know you’re trying to cater to the very-lucrative Asian market, but … slow your roll.

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First of all, I have to admit that I’ve never liked wasabi. The worst thing that could happen to me when eating sushi would be that the fish or roll would run into that glob of green nastiness. So in a way that potato chip flavor was successful, because the wasabi taste was definitely present – but I had to chuck the bag because I couldn’t get beyond three chips. I could taste a hint of the shrimp, but it was pretty much all wasabi to me. Spicy Green Peppercorn Fish, on the other hand, I finished. It was reminiscent of the dish – all pepper and not fishy – but not too spicy or numbing, so my palate could cope. It wasn’t particularly great and definitely won’t make my list of favorites or go-tos, but it was interesting in an entirely tolerable sort of way.

Verdict: Avoid Wasabi Shrimp (unless you happen to really like wasabi) but give Spicy Green Peppercorn Fish a try … it’s definitely Chinese-y.

fortune cookie, the restaurant

Simply to-die-for amazing. One bite in and I was back in New York in my pajamas, foot propping open the door while awkward signing the credit card slip on my wall, itching to grab the plastic bag filled with takeout cartons. Ah, good times. Oh, and they give those fried crispy noodly things with the super sweet dipping sauce as an appetizer! Yay!

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American Chinese food. In China. GENIUS. The restaurant is located in a heavily foreign food-laden area, but its location on the fourth floor made it a bit difficult to find. The interior was nicely done and you can definitely tell a lot of thought went into designing the place, even down to the menu. I went with a local friend, and whereas she usually does the ordering at Chinese restaurants, I totally took the reigns here … and gleefully over-ordered.

The egg roll, moo shu pork, General Tsao’s beef, and tofu chop suey were all fantastic. Just the way they should be in proper American Chinese style: the egg roll had a thick chewy/crispy skin, the moo shu pork was served with the thin pancakes and hoisin sauce (to wrap ’em like burritos), the General Tsao’s was the perfect sweetness with just the right amount of batter, and the chop suey had a good thick sauce as well.

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In short: Fortune Cookie is fantastic. It’s been getting quite a lot of press recently, and for very good reason. With how many expats there are in Shanghai, an American Chinese restaurant makes complete sense. Back in the States I’d joke that American Chinese food is ‘fake Chinese’, but they’re truly two entirely separate cuisines and should be evaluated on their own merits rather than be compared to what’s ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’. Authenticity is overrated anyhow. In today’s age of merging cultures, dismissing innovation in an attempt to protect the sanctity of past culture is simply naïve.

Perhaps it would be better accepted if we called American Chinese food ‘fusion’ instead … perhaps then the Chinese people will stop yakking on about how we’re butchering their dishes and using way too much sugar. But in a way, saying American implies fusion, because that is the American way.

Fortune Cookie
fortunecookieshanghai.com
4/F, 83 Changshu Road, Xuhui District, Shanghai
Sunday to Thursday, 11:30 AM – 10 PM
Friday to Saturday, 11:30 AM – 11 PM

eight treasures = rice pudding = ba bao fan

I really don’t think it’s fair to call this most yummy of desserts ‘rice pudding’, which I associate with nasty gooey white stuff, but that’s what it says on the can. In Chinese it’s called bā bǎo fàn (八宝饭), which literally translates to ‘eight treasures rice’ … but I think most direct translations sound weird. For instance, no one wants to eat ‘saliva chicken’ (I saw that as a menu option once). Instead I tend to use Chinese or Chinglish or a made-up translation that I prefer. I simply call this dish ‘ba bao fan’ because the relative translation is weird too. Because this dish ain’t gloopy. It ain’t pudding.

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It’s sticky rice with red bean paste inside, and eight types of dried fruit/seeds/nuts on top. And it’s yummy. Although I’m mostly familiar with ba bao fan from the can. Food connoisseur I am not. But seriously, it sounds like a lot of effort to make, whereas with the canned version, you cut open the top, cut open the bottom, push the thing out onto a plate (or bowl), nuke it in the microwave for four minutes, and voila. Chinese grocery stores don’t always stock it, so when I find it I usually buy a few.

museum of china in america

The Museum of China in America (MOCA) is located in the Chinatown section of downtown Manhattan. Yay Chinatown! One of my favorite places in this city! It’s located at 215 Centre, which isn’t really the heart of Chinatown, because the heart of Chinatown is already occupied by grocery stores and restaurants.

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Inside, the main exhibit is kind of a homey feeling history gallery, which is separated into small rooms. The lighting is pretty dim and I guess they were going for the ‘experience’ setup as opposed to the ‘gallery’ setup. A lot of the content I was unfamiliar with since I only know my family’s particular history, so I found it quite educating. I especially enjoyed watching the oral history videos.

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Next to the main permanent exhibit was a temporary gallery space. The exhibit up right now (until February 24) is actually two linked exhibits, “Marvels and Monsters” and “Alt.Comics,” which are both about Asian-Americans and comics. I actually found it really interesting and I liked the exhibition design, which incorporated aspects of comic book design. This space was much more of a typical ‘gallery’ feel – nicely lit, white walls. My only quibble is with the installation of the exhibit because some of the wall text was peeling and overall it just lacked some finesse.

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It’s a pretty small museum but it’s a good one to visit if you have any interest at all in the Chinese-American experience. MOCA has free admission on Fridays, which is great because even though it was a nice visit, I don’t think I would’ve been willing to pay full admission price considering how small the place is. In April they’re going to have an exhibit about fashion which looks to be interesting. But definitely try and go while the comics exhibit is still up!

chinese day in chinatown

Today is October 1st, which in China is National Day, or Guo Qing Jie (国庆节). It’s a pretty major holiday over there because it celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China and you get a few days of vacation. Since I’m in New York, I thought I’d be a good little Chinese girl and head down to Chinatown, where I quickly realized that many of the people in Chinatown were probably not the kind of people who would be celebrating the founding of the PRC. I felt like an outsider speaking Mandarin because virtually everyone was speaking Cantonese.

I did see a lion dance on Bayard Street, and I’m not sure if it was done for the National Day or not. Anyway, it was kind of fun. I walked around a bit and picked up some frozen dumplings and good instant noodles (as opposed to Maruchan Ramen)! I also picked up some tofu skin rolls for dinner, which were pretty good, but wow there was a lot of oil in those things. They were the veggie kind with vermicelli, carrots, mushrooms, et cetera wrapped in tofu skins and then fried. Yum.

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buying chocolate

Stopped by the supermarket on my way home from work and picked up some chocolate. Nothing exciting there. Cost me 12.60. What was interesting was the exchange. And the only reason why it struck me as really interesting was because it happens all the time and slowly it’s becoming less weird to me.

Cashier: (scans chocolate) 12 yuan 6
Me: (hands her a 20-yuan note)
Cashier: Do you have 1 mao?
Me: (digs through coin purse)
Cashier: Better yet, do you have 6 mao?
Me: (hands her a 5-mao coin and a 1-mao coin)
Cashier: Do you have 2 yuan?
Me: (hands her 2 yuan coins)
Cashier: Okay. (hands me a 10-note in change)

Maybe I should give a brief rundown on the currency system. For the price 12.60, one would say 12 yuan, 6 jiao (also called mao), and 0 fen. Though the conversion is way off, yuan = dollar, mao = dime, and fen = cent. No worries about the fen though because I’ve never actually seen a fen coin and I don’t think they’re even made anymore. Prices always end at the yuan or jiao because 1 fen is the equivalent of .15 cent … and that’s just too ridiculously little. Denominations that one actually sees are bills in the form of 5 mao, 1 yuan, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 and coins in 1 mao, 5 mao, and 1 yuan. That overlap of 5 mao and 1 yuan appearing in both coin and note form is very annoying. It’s why people in the US don’t use the Susan B. Anthony.

Chinese currency really isn’t that weird, but how they use it is different than in the US, especially since most people pay everything in cash. Cashiers here seem to hate giving out change in the form of small coins. When I was still new to Shanghai, a cashier started asking if I had specific coins and I looked at her confused. My wallet was open in front of me, so she just stuck her hand in my wallet and got the correct change. Okay sure, if the total was $12.01 and the cashier asked me if I had a penny, I’d look for a penny. But if the total was $12.26, I’d think she was mad if she asked: Do you have a penny? And a nickel? How about two dimes?