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Snake-by-Cecilie-Gamst-Berg Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's PenAndWok.comFor the novice China sojourner, at least in the 80s when I was thrown into the surreal, bizarre and fantastic entity that was the Chinese mainland, having arrived in Beijing by train from Oslo with a rucksack and a few travellers' cheques, food was something of a hurdle. 

"Oh, this is probably the cook's cat!"

"This is something they found in the dustbin!"

"Is this bat?" were the kind of comments going around the cheap restaurants of Beijing where Swedes would argue over a 1US$ bill for a meal and beer for four.

Me, I loved everything about Chinese food from the get-go and got right into chopsticks, eating from bowls and eating with one hand and smoking with the other (yuuuuck) because when in Rome. Then as now I only had one stipulation for trying or refusing new food: It must LOOK delicious. And that, let's face it, is almost all Chinese food! And if in addition it's something weird and vaguely adventurous, bring it on.

Chinese-door-poem-by-Cecilie-Gamst-Berg Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's

So the first time I was offered snake gallbladder wine, in Guangzhou in the early 90s, I naturally said "Bring it on"! It's supposed to be soothing for the throat and excellent for smokers. How was I to know that the cook would kill the snake, take out its gallbladder and crush it into Chinese rice wine, right there at the table? 

But hey, adventure is adventure. Now I must mention that Chinese rice wine is among the most revolting things I have ever put in my mouth, so I thought a crushed, raw gallbladder would only improve it. Yes and no, it turned out. Still revolting, but more heroic! And it really did soothe the throat, enabling me to smoke more. 

Snake-wine-by-Cecilie-Gamst-Berg Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's

This photo is one of my dearest possessions. It's an advert for snake wine; not gallbladder but the whole snake putrefying in the spirit for years - the longer the better - until your mouth is full of scales when you drink. "Drink regularly for good health" it says. Hmmm. If stuff is healthier the worse it tastes, snake wine must be among the top 5. This is a drink that should be chucked down as quickly as possible followed by litres of another drink, any drink, like thinner. But healthy! 

Today's animal of the Chinese zodiac is the Snake, not vilified in Chinese culture as in the western ones. Food is food. Yes, snake meat is also delicious, did I mention that? 

In Chinese culture, the Snake is the most enigmatic animal among the 12 zodiac animals. People born in a year of the Snake are supposed to be the most intuitive.

Snakes tend to act according to their own judgments while remaining private and reticent. They are determined to accomplish their goals and hate to fail.

Snakes represent the symbol of wisdom. They are intelligent and wise. They are good at communication but say little. Snakes are usually regarded as great thinkers.

Snakes are materialistic and love keeping up with the Joneses. They love to possess the best of everything but they have no patience for shopping.

Snake people prefer to work alone; therefore, they are easily stressed. If they seem unusually stressed, it is best to allow them their own space and time to return to normal.

I can't guarantee any snake meat or snake wine at my Chinese dinners, but I can guarantee good food! And if you take Cantonese lessons from me, I can guarantee a fun time with lots of learning thrown in. 

Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian 

Today's Cantonese: 蛇年  -seh lin - snake year 






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Dragon Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's PenAndWok.comWhen people think of China, or the China before it became the world's one dollar shop, I suppose the Dragon is one of the foremost symbols. Dragons used to be everywhere before China ruined its culture: on the emperor's robe, on roofs, on cups and bowls, and of course in knick-knacks and ornaments made of jade, porcelain and gold. 

The Dragon is the only animal in the Chinese zodiac that is not real. Is that the reason why it's the most popular, and why many women when pregnant in a Dragon year try to arrange a Cesarian so the child can be born in that year before it tips over into the year of the Snake?

Did you know that famed kung fu (pronounced GUNG fu) practitioner Bruce Lee was known as Lei Siu Long, 李小龍, Lei Little Dragon, in Hong Kong and China? How it must have vexed them that he was born in the USA and later moved there. And maybe that he was born in the year of the Rabbit? Or maybe I'm reading into it. 

Anyway, Dragons are supposed to be the coolest of the cool, or, as China highlights has it: 

The Chinese dragon is the most vital and powerful beast in the Chinese zodiac, although Dragons have an infamous reputation for being a hothead and possessing a sharp tongue. 

In ancient times, people thought that Dragons were best suited to be leaders of the world with their character traits of dominance and ambition.

Gifted with innate courage, tenacity, and intelligence, Dragons are enthusiastic and confident. They are not afraid of challenges, and willing to take risks.

However, Dragons are sometimes regarded as aggressive, and angry Dragons are not open to criticism. They don't consider themselves irritating and arrogant. Instead of following tradition, they strive for a smooth future.

龍 LONG (dragon) is my favourite character. Beautiful, and great to write. The Mandohooligans have completely mutilated the character of course. I bet it was one of the first ones they crippled in 1949 and onwards in their relentless quest to obliterate the Chinese culture. 

Do you want to get a Chinese name - Dragon for example - and find out more about the non-communist Chinese culture? Then:

Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian! Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian! 

Today's Cantonese: 龍年 - Long Lin - Dragon year.


Chinese-new-year-2 Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's PenAndWok.comIn the run-up to Chinese New Year I'm starting to feel an intense longing for China. No, of course not the Chinese Communist Party or anything to do with the political system. Just the place. China, my go-to for adventure and fun for 30 years.

In the olden days Chinese New Year was a strange time in China, especially in the cities. (Imagine a Chinese city empty!) The festival lasts a whole month, enough time for all the people working up to three days' train journey away from their ancestral village, to get home. With hundreds of millions of people on the move at the same time, travel was impossible for me and my Cantonese students, but of course we went anyway, only to find places deserted and everything closed. Think western Christmas but for weeks. 

Chinese-new-year-3 Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's

But during the late 90s a new and less traditional culture started spreading around the countryside and smaller towns, especially in the south. People went home for the holidays, but instead of being locked up for days and weeks with the family, following strict traditions, the young people went out and partied seemingly non stop. All the villages were decorated with lanterns and lucky door poems, shops and restaurants stayed open late, and firecrackers went off day and night, turning pavements and roads into a red carpet. Chinese New Year became a party central and huge money maker. 

Chinese-New-Year-5 Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's

Unfortunately CNY marks the change from winter to spring and is normally accompanied by grey skies and rain, but it was still damn photogenic and perfect for 'language seminars' as I called the adventure trips/photo safaris with Cantonese thrown in. 

I can't remember what year this photo was taken, exactly, but it certainly was a good year full of hope, a year in which we could plan not only what we were doing the next week, but the next month! The next six months. And that plan was: Travel in China as much as possible...

I miss China!

Today's animal is the Rabbit, of which I know nothing! I don't think I've even eaten one. But here goes, according to China Highlights' indomitable Fercility Jiang:

Rabbit Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's PenAndWok.comRabbits tend to be gentle, quiet, elegant, and alert as well as quick, skillful, kind, patient, and very responsible. However, they might be superficial, stubborn, melancholy, and overly-discreet.

Males who belong to the Rabbit zodiac sign always treat people politely, with a gentle smile that makes people feel that they are credible and sincere. 

When encountering tough difficulties, they are never discouraged but instead remain persistent in their endeavors to find solutions. This means they eventually achieve enviable success.

Females belonging to the Rabbit zodiac sign, apart from having a pretty and demure appearance, have a pure heart.

Rabbits are faithful to those around them but are reluctant to reveal their minds to others, and have a tendency to escape reality. They are too cautious and conservative, which means they miss good opportunities.

Hm! Does it sound like anyone I know? 

Whatever! It's just the Chinese zodiac, innit, and is supposed to be a description of everyone born in the years 2011199919871975196319511939 and 1927. That's all. 

Today's Cantonese: 兔年  - tou lin - rabbit year 



Tiger Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's

If you are Norwegian, have a garden or terrace and need a hedge, I just want to mention that I am now working in the world of hedgerows. Apparently even bamboo can live and survive in Norway nowadays, and we have hundreds of things to choose from. For me, the most fun aspect of my job, apart from talking to customers on the phone, is making illustrations for our website and social media. 

With the advertising slogan "Hold naboen vekk, få deg en hekk" (keep the neighbour away, get a hedgerow today) we are ploughing through the Norwegian market like a combine harvester! Coool. 

Hekkplantercom Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's

Another thing that likes the green is of course the Rabbit. However, that is the fourth animal in our series Animals in the Chinese zodiac, and a favourite snack of the animal coming up (February 1st) - the mighty Tiger. According to Chinese Highlights and others who dabble in feng shui and the like, the year of the Tiger won't be any good for Tigers, but then again you can choose not to believe it and live normally. 

Tiger Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's

The Tiger, according to China Highlights, written by Fercility Jiang:

Years:2022201019981986197419621950, 1938

The Tiger is known as the king of all beasts in China. The zodiac sign Tiger is a symbol of strengthexorcising evils, and braveness. Many Chinese kids wear hats or shoes with a tiger image of for good luck.

People born in a year of the Tiger are brave, competitive, unpredictable, and confident. They are very charming and well-liked by others. But sometimes they are likely to be impetuous, irritable, and overindulgent.

With stubborn personalities and tough judgment, Tigers work actively and express themselves boldly, doing things in a high-handed manner. They are authoritative and never go back on what they have said.

With great confidence and indomitable fortitude, they can be competent leaders. They will not make preparations for anything, but can handle anything that comes along.

Will not make preparations, eh? That's no good when it comes to Sichuan cooking. I'm planning a big Chinese New Year feast even now, and not only in my head! The larders are groaning under the weight of noodles, condiments and rice. I'm ready! Ish! More details later. 

Dumplings Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's

Sichuan is far from Guangdong province, the cradle of Cantonese, but her food is so, so much better than the bland and colourless Canto slop. But the Cantonese language is the best there is, and not only in China! 

Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian! Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian! 

Today's Cantonese: 虎年  Fu lin, Tiger year 


DSC03840 Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's PenAndWok.comOne funny thing about Chinese and the Chinese culture - or perhaps just the English language - is that the second animal in the Chinese zodiac is called Ox in English and Cow 牛 (au) in Chinese. In fact, in English we make sure we use the word for the male of the species on all the animals; ram, rooster, and ox, whereas in Chinese they are called sheep, chicken and cow. 

Then again, kangaroo in Chinese is called Pocket Mouse, so this is obviously a language that likes to keep things simple. Why bother with Rooster, Cock, Hen, Broiler - and Prostitute - when you can call them all 'Chicken' 雞?

I feel sorry for the two of my students, Snow Dragon 雪龍 (in Sydney) and Jasmine Tea 香片 (in San Francisco), who started taking Cantonese lessons because they are language nerds and Cantonese was the most difficult thing they could think of. I can't tell you how much their faces fell when they realised it's the simplest language evvaaaah. They still love it though. Naturally. You will too!

The Ox: 牛

Ox Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's

Ox years: 2021200919971985197319611949, and 1937

(Taken from China Highlights with spelling and other mistakes intact.) 

As the strongest animal of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs, known as "the good helper" in Chinese farming, the Ox is a symbol of diligencestrengthhonestydown-to-earth persistence, and wealth

Having an honest nature, the Ox is known for diligence, dependability, strength and determination. These reflect traditional conservative characteristics.

Female Oxes are traditional, faithful wives, who attach great importance to their children's education. They would achieve their career success easily with their strong personality. 

Male Oxes are strongly patriotic. They have strong ideals and ambitions for life, and attach importance to family and work.

Having great patience and a desire to make progress, Oxes can achieve their goals by consistent effort. They are not much influenced by others or the environment, but persist in doing things according to their ideas and capabilities.

Before taking any action, Oxes will have a definite plan with detailed steps, to which they apply their strong faith and physical strength. As a result, people of the Ox zodiac sign often enjoy great success.

Oxes are usually not good at communicating with others, and even think it is not worthwhile to exchange ideas with others. They are sometimes stubborn and stick to their own ways.

Oxes are strong and robust; they can enjoy a fairly healthy and long life, which is fulfilled with little illness.

Because of their hard work with a stubborn personality, they often spend too much time in their work, rarely allowing themselves enough time to relax, and tend to forget meals, which make them have intestinal problems. So enough rest and a regular diet are needed for Oxes to work efficiently.

IMG_9253 Pen & Wok Blog - - Cecilie's

Are you born in the Year of the Ox? Then you can come to my Chinese New Year party on February 5th. Or take Cantonese lessons from me. Or both. 

Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian! Learn Cantonese the Natural Way - from a Norwegian! 

Today's Cantonese: 牛年 Au lin, Cow year (the year of the Ox)