On learning, goodbyes and Chao Bing

When I talk to women about leadership I quote Dee Hock who said, sometime late in the last century, that the problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind but how to get the old ones out.
I was reminded of that over the past few weeks when I was on what a friend of mine calls a “learning spree” absorbing new information about cooking Chinese food and working hard to weed out the bad habits I had fallen into while trying to teach myself from cookbooks. It was such a privilege to learn from Chun Yi and Chao in Hutong Cuisine and from Chef Zhang and the team in Black Sesame Kitchen and I look forward to integrating new ingredients and techniques into the kitchen back home.
I’m writing this post on the flight home from Beijing, in between reading Jen Lin-Liu’s “Serve the People” – Jen is the founder of Black Sesame Kitchen where I attended cooking classes on Cooking with Colour and Imperial Dishes – and Sheryl Sandbergh’s “Lean In – Women, Work and the Will to Lead” – multi-tasking as always, that’s women for you. A quote from Chairman Wang, Jen’s mentor, caught my eye “These are the things that make me happy,” she says – “What does it mean to be wealthy? To be able to eat, drink and move about. That is my definition of wealth.”
I thought about how lucky I am to be able to do just that, especially when, in my case, “moving about” means moving across three continents if I want to spend time with my children and their families.
I’ve been learning about other things apart from food on this trip – about what it is like to be a woman, a daughter, a mammy and a granny in the 21st century. I’ve had the privilege over these past three weeks of spending time with three wonderful women – my daughter Claire, my daughter-in-law Shan and my qing jia mu – Shan’s Mum.

Dermot with his other Nai Nai

I have talked to my daughter and daughter-in-law about how they cope with the world of work, the pressures that assail young women who are contemplating or have just started a family and how much and how little has changed since I started on the same road more than 30 years ago. The challenge of balancing the demands of home, work and family are still there.

I’ve developed strong ties of affection with Shan’s Mum. We still have only a handful of words in common (although her English is progressing faster than my Mandarin). But that didn’t stop us making a trek to the local Lotte Market and Jiang Tai wet market in search of utensils and ingredients. Armed only with a shopping list in pinyin, to which she carefully added the Chinese characters, and Google Translate on the iPad for emergencies, we had a very successful shopping expedition.
Jiang Tai market, Beijing

There is only a year’s difference in our ages but our life’s experiences are worlds apart. From her I’m learning about Chinese frugality and the pleasure of a bargain – in the supermarket she dismissed rows of utensils, which to me looked like excellent value, as being “tai gui le”, “too expensive” and instead drove a hard bargain in a small hardware store at the market and got me the hoard below for less than €5.

Choosing vegetables and meat was an exercise in negotiation skills and careful scrutiny of the offered goods. Each potato was turned over and selected individually. Cuts of chicken were inspected. Spices were carefully weighed.
No rush in choosing vegetables

Shopping for spices at Jiang Tai market

When I purchased a very good cleaver at cookery school, she was shocked at the price I had paid (100 rmb, about €12), she could have got me one for 40 or 50 rmb. But then I’m learning that the first thing a Chinese person asks you when you’ve made a new purchase is how much it cost “duo xiao qian?”, inevitably to tell you you’ve paid tai gui le. That’s of course after they have asked you “have you eaten yet?”
Choosing chicken for Da Pan Ji

Shane says that since MaMa came to live with them their grocery bill has plummeted. I’m not surprised. Each day she produces tasty and nutritious meals – her famous Xinjiang da pan ji – big plate chicken with wide flat noodles served to Claire and Mike as soon as they arrived yesterday, beef stew with a Sichuan kick (Shane’s favourite, I think because it reminds him of his granny’s stew), pork rib stew – often with side dishes such as stir-fried cabbage with chillies, black fungus or bitter melon. And of course there are the home-made jiao zi dumplings and finally, a family favourite pancakes with eggs and cabbage, chao bing. As soon as you arrive in the door she puts out a platter of fresh fruit – pineapple, dragon fruit, apple slices. Food and pots of tea are always on the go.
The pancake man at Jiang Tai Market

My qing jia mu is also great fun, easy-going and has a bubbly sense of humour. I love it when she breaks her sides with laughing about some shared private joke with Shane. She has not always had an easy life and has worked hard inside and outside the home from a very young age – Shan has told me some of her back story – and I look forward learning more of it and to getting to know her even better as the years go by and her English, and perhaps my Mandarin, improve.
Hard to keep up with a woman in search of a bargain!

She is generous to a fault. She trekked the market alone yesterday to find me long kuai zi – chopsticks – for cooking and a particular pickled chilli used in Hunan cooking. She sent me home armed with dragon fruit and Chinese treats for my own Mum and a Beijing pancake for me so that I can recreate chao bing at home.
And then there was learning to know my grandson Dermot.
Saying goodbye after this trip was never going to be easy, especially to Dermot. I’ve got used to connecting with Claire and Shane on an almost daily basis by Skype, text, phone, Facebook and even Twitter. But with Dermot so much of the relationship at this stage is the feel of the weight of him as he dozes on my shoulder, his new baby scent, the way he grips my finger in his tiny hand, his fascination with the world around him and the way he can hold your gaze for minutes as he experiments with a tentative smile. I will miss all that and the way he will change over the next two months before his feet get to touch Irish soil for a visit.
Goodbye Nai Nai

As I’m writing, I’m also listening to music on my iPod to drown out airplane noises. It’s a random “Genius” mix and up pops Tir Na n’Og’s “Dance of Years” with the line “The baby sleeps, his hands are still”. That’s what I notice most about Dermot (apart from his huge eyes), when he’s awake his hands are never still. He has the most expressive hands I’ve ever seen.
Saying goodbye was made easier because we had a precious 24 hours with the family united in Beijing. We finished up with a farewell Easter Sunday morning breakfast in Feast at East where we had been staying just down the road from Shane and Shan. Breakfast was great fun with loads of photo opportunities and I enjoyed my qing jia mu’s evident pleasure in getting good value from the excellent breakfast buffet. The Chinese know how to attack a buffet with relish.
Dermot, our own little Teng Teng, seemed completely enthralled with his new surroundings. At nearly 8 weeks of age, his approach to the outside world is one of rapt attention and wide-eyed wonder. It was a joy to have that last hour with him awake and alert and to watch Claire fall in love with him the way I did – you think you know what it is to love a baby before you meet him but the physical bonding process really is like tumbling into love.
Well hello first Auntie

Just before we left for the airport, we asked if one of the restaurant staff would take a group photo of all 8 of us. A super-charged emotional moment was eased when it turned out that the photographer, Assistant Director of Restaurants and Bars at East, Leo Liu, had lived in Ireland for 6 years, working for part of that time in Ely Wine Bar and studying for a Masters in Tourism in University of Limerick. That helps explain the excellent service standards in Feast. His broad Dublin accent when he spoke English made me feel as if I was already home.
A rare Shananigans family photo

So I left Beijing a bit teary and choked up but content in the knowledge that I had left my grandson behind in the company of three strong and very special women and a Daddy who adores him. I’m very proud too of the way Shane has adapted to fatherhood and I’m confident that he will be the kind of “real partner” in child-rearing that Sheryl Sandbergh talks about.

The next special moment to look forward to is to Dermot’s visit to Dublin in June and to introducing her first great grandchild to that other strong woman in my life, my own Mum who I know has been following our adventures closely on her iPad. Hi Mum 🙂
Meanwhile I will leave you with this simple recipe as taught to me by qing jia mu:
Stir fried cabbage and shredded pancakes – Chao Bing
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