Chinese Food

Everyone has their images of different foods. It doesn’t matter if you’ve tried ‘em or not. The Mexicans have their tacos, nachos, and beans; the French have croissants, escargot, and wine; the Russians have borscht and vodka. The accuracy of such conceptions isn’t really the issue as much as the dishes we automatically associate with different countries.

In my 5+ years of living in the former Soviet Union, no nation has endured such cruel culinary stereotypes as the Chinese. These poor, hardworking folks, through no fault of their own, have somehow cast this image of a daily menu consisting of the creepiest, crawliest, snakiest dishes no self-respecting Azerbaijani or Russian – who delight in boiled cow’s feet and gelatinized meat pieces – would choke down. Where on earth these associations came from is beyond me, considering Chinese food’s delightful (and portable!) reputation in the US of A. And to top it off, there’s a freakin’ sushi restaurant on every corner in this town. I’m not kidding. They’re everywhere, serving up about a thousand roll variants, several of which I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot poll, particularly the dessert ones. Think about it. Dessert sushi.

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Sushi in ten minutes, or my staff go to labor camps.

Alas, in the great city of Baku and Tatarstan’s capital, there are a couple Kitaiskiy restaurants to speak of. In fact, the “Great Wall” restaurant in Baku was one of our favorite places to sit, drink cold Efes, and indulge in sweet n’ sour pork. So, today, I was excited to head to Kazan’s “China-Town-Cafe” with a handful of friends and colleagues to experience Russia’s take on grub from The Middle Kingdom. Authenticity wasn’t as much on my mind as the simple fact that I like Chinese food, wherever it may be served, and I was interested to check out Mother Rossiya’s spin on the staple meals we non-Chinese-people-outside-of-China hold dear.

(As a side note, I wouldn’t know the first thing about real Chinese food.)

Unless you’re used to P.F. Chang’s (I don’t know anyone, besides Stan’s dad, who’s been to P.F. Chang’s.), the joint is much nicer than the Cantonese eateries one frequents stateside. Now, when I rock Chinese food, poshness isn’t on the list of priorities, but it was welcomed by the seven of us as we took our seats around a green marble Lazy Susan, next to a slew of empty tables. Yes, business was lacking today, but that’s not uncommon at a lot of restaurants here. In fact, I’ve noticed this running theme in more cities than one in this region. How these establishments stay open with such little clientele, I don’t know, and I don’t wanna know. But to be fair, a handful of random tables were filled, and for all I know, the place might be jumping in the evening.

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For some reason, it looks a bit like a Pizza Hut to me.

Anyway, we opened the menus and got to check out the different items in Russian, Chinese, and English. How ’bout that?

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Here’s a closer look:

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We were relieved to find out that the place featured virtually every kind of snack: cold snack, meat snack, duck snack, chicken snack, and fish and sea snack. The only things missing were fruit snacks. It also sported fourteen kinds of garnish, fine aromatic chicken, and several meats on the live pan. Because I’m a coward, I didn’t order anything on the live pan.

Our mouths watering, we ordered, and when it came to my friend Paul’s turn, we found out something that took us aback somewhat. Wanting some rice-based dish, Paul learned that another member of our party had asked for a meal containing the last bit of rice in the restaurant.

Did you catch that? The Chinese restaurant was running out of rice. RICE! What kind of Chinese eatery runs out of the county’s #1 staple? That’s like McDonald’s running out of fries, or Taco Cabana running out of tortillas. It doesn’t just happen; something’s gotta be really wrong. That, or the staff just doesn’t feel like swinging by the corner store. Whatever.

Luckily, they had about the fifth thing Paul requested (Chicken on the live pan. Dude’s got balls.). We sat around, shot the breeze, and sipped on gassy water and fruit tea.

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A piece of the Aggro Crag.

After a short wait – and two visits from some random village guy named Igor who was in town for some reason – we got our food which was, on the whole, pretty good. I got the wide rice noodles with pork and ordered them spicy. However, the dish was so mild it made me wonder what the mild variant tasted like. Regardless, I chopsticked it down in no time, and it was made easier by some material on the noodles that gave them a sort of…um…lubrication effect. Maybe that’s just the consistency of wide rice noodles. Nonetheless, not delving any further.

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It isn’t rice noodles without freshly sliced tomato (or a square-shaped plate). Wait, where’s the dill?

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China loves you. Um…dill?

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Mooooooooooooo. Dill?

When all was said and consumed, everyone was satisfied, and despite any lack of edible grains, this place got the stamp of approval. I was also happy to see that a handful of Russians do, in fact, partake in Chinese fare, and no doubt they’re all the better and worldly for it. Oh, and it tastes good. Молодец.

 

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Why?

A gentleman and his lovely wife are upstanding citizens. They’re honest, work hard, and would do anything for their two kids. They never miss a Sunday at the Methodist church and help out at the soup kitchen on Saturday mornings. They’re healthy, happy members of their communities, rightfully loved and appreciated by their friends and families. One day, the man comes home and reveals to his spouse that he was let go from his software engineering position for a younger, less-experienced candidate who’s apparently gonna amp up the company with his youthful vitality, contrast collar shirt, and goatee. Meanwhile, the married couple has no idea what they’re going to do.

A twenty-five-year-old woman and her best friend are inseparable, the kind of pair that always knows what the other is up to. They finish each other’s sentences and know just what to say when one of them is having a hard time. An enormously edifying, loving relationship endures into adulthood. Then one day, during a typical coffee date, one of them reveals that she has acute leukemia. Six months later, that amazing, loyal friend, who never wished harm on anyone, passes away.

A young couple dresses up their six-year-old for another school day. They smile, and the husband puts his arm around his wife’s shoulder as their little girl trots off to the classroom. Pleased as can be with how their daughter’s growing up, exploring her small world, and coming into her childlike own, they consider themselves extremely lucky. Until later that morning, when a troubled young man breaks into the school with a Bushmaster XM15-E2S rifle.

Eesh. Brutal. Things change in an instant, don’t they? Gosh, and it’s never at a convenient time, either. At different moments in our lives, we’re all like Sisyphus, pushing and pushing to reach that apex, that goal, however grandiose or modest it may be, and then things crash down. Whatever you’ve worked for, the life you’ve envisioned, has been ruthlessly shut down by outside forces, and in the meantime, the boulder lands directly on your head and stomps you into the ground.

Upon hearing some sad news a while back, I sat in bed and thought about the emotions that manifest themselves when life’s been mercilessly unfair to us, and, of course, these occurrences touch every inch of the spectrum: My teacher gave me an ‘F’ because she hates me. My beloved grandfather had a heart attack. Our son was born with special needs. He dumped me because I’m unpopular. Though we may have different opinions as to the significance of these examples, the principle stays the same: We didn’t deserve it.

(Okay, in some cases, we may deserve an ‘F’, but still…)

And to me, the question that bears heaviest on our minds is why. You picture it being screamed at the top of a woman’s lungs in cinematic fashion, or whispered into the moist hands of a man slumped over in his chair. We ask the question without really expecting an answer, because, well, an answer doesn’t come, at least not during that initial gut reaction to tragedy. For me, that scene in Forrest Gump comes to mind, when Forrest is cradling Bubba “by that river in Viet-nam,” and Bubba, trembling in his best good friend’s arms, looks Forrest square in the eye and asks, “Why’d this happen?” Of course, Forrest, being the straight talker that he is, simply says, “You got shot.”

“I would of thought of something better to say.”

While one person in the exchange gives that concrete reason for his friend’s situation, we can only imagine that what’s going through the other’s head is: Why’d this happen to me. It’s not about that specific chain of events leading up to death, failure, and sadness; it’s us wondering why on earth we were singled out as victims. The thought may occur to us for a brief moment before the gunshot wound takes us, or it may sit on our minds for longer periods of time, leading us to believe that there truly are uncontrollable powers against us, in the form of people, environments, or even God. Diabolical entities that have conspired toward no other goal than our downfall. Goodness, it hurts, doesn’t it? In my mind, there’s nothing worse.

And from there, what path do our psyches take? For many of us, we get angry. We become immensely pissed off at the people around us, our circumstances, and the anything-but-fair ways of the world. We break out our index fingers and look for potential targets of blame, and we don’t have to search very hard. Hell, it could be anyone’s fault. But, then, what follows our outward, jaded view? Perhaps we look inward and analyze the many specific instances in which we did wrong. We begin to blame ourselves ’cause clearly we’re crappy people who deserve everything we get, right?

It’s funny how we see the universe sometimes, isn’t it? As if there’s a giant scale that has to constantly balance out our good deeds and bad. When we’ve sinned one time too many, we’re due for some kind of retaliation. Or we take a step back and wonder: “But I’m such a nice guy. Why would this happen to me?” As if being morally upright and good to others is supposed to make us immune to disaster.

“I’ve even kept kosher just to be on the safe side.”

Alas, we all know the world doesn’t work this way. We’re reasonable enough to recognize that there’s no kind of metaphorical demerit system in the air that justifies punitive action for a person who hasn’t been faithful enough. So then the question of why shifts to the nitty gritty. Okay, what really caused this? Was it lack of gun control? Harmful chemicals in our food? Sub-standard healthcare? Incompetent security officials? Badly-lit streets? Poor lifestyle choices?

These questions deserve answers, but do they really change how we feel at the present moment? “Oh, Uncle Jim didn’t exercise enough. That’s why he died of heart disease.” You don’t just shrug it off after that. It doesn’t matter if the cause is plain as day, or if we “saw it coming” for years and years. It still happened, and there’s going to be that empty space in our hearts that longs for what we don’t have.

If it appears I’m narrowing human suffering down to a convenient formula, I’m not, nor am I claiming, by any stretch of the imagination, to understand what each and every person goes through. Everyone’s different, and everyone copes with hard times in their own way. But how do we get past it all? I mean, throughout human history, people have persevered through countless, unimaginable hardships, and the stories we often hear are the inspirational ones. Dostoyevsky conceived the idea for Crime and Punishment after gambling away much of his fortune. Creed’s Scott Stapp wrote Torn after he was kicked out of Lee College, living in an apartment with almost nothing. You ever heard the testimony of a former addict? In 2007, I got to listen to two women – one with a constant stream of tears rolling down her face – from Magdalene House in Nashville speak of ruthless circumstances from an early age. Unprovoked and undeserved, these ladies suffered endless psychological and physical abuse, with nothing to turn to but drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. However, despite all that, they’re now sober and completely independent. If “Why me?” had been the only – and unanswerable – question these people asked, what would their situation be now?

The world isn’t fair, and the sooner we recognize that, the more constructive we can be. This is not to create the image of a bleak, merciless planet earth that dishes out dysentery to jungle children and lets rich jagoffs buy their second Hummers (I mean, he needed a blue one.). It’s to acknowledge the fact, however hard it may be, that these things occur. What has befallen you, whether it was in your control or not, happened. It went down at some point in time, there’s nothing you can do to change it, and if you let it define your emotions, actions, and lot in life, you’re effed.

What you can do is learn, and focus on today and the days ahead. It’s not a simple process, and no one can expect to feel better tomorrow, or the next day. Nonetheless, walking through the hurt, embracing the fellowship of family and friends, and laboring on in the face of such unfairness are well worth it, and say a hell of a lot about you. Give me a friend or colleague who’s jumped some hurdles over one who’s always had it easy any day.

And while I can’t provide a 12-step program on how to overcome all adversity, I can say that dwelling on the “Why?” isn’t going to take you very far.

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Stagnation

January 11th, 2014

Alarm goes off. You keep lying in bed. You don’t need more sleep, but you tell yourself you do. You remain horizontal because you can. After all, it’s Saturday, that deserved respite after a long week. No plans. No obligations. Just time to yourself.

For many of us, “me time” is much appreciated. No one to tell us what to do. No coworkers and strangers to keep up appearances with. We introverts feel we need it so badly, don’t we? We roll outta bed in our faded shirts and sweatpants, don’t look in the mirror, turn on the kettle, and get down to the business of binge-watching Modern Family and scrolling through photo albums of friends we barely know (and whose lives we – shockingly – don’t care about). “I needed this,” we say, and one thing is certainly true: rest is important, and we know that go-go-going all the time isn’t good for us.

What strikes me as I think about it is what we do to relax, and believe me, this guy can do some serious unwindin’. Being a teacher, I’m typically free on the weekends, and though this isn’t the unbending routine, I’ve found myself on more than one occasion on Sunday evening wondering what the hell I did with my two free days before work starts again. An empty bag of Doritos sits on the living room table, and my web browser abounds with YouTube documentaries I have no business watching. The weekend’s done, and when asked on Monday how it was, I shrug off the question with trite answers like: “You know, hung out around the house” or “nothing much.” (Ugh. “Nothing much”. That’s the worst response ever.)

And this has been you before.

Hey, no fingers pointed. We’ve all done it and not felt too good about it. Part of being human is letting yourself crawl into your safe space. It’s where we feel good. It’s that warm, snugly bed, the TV series we can watch for hours, the twelver of Bud Light, the box of Keebler Fudge Stripes on the shelf, and the mindless online game. These outlets are free of judgment or distraction, and it’s no wonder we retreat to them for long periods of time, especially when no one else is around.

It’s amazing what we feel we need, and what we let ourselves do. I experienced this yesterday as I sat on the couch in my shorts and wool socks until 3:30 in the afternoon. The most productive thing I’d done up to that point is boil water for instant coffee, and the longer I sat there, the harder it became for me to even think about what needed to be done. I paced and looked out the window: “Hmm. Look at that snow. I don’t wanna go all the way to gym, and I ain’t joggin’ in that.” Pacing continues, and useless streaming video carries on until, for whatever reason, I snap and throw on a long-sleeve shirt and nylon pants. If you’re like me, exercise kinna catapults you into a productive day (a day that starts at 3:30?), and I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t feel any better if I didn’t sweat it out for a little while. I stretched and made my way down the ten dark floors of my Soviet-style building and crossed the slush and puddles of Meridiannaya Street to a little park with a snow-covered, semi-hidden path around its perimeter. You have to run with caution in winter, obviously (especially when you have ankles like mine. Is it true that as we get older, we just feel more and more broken?), but as I felt the wind and snow against my face and heard the countless squealing children tumbling down to the park’s frozen pond, I realized a lack of caution was just what the doctor ordered.

I think it’s safe to say that life is made up of these little leaps of faith that we either take or don’t, and, no, as my example illustrates, they don’t have to be anything extreme or outlandish, but they have to be something. Something that energizes. Something that makes you think. Something uncomfortable. The world has too many boring people in it, and if we refuse to live boldly from time to time, we stagnate. We sit around like a filthy pool of water, getting worse as time goes by. I’ve been there; you’ve been there; everyone’s been there. And we second guess ourselves, don’t we? Out of fear, we do nothing.

My grandmother used to say, “You’re only stuck if you think you’re stuck.” And for better or worse, it’s true. You’re your own worst enemy, the only one who’s really in control. When it comes down to getting your foot out the door, no one makes that decision but you.

It, of course, has many interpretations, and I’m not really talking about “turning your life around” or something equally cliché. However, if there’s something on your mind, it wouldn’t hurt to get the wheels turning. Who knows? You may put on the shirt and track pants, squint at the cold wind, march your sweaty, snow-crested self back into your apartment, and say, “I’m glad I did that.”

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