The worst candy I ever ate was in rural Yunnan. It tasted like toilet bowl cleaner, or at least how I imagine toilet bowl cleaner would taste from the chemical smell. After hacking out two halves of hard ‘green tea’ flavor sugar I dug out another piece and found Hallie correcting homework assignments on the couch. “Try this” I said with extended hand. Hallie went around with bags of candy all week, crunching through them as she worked. She extended her hand and unwrapped the candy without taking her eyes up from the papers. She chewed, swallowed, then looked up at me pucker-mouthed. “What was that?! That was disgusting!”.
Hallie and I had a running competition which she would never admit. She was the good Christian choir girl who did drama and went to Dartmouth and somehow was on all the committees without doing any of the work – though her voice was always present in the planning. The year after I left she would go on to be our regional teaching fellow coordinator, then for years after that she would work at a mediocre educational consulting company somewhere on China’s eastern seaboard, a disappointment, though one she never saw.
In Yunnan we were always hungry. It rained and we were beset with a deep, wet winter cold that reached to our bones. We stroked our stomach furnaces with carbs. The skies were cloudy for days – weeks – on end. We watched for breaks in the clouds to run home and hop in a mildly warm shower before our solar-heated water tank chilled once again. Despite living directly across the street from the village power grid, our electricity was constantly out on the second floor, our space heaters moved dangerously close to the couches in the marble-floored downstairs, where we suffocated ourselves in polyester comforters for warmth. Every three days – or five – there was the village bazaar in the dusty space right below our apartment. Usually there was chicken breast; we always bought fresh eggs. But without a refrigerator, and with year round temperatures hovering in the forties to sixties, we couldn’t buy more than a day’s worth of meat to cook on our single electric hot plate. Eggs with rice noodles, eggs with tomatoes, eggs with pears and oats. In the school cafeteria they served up heaping bowls of hot rice noodles with little scoops of picked cabbage and minced meat. I always loaded mine with the cabbage, hot peppers, and ground green Sichuanese peppercorn, as spice is another way to keep the body warm. At the beginning of the year neither of us could finish a bowl of noodles; as winter settled in we were hungry two hours later, snacking on minced meat and salty mung bean moon cakes in our office above the school hall.
Lunch was more noodles, or large bowls of rice with three of four small helpings of vegetables and meat. Mostly it was vegetables, meant to flavor the rice more than provide sustenance.
I packed on ten pounds – insulation. Hallie grew an inner tube around her waist. But still we were hungry. Sweets and dry cookies and ice cream with plastic chocolatey skins and rice rolls and thick flat rice noodles and sticky rice balls we could always find, along with seaweed and tofu and sausages brushed with oil from a stained cococola bottle and grilled nightly by the young and cheerfully obese woman who ran the rice noodle under our apartment restaurant.
On market days we gorged on chicken breast; in retrospect I should have eaten more eggs and beans – despite the bother of soaking beans and boiling them for hours on a hot plate shared with four impatient housemates.
At Teach for China fellow dinners and official lunches and village celebrations – anytime there was free fresh food – we gorged ourselves on meat: chicken and fish and pork, but especially red meat, as if we were bulking up our iron supplies for the meat-free days to come, nervous we’d never see meat again.
The second-worst piece of candy I ever ate was at the wedding of Daniyar and Malika, at the former’s family home in Ozgen. We woke up at the pink fringes of a summer dawn, got out of the house by 6, and bought a few bottles of water for the ride before waiting – and waiting, and waiting – for a local female friend to get ready. She hopped in the car blurry eyed and we started off on the ride south. Somehow my husband didn’t realize or remember that there is almost no food to be found on the entire winding north-south road. We stopped after cresting the mountains at the gas station where the road forks straight to Talas or through thick forests to the Ferghana Valley, held our breath as we used to outhouse, and bought some cherry candies and mint flavored Russian tea cookies. An hour later, as we rounded the bend from high meadow into pine forests, where women by the roadside sell honey redolent with the scent of alpine flowers, we stopped at a restaurant built like a Swiss lodge. My husband thought he had stopped here once before for a tasty lunch. We ordered kurdak and laghman and a Nescafé that never came. The kurdak was grisly and tasted old; the laghman noodles were soft and slimy in a sauce of oil and overcooked vegetables. We set down our forks and headed down the road, past the actual restaurant my husband had visited on his trip past, and where we stopped on our way back to have fresh grilled fish on a dais hanging over a stream.
By six pm we arrived at Daniyar’s family compound, a series of low houses – parents and cousins and aunts and uncles’ residences – connected through their courtyards. We were ushered in and sat down around low wooden tables on a raised platform. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for another two hours, but we were proffered tea and fizzy dairy drinks and stacks of hard glossy tandoor bread and the ubiquitous plates of gloriously wrapped Russian candy I’ve seen at every wedding in Kyrgyzstan since. We dug into the candy. Our local friend divulged truffle and wafer and cookie alike of their wrappers. I bit into one – and silently crumbled the other half in its wrapping before sliding it under its napkin and softening some bread in my bowl of tea. Dinner could wait.
Yesterday we headed to Daniyar and Malika’s country house for a May 1st barbecue picnic. Again they offered candy. The first piece I ate actually wasn’t awful, – sweet but not sickly, a bit of a crunch instead of that disconcertingly buoyant chocolate shell – and so I tried another. Again I slid it into my napkin.
Later, during dinner, I realized I still eat meat like I’m stocking the winter larder. Full after the first plate of shashlik, I ate on, until my stomach was hard and extended like I was four months pregnant and we avowed we would never eat meat again. This wasn’t entirely my fault: every time my plate was near empty (except for the chunks of charred juicy fat I kept pushing to the side), I’d find another kebab being slid off the skewer and the happily-offended protests of good hosts at my protests against more meat. But still – I’ve realized that my China habits never went away: the tendency to snack on high-starch carbs (instead of sensible things like almonds or a hard-boiled egg) especially when out from home; the desperation with which I face a plate of meat when eating away from my own table. I shed far over ten pounds within a month after departing Yunnan, but the memory of perpetual cold, that fear of not having, still lives on in my gut.