Tag Archives: China

T shirt street

From our very first arrival in China, we have been fascinated by the T-shirts our students and others wear with sayings on them in something related to English.  For example, the very nice young man who made me a bowl of noodles for lunch at the Xinjiang noodle shop down the street sported this mysterious T

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We have wondered for some time where these T-shirts are acquired (other than “taobao, from whence all things come). The other day, we by chance stumbled along the answer, when we found what I know think of as T-shirt street, near Shilu, just to the West of the old city’s outer moat.

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This side of town is where wedding street is, so it’s not so surprising to find a clothing-centered street.

Andy was quite tempted by this shirt

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which also sported a big Statue of Liberty on the back, but it was surprisingly expensive, and even bargaining was unlikely to get it into the range we would be willing to pay.

Some shirts were surprisingly similar.

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I have no idea whether there is a particular English phrase that these two are trying to replicate.  I suspect no-one wearing them has any clue what pap might refer to, and hardgore pap is a scary, if obscure, thought.

Urbanicteen also had several variations

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Some shirts are deliberately referencing existing brand names (like the ubiquitous “Channel” hats, shirts, etc.)

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Sometimes the letters are very close to random.

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While at other times the words are there but the relationship between them is more obscure

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Sometimes the juxtaposition of words (and would-be words) is like poetry

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In China, T-shirts are also often worn in sets for couples or for families (a trend I believe began in Korea). (If anyone can enlighten me as to the meaning of “lovers fushi,” please do)

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One shop, watched over by a small pink-winged angel, carried a wide range of these (inclluding the above), many of them full outfits including pants or shorts.

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I could not convince my family of the necessity of our acquiring the cute sheep family outfits, complete with stripy shorts (seen in the window behind the angel).  But I did manage, once at least, to get us all to wear our matching family (non-T) shirts.

family shirts

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Not Exactly a TaiTai

It’s a little odd being a working expat woman.  The gendered structure of work is very different among expats in China than it is at home.  Back in the U.S. most women I knew work outside the home.  A few stayed home when their children were small or if they had special needs kids, but staying home was the exception, not the rule, at least in the circles I ran in.

It is different here in China.  Expat families are often brought here on the basis of a man’s job (although not always).  The combination of the difficulty of getting a work permit and of (for many people, although certainly not all) good benefits that make it financially quite viable for a family to have just one working adult means that many women suspend their careers while they come here.  There also are a number of families of high-up executives, although they generally live on the other side of the lake and I only interact with them from time to time. Several women take advantage of the opportunity to get a Masters degree to improve their credentials, or to learn Chinese in one of the intense university programs, and learning helps them from going stir crazy too, I imagine.

In any case, it makes for a very particular kind of society here.  I feel a bit like I’ve time travelled to the early 60s, except without the condemnation of working mothers.  School is organized with the assumption that parents can come in for activities during the day on a regular basis; when there is a special activity like an assembly, we often are told with only a day or two’s notice, making it difficult to arrange our time to go.  The school clothing shop is only open during school hours; I’m in the embarrassing position of sending my son to school in pants with holes in the knees because we haven’t been able to go in to buy him new ones (kiddo does not find this embarrassing; he says it’s his style).  There is no regular after school program (although there are activities 2 says a week), or at least not for anyone except teachers’ kids, so we had to hire an ayi so that kiddo can be met at the bus.

Women’s social lives tend to circulate around “tai tai” activities (tai tai means wife, but it is used to refer to stay at home wives here): coffee, exercise classes, clubs, and outings, all of which take place during the day, when kids are in school and I, and other working women, are at work.  Inevitably, I end up at the social margins, less likely to be part of activities even when they are in the evening, since I have no opportunity to become part of the crowd.  I do manage to arrange my schedule to be able to do some dance classes and knitting meet-ups, although not as regularly as I would like.  In the US, my dance classes and spinning guild always met at night.

I am sure this is an odd experience for many people who are here: the women who have put their careers on hold and are trying to find their way around in a strange land; the men who have followed their wives here and are part of a world that assumes that all trailing spouses are female; the partners of both sexes trying to keep up a professional life cybercommuting and working freelance . . .  The expat world is an odd place to be.

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Shantang Canal

As I mentioned in the last post, Shantang Street and the Shantang Canal were created together c.825CE.  Suzhou is essentially a water town, with what is called a double chessboard structure, in which streets and canals sit in parallel. It is in the delta of the Yangtze river (although surprisingly we haven’t yet been to see the river itself) and the larger area is as much water as it is land.  Every empty lot has a pond, which I think it what you naturally get if you dig a hole in the ground.

In a vacant lot next to my bus stop, the pond has been visited by egrets.

In a vacant lot next to my bus stop, the pond has been visited by egrets.

Not only the egrets are interested in the fauna of this tiny pond.

Not only the egrets are interested in the fauna of this tiny pond.

Historically, the waterways were very active, filled with boat traffic, which probably went faster than the traffic on the narrow streets.  Suzhou is also connected on the Grand Canal, which connects Beijing and Hangzhou (like Suzhou, the canal is very old, with parts dating back to the 5th C BCE; the completed canal dates to about 681 CE, but of course it has been constantly worked and reworked).  This meant that water was central to Suzhou’s role as a center of trade.  Nowadays, there are still ships on the canal and on the Wusong river, but the small canals in the city are pretty quiet, mostly home to tourist boats and cleaning boats.

The Shantang Canal is plied by boats that ferry tourists between Tiger Hill and the tourist end of Shantang Street.  Taking one of these boats provides an opportunity to see traces of Suzhou’s water culture.

View towards the front of the boat on the Shantang Canal

View towards the front of the boat on the Shantang Canal

The boat ride is not all picturesque -- the canal is now crossed by a major highway.

The boat ride is not all picturesque — the canal is now crossed by a major highway.

While Suzhou’s most famous tourist canal street, Pingjiang Lu, runs right next to the canal, for most of its length Shantang Street is separated from the Shantang Canal by the houses that line the canal.  Along its length, small squares connect the street and the water, often facing onto public buildings like temples.

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Theses squares provide access to the water for those on the other side of the street and in the larger neighborhood, and may also provide loading and unloading for boats.  They always have steps leading to the canal.  Similar steps are historically part of Suzhou houses, although in many canal houses (especially in other parts of town) the steps are unused or only visible as traces.

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Back steps lead from a patio to the canal for washing or, historically more than presently, for taking a boat.

Ghost steps on the Shantang Canal.  Clearly this wall once held a door.

Ghost steps on the Shantang Canal. Clearly this wall once held a door.

If you look closely, you can see a figure on the left washing something in the canal.  We often see clothes or dishes being washed in the canal water, which is unlikely now to be clean enough to make it a good idea.

If you look closely, you can see a figure on the left washing something in the canal. We often see clothes or dishes being washed in the canal water, which is unlikely now to be clean enough to make it a good idea.

The side of houses facing towards the canal is very much the back, and houses are often more open to the canal than to the street.

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The houses along Shantang Street face south to the canal, so the canal side creates a great opportunity for gardening, drying clothes (and mops), and sitting in the sun.

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Even more closed houses make use of the southern exposure for a miniature back yard or an outdoor room.

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Canal frontage also creates an opportunity to expand the house a bit by building over the water, whether quite modestly by suspending a porch

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more boldly with a wooden pop-out

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or pretty much just building half your house over the water on stilts.

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When you get to the tourist end of the canal, the waterscape is decorated with red lanterns, lit beautifully at night.

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But the peopled canalscape is much more interesting, and worth paying for a tourist boat to get a chance to see.

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Shantang Street

As I mentioned in the last post, Tiger Hill is a very old site.  In 825 CE, it was connected to the city of Suzhou by a new canal, the Shantang Canal, which was paralleled by a new street, Shantang Street (these parallel streets and canals constitute the traditional Suzhou “double chessboard” pattern, two interlocked grids, one of water and one on land). The end of Shantang Street nearest to the city has been turned into an official tourist attraction old street, combining historic buildings with cafés, silk shops, tea, Shanghai Lady cosmetics, paper cuts, and various other Chinoiserie.

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However, Shantang Street is 7 li (2.2 miles) long and most of it, while protected, has not been turned into a tourist playground.

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There are a few grander buildings on Shantang Street near Tiger Hill that have been fixed up and opened to visitors. As I was walking down the street, a few tourists came to visit these in cars with drivers and tour guides, but visitors were few.

Pufu Temple, on Shantang Street

Pufu Temple, on Shantang Street

Inside, there is a garden, a nice surprise.  No one was here except me and a groundsman.

Inside, there is a garden, a nice surprise. No one was here except me and a groundsman.

I do not know the story of this sculpture, inside the garden, but am interested to learn, if any readers know more about it.

I do not know the story of this sculpture, inside the garden, but am interested to learn, if any readers know more about it.

The corner of another temple, painted Buddhist yellow.

The corner of another temple, painted Buddhist yellow.

Most of Shantang Street is residential.  A few small shops and businesses (I saw a barber chair or two) serve locals.  When I went into a shop for a water, the proprietor was working on embellishing a wedding dress.  It was more workshop than shop.

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I just can't resist mops; they are treated with such care.

I just can't resist mops.  They are treated with such care.

I just can’t resist mops. They are treated with such care.

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I saw very few people along most of Shantang Street, and those I saw were mostly elderly, enjoying the sun on a very mild January day.

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Chairs waiting in the sun.

Chairs waiting in the sun.

Even in January, some signs of spring

Even in January, some signs of spring

A few residents enjoyed the sun in front of this large, newer-looking public building.

A few residents enjoyed the sun in front of this large, newer-looking public building.

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As I walked farther along Shantang Street, to the section not near either tourist pole, many buildings were empty and in worse repair.

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Rather than fully renovated historic buildings, this middle stretch saw the traces of old, grand structures fully integrated into ordinary life.

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Just before the tourist stretch of Shantang Street, the street suddenly gets much busier.

Lighting a brazier which sits just outside the door, boiling water without adding smoke to the house.  This one was burning scrap wood, but many use charcoal.

Lighting a brazier which sits just outside the door, boiling water without adding smoke to the house. This one was burning scrap wood, but many use charcoal.

The street becomes a very lively market

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There are a few tourist items, especially stone beads, but mostly this is where people do their daily shopping.

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And if things aren’t too busy, it’s a good place to play a hand of cards or to kibbitz.

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If you search for pictures of Shantang Street, most won’t look anything like these, but the Shantang Street of laundry, handwork, and shopping is probably much more true to its nearly 1200 years of history than the historical fairyland with café latte that most people visit.

 

 

 

 

 

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Urban Village

In teaching the first year intro to urban planning and design, I realized that the term “urban village” has at least three quite distinct meanings depending on what country you start from.  In China, urban village refers to an slum area created when a rural village is swallowed by an expanding city.  This is an area with poor infrastructure and low-quality buildings, and a high density of population, particularly poor migrants.  Andy just participated in a workshop in Guangzhou focused on a large, complex urban village there (and I will do my best to get him to post about it).  They are less common here (largely because of different ways of managing urban expansion and compensating villagers, I think), but there is at least one small urban village in Suzhou.  As I have mentioned before, I am working with colleagues on an app to guide students through several cultural landscapes of Suzhou.

Lu Jia Village

Lu Jia Village

Lu Jia village, an urban village just across the eastern boundary of SIP, in the shadow of the elevated road, is one of the sites that we are guiding students to through the app.

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Lu Jia village is a small patch of housing surrounded primarily by worker housing.  As you can see from the view of the roofs of Lu Jia village looking north, its buildings are at a much smaller scale, and using more traditional materials, than the workers housing and commodity towers and villas around it.  The buildings of Lu Jia Village were self-built, in narrow east-west rows with at least one courtyard area.  The alleys between the buildings are very narrow, keeping sun from the lower stories, and leading to the term “handshake buildings” because you can shake hands across the gap.

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A courtyard within Lu Jia village

A courtyard within Lu Jia village

Buildings also push out over the sidewalk between the village and the road, expanding into any available space.

This building extends well into the sidewalk.  Its unusual siding suggests that its builders used whatever material they could salvage or buy cheaply to make it.

This building extends well into the sidewalk. Its unusual siding suggests that its builders used whatever material they could salvage or buy cheaply to make it.

This ebike repair shop also extends well over the sidewalk and its roof shows evidence of informal building practices.

This ebike repair shop also extends well over the sidewalk and its roof shows evidence of informal building practices.

As you can see from these photos, there are many signs that these buildings, in spite of their regular layout and relatively standardized form, are probably self-built and at the least heavily modified by users who do not follow building regulations. In addition to the extension over the sidewalk, patchwork roof, and unusual building materials, narrow and poorly planned access ways, including the staircase below, attest to the informality of building practices.

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Residents of this village are largely poor migrants, for whom this dense, sub-standard housing allows a chance to live affordably in very easy reach of both downtown Suzhou and SIP and in a well-connected site next to a bus stop and near to the subway.  There is evidence in the site of residents making money through collecting recyclables, running small businesses, and the sex trade, as the village serves as a red light district.

Piles of scavenged materials

Piles of scavenged materials

An apparent depot for metal recycling

An apparent depot for metal recycling

A small shop within the village.  The recycled wood will probably be used as firewood, perhaps for a sweet-potato vendor.

A small shop within the village. The recycled wood will probably be used as firewood, perhaps for a sweet-potato vendor.

Restaurants and other businesses along the front of the village, facing the elevated road.

Restaurants and other businesses along the front of the village, facing the elevated road.

A plaza area in the front of the village holds several businesses and serves as a place to park and repair vehicles.

A plaza area in the front of the village holds several businesses and serves as a place to park and repair vehicles.

Young women waiting for clients

Young women waiting for clients

I am very much an outsider in this place and felt myself under scrutiny.  Some of these photos were taken by the student research assistants who helped us with fieldwork for the app project; although they are from a very different background and class position from the residents here, their ability to speak Chinese, their youth, and their boldness allowed them to more easily walk into the village and to talk with residents there.

This village is a perfect illustration of the idea of the slum, overcrowded, dirty, and full of people in the informal economy.  But it is also a place for new migrants to potentially gain a toehold in the city and to begin to reinvent themselves as modern Chinese city dwellers.

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Times Square

There are many many many malls in China, in spite of the fact that every time I ask someone where to get anything the answer is Taobao (online emporium).  New ones keep opening, each with their own name brand or special store, few with enough of a population of users to make me think they are financially viable.  They may be largely created for real estate flipping/investment rather than for retail per se, just as housing is built for investment, not to live in.  In any case, we do go to them for various necessities and indulgences both.  When we moved here there were two main malls we dealt with — InCity and Times Square.  Since then two new large malls, Harmony City and Link City, and a small mall, Vanguard Living Plaza, have been added to our regular circuit, recently supplemented by the Pheonix Mall.  More have opened within SIP, and more are under construction, including a huge Aeon mall right next to kiddo’s school, and there are several others that have been there all along (Rainbow, Global 188) but we just don’t visit.

So last weekend, kiddo and I went to Times Square in search of ginger (as I mentioned last week) and also toys and new clothes for kiddo. Times Square is a big signature high-end mall, with associated office buildings and even its own subway stop.  Unlike most of the others, it is a largely open-air mall, built along a canal, and organized into four blocks liked by bridges across the canal and lit-up canalside underpasses below the street that runs through its middle.

pano times sq

 

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One of the blocks contains a large shopping mall/department store unto itself, with lots of designer clothes, restaurants on the top story, and a grocery store in the basement with lots of foreign food of all sorts (especially Asian).

Sushi galore in Fresh Mart, in the basement at Times Square

Sushi galore in Fresh Mart, in the basement at Times Square

Another block used to have buildings with furnishings and with kid’s stuff but is now mostly empty, except for Toys R Us, now in a ground floor location, a big electronics store, and some restaurants (including both a nice place we have often gone for fancier dinners for work and B’s favorite, a self-serve frozen yogurt place of the sort that litters every main street in America (but this is the only one we know of here)).

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Toys R Us is Toys R Us, except of course the US brands are paired with their less expensive Chinese twins here.

 

Ben likes all kinds of awful combinations of treats on his frozen yogurt at Kiwi Craze

Ben likes all kinds of awful combinations of treats on his frozen yogurt at Kiwi Kraze

The other blocks have clothing stores, including Uniqlo, where we get half our wardrobes, and a range of others including super-expensive Crocs; reasonably priced restaurants, including the now nearly ubiquitous Secret Recipe, with good cake and Laksa; and lots of places to get coffee.  The reasonably priced restaurants get a lot of action on weekday lunchtime from the office towers nearby and from others, including taitais.  When I first visited Suzhou I went to lunch at Secret Recipe one day and ended up meeting two Americans who worked in two different factories further out into factory land in SIP where there were no restaurants.  The restaurants offer a nice variety of prices and of styles of food, including Shanghai, Korean,  and Thai.  There is also a business offering virtual golf, billiards, and bowling which can be fun to go to. Because they use the same equipment as most American bowling alleys, the bowling area feels remarkably familiar, down to the decorations on the walls and the 10 year old celebratory graphics for a spare and a strike.  For littler kids, there is also a junior adventure playground, but B hasn’t wanted to try it.

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He does like the various kinds of scooters and other vehicles available to try nearby.  For some reason, they never seem to have the scooter he likes in stock.

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Times Square’s claim to fame is the world’s longest TV screen, mounted across two of the blocks in a sinuous curve.

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The curve that looks like an elevated road on the left is the TV screen. The wedge-shaped building on the right is the department store.

Shopping in the shade of the giant TV

Shopping in the shade of the giant TV

The TV is pretty cool when it is on, but there isn’t much created with that aspect ratio, so it mostly has the same video of a dragon or else tiles of ads or the Suzhou promotion piece that ran in Times Square, NYC, a few years ago.

Times Square is a place that I feel like I’d like to go to, but in truth there’s not all that much reason for me to go there beyond Uniqlo and Toys R Us and occasional bowling.  As competition rises and I can now go to Secret Recipe and Starbucks just a block from home, any given mall is less compelling.  You can see the result of this competition in the large areas of Times Square undergoing renovation, or simply sitting empty.

shops under renovation, I hope

shops under renovation, I hope

But it is still an interesting place, in spite of a design that doesn’t fully take advantage of the opportunity to connect with the canal at its center (a problem students in our final year urban design studio engaged with last year).  And it is always fun to see what they come up with for Christmas. This year the tree is purple and made of fake flowers.

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Inside there is a “Princess Dream Garden” complete with Santa and giant patchwork reindeer.

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For the last two years, they had a fake lego town that somehow seemed a little more connected with Christmas, in its color scheme if nothing else.

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If purple flowers don’t say Christmas to you (and they emphatically do not to B, who is a bit of a traditionalist and not a girl, no matter how pretty he may be), another block offers Christmas with alien Doraemon cats

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They seem to have arrived on a cross between a UFO and a muffin.

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After unsuccessful battles with the Great Firewall, I am happy to finally be able to post. More shopping landscapes, Chinese landscapes, and adventures of all kinds to come in future weeks.

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Searching for Ginger

Today B and I went to Times Square, a mall on our side of the lake, in a fruitless attempt to find powdered ginger to make Christmas cookies.  Fresh Mart in Times Square and Enjoy City in Harmony City, the newer mall across the street, were the fifth and sixth stores where I attempted to find ginger.  As I had already started the gingersnap batter based on the mistaken belief that the spice I had bought at Love’s Bakery (a baking goods store on the other side of the lake) was ginger (not a crazy belief as it had a big picture of ginger on it) (from the smell I think it’s some sort of presumably gingery curry powder) I really wanted to find some ginger.  The closest I came was “gingerbread spice” which included ginger, but not as the first ingredient.  I did my best with that, some crushed brown sugar-ginger candies, and a bit of ginger-infused honey (a Korean “tea”) and made gingery cookies, if not exactly ginger snaps.

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I know that I have it easy here; there are several foreign food stores, I can buy fresh milk in a shop just outside the compound, and there are an increasing number of delivery services that will deliver foreign foods to my door.  I have read an essay on living in China years ago and the near impossibility of finding butter.  And yet, when I want to make Christmas cookies and go to 6 stores in four different neighborhoods without finding the spices I need, even when they are ones that are usually in the Chinese groceries (unlike cardamom, which I had to buy in Germany), it gets very frustrating.  While foods are available, they are not reliably available.  For a while, we could not find any salt (we eventually figured out how to recognize Chinese packages of salt, and then all was well).  There was also a spell when the only peanut butter available was Chinese and quite horrible (we now keep a stock). And the first time we made Pennsylvania pot pie here the only potatoes I could find were purple. Expats here become hoarders; it’s the only way to be sure we will have what we depend on when we need or want it.  Spottings of weatabix (which I find about as tasty as cardboard, but which are a favorite of a couple of friends’ kids) or of cranberry sauce or other special items are quickly communicated.  We have multiple boxes of grape nuts because their availability is fleeting. Experiences like these are reminders of my foreignness and of the potential precariousness of our expat existence. Nothing can be taken for granted.

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