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It was obvious from first week of the Local Local Challenge that I needed some help. Throughout my time in Beijing I have been lucky enough to come across a variety of foreigners who have really immersed themselves in the local culture, so I called upon a few “expat experts” to enhance my participation in the challenge.

On November 9th I popped in my Pimsleur Chinese lesson and biked over to Jie GuLou #147 for tea at Zheng Yun Cha She with local artist, Helen Couchman, and tour guide Jeffery Schwab. Jeffrey had been friends with the owners of the shop for some time, and although the boss was away on travel, his employee treated us to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony complete with Pu’er tea served from a 5,000RMB yixing clay pot! He also explained that one of their tea table adornments was a bull because its representative of the hardworking and obedient nature of the employees at the tea shop. I got the chance to teach my local experts a few things about Chinese tea before they broadened my horizons around the city.

Helen has been living and making art in Beijing for six years (www.helencouchman.com), and lives in a hutong off Guolou Dajie. She agreed to introduce me to her favorite Sichuan restaurant, and go easy on the spiciness. The two of us headed over to the corner of Gulou Dong Da Jie and BeiLuoGuXian on my bike (Helen pedaling, me holding on for dear life) and feasted on some of Helen’s favorite dishes. (I also brought my re-usable, eco-friendly chopsticks, courtesy of The Hutong http://www.thehutong.com.) We ate lazi ji, a spicy fried chicken dish loaded with hot peppers, ma jiang feng wei (fresh greens and sesame sauce) and san san hua dan dou huar, a salty soup with egg, tofu, mushrooms, tomato, carrots and peas.

Needing to get a bit of work done, I headed to Café Zarah and sipped more Chinese tea. (Perhaps this establishment is considered one of the gems of the expat community, but it’s locally run and I only ordered tea.) For dinner I headed to Sanlitun, but had a tang hu lu while waiting for a friend and then dined outdoors at the Han Zhou Xiao Chi restaurant. I ordered a standard xi hong shi jidan gai fan and tudou jiding, which I had never tried before and loved the flavor.

On November 10th my roommate helped me eat local by making an egg sandwich with bread from a local street vendor, and I managed to get a seat with fellow challenger Jessica Greene, at Noodle Bar in Sanlitun. That place was packed and rightfully so, as the flavors of the noodle dishes were excellent. Jessica and I talked a bit about the challenge, which had prompted her to cook a lot more at home and generally focus her Local Local efforts on not being so wasteful. Quite reflective of our experience Noodle Bar, she commented that even eating locally wasn’t necessarily a waste-free or inexpensive option, and we chatted about how the concept of “local” culture is constantly changing and quite hard to authentically capture no matter where you are.

On November 11th I shopped at Jinkelong for lunch and went to a traditional Chinese medicine treatment. I always find these treatments to be quite intriguing from a physical and educational standpoint, and this time I got huge needles stuck right in the middle of my stomach! I then proceeded to eat a roast and cheese, and drink wine at a dinner party, but I figure it’s only half as bad if I’m not paying…and I met the organizer for Monday Night Jiaozi nights, and planned to attend as part of my challenge!

I hate to say it, but by Saturday I was already getting sick of Chinese food. My school provides a ton of Chinese dishes for lunch, but thinking about eating all that oil before taking a run later in the afternoon was really not enticing. I had veggies (still doused in oil) and one of my favorite dishes, tangsu liji before purchasing some sunflower seeds and a red bean bun from Jinkelong. I was craving a western energy bar, but at least these snacks had a bit of protein. I also headed to a workout session that I won with fitness guru Tony Nicholson of 4 Point Fitness, who didn’t exactly support my attempts to eat more Chinese food from a health standpoint. I’m pretty serious about fitness, so that made it additionally hard to stick to the challenge.

(*Before I get attacked here, I realize that Tony is a foreigner and that personal trainers are a luxury, but he has lived here over ten years, speaks fluent Chinese and trains lots of locals…so we chatted a bit about the culture of exercise in China. This brings us back to the issue of what is really considered “local”?)

To make up for past transgressions, I really upped my local game on Sunday, November 13th. I woke up early to meet back up with Jeffrey at The Hutong for his Prophets, Prostitutes and Spies tour, and spent most of the afternoon at the Xi Xian Zhai Teahouse in the hutongs behind the Lama Temple. A group of us sipped Wu Yuan Mingmei Jiangxi Cha (婺源茗眉江西茶), nibbled on suan jiao (funny translation: “acid horn”) gummy candy, and ate a traditional vegetarian teahouse meal. and ate a traditional vegetarian teahouse meal. Next we headed north to Yuan Dynasty DaDu Park where Jeff amazed us with his skills as a Diablo master. For those of you that don’t know, the Diablo is a spinning top that can be made to do a variety of tricks as it spins on strings. This experience is worth an article on its own, but Jeffrey has been coming to this park for years and has fully integrated into the talented Diablo community. Everyone was so happy to see this American lao wai spinning his Diablo magic, and I could tell they respected Jeffrey’s ability and friendly nature. As Jeffrey puts it, “Playing diabolo replaces going to church…it’s my spiritual solace.” The masters graciously tried to teach me to get the top up and running, but I was almost a total failure.

To finish off the day, we walked around GuLou to visit some hot spots, such as the restaurant where Vice President Joe Biden recently dined. We then walked south to Man Fu Lu (满福楼) Xinjiang-style hot pot where we ordered an incredible feast of everything from mini jiaozi to pig heart…I think.

On a local high from my “Local Sunday,” I headed out to an organic farm with my co-workers, only to have my wallet stolen on the subway. Instead of basking in the glory of organic foods, I rushed home to cancel my credit cards. On a positive note, China Citic froze my account when the thief entered the wrong pin three times, and my co-workers came home with a pumpkin half the size of my body!

Conclusion:

This week I branched out from simply eating locally to participate in quite a few more local activities. I’m lucky to know people like Jeffrey, who are exceptional at integrating into Chinese culture, and are quite willing to share their interests with others. I think I did a better job of going local this week than last, but this was primarily due to a temporarily decreased workload. I’m quite worried about next week, when things really pick up again.

Editor’s Version in The Beijinger.

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