Monthly Archives: November 2014

On Blogging Everyday

Today is the thirtieth day of the challenge to post every day for a month, so my blogging will soon be slowing down. Rather than post every day (a goal which has left me a bit sleep deprived), I plan to post at least once a week from here on out, although B will be pushing me towards more.  The experience of posting every day has been useful in a number of ways.  It has worked as a spur to writing, a model for the sort of daily writing I should always do, so that a little but each day will add up in the end.  It has made me look through our photos discovering what is there and taking new pictures to explore particular places or phenomena.  Most important, it has made me think about our life here, about the world I see around me, to be able to convey pieces of it here and to be able to understand it better.  I look forward to continuing with this practice of thinking critically about where I live and expressing something about it through this blog.  But i am looking forward to getting a little more sleep too.  To conclude, here is one of the favorite pictures I have taken this last week.  See you all soon.

texting upside down


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Tonight I abandoned the boys to Star Wars and nonalcoholic bubbly and went out dancing and drinking with “the girls.”

photo (1)

photo (2)

I have never done this before; expat life creates new opportunities for community, including becoming one of “the girls.”  As some of the wonderful women I spent the evening with said, here you are with other people who are interested in adventure, who find it boring to do the same thing every year, and would rather visit new places, try new things.  We are all here for various reasons, many as teachers and as spouses of teachers, others for their own work or for their spouses’ work, some of us work, some of us are taitais newly at home with the kids, but all of us are willing to come to a place away from our homes and find a way to live here.  We make bridges across age and nationality (although we did find that the Australians have specific songs that must be sung when drunk) and through our strangeness and our willingness to try new things find a new, ever-changing community of nomads.

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While ebikes, which I wrote about a couple weeks ago, are the standard family car for much of this part of China, the tricycle is maybe more the pick up truck.  Tricycles, both motorized and not, are the workhorses of China. They carry people and things of all sorts. They can be loaded high with recycling without tipping over and are inexpensive enough that those who live on recycling can afford them.



They can easily carry passengers, whether a single person or a whole family

This couple, photographed on the street outside Lotus Village, are probably displaced local villagers.  The woman is wearing traditional Suzhou style women's clothing.

This couple, photographed on the street outside Lotus Village, are probably displaced local villagers. The woman is wearing traditional Suzhou style women’s clothing.

And they can carry all manner of goods, sometimes piled very very high



Recyclers and others who are poorer ride manual tricycles, but motorized tricycles with an electric engine, usually bright turquoise, are also very common and used for deliveries, to carry families, for all kinds of hauling, and as the base for stands selling popcorn, noodles, and all manner of street foods (including the sweet potatoes I posted yesterday).



To a certain extent, tricycles fade into the background, mixing in with the ubiquitous modern ebikes and the more traditional bicycles, but the more I look, the more I see them and the more I think they may really be the most signature Chinese vehicle.



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Street Food

I spent much of today doing field work for the Suzhou cultural landscapes app project, and I ended up eating a lunch in pieces, a little street snack here, another there.  While I personally avoid eating squid on a stick, there are many street foods I am happy to try, and I love seeing all of what’s on offer, even when it doesn’t appeal to me.

Street food begins in the morning, with stands selling steamed buns and eggy crepes.  Snacks and meals (especially noodles, which is as much snack as a meal) continue all day, and then street food really comes into its own at night.  DSC04090

Ben really loved the noodles from this stand, which was set up late in the evening near the entrance to a housing complex filled with faculty and students, especially foreign grad students.

Ben really loved the noodles from this stand, which was set up late in the evening near the entrance to a housing complex filled with faculty and students, especially foreign grad students.

photo 2 (3)

Sometimes you get food from a single seller or two, set up at an intersection, near a subway entrance, or near a pedestrian bridge.  At other times there is a cluster, like this one near the entrance to Tiger Hill

street food by tiger hill

Sometimes you encounter an entire street, like this one near Suzhou University and the one near the Taoist temple where I get noodles and sandwiches and avoid squid.


A special table just for food on a stick!

A special table just for food on a stick!

At this time of year, as it begins to get chilly, hot roasted chestnuts and roasted sweet potatoes are both particularly nice, because they warm your hands so well.  Even though he doesn’t like eating either of these, B likes it if we buy them so he can stick them in his pockets.  The sweet potatoes are usually roasted in wood-burning portable stoves. Typically they are an integral part of a bicycle or tricycle, but the woman I bought one from today put hers on a separate motorized tricycle (the favorite all-purpose work vehicle)

Sweet potato oven.  Each little drawer holds a potato or two.  Some may use coal, but this one was wood fired.

Sweet potato oven. Each little drawer holds a potato or two. Some may use coal, but this one was wood fired.


These steamed sticky rice-based treats seem to be seasonal.  Each time I have bought some (today included) it has been in November.  They are sold in pairs (one dark, one light) and the Chinese date (jujube) makes them quite sweet.



We are quite fond of naan bread, which is a Muslim specialty, made, I believe, by migrants from Xinjiang.  Ben especially likes the kind with green onion in it.  They are baked in portable ovens.  The flattened, patterned, and seeded dough is slapped up against the side of the oven and bakes quickly. They often sell kebabs to go with them, but we are happy with just the bread.

You can see the mouth of the oven on the left of the cart.  Inside it is quite round.

You can see the mouth of the oven on the left of the cart. Inside it is quite round.

The sign says "Xinjiang Pie"

The sign says “Xinjiang Pie”


One can also have dumplings, fried or steamed.


Or what I think of as Chinese latkes (often they have some cabbage in them as well as potato and onion).


There are also these bready treats


And one of my favorites, not gyros (even though it looks like gyros), but rather a sandwich that I think is Xi’an style. The meat is chopped and mixed with spices (usually quite la, spicy).  Bu la (not spicy) even Ben loves it.



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Thanksgiving is a thoroughly American holiday, which makes it harder, or at least stranger, than others when you are not in America.  Thanksgiving is about food and family, and both food and family are harder here.  I remember when I lived in England in 1988 the only way we were able to get a turkey was through a friend’s boyfriend who worked in a restaurant and had special connections.  Cranberries required a trip to Harrods.  As we were young and inexperienced in cooking, there were several long-distance phone calls for help and some complex compromises because of conflicting stuffing recipes.  Turkey is much easier to get nowadays, and I know at least 3 sources for American turkeys here.  I can get cranberries as long as I don’t mind paying $12 for a bag of frozen ones (I miss the fresh farmers market cranberries in Newton).  I’ve also got a can or two of cranberry sauce and pumpkin squirreled away (buy things when you see them is a good rule).  We are even lucky enough to have a rare apartment with a real oven big enough to fit a turkey.  However, cooking Thanksgiving takes the better part of a day, and often some significant prep work in advance.  This is hard to reconcile with an afternoon studio class, since of course Thanksgiving is just an ordinary day here. B is advocating for a Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday, but he has also earmarked Saturday for Christmas tree trimming, plus it’s the EAS Xmas fair, so we shall see.

Family is harder to get around.  In grad school, we made family, having big Thanksgiving dinners with lots of friends. It certainly does make us miss our real family here, though.

So we have joined in the peculiar rituals of the expat Thanksgiving, one celebrated primarily by non-Americans, many of whom have never tasted a pumpkin pie before, and who insist on talking about what they are grateful for, thoroughly annoying B, who just wants to eat and argues that these non-Americans just don’t understand.  B’s school, SSIS (Suzhou Singapore International School) has a Thanksgiving dinner each year, so we celebrate Thanksgiving at his school with a big family of expats.  It’s a very nice way to socialize, even if the school food services have not yet figured out gravy (it was very orange this year; I skipped it).  This year it was a day early so as not to conflict with the school play (James and the Giant Peach; we are going Friday and B is very excited)

The upstairs cafeteria is nicely decorated and we all sit at long tables with friends old and new.

Our table last year (2013)

Our table last year (2013)

Our table this year -- no wine this year but just as pleasant an evening.

Our table this year — no wine this year but just as pleasant an evening.

It starts out with songs and the giving of thanks (and last year with some extra celebration of Thanksgivukah).  The thanks this year included a boy thanking dad for letting him watch movies on the weekends and another giving thanks for being able to dress as Willy Wonka (both he and his dad did for Halloween, they were amazingly cute).


Then there is dinner: turkey


And sides



Including fried rice, lasagna


And, offending Ben’s traditional heart, a salad that included shrimp and octopus


I tried to convince him that Thanksgiving is a very expandable meal that takes different shapes depending on what region, state, or country, it is celebrated, but I am not sure I was convincing.

It ended, of course, with pumpkin pie, plus ice cream, and something described as apple pie that I think was more of a rather flat, circular apple crumble.


It’s not what we would cook ourselves, nor quite what we would eat with our extended families, but it’s a lovely version of food and family, and that’s what Thanksgiving is.

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Small-scale manufacturing

I posted yesterday about the neighborhood just outside the doors of the factory owned by neighbors of ours.  Today is about our very interesting visit to that factory.  The image of manufacturing in China is typically of Foxconn, of huge factories that stretch out forever and are full of workers in uniforms who live in dorms and have little control of their lives.  This is nothing like that.  It is a small factory on two floors of a building that also holds other small factories.  Activities take place in separate rooms, many of them not much larger than a living room.  The space is light and airy.  Everyone is wearing whatever they like, there are no uniforms. Kids and babies ran around playing; it definitely feels like a friendly, family place.

One of these kids is mine; behind the racks is a fun place to hide out.

One of these kids is mine; behind the racks is a fun place to hide out.

Unlike a stereotypical big factory, where high speed and cheap labor work to make inexpensive things, this is a factory focused on quality and making much smaller, more specialized runs, made both by machine and by hand. Materials (typically merino, cashmere, and silk) are ordered specifically for each item.  Some are dyed before knitting; others are dyed as a garment.  They are all rewound carefully onto cones so that they will feed smoothly as they are knitted.


Some of the knitting is done by hand, and they have technician women who test knit and then send yarns off to knitters who make each piece.  Technicians also translate the description of a garment into precise instructions for knitting, whether by hand or by machine.  They have a couple of supercool computer-driven knitting machines from Europe, but the bulk of their machine knitting is done on machines not so different from the one I have in storage (it was my college graduation present).

The largest room is this one, full of knitting machines and knitters.

The largest room is this one, full of knitting machines and knitters.

From the knitting room and the men and women who knit the pieces, it goes into the room next door, where young women do the joining.  This requires very nimble fingers and excellent eyesight (I would be useless at it).  Their pieces are full fashioned, not seamed, so joining is crucial.  As any knitter can tell you, a bad join sticks out like a sore thumb.

joining room

Right next to the joiners are tables of finishers, who add buttons and other details.  These women are a little older and quite experienced.


This is also the area for inspection; each piece needs to be perfect.  I really would love to have their inspection lamp as a lamp in my house; it’s very future modernist.


Pieces are inspected as they are bundled up and handed to a finisher, then inspected again as a garment. Many pieces are knitted white and then dyed afterwards.

As a long-term knitter and machine-knitter and an even longer-term wearer of clothes, it was fascinating for me to be able to see how a small boutique factory like this produces knitwear.  I am also very happy with the overstocks I took home with me; as the weather gets colder they will be increasingly central to my professional wardrobe; Andy similarly has already begun wearing his very smart cardigans.  Unfortunately they didn’t have any kid overstock, but they have made a few kid clothes (which their kids wear nearly all the time) and we are still hoping for a chic cashmere or merino sweater for B one of these days.

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Second Generation Factories

A little while ago, we were lucky enough to get to visit a small factory owned by neighbors of ours, where they make very high quality cashmere, merino, and silk knitwear for the European (mostly Swiss and German) market.  (And we were lucky enough to go home with some luscious overstock items).  I will post about the factory itself and the process tomorrow, for all my textile friends, but today I am posting about the street where it is. It is a ways east of the main part of SIP, maybe 8-10 kilometers, judging by the taxi cost, but don’t quote me.  It is in an area where small factories were built, often with associated dormitories, some time earlier in the history of SIP.  Since then these small factories seem to have been replaced by even smaller factories; perhaps the original factories have grown and moved to grander sites. The gates, which once showed the name of a single corporation (sometimes visible as traces),  now show several or none.  It’s rather a bucolic, narrow street, not what you first think of when you think factory district.

street view

It is very much a community, with the feeling of a village.  There are food stalls at the entrances to each compound, serving residents and workers.

street food

In addition to residences in workers’ dorms, garage-like spaces and shacks, presumably originally places of work, have now been transformed into housing.


Life is clearly lived outside here, as it is in downtown Suzhou, only more so as these rooms are less habitable and the outdoor spaces they share are more private.

living outside

As I have seen in downtown Suzhou, in SIP’s resettlement villages, and just down the street from our compound, in addition to laundry, vegetables are also dried outside when the weather permits.

drying veggies

And while the organized social life of a neighborhood center is far away and I saw no formal restaurants and bars, leisure is clearly also an important part of life here.

pool table

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