Wok with Me is FOODragon’s Q&A session.
Today we Wok with Michael de Waal-Montgomery, the man behind The BLCU Blog.
“As much as your hosts want to ‘ganbei’ (toast with you to finish your glass), don’t be afraid to slow down if you can’t handle the pace, and just tell them you need to swap to tea or water if all the alcohol becomes too much”
Michael de Waal-Montgomery
I never clung to a Chinese name. The closest I had was the phonemic equivalent of my English name: Maike.
Where are you from? Where you live now?
The UK . That’s where I am now finishing up my journalism degree. Specifically I born and raised in Scotland, but lived in England since I was 12, and went to high school there. Currently I study at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.
What do you do?
I have run The BLCU Blog as a side project since 2010 when I was studying in Beijing, and there tend to be phases where I inject new content and life into the blog, then leave it for a while to carry itself while I am busy with other stuff (whether that be employment, study, other creative outlets, etc.). At the moment (March-April 2014), I am in the active phase with regards to pushing things forward with the blog. Our Facebook page now has around 1,200 likes thanks to a few campaigns to get more exposure, and our daily stats are up. I am also doing a lot of interviews with current and former students at BLCU that make for some good reading. I have also attracted the attention of some advertisers (for example, Chinese learning services) who are paying for advertising space and sponsored posts which is good news for the future of the blog.
What brought you to China in the first place?
I first ventured to China in October 2007 on a two-month martial arts trip, initially arriving in Beijing but travelling widely. I stayed longer than I had planned, and at the time entertained the idea of going to BLCU, but it was not to be in the end (that would happen a few years later). On that visit I travelled all over the country, from Yiwu in the south to Beijing in the north, and several places in between (Henan, Anhui). I also stayed in Xingjiang for a few weeks during that visit. I returned to China in 2010 to study at BLCU for a year. Since then I have lived on and off in Hong Kong whilst completing my degree, and did an exchange year in Guangzhou (when I did some work for the Guangzhou Morning Post and Shenzhen Daily, as well as a regional news and events website called The Nanfang). I plan to work in the media industry (either journalism or PR, etc.).
What do you like the most about living in China? What do you like the least?
I always liked the rawness and freshness of living in China. It’s such a huge country full of extremes, and is developing so quickly. Some parts feel alien, whilst some are far more familiar and Westernised. No doubt there are issues relating to the environment and food safety (two name just two), but there is so much to discover you could live several lifetimes through in the country and still or know not see it all.
How long do you think you’ll stay here?
Although I won’t live in the China mainland, I plan to be in Hong Kong long-term, and have already spent a couple of years there if I add up all the time.
Are you a conservative or adventurous eater?
I used to be more adventurous than I am now; I’ve eaten some weird things in my early days in China that I wouldn’t eat again (scorpions, ‘soft chicken’ (which may or may not have been testicles), deep-fried baby birds (not through any choice of my own – it was ordered at a time I was a guest at, and so I didn’t want to turn it down in case I offended my hosts), and more). I feel like in many ways I can draw a line under a lot of things in China – I’ve been there, got the t-shirt, done that – in that I no longer have anything to prove to myself, and that includes the types of foods I try out. After all these years, I’m certainly not someone who is in any way ‘new’ to China.
How did you find Chinese food when you just arrived? Was it love at first sight or did it take some getting used to?
I think in 2007 there was an initial surprise at discovering Chinese food wasn’t anything like what we get from our local takeaway. And even using the umbrella term ‘Chinese food’ for a cuisine that is so varied is asking for trouble. It creates the same problems that defining ‘European food’ under one label does. But leaving that aside, on the whole I enjoyed my first tastes of authentic Chinese cuisine, and I liked the communal style of eating with all the dishes shared between everyone. That’s not to say I liked every dish, and if I had a dollar for every time I got sick from food in China I would probably have close to a Benjamin (100). Things like sea snails didn’t go down well (I think they were dirty and I got sick), and in general you need to be careful with food hygiene.
What surprised you the most about Chinese food?
What surprised me most about the food, or should I say diet, in a lot of China is how balanced and healthy it is. Every meal includes a lot of green veggies, rice, and not too much oil/sugars/bad stuff. Of course that varies from place to place, and person to person, but even looking at university students daily meals, you will find they are probably eating 10 times healthier than the average American. This can also come down to the relatively high cost of Western cuisine in China (compared to local incomes), and with economic growth obesity cases are on the rise (as more can afford KFC and McDonald’s), but in general a lot of the population still eat a much healthier and balanced diet than we do in many developed Western countries. The stereotype of the slim Chinese exists for a reason.
What has been your most interesting dining experience in China?
Sadly, this would be eating a large seafood meal (including a hot pot) and being given too much beer to drink. This was a bad combo. The hosts wanted me to drink more, as is custom in China, and I didn’t want to turn their hospitality down. So I drank too much, ate too much, and in the end threw up at the table, and was pretty well blathered. It wasn’t good. Lesson: as much as your hosts want to ‘ganbei’ (toast with you to finish your glass), don’t be afraid to slow down if you can’t handle the pace, and just tell them you need to swap to tea or water if all the alcohol becomes too much. At the time I was only 18, but I have seen grown men fall off their seats in a drunken state when the entire table made it their goal to get the guest drunk. It’s a real staple of the culture, and anyone that tells you Chinese men can’t drink just hasn’t met the drinking breed.
- Favorite dish? Gongbao Jiding
- Favorite restaurant? BLCU Conference Centre (BLCU campus) – at least it was one of my favorite places to get a meal during my time as a student at BLCU: cheap and tasty
- Favorite cuisine? Dongbei (I like a lot of noodles and ‘zhong weidao’ (strong flavor) dishes, not to mention jiaozi (which I miss a lot when living outside China)
- Rice, noodles or dumplings? Noodles and dumplings (I’d be pressed to choose between the two, but potentially dumplings if it came down to it)
- La bu la? Dou keyi ba (spicy and non-spicy both fine)
- Hot pot – More tasty than messy or more messy than tasty? Damn messy but damn tasty!
Michael is a 25-year-old British journalism student about to graduate and move to Hong Kong to find work, where he will live with his girlfriend of four years whom he met at BLCU. Over the past year, he has written for Chinese newspapers including the Shenzhen Daily and Guangzhou Morning Post. He hopes to get on an internship programme at the South China Morning Post and establish a career in the media in Hong Kong.