Ursula Friedman '14: Impressions of Unexpected Ingredients

Ursula Friedman was the 2014-2015 Shansi Fellow at Beijing Normal University. This is her end of year narrative.

Pig brain clouds swirl in chuckling golden hot pot broth, eddying amidst garlic, goose blood tofu, sweet potato, onion, bok choy, lamb intestine, wood ear, and assorted mushroom chunks. Plunge a delicate morsel into sesame scallion sauce for a zesty bite.

Horns bleat as their vehicles roam sidewalks, dodging vendors and commuters as all dash through viscous haze. Bustling alleyways, mazes of one-story courtyard houses, souvenir shops and dumpling joints marinate in bus smog, octopus kabobs, stinky tofu, frying mutton, sticky caramelized crabapples, cigarette butts, gutter oil and sweat. Peddlers air their marked goods amongst alleys steeped in a towering shadow cast by the Best Western Deluxe lurking around the corner.

Taro root stewed in sweet milk paired alongside pig intestines simmered with tender mushrooms. Donkey meat rolls bursting with green pepper and melt-in-your mouth magenta shards, neatly tucked inside flaky pastry lips.  Whole oven-fried fish stuffed with lotus root, potato, tofu rind, spinach, and mushroom, swimming beneath glinting mounds of hot pepper.  Tofu skins encasing luscious mouthfuls of fresh butter lettuce, lamb stir fry bathed in copious cilantro fringes, delectable morsels of pork liver, garnished with a sauce of roasted peanuts and earthy yellow bean paste. Pig intestine and liver soup, gelatin broth jangling with sour, spicy joy. Tender, sweet-sour nuggets of chicken interspersed with roasted peanuts, hot peppers, and squares of cucumber in a bed of fragrant race, pairs well alongside one large juicy pork, onion, and green pepper bun. Wash it all down with a nourishing bowl of pumpkin soup.

“I’ve always wondered, since they don’t eat internal organs, what do Americans do with the hearts, livers, kidneys, and so forth?” a student asks. Beijing MacDonalds (think glittery, five-star joints complete with deluxe coffee bars) all offer cups of corn instead of fries. The cafeteria drinks lady chirps, “Do you take your red bean juice warm or hot? Sweet, partially sweet, or non-sugar?” Walk passed the steamed broccoli, fileted carp, curried chicken-potato stew, braised eggplant and bell peppers, and behold the master chef pulling noodles.  He first separates the long strip of dough into oblong chunks, then tears the chunks into noodle strands, which he wraps deftly around his pointer, ring, and middle fingers like a loom, swinging the elastic strands with a flowery flourish. He finally stretches the noodles several times before releasing into the boiling pot of water where they become al dente in two minutes.

Vast, empty spaces.  Karaoke bar lounges and abandoned dance halls, echoing with shadows of memory steeped in expensive grain alcohol.  Rollercoasters and Ferris wheels and monster houses, arcade valleys, archery galas, garnished by the first winter dusting, serenaded by the rusty crank of cotton candy and popcorn machines.  High-speed trains cruising in at 200 miles an hour, silent as Priuses, glass locomotors disappearing into the fog front.  Toy cars chasing each other empty tracks at the Glory Mall, Barbie dolls following customers to the custom-fit bra racks with empty glassy stares. Customers race around a single pen at the entrance to Outlets, where discounted slacks, blouses, vests, dresses and suit tops beckon (one cashmere sweater’s price tag reads- Original Price: 3,000 RMB, On Sale For: 36 RMB).

In Western Beijing, sun-checked cement strips reflect dappled shadows cast by the scattered pines. The empty construction lot along the Tongzhou canal bank stretches for miles, with metal poles, wooden supports, cranes and half-erected skyscrapers skeletons illuminated by car light, plane light and streetlight.

Yangshan Park is full of grinning stone statues of cartoon figures, stadium stairs melting into the rippling silver mirror once iced over for a Junior Olympic ice skating competition.  Row upon row of trees donning immaculate white stockings stand guard over the park’s perimeter, shedding a carpet of golden leaves. 

Third-graders interview Ursula at Yangshan Park, with their parents on guard in the background. “America must be so dangerous! Doesn’t everybody carry a gun?”

A group of retired women flourishes swords, red tassels churning a crisp breeze.  They are immediately swallowed up by fifty taichi practicioners, ligaments liquidized beneath flowing pastel robes. Cottonwoods and bamboo trees bow into the jade lake brimming with lily pads and lotus flowers breaking into blossom. The sandbar ahead hosts a single white swan dozing on one leg.

The Purple Bamboo Park provides sparkling views of lakes swimming with government-implanted fish. Wooded hills decked with benches and ornate singing platforms await the nature-starved soul.  In the Child of the West Sea park, I encounter a harmonious blend of bumper cars, arboretums, kites the size of small airplanes, and wooded paths.  The night scene features elders gathering for a raucous night of majiang, dancing, singing, and other festivities on the nearby track.

As China’s farmland belongs to the government, farmers’ fields are often “reclaimed” for an unspecified length of time, so many come to Beijing to earn money by participating in “city beautification” projects involving construction, plant-maintenance, and park-sweeping. I enjoy an overflowing bowl of gingery green pepper eggplant, green pea soup, and an enormous steamed bun with a migrant worker friend who lives near the park.  In the spaces between lofting fragrant morsels onto the bun and chasing down the earthy flavors with nourishing gulps of soup, employees flicker in and out of their dormitory, discussing plans for the night shift and exchanging pieces of news from back home.

I realize that home is inside us all, and the Chinese spirit of nourishing spontaneous community is one secret to joyful longevity.  Whether it’s friends scraping together their wages for a loved one’s medical procedure, mountain-top monks preparing a free, hearty meal for just-summited travelers, restaurant-goers casually ordering up a storm from across the room, shouting over the din of busy chopsticks, home is a portable conception etched in the heart, independent of geography.

Over winter break, I travel to Wuyang County, located in central China’s Henan Province. Residue of the Siberian anticyclone whips my hair into a frenzy as our truck passes field upon field of tobacco, corn and grain, leveled now months after the fall harvest. Enormous mounds of dirt in the center of the fields mark family graves, where villagers congregate to pray and burn incense for their ancestors.

Back at the farm house, we enjoy bowls of cream of wheat soup laden with fragrant chunks of sweet potato, dipping dense sourdough “mo” buns into the thick, nourishing concoction. Next comes “dazahui,” consisting of juicy chunks of pork stir-fried with potato noodle, bok choy, spinach, tofu, carrot, salt, ginger, all slow-cooked in peanut oil over crackling flames.


As we feast, yellow, gray, black, white, and dun dogs assume their posts under the table, tails tucked and mouths watering, patiently awaiting strategically-launched chopstick-fulls of cucumber, garlic shoots, egg, green pepper, and pork. 

A life-size Chairman Mao portrait overlooks his shrine beneath, candles casting a warm pool of light over the scrubbed wooden table. Offerings of tangerines, apples, and walnuts crowd around candles and incense sticks. There are shrines to various boddhisattvas in the kitchen hut, where five dogs doze off the feast in their straw beds; in the yard near the pig pen, where chickens flap up a dust storm, and in the garden, where chives, bok choy, spinach, green pepper and cilantro flourish year round inside a makeshift greenhouse.

After nearly twenty hours of labor, the sow lies heaving on her enormous side, nine rosy jewels nestling against her bursting udders, serenaded by a chorus of honking geese in the adjacent pen.

I look out over a sea of fifty PHD/graduate students majoring in everything from Astronomy to Children’s Literature, all signed up for the course “Modern Short Stories in Around the World” I designed barely a week ago, close my eyes, and recite my favorite folk tales from childhood. Three months and half a dozen authors (Julio Cortázar, Katherine Mansfield, García Márquez, Nathaniel Hawthorne, O’Henry) later, I begin devouring by students’ multiple drafts of their original short stories, which they wrote to practice the writing techniques we studied throughout the semester.

Now, I continue to savor the 200-ensemble-member anthology.

With the authors’ consent, please enjoy some selections:

1. From “Pansy and Grizzly Bear” by Hao Dan

Pessach went to the museum at once and when he saw the bullet, he completely lost control of his tears. Yes, that was the one which had been removed from the grizzly bear’s neck! That 38-year-old man broke down and there wouldn’t be anybody who could understand why he was so sad. But he was not alone. The blossoming pansies seemed to hear the crying and began to whimper in the wind.

Pessach became a security captain a few days later. He worked with assiduity and kept to his post for more than twenty years. He never married and spent his remaining days living happily with Van Basten’s children. He died of liver cirrhosis when he was 71 years old. Under the terms of his will, his body was cremated and his ashes were scattered around the grave of Colonel Jonas.

In the year following his death, many colorful pansies grew up around the grave. Thereupon, there was a solemn and quiet garden on the border.

2. From “The Crows of Civilization” by Liangping Qi

“You had never let the crows go?” Professor Ying questioned.

“Yeah, it is true.” The crow replied with a sigh. “However, the annihilation of the Qin Dynasty a few years later changed my idea. Therefore, I called the crows back and made them scroll about, as in the past. I told the crows you human beings are not only wise and strong, but also stupid and weak at the same time. I ordered crows to observe your civilization. If a dynasty came to its end, crows would eat up the rotten and the decadent, and would bring fear to you human beings. Two thousands of years have passed, and dynasty after dynasty has been founded, only to perish again. Crows witnessed all that happened, you human beings are too easy to forget. They will never leave unless you realize the necessity of struggling to be powerful forever. For the time being, they are still a part of your civilization.” After saying these words, the crow flew away without even a sign.

“Wait, wait…” Professor Ying wanted to ask more, but it was too late. The crow had already disappeared into the darkness.

3. “Untitled” by Sun Yijun

He is an ordinary seven-year-old boy; what makes him special are his eyes. His right eye is yellow, like a star in the night, while his left eye is in the color blue, like water in the deep ocean. One day on the way home from school, near a small forest, a man— according to the boy’s description—“in an odd silver costume rushed towards him, holding a pistol”. However, the man suddenly stopped with a strange expression on his face. This scared the boy away. For some unknown reasons, the boy would relive this scene again and again for the rest of his life.

Twenty years later, World War III broke out. The world was on the verge of being destroyed by the uncontrolled use of nuclear weapons. During this time, a transnational organization, operated by some scientists and peace lovers, was secretly set up in the hope of saving the world. After many times of attempts in vain, exhausting all the way of changing the current situation, the organization finally came to its last choice—constructing a kind of time machine to save the world by changing history. With all the great efforts of world’s top scientists, through years of painstaking research, a primary time machine finally came to shape.

The boy, who is twenty-seven now, has lost his father and brother in the war and witnessed the plight of so many people. These experiences all strengthened his opposition towards the war and made him an active member in this organization. And he, because of his strong attachments to his old memories, became the only one that was qualified to be a time traveler. Because of limited techniques, and the belief that any small change in the past may change all of history (The Butterfly Effect), he has been commanded to kill the first person he meets during time travels. Considering the importance and confidence of this special mission, he has to agree to the claim that any disobedience in the act may result in the death sentence.

Now with everything ready, wearing a special-made silver costume, he has been sent back to twenty years ago, landing in a small forest. It is spring now! He notices green sprouts on the trees all around him. The Cuckoos are singing coo-coo in a so familiar way, and he could feel the fresh-smelling wind gently stroking his face .How he misses the old times! How nice would it be to keep the world in this kind of peace forever! What a great mission it was to avoid the world from destruction! And he must succeed. Quietly, he takes a road out of the forest and manages to move in a cautious way. A boy is walking towards him. He rushes towards the boy, holding a pistol in his hand. When he is about to pull the pistol in the way he has been trained in thousands of times, he sees the boy staring at him frightened, with one eye yellow and one eye blue.

4. From “A Girl on the Subway” by Kevin Xu

The heads covered in long or short black hair stagger along with the hurtling train car’s every wobble, reminding me of a flock of lost sheep. Unconsciously, I move my eyes to a corner seat behind my back. There, I see a beautiful girl drinking a cup of soybean milk. She just sits there quietly, wearing a pink sweater with two cartoon logos of “Hello Kitty” on each sleeve. Her delicate fingers pinch the straw and her sexy lips sip just a little. The cascade-like long hair almost hides her fair cheek, barely leaving a ‘gap’ in front of her face, and through the ‘gap’ of the black cascade, you can make out two watery eyes gazing softly ahead, completely motionless.

5. From “Drowning” by Chu Yunxia

If this is a sunny afternoon. Mrs. Equinox will choose to seat in the garden once again, with the blood red flowers sprawling on her frail body at their convenience. And then, she will prune the redundant leafs with a terrible pity. That was her husband’s responsibility twenty years ago but now, time flies. She has a glance at the mussy branches and leaves which are like her own lean bones, finding that they are stubborn, hopeless, no trace, no feeling.

6. From “The Feathers of the Wind” by Payne Chao

Out in the valley was the beauty he couldn’t resist. He realized that everything came for a price. And the price was fair.

Ever since then John never mentioned a word about the feathers of the wind. Everyone thought he had recovered. Yet John didn’t keep his promise.

He noticed that something would fade out from his sight every couple of months. First the paths in the grass vanished, and he couldn’t find his way back home on his own; then he couldn’t see the walls that he always headed out to. Finally, all the other people disappeared.

But the winds were always with him. Opening his eyes, he saw winds flying; closing his eyes, he heard the winds singing. In the morning, the wind went up into the sky, and at night they came back with the heat of sunlight. He lived alone, in a world full of vacuum. He used to feel lonely when he could still see things; now he felt he had found his company.

Years pass. The further the moon gets away from the earth, the slower the earth rotates, yet the feathers of the winds never stop growing.

7. From “The Day All the Sunflowers Bloomed” by Jieling Feng

“Dear, I’m so sorry not to tell you about my illness, you should know that I love you very much and do not want you to be sad,” Grey said, with traces of tears on her pale cheeks. “But since you now know the truth, I hope that you will always be strong and take good care of the garden. Every time you see those blossoms, just remember that your mother is always here and loves you forever,” she squeezed the poor boy a little tighter and her voice cracked.

Grey finally left Alex on the day when all the sunflowers bloomed. A gust wind blew, and the golden flowers formed an ocean of hopeful, smiling faces, singing beautiful songs to the boy. Standing amidst the rippling sea of flowers, Alex felt comfort not to be completely alone, because he knew that mom’s love was just the same as the sunflowers, accompanying him and lighting his path forever.

8. From “No Man is Content” by Yanping Yang

One day, an official came to visit the woodcutter and said, “I have heard that you can cut into the abdomen of a python and cut out the liver. Give me half a kilo of the python’s liver and make the princess well. The princess will marry you and the king will award you a high-status position within the imperial court.”

Overcome by greed and the promise of power, the woodcutter wanted to make a bet. He took up his knife again and ran at once to the python. But this time the python hesitated, and said in a low voice, “My wound has not yet healed, one more cut would bring me more severe pain and even death.” “My dear,” the woodcutter kneeled down and begged, “Just this once. I will gain high political authority, and never again will I be bullied by others.” He sincerely implored for so long that at last the python slowly opened its mouth.

The woodcutter stepped into the abdomen and found the liver just like last time. Quick as a wink, he cut down the liver and rushed out. However, just when he arrived at the throat, the python’s jaws snapped shut. The python died, and the woodcutter never came out again.

9. From “The Oriole House” by Violet

Jonathan now felt something could be wrong; he hastily closed the glass cover quickly, but those roses were still dead. While he was bumbling about with confusion, Gloria returned.

“My dear Jonathan, why did you enter that door, why did you open that glass cover? You promised me! The roses in there are the symbol of mine and our daughters’ lives. As they wither, we are dying.”

“Oh my dear Gloria, that’s all my fault, is there anything I can do to atone?”

“I’m sorry Jonathan, I’m leaving now, there is nothing you can do. It’s our destiny,” said Gloria sadly. “But I still want to thank you, for once saving my life, for giving me so much love, for accompanying me for such a long time. I’ll cherish those memories.”

Having said that, Gloria disappeared. Everything, including the house, was gone with the wind. There was only one little oriole which lingered a while on the eves, before flying off into the forest.

Once up on a time, there was a hunter named Jonathan who lived at the foot of a mountain, always wondering if he really had lived a happy life, or it was just a dream.

Over the past eight months, I’ve worked by the motto “fake it till you make it.” A couple days before publication, teachers asked me to translate speeches for kindergarten anniversaries and model UN conferences; websites, class syllabi, and exchange student diaries. Despite initial panic, I eventually fell into a happy rhythm and plan to pursue a graduate degree in English/Chinese translation and interpretation next year. I was intermittently called in to conduct English interviews for prospective university candidates and host extra pedagogical training sessions for graduate students going abroad to teach Chinese, and maintained several part-time jobs teaching spoken English to kids and adults.

Little Brook in the Woods during his first foreigner-taught English class

Teaching “Situational American Spoken English” this semester has helped me to deepen my own understanding of American culture by viewing it through my students’ eyes. Every Thursday and Friday, we laugh and read plays, watch tv shows, analyze speeches, pick apart English idioms, and when we come to such bogs as definite/indefinite articles and prepositions, I realize I didn’t master my native language the first time around. Meanwhile, by taking four Ancient Chinese Literature courses over the course of these two semesters, I’ve expanded my repertoire to include Confucius’ 24 paragons of filial piety (my favorites are The Man Who Stripped Naked to Allow the Mosquitoes to Feast on his Flesh Rather than Bite his Father; Personally Scrubbing His Mother’s Chamber Pot; Deeply Concerned, He Tasted His Father’s Stool, Entering Servitude to Pay for His Father’s Funeral) and the works of other poets and sages, including Sunzi, Mencius, Wang Shouren, Laozi, and Zhuangzi.

Waiting in line is a skill I’ve been honing recently.  Whether it’s cuing up for several hours to have a three-second X ray, dozing off for an hour as the bank teller struggles to figure out whether Ursula or Friedman is my surname, squeezing into the cue of famished scholars clamoring for stir-fried noodles at the Number Five Students’ Cafeteria, or wading amongst a sea of elbows, shoulder bags, and cuddling couples in the six-o’clock rush-hour crowd of Subway Line Two, not a day goes by when I don’t experience the thrill of cue duty.

Taking an array fascinating courses including Educational Psychology, Listening to Chinese News Broadcasting, Chinese Philosophy-A History, Current Affairs, and Chinese Idioms has enabled me to bring my written and spoken Mandarin skills up to HSK Level 6. Studying analects, proverbs, and poems allows me to return to a perpetual state of childhood awe. Now when I close my eyes and recite Li Bai’s poems, I see a the flash of monkeys leaping from the cliffs as the light canoe plunges through endless mountain ranges. I memorize Wang Wei’s, Du Fu’s, and Bai Juqi’s poetry climbing the Fragrant Hills at sunrise and at the deep end of Beijing Foreign Language University’s lap pool. Here in Beijing, I am Leo Lionni’s Swimmy, swimming from marvel to marvel.