Posts Tagged With: Northbridge

Beijing In October: Part One

One of the perks of international teaching is the conferences. Our school is an IB school (International Baccalaureate), which means they prescribe to a philosophy and practice that is shared in all IB schools worldwide. Not only is it a great program, but they offer first-class conferences in every corner of the globe.

It’s my first year teaching Language B, which is English as a second language; normally I teach traditional Western “English” class, where you read novels and write essays and such. This year I do both, in grades 8-10. So, I was sent to Beijing to attend an IB conference on teaching Language B.

I couldn’t have been more psyched! China! I have read about it all my life, seen it in films and the media, and certainly obsessed over the Americanized version of their food. (General Tso, I’m talking to you.)

I handed my passport over to my school, who set me up with a Chinese visa. It took about a week or so, and I think the price tag wasn’t cheap. Americans have more detailed paperwork to get into China; as my Chinese friend told me, “Two big countries who each think they’re the most important.” Even when Sean and I had a layover in Guangzhou, the American passports took a lot longer to process for our transit hotel. At least it wasn’t like the Sri Lankan border guard, who told me Americans like to start wars, and we should stop picking fights with so many people. (I told him I agreed, and could I please have my passport stamped, sir?)

But really. China. Beijing, no less. The capital. With only four days to spend, and  a full-time conference to enjoy, I had my hands full with anticipation and possible plans.

I went with another teacher from school, Ice, who is actually from Shanghai. She has lived in Cambodia for the past 20 years, and is married to a Cambodian. She speaks Mandarin (Chinese), Khmer, and English. She also teaches Language B like me, but for Mandarin. We went to the same conference together—I had a great time traveling with her.

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Unfortunately, when we woke up the first morning, the sky was a bit, um, “foggy”. The pollution was bad. I was bummed out—I knew China had pollution, but seeing it out of a ten-story window made it seem all the more real. Luckily, of the four days we were there, this was the worst. The rest of the days had vibrant blue skies, no joke. It was really gorgeous. And, even on this bad day, when we were on the street, we forgot all about the gray-tint of the sky.

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The school where the conference was held had an AMAZING lunch. I mean, look at this! This is their school lunch! I would enroll as a student here just so I could come for lunch every day. I really loved their salads; none of them were with leafy lettuces like we’re used to in America, but instead with seaweeds, diced vegetables, tofu chunks, and amazing savory dressings. They did have a lot of deep fried things, as you can see. Just look at this picture I can count four different deep friend foods: sesame-crusted sweet potato, fried shrimp, fried fish, and fried chicken in a sweet and sour sauce.

After our conference Ice had made plans for us to meet up with her friend who works at Phoenix TV in Beijing. It is one of the few private broadcasters that is allowed to air in mainland China. We went out to a really nice Chinese restaurant, where I never even opened a menu. Ice and her friend ordered everything. And, man, did they order.IMG_8122

The craziest part for me was that everything came at a different time. After the first dish arrived, I thought, “Oh, wow. That’s a lot of food.” Then, the second dish came, and I thought, “Whoa, I shouldn’t have eaten so much of that first dish.” Then the third, fourth, and fifth dishes arrived. And we sat there, for three hours, until we ate all of it. Oh my goodness was it divine. We had mushroom salad (on the plate with the cucumbers on the left), a salad made entirely out of different mushrooms I had never seen before in my life. We had deep-fried tofu (so much better than any I’ve had in the States). We had an entire fish, with the head intact (Ice ate the head so I didn’t have to worry about tackling it myself). We had pepper chicken baked in a clay dish (with whole chunks of marinated ginger and garlic). Also, not pictured, was a giant hot-pot of cabbage and pork soup. There was so much soup in the hot-pot, man, that Ice’s friend sent it back to be warmed up about ninety minutes through the meal. Sometimes, weeks later, I dream about that night.

And if we weren’t stuffed to the seams, I had smiled when we passed the Starbucks earlier in the evening, so they decided it would be great to polish off our meal with a decaf latte.

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See, we don’t have Starbucks in Cambodia, which isn’t a big deal, but the novelty of seeing different Starbucks around the world is always cool to me. We sat for another few hours and talked about American customs versus Chinese customs, and whether or not Starbucks is as popular in America as it is in China. I said, “Maybe, but it certainly isn’t how people traditionally drink their coffee.” Then I explained to them the concept of the diner, and bottomless coffee.

The next morning, we struck out at 7am for the second day of our conference.

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Breakfast on the streets of Beijing. So much meat, so early in the morning! This was the city of food, I tell you.

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Donuts? (Notice the heavy coats; we were there mid-October, and it was chilly! Around the 40’s or 50’s. Look, when you’re coming from the 90’s of Cambodia, that’s cold!)

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It reminded me of New York City.

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More delicious street food.

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I loved all the bicycles everywhere. Every major road had a bike lane, and we saw people on bicycles everywhere.

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It wouldn’t be China if there weren’t the ultra-modern in immediate juxtaposition with the traditional.

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And then we passed a McDonald’s.  (Something we also don’t have in Cambodia!) I have to admit, I did get a McFlurry one night. And in case you were wondering, it looked just the same on the inside as an American McDonald’s does. What was different about it? If you remember, Kuwait had the McArabia, but here China has the “McExpress”. It’s that window on the left side, where you can walk up to the counter and order espresso drinks, ice cream, or apple pies.

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Here was the school where our conference was held. It seemed really large to me—especially in comparison with NISC, which only has 490 students! Our school is teeny tiny next to this giant.

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Here I am outside the gates of the school. It was the “High School Affiliated To Renmin University of China”. I still haven’t figured out how they abbreviate it…

The second night, Ice and I had plans to meet up with a girl I met through the conference who lived in Beijing and worked at the Canadian International School of Beijing. Ice and I took the subway to another part of the city, and walked around for a bit.IMG_8144

We ended up in the fancier, shopping mall area. I loved the balloons you could buy in between stops at H&M and Ray Ban.

We accidentally ended up walking through the embassy district, which was devoid of any street life whatsoever. We were pretty bummed out, and had to meet up with the girl from the conference. Honestly, if Ice wasn’t Chinese, I would have starved that night. She was able to find a minuscule sign hidden behind some trees that said, “Soup House” in Chinese. She pulled me inside, and we warmed our frozen bellies with delicious 75 cent soup. IMG_8145

Ice had hers with beef, and I just had noodles, vegetables, peanuts, and egg. Sounds weird, I know, but I ate it all!
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You eat it with both chopsticks, to pick up the whole bits, and a spoon for the liquid. Honestly, it was simple, it was unexpected, and it was delicious. Finding those out-of-the-way places on accident is what makes good memories. Ice and I had fun  in the back of that noodle shop!

The next day, the final day of the conference, I had to take another photo of my meal…IMG_8149So what? I’m a little obsessed with food. Again, look at the amazing salads. On the left next to the broccoli were gigantic black seaweed pieces that were delicious. I swear, if I tried to cook any of this at home, it would turn out a disgusting mess. But in China, magic happened in the school cafeteria. (Check out the whole shrimp in the top right!)

I do have one more post for you about China, and it was the final night of our stay. We went to the city center, where the hutongs are. The hutongs were narrow, winding streets and alleys over 400 years old. Many of the store fronts now house restaurants, take-away food, cute shops, with live musicians on every corner. Many of the streets are closed off to cars and only allow foot traffic. Men are engraving names on pieces of rice. People are doing magic tricks. You can buy a silk dress at one store, and a t-shirt of Mao Tse Tung at the next. It was a riot, a party every night. I can’t wait to share it with you.

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Our First Month In Phnom Penh

As of last week, we have officially been living in Cambodia for one month. Wahoo! What do I think of it? Well, I must say, this is a really good life. Laugh at me if you will, but honest, it’s a life of color, of love, of friends, of community, of culture that overflows into the streets and into your heart. Sean and I had a lot to get used to, it’s a lot different than Kuwait! Let’s take a quick second to address some of the big ones—and I don’t mean the fact that Cambodia is overflowing with green space, water, and libations—those are obvious. I’m talking about the little lifestyle changes we could never have anticipated. Trust me, I anticipated the libations!

To begin, the commute to and from school. In Kuwait, we lived one sand-lot away from our school, so we could run to our classroom whenever we needed to. School permeated our lives much more. Here, we have a van that runs to and from the school for us, which is really nice. It adds a half-hour commute each way, but—and you’ve never heard me say this before—we were spoiled in Kuwait. However, we like to have the distance and to live in a neighborhood with it’s own cafes, shops, and secret spots. Plus, we got to select our own apartment here, which ended up being quite nice as you saw in my previous blog post.

Another big difference between Kuwait and Cambodia are the grocery stores. In Kuwait I felt that I was always a stone’s throw away from a grocery store overflowing with both Western and Middle Eastern food. Here, it’s a bit different. There are a few Western grocery stores throughout the city, but none within comfortable walking distance for me. Further, the prices can be extravagant. I found a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for $15. Cheese can be up to $10 a pound. Same with butter.  (Are you sensing that they don’t use many dairy products here?) As a result, I have had to undergo a major cooking mental shift. I now frequent the markets twice a week, purchasing all of my fruits and vegetables from the vendors there. (This really is only because I am very frugal and love a challenge.) I occasionally buy Sean a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese, but I am really trying my hand at stir-frys, rice-heavy dishes, and mild curries. They are certainly tasty, but I do miss the hummus and pita bread!

To add on to the issue of cost, that has to be the biggest difference between the two countries. You can live like royalty in Cambodia for pennies in comparison to Kuwait. I feel like this could go unsaid, though, so I’ll keep it short. Delicious local plates cost you $1, as does avocado smoothies, beer, deserts, you name it. I can hop on the back of a moto for $2 and get from one end of the city to the other. We thought we’d save the same amount of money as we did in Kuwait living here because it is so cheap, but we do so many more activities on a daily basis! It is so enjoyable to go out for dinner multiple times a week, knowing we will never spend over $10 between the two of us. And there’s the plethora of delicious street food and drinks. Why settle for a boring glass of water when there’s 50 cent iced coffee? There’s always live music playing somewhere, a happy hour going on, or a new restaurant to check out.

All right, those were the big ones on my mind, but I will bring up other striking differences as they come to me. For today’s post, I wanted to show you a selection of photos from our first month in Cambodia. The food, the sights, the streets, the animals, the people. Let’s get started!

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We live near Wat Toul Tom Poung. Wat means “temple”, and Toul Tom Poung is the neighborhood we live in. This is a street that I walk down a lot which runs alongside the temple.
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Everything is so publicly adorned here. I love it! (Again, at Wat Toul Tom Poung.)

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You can enter the wats and walk around as long as you are respectfully dressed and modest in your behavior. I was bored one Sunday afternoon so I went inside to snap some pictures.

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I love that trees are so incorporated into buddhist shrines. I find it strikingly beautiful.

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Another part of Wat Toul Tom Poung.

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I hope to learn more about Buddhism and Hinduism so that I can better appreciate all of the temples here in Cambodia.

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One evening Sean and I went to the riverside. We don’t venture there often as it is fairly far away, and we have a surplus of wonderful activities and places to visit closer to us. I do want to spend an afternoon and an evening strolling down the promenade and visiting all the shops. The river on the left-hand side of this photo is the Tonle Sap river. The Mekong River and the Tonle Sap converge here along the riverside of Phnom Penh.

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As I said, we have a surplus of places to relax without needing to go to the riverside—would you believe this is at our school? Northbridge is also a housing community as well as a school, so there is a swimming pool and a restaurant and bar on the grounds. It is relaxing to spend a Friday afternoon with a cold drink and a swim in the pool before going home.

Now I’d like to begin my showcase of Cambodian food… you know it’s not a blog post without pictures of food…

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This photo was taken at the Central Market, named Psar Thmei in Khmer. I have had sweetened sticky rice in banana leaves before, so I quickly bought one as a snack. However, about half-way through I found a red paste in the center. Sean swears it was meat but I still maintain it was red beans (like kidney beans). Suffice to say, I could only stomach one more nibble after we encountered the dubious center.

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Sean’s “safe meal” in Asia has always been white rice and grilled chicken. There really are no hidden ingredients in white rice and grilled chicken. They still put a small salad on the side here, along with a delicious pickled plate, which I happily devoured for him. This was in a food court near Psar Thmei.
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I am not proud of this meal. It was rather unpleasant, in ways that I still cannot explain. The shrimp, noodles, vegetables, and broth were good, but there were the long strips that seemed too meat-like to me. The girl swore they were fish, but I just couldn’t figure out what animal they came from. Anytime I can’t tell which animal something is from, that always disturbs me. As you can see, I really wanted to try all the pastes and sauces! I am sure this tray would look really hilarious to any Cambodian with the menagerie of toppings I had.

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The main reason I wasn’t a fan of the soup was the “blood”. As I told the woman, “No meat, only fish”, she handed me the soup with this triangular dark blob floating in the center. When I asked the woman what it was, she smiled and said, “Blood.” I was going to ask her to remove it, but then thought Sean would like to try it, so I just flipped it into a small bowl on the side of the tray. Sean did try it, and said it tasted rather gritty. After asking around the next day, we found out that it certainly was congealed blood.

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Another happy hour with cribbage and cold drinks. This is the Korner Kafe, next to our house.

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I loved this meal. It was at a nicer Khmer place, but the bill still only came to $8. I had stir-fried vegetables and Sean had grilled chicken. It was delicious, and the atmosphere was lovely!

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I may have been complaining about grocery shopping here, but I am being picky. You really can get ANYTHING in Phnom Penh. Sean wanted to try a small place called Cafe Yejj near our house, which was classified as a bistro. I got a delicious eggplant salad (above). It certainly was a change from all the fried rice!
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Sean happy to have a Philly cheesesteak in Cafe Yejj.

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Another local cafe for dinner. I had a massive bowl of tom yum (a shrimp curry soup), and Sean had “barbecue pork ribs”. He wasn’t a huge fan… it was literally chunks of rib bone that you gnaw on while eating the vegetables. I would go back for the tom yum!

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Remember how I said you can get anything? We stopped at a lovely ice cream shop on the riverside with our friends, Charlie and Mie. It had a giant comfy couch for you to recline on and forget all your stress while you relish your ice cream.

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Ah, the live music. This was a quiet showing of The Cambodian Space Project at the Alley Cat Cafe. We loved them, and hope to go see them live again in the future! I also liked the Alley Cat Cafe as it had a selection of Tex-Mex and burgers which Sean loved.

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Yes, Cambodia has cockroaches. Lots of them.

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And geckos. Lots of them.

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And rain. Lots of rain.

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I went to a Vietnamese grocery store near our house and discovered “Vegan Shredded Meat Fluff”.  What could I cook with this?

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When my dad comes to visit I want to cook him these vegetarian pig ears. Think he’ll notice the difference?

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This certainly never happened in Kuwait—while grocery shopping a man handed me his “feng shui and face reading” card.

All right. I am going to spoil your eyeballs right now. This is my favorite part of the city: the sunrises and sunsets.

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Sunrise from our apartment window.

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Sunrise.

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Sunset.

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So, in short, we love Cambodia. It has so much to offer, and I feel like I have barely seen .001% of it in the month we’ve been here. Drop me a comment below if there is a specific topic you’d like me to write a blog on. This post was pretty scattered; I’d love to do a topic-based blog post if you have an idea!

I hope to post again soon about our recent weekend trip to Koh Kong—it included waterfalls, rivers, kayaking, hiking, delicious food, and the best lodge I’ve stayed at in a long time. Take care, and see you again soon!

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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