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Spring Stocktake
singapore sunset
Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is in full swing here. All week the streets have been disconcertingly empty, and almost all of the mom'n'pop shops have closed up for the break. It is very tough to find anywhere to eat that isn't a chain restaurant. My money situation is getting very tight (i have spent the last month dipping into my Canadian emergency fund just to survive) so i can't really afford to go traveling like everyone else. I also can't get wired internet hooked up, so a show-binging staycation isn't on the cards either. I think i will just buy hiking snacks and wander around this bizarre ghost town. But first, stocktake.

Last Sunday i moved into my new apartment. For the past week i have been filling it with the bare necessities. I went though a similar process when i settled in Berlin after a couple months on the road, but this time i have been on the road almost a year. Let's take a look at the list.

Traveling gear, the clothes:

two pairs of sneakers
one pair of sandals
five pairs of socks and a single sock who lost his partner
six pairs of underwear
two bras
one pair of pyjama pants
one pair of long johns
one pair of shorts
two pairs of jeans
six tank tops
three hoodies (one thin, one medium, one thick)
one emergency t-shirt
two bandanas
one teatowel
one beanie
three pairs of sunglasses

Traveling gear, the tools:

2-in-1 tablet
USB stick
external hard disk
water bottle
washing line
needles and thread
paper clips

Traveling gear, the toiletries:

tooth brush
contact lens box
contact lens liquid
spare contact lenses
glasses box
sun block
hair brush
hair ties

I lived for almost a year with just this stuff. Sometimes i bought more toiletries (e.g. shampoo or laundry detergent), sometimes i left things in a hotel room that i never used (e.g. headphones). I also lost three umbrellas. Generally, though, i think this was about right for me. The big thing is that you need to wash your clothes more than once per week, which is a pain in the ass in countries like China where coin laundromats do not exist.

What's much more interesting than the "what's in my backpack" thing, imo, is the "what did i buy after i moved into my place" list. I think the former is pretty much the same for everybody, but the latter is quite personal. In Berlin i lived with very, very little stuff, but it still seemed like i had to give too much away when i left. Here's what i've picked up since settling down for work in Shenzhen.

Arrival gear, the clothes:

two long-sleeved shirts

Although the dress code at work is casual (smart jeans and a hoodie is okay), i am worried about my tattoos. In warmer weather i will need those shirts. I desperately also need to buy some new underwear and socks, but this is proving very difficult in China because their largest size is too small for me.

Arrival gear, the tools:

measuring tape

When i moved to Germany i bought a full set of screwdrivers, pliers and a hammer and i still missed a wrench when i needed to refill the boiler pressure. Here i am going to try keep things simple - there is no central heating to maintain, and i am not going to build any furniture. Still, a measuring tape is indispensible when you are moving in. I will definitely need another umbrella too, when rainy season arrives.

Arrival gear, the kitchenware:

two plates
two bowls
two spoons
two cups
Chinese chef knife
cutlery holder
chopping board
electric kettle
coffee press

Being able to cook my own food is the number one drawcard for living in my own space. I love to cook. In Germany i held out for a few months without a coffee press, drinking Turkish/cowboy coffee instead, but i realized this is non-negotiable for me. A coffee press is critical. What i am trying in China is not buying a pot (which is what i used to boil water in Germany) and using an electric kettle instead. Since my "stove" is just a single gas burner designed for a round-bottom wok, that was my only affordable option for preparing daily drinking water anyway. On my first night i was struck with the idea of preparing noodles in the coffee press, and that worked great, so it seems i might be able to make do with just the wok and the electric kettle.

Another difference from my German kitchen is that i decided to buy stainless steel crockery instead of ceramic and glass. It is much, much lighter and doesn't chip when you drop it. I don't know why i ever bought ceramic or glass before, this is both cheaper and more convenient.

Also, cook with chopsticks. It will change your life. So many utensils become superfluous (spatula, tongs, wooden spoon, whisk etc).

Arrival gear, the homeware:

bed sheet
duvet cover
pillow cover
body towel
two hand towels
bed side lamp
trash can
power strip with USB sockets

I should mention the place came with a closet, bed, desk, chair, fridge, washing machine and the aforementioned wok burner. There were also a few cleaning things like clothes hangers, dish detergent, mop, bucket and broom. What's interesting to me is that the bed side lamp really felt like a must. Overhead lights are so bright; i never turn them on. It seems having soft, indirect light is really important to my comfort.

Arrival gear, the food:

peanut butter
raw peanuts
dried chilis
peanut oil
sesame oil
soy sauce
chili paste (doubanjiang)
chili condiment (pickle)

What made me happy about shopping here is that all of the same staples i have used in my kitchen for years are available right off the shelf; there was no need to go hunting in the import section. (Funny side note: the import section of grocery stores here has Italian food in it.) Bear in mind i did not have a kitchen knife at the point i bought all of this, or i probably would have bought garlic and ginger too.

My first night i chopped up some dried tofu, oyster mushrooms and napa cabbage with my penknife and just stir-fried them up. An interesting thing about cooking the Chinese way is that you don't mix it all together when you are eating at home - that's more of a take-out thing - you just cook each thing separately and put it in its own dish. This is a bit of a revelation for me because it means you can season much more sensibly (e.g. sesame oil and soy sauce for napa cabbage, peanuts and chili for tofu). I am almost tempted to buy more little plates to prepare more dishes at a time, but i think i would feel guilty if i did. Why should i prepare more than two dishes for each meal? I am just one person.

For the base i have been drinking a beer and adding a small serve of those coffee press noodles. Now i am in my own place i can also buy implausibly huge bags of rice crackers, which i have been spreading with peanut butter as a snack. The other day i topped some with stir-fried napa cabbage for dinner and it was awesome. Yesterday i bought some potatoes to make 干煸香辣土豆 (gān biān xiāng là tǔ dòu) which literally just means dry-fried spicy potatoes. I am a little worried my wok might still be too "young" to fry potatoes, but since i left my hotel in Nanshan where there was a cheap mom'n'pop Sichuan joint in the back alley i have been craving it.

I am so thrilled to be cooking again.

Cool discovery... although i am using the fridge to extend the shelf-life of my vegetables, i think i could live without it. In Chinese cookery most things are either preserved (dried, pickled, fermented) or killed and bought fresh the same day. I am really tempted to unplug the fridge as a challenge to myself, since this apartment was obviously designed in the days when fridges were a luxury item (there is no dedicated space or electrical outlet). It would be interesting to see how much it would save on the electric bill. On the other hand, it's pretty convenient to have somewhere to store leftovers. Not that i have had any yet. Cook small. Eat it all.

But yeah, i don't think i really need to buy any more stuff. On my list is still some kind of rug for the front room because i don't like walking on tiles in my bedroom, but other than that i already feel like a king. I am tempted to buy a rice cooker because i have never had one before and they are very popular here, but i am not sure i would eat enough rice to make it worthwhile. Perhaps if i start bringing lunch to work with me it'd make sense? Other likely buys i have identified are a butter knife (spreading peanut butter with a spoon kinda sucks) and a router (for when i get the internet connected).

Trying to keep track of all this stuff is really interesting to me because aside from my personal philosophy of minimizing consumption, i still have a romantic notion of retiring as a full-time RVer. (Presumably all-electric, self-driving RVs will be a thing by the time i retire.) This means not owning much stuff and definitely not using much power. It's pretty cool to be living in a country that has developed so recently - people my own age remember things like fridges, washing machines and hot water heaters being luxury items. For billions of people in the world these things still are. Seeing people live quite modern and comfortable lives without a lot of stuff reassures me that my dreams aren't completely wack, even if many in the west (and the newly-affluent Chinese) think i'm a bit nutty.

Happy New Year!
singapore sunset
Tomorrow (Feb 16) starts Year of the Dog. Tonight in China everyone has gone home to be with their families and depending on where they are might be eating dumplings or fish or other traditional celebratory dishes. I am just celebrating being able to cook, period, so i whipped together two of my favorite Chinese dishes and experimented with a third.

On the left is a plate of water spinach, which is known in Chinese as 空心菜 (kōng xīn cài) or "hollow vegetable". I know the Cantonese call it "ong choy", though i am not sure which characters they use to spell it. It's one of my favoritest favorite dishes of all time, and from what i understand is popular in rural areas all over South East Asia, because you are basically just eating weeds. You can use any green veg that has a hollow stem - even regular Western spinach is acceptable, if a little limp. Usually it's made with plenty of garlic, oyster sauce and maybe some salty fish. I tossed mine in the wok with a splash of dark (mushroom) soy sauce, a bit of sesame oil, a few cloves of diced garlic and bit of water.

On the left half of the second plate is the 干煸香辣土豆 i mentioned in the last entry. Take one small potato and cut it up, then toss it in a wok with no oil, no nothing. Keep tossing it till it starts to brown. Then add dried chilis and Sichuan peppercorns and a tiny drop of peanut oil to help transfer the flavor. No problem if you don't have the peppercorns, but that 麻 (má) numbing flavor is nice. At the end i also tossed in some cilantro.

I decided to also cook up some tofu for extra protein. I started with 豆瓣酱 (dòu bàn jiàng), which is a fermented bean and chili paste they use in Sichuan cuisine. It is extremely, ridiculously salty and i think i put in too much, but i'm still figuring out good ratios for my Sinicized (read: smaller) appetite. I tossed some peanuts in and let it go for a while then added Sichuan peppercorns and the dry tofu (豆干), which has a similar chewy consistency to dried shiitake mushrooms but with a less meaty flavor. Yum.

Companion beer is Tsingtao. Over in Nanshan District, Budweiser was the beer of choice - available everywhere and cheaper than Tsingtao. I tended to stick with a beer in a green can called 珠江啤酒 (zhū jiāng pí jiǔ) - literally Pearl River Beer. It's a local brew and very cheap, which is exactly what i look for in my booze. Unfortunately here in Luohu District it's quite hard to find. Also in Luohu, Bud is priced more like a "premium" beer, so Tsingtao it is.

The firecrackers have been going off for the last hour or so. I guess there are still a few families who have settled in Shenzhen and are celebrating here. Aside from the meal, i am celebrating because my phone provider sent me a text message saying "stuck without wifi? don't worry, we have a new year's deal for you!" They are blatantly targeting the kids who have gone back to the village where their parents have no internet, but 4G coverage is still good. For 20元 (the price of a Starbucks black coffee) i get 14GB of download for the next 7 days. YAS. Happy fucking new year, i'ma watch the Star Trek season finale 🎉💃🖖
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