Yangshuo Cookery Class and Little Hearts

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April 3rd 2013
Published: April 18th 2013
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After our much needed afternoon nap we met up with the others to go by taxi with our cookery teacher to the local market where we would check out the produce we'd be using in our lesson. Before we set off our teacher had asked us if we minded seeing the animals for sale as meat. We figured it was better to see things how they really are rather than shy away from difficult sights for western eyes and followed her into the market wondering what horrors we would actually see.

First was the huge fruit, vegetables and dried goods section. We saw so many weird looking and colourful fruits and vegetables from massive cucumbers to mangasteens, giant Chinese water melons and pomelos. We also saw lotus roots and a massive table piled high with chillies, much to Aaron's excitement. It seems he loves very hot, spicy food. We also watched a woman stripping off the outer layers of bamboo shoots and expertly tying them into bundles. I noticed that the hygiene standards were quite a bit lower than we are used to in the west. Counter sides were covered in mud and grime and there was a pervading stench throughout the market that seemed at odds with the beautiful, fresh produce on offer.

Dotted all around the market were groups of market traders noisily playing cards for money - not poker and not even normal playing cards. These cards were tall and thin with symbols on them which they seemed to be collecting a bit like in the game Pit we play at home, where commodity cards are collected and traded. The games were accompanied by much noisy shouting and laughter every time someone won a hand or a game.

We then moved into a different section of the market where traders were selling both live, caged animals and also ready prepared fresh and cooked meat. We were told that many Chinese prefer to take the live animals home to slaughter them themselves to ensure they have completely fresh meat to eat. A far more honest approach to meet eating in my opinion than our sanitised, vacuum-packed chunks of meat that become divorced in peoples' minds from the animals they originate from.

We saw the expected hens and ducks in wire cages, but there were also fluffy, white rabbits, pigeons, but worse of all for me, a cage with three terrified cats in. So awful to see what to us are treasured family pets being treated like this. It shouldn't be different to any other animal of course, but when you have a pet cat yourself you know its behaviour and expressions so well and I could therefore see how completely scared these poor creatures were. And I couldn't do anything about it! I had to just walk on by and accept that this was a very different way of life. I so wanted to run a-muck opening all the cages and releasing all these poor creatures, but I took a deep breath and sadly walked on by. We also saw whole, roasted dogs hanging up for sale. Again quite shocking, particularly to members of our group who had dogs as pets back home. When we asked Dennis about the dogs and cats later on in the day he explained that yes Chinese people do keep dogs and cats as pets and love them dearly, but they are still happy with eating other dogs or cats - its just that they view these as the ugly dogs and cats and this seems to make it ok
The fruit and veg market at YangshuoThe fruit and veg market at YangshuoThe fruit and veg market at Yangshuo

Notice the difference in hygiene standards - grime on the side of the counter near the red number 17.
in their mind set! We had also been warned that the Chinese literally eat any part of an animal and this was born out by a large tray piled high with what turned out to be pig penises!

After all these strange sights and minging smells it was with a certain amount of relief that we set off to start our cookery class. We donned aprons and paper hats and starting chopping and dicing various vegetables for our first dish. It did seem extremely over the top using massive cleavers to chop up aubergines and garlic! Our teacher demonstrated the cooking techniques while we watched, then we got to have a taste test to see how we wanted to adapt our own versions of the dish with different amounts of seasoning, garlic or soya sauce. Once we had all finished creating our aubergine master pieces of culinary delight we sat down to eat. Of course we had pee-joes to accompany our first course - remember? - it's lager - sorry Aussies/Kiwis - BEER!

Our next lesson was making China's famous steamed dumplings. The dumpling pastry was ready made up into circles so all we had to do was chop and mix up our fillings - veggie for me and minced meat and veggies for the others. Then we got creating various shaped dumplings and quite artistic we were too. It went very quiet as we all concentrated hard, first placing a little mound of mixture in the middle of the ready-prepared, circular, dumpling pastry - not too much, not too little - then wetting the edges with water and finally squeezing the edges together in various different shapes. As we finished each dumpling we placed it carefully in our own individual circular steamer baskets that were then stacked one on top of another and placed in a tower in a wok with boiling water in. The baskets were numbered so we could identify our own dumplings after they were cooked, especially useful for veggie Lottie - number 33!

While the dumplings were being steam cooked we got on with other tasty dishes. The next one had tiny chillies, again chopped up with the massive cleavers. It was such a great cookery lesson, though not as funny as the one I'd experienced in Vietnam the previous year with our singing lady calling us all names like 'hot boy', 'veggie lady', 'chicken boy' etc. The food also wasn't quite as scrummy either - not for veggie Lottie anyway. I preferred the Vietnamese crispy lattice work spring rolls and banana leaf cooking to the Chinese dumplings. They were still yummy however and we were all completely stuffed by the end of the lesson. So stuffed in fact that we decided we ought to walk off a few calories going back to the hotel through the busy night time streets, rather than getting another taxi.

I'd thought it was really late, but it turned out it was only about half seven so I went back down to the hotel lobby where there was wifi reception and to ask Dennis about taking a calligraphy class the next day. This sorted we then had a long conversation about the photo I'd seen on Dennis's laptop of an older girl and a young baby. It turns out they are adoptive children from a children's orphanage that Dennis works for alongside his job with Geckos. The charity is called 'Little Hearts' and arose from a need to help orphaned children in China who have heart conditions that are not possible to be treated in China, the surgeons not having the skills to do this particular type of heart surgery. An exchange agreement was therefore set up with some US surgeons and assisting medical staff in order to give these children a chance of a better life through surgery and then adoption by families in the west. I asked Dennis how the Chinese government felt about this charitable work as I had a perception that they would probably be stubbornly proud and not willing to admit they were unable to do something that America could do, as it could be seen as losing face. Dennis agreed but explained that the way around this was to get the 'idea' to come from the government and then they are able to take the credit for any successes that arise. The good results for the children are what is most important after all, not who gets the kudos for making it happen. The charity is happy for the Chinese government to take the credit as long as the children receive the surgery they so desperately need.

Dennis was very passionate about the Little Hearts charity and what it was able to achieve, but he was also quite angry at the emerging super rich Chinese business people who he felt now needed to put something back financially rather than leaving charities such as Little Hearts reliant on foreign aid for help with orphaned children. I asked how it would be possible to get information about the charity to these rich Chinese who could potentially help with financial donations seeing as much of the media is controlled by the government. It turns out that there are ways of working around the system and if you are able to get the organisation registered with government approval this will ensure that information is circulated to advertise the charity and ensure the government is seen in a good light, assisting with the work to help the orphans.

I also asked what the main reasons were for children becoming orphaned in China and it turns out that it IS to do with the single child policy. This is the policy, introduced in China by the government in 1978 in order to address the social, economic and environmental problems created by the then hugely increasing population that was spinning out of control. It is claimed that from 150 to 400 million births have been prevented through enforcement of the policy. Some people are exempt such as those living in Hong Kong and any foreigners living in China. Rural workers have sometimes been allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl or if the child is disabled but these second children have to be spaced out by at least 3 years. Tibetans and certain ethnic minorities have been allowed to avoid the single child policy. The policy has received huge criticism due to its violation of human rights of the individual to determine the size of their own family. It was only in 2002 that China outlawed enforced abortions, sometimes carried out up to almost full term and also enforced sterilisations. Now the policy is enforced through a system of fines based on income. Some couples pay the fine in order to have a second child and restrictions seem to be relaxing a little now.

The reason for so many orphans resulting from the single child policy has mostly been down to the less rigidly enforced medical checks in rural areas allowing women to give birth without registering their baby and then if the child is the 'wrong' sex or disabled or with obvious birth defects or illnesses the parents are able to abandon the child in order to try again with a second pregnancy. Girls have more often been abandoned in the past as they are likely to move away from the parents' home when they marry to live with their husband's family and there is then no-one to help the daughter's mother and father when they get older. Although the Chinese Government does provide care for the elderly, culturally it is seen as extremely bad to put your parent into a care home and those who do are often looked down on or even ostracised.

It turns out that an unforeseen circumstance of the single child policy is the emergence of 'little emperors'. These are children who have been so pampered by their parents who only have this one child to pour all their love and devotion into that they become little brats who stamp feet, scream and shout and expect the 'moon on a stick'. This then spills over into adult hood which has actually started changing opinions over which is the best sex to have. Girls are now seen as more likely to help parents in their old age than these spoilt brat little emperors!

Additional photos below
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Preparing aubergines at our cookery class in YangshuoPreparing aubergines at our cookery class in Yangshuo
Preparing aubergines at our cookery class in Yangshuo

Was it really wise letting Lottie loose with a cleaver?

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