Carnal Memories, and the worst candy I’ve ever eaten

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.


The China Exile

It’s been two and a half years (plus 5 days) since I left China, and I’m finally starting to miss it.

I was ready to leave – most people are after a while, be it 2 months or 2 decades.  Urumqi at the end rather sped up my desire for departure, as it was all the normal stress of China compacted with simmering ethnic tension, daily discrimination (of a sort far uglier – and violent – than in Bishkek), terrible pollution and traffic exacerbated by the city tearing up most main roads in rehauling all its water lines, and being under constant surveillance – not to mention having to walk past armored vehicles and soldiers armed to the teeth just to get to the bus stop.

8125461890_2a3abd5901_zUrumqi was stressful – as it was also beautiful, an ever-shifting cityscape to explore – dusty bazaars and the spice of steamed pumpkin dumplings, tea rooms and restaurants reminiscent of old caravans with floor cushions and stringed instruments, looking for a restroom and stumbling into an underground warren of shops filled with crystal and china to adorn Uyghur living rooms that even the French would envy, darting out into the biting winter cold to see the TianShan mountains glistening an ephemeral pink and blue above the city, wind sweeping down from the hills to shake the brilliant explosion of autumn leaves, running into a friend on the street and spending half a day in conversation.

And in Urumqi is the paradox of China: China is stressful, always.  There are too many people, too little trust by the government of the people, too little trust by the people of the government, too much traffic, too much pollution and worrying about the safety of almost everything you eat.  And yet it’s immensely rich and beautiful – always intense, always full of places to explore that you never imagined to exist.

Yesterday was cold, grey and drizzling. Walking through the park I felt like I was back in Chengdu – minus the bustle and quick chatter, and the savory-spicy food found in side street restaurants where the air steamed from soup broth and the laid-back line of hungry customers.

So – little things I’m missing today:

  • 8137190890_411a2297af_zDiscovery. The sense of exploration, of there always being something different beyond that next peak – or just down the next street
  • The pink dawn of desert winters, and desert bazaars just two steps away from old Central Asian caravans (sides of Kashgar, Aksu, and every town in Southern Xinjiang)
  • The quiet everdrizzle of Sichuan wrapped in mist and green mountains
  • Food. I have simmering a blog on 30 (or 50…) things you need to eat in China before you die, but until that’s here, just trust me – the food is delicious and different in every place. Except for rural Shanxi, where the food is plain terrible.
  • Crisp and clean mountain air cold from the passes, whether in Tashkurgan or up for the day in Lijiang
  • The people – always alive, always interacting.  Sometimes way too in-your-face or over-curious about everything, but always, always vivacious.
  • Humor.  There’s always something to laugh at in China.  Usually it’s Chinglish, though almost as often it’s some ridiculous dress or strange appropriation of public space. 
    UFO Flying *DESK*
  • where the food is plain terrible.


Jindun Flashbacks

Mining my old blogs for material to use for a project, I came across this old (2011) snapshot of daily life in the Yunnan boondocks:

The road between Jindun and Heqing is still under construction (going on two months now) and a terrible amount of dust lodges itself in my hair every time I bike on that road, so today I put my hair back in a bandanna.  Actually an aquamarine silk scarf that was a graduation gift from one of my mother’s friends.  Something that would go over quite fine in the states, in Beijing, and din’t seem to cause any stir in Heqing, nor when I walked through the market in Jindun.  But my kids were shocked.  They thought it was hilarious.  They stared at my head and asked what I had done, why I was wearing that.  And didn’t think my explanation of keeping dust out of my hair while biking was plausible at all.  Four of my good girls just doubled up laughing.  They didn’t think it was likely at all that people in other parts of the world might wear cloth headbands They’ve seen me do silly things.  They’ve seen Hallie and I perform over-the-top skits when doing dialogues/listening practice for them in class.  And they’re humored.  But I’ve never seen them react like this.  “You should just put a big red dot in the middle” Larry, my student who refuses to speak in anything but dialect, said to me.  “What?”  “You look like a Japanese ghost! (日本鬼子),” he clarified.  This similarity was picked up by several other students within the next hour or so.  There’s something with Jindun and “Japanese Ghosts”. I still remember that right after we arrived Hallie and I stopped at a little store and the old nannie behind the counter asked whether or not we were Japanese guizi.  I also have several kids (boys) who delight in drawing Japanese soldiers, forties style. While I would not immediately recognize these as “guizi” (communist soldiers also wear green uniforms…), all of my kids did.  Strange thing though – no one in eight of ninth grade, and no adult in Jindun really took notice.  Perhaps my kids just watched too many Anti-Japanese films in their early youth…

Foshan Ruminitions

Recently a college friend asked me through e-mail what Foshan was like. My response was (probably not very surpisingly) negative. Since returning from Thailand I’ve been mulling over this question – why I instinctively dislike life in Foshan, why I’ve pulled out every negative factor of living in this city, and why I’m really not willing to live here for two years. I don’t think I would have the same reaction if I was new to China. Like many of my co-workers I would probably find it new, unexpected and exciting, too stimulated to find the dullness that (in my experience) plagues this city. But because I have lived in China for about three years now, and Foshan is less dynamic than the other places I have lived, I find it neither very interesting nor extraordinarily comfortable – and in that it isn’t suitable.

Foshan is fine for everyday living, and it offers plenty of newness and strangeness to those who have just moved to China. It is a decent place. But because I want to practice Chinese and engage more with people who have ideas, and because I’d like to be in a place with an art or music scene – a feeling that, culturally, intellectually, things are happening – Foshan isn’t the right place for me. It isn’t challenging, or satisfying.

Guangzhou is, to a greater extent. It’s a hybrid city. Today I went to Travel 6054 in Martyr’s Park for lunch and coffee, then wandered around the are for around an hour. Central Guangzhou used to be a city of small towns. The area around M’P warble between quiet lanes of single-room Cantonese restaurants under crammed brick apartment buildings and giant steel skyscrapers. One block I passed was full of half demolished old residential buildings – their faces had been sliced off while the rest stood still in their rubble. Cool rushes of greenery succeeded by streams of people clanking bags and boxes into a bus station, followed by more high rises and huge urban shops. Guangzhou is challenging – more so – because it still seems uncertain about it’s own identity. Foshan is on the clear march to modern suburbanization.

Though there are traces of ‘old Canton culture’ (and pockets of Foshan are practically rural) , these are all but gone in the center, pushed out by mammoth apartment complexes and identical shopping malls. I don’t think there is a single structure built before 1950 within several miles of my apartment. What’s – sad – is that the same thing is happening to cities (and even towns) all over China: anything old (or of distinct identity) is being torn down in favor of more commercialized spaces. China is becoming gentrified. Upon moving to Yunnan in 2010 one of the things that shocked me was how normal farflung provincial cities like Lincang seemed. Perhaps China is disappearing.

Macaroni and Cheese

By the sink where I was stung on the bottom by a wasp, where I attacked my mother with a squirtgun when she stayed too long on the phone, by the windowsill where we lay our collection of crystals and rocks to catch the garden sunlight, I watched my mother fill up the iron pot and put water on the stove to boil for mac and cheese. I waited, kicking my legs high at the maple table, the same table where I spewed beets as a baby, where I lay out my paints and paper at age three, where I blew out birthday candles on a white frosted cake at age five. Yoda came sauntering across the carpet, rubbed his back high against the sturdy legs of my chair, and looked up with saucy yellow eyes. Cat my mother despised. Same cat I later taught – at age six, in our new house in the country – to sit on the stoop railing and ring the doorbell to be let in. Continue reading

Portraits: Diana, Insecure

Diana, lover of the bow. Diana, huntress. Diana, waif-like weekend model with pock-marked skin (hidden under fragile makeup) and a soft waist (hidden under billowing clothes). Diana, soft and strong; tall and weak. Diana, virgin in a low-cut dress baring a flat chest. Diana, Master’s student in Foreign Affairs. Diana, cloaked in her boyfriend’s rolled up sweatpants and over-sized t-shirt. Diana, chomping down jelly beans and gummy worms after non-nibbling on her meal and leaving another plate near-untouched. Diana who poses for selfies in the mirror and makes red lip pouts at the camera. Diana who’s never dated before. Diana, possessive, possessing a prize. Diana who loves babies, and spends an hour choosing outfits for a friend’s child newly-born. Diana dressed in a gossamer gown, who stops for a smoke in the park and makes sure we sit away from the prying eyes of men. Diana who lives at home and fears the opinions of her proper parents. Diana, virtue unchastisized. Diana who cries in the bathroom at a wedding when she finds her boyfriend’s ex-fling is sending him [unanswered] texts. Diana who is comforted, and Diana who drives home the proud SUV slightly drunk with sobs. Diana who has no muscle, who’s thin waist soft squishes when I put my hands on her hips for the wedding conga. Diana who absconds all exercise but thin-keeping yoga. Diana who calls to buy a dress and have it delivered for a wedding, because she can’t bother to go home and change. Diana, secure in her position, black sunglasses and proud second seat in the white SUV. Diana, sobbing and insecure. Diana, who claims she does modeling for the art. Diana, who won’t go to certain clubs in a t-shirt, because people know her and there are expectations.

Quiet Green Spaces – China

When I think back to China, I always think of my desks. Even if I was busy from drowsy harried pre-dawn to the hours after desk, or if I didn’t slump down until the hours before midnight, the desk is still where I did all my work, where I collected my sense of place.
My first residence in Beijing was in the hotel for foreigners on the campus of Peking University. I shared a standard room with a plump, mignon liberal Mormon from Pennsylvania with a love of all things cute and incessant enjoyable chatter. From my desk by the window (where I tried to block out her chatter) I smelled the dust at the edges of summer, the lilies growing in the famed ponds, earthy green; green swaying trees over the courtyard almost blocking out village traffic to the nearby market with its fresh-faced peasants and broken-down stalls (it’s now been succumbed by a superhhighway, METRO store and VW dealership); heard the clatter of professors still biking to class and exchanging gossip on the university paths, following the same tracks as decades past; caught the spicy sweet wiff of Korean food being grilled in the cafeteria for the crowds of identical hipster-like Korean exchange students with their dyed hair, chunky black glasses, pinstriped shirts and zippy mopeds. Sometimes we’d hear the long-off wail of students practicing their English at the edge of WeiMing Hu (Nameless Lake) mixing in with the dusty dew of morning, “ANG-KHUL, ANNNKLE“, and a pigeon cooing. Continue reading

Becoming an Expat

Being an expat is decidedly less exciting than being a traveler.  We worry about cat food and cleaning schedules, mundane little things that go by the side – or become the base for an exciting adventure – when you’re traveling.  Here it’s just cat food.

I would describe my lifestyle in China as a slow traveler-cum-researcher, or “explorer-expat”.  I settled somewhere during the school year (generally Sep-July) and took extended vacations hopping across the country and tracking dozens of town, hundreds of miles, for two months each every winter and summer over the holidays.  Everywhere I went I researched, pulling apart the layers of the country, always trying to figure out what was under the surface.  Searching for that key to explain how the system worked. I learned and practiced language without cease. I was forever redefining my topic.

Though I spoke Chinese and understood a great deal about the country and the culture, I was never at home.  It doesn’t matter how many people call you a “zhongguotong” (China Hand) or mistake you for a local minority – China will never welcome you, and you will always see the country as a strange and foreign (if frighteningly familiar) land. Continue reading

Korla and Xinjiang Chinese

When living in Xinjiang I had a dozen conversations with my Uyghur students and friends explaining to them that not all Chinese were like this. They just happened to get a particularly bad sampling. It’s like looking at American Army Recruits and determining that all Americans are from small towns, like pick-up trucks, own a gun, and have on average a vo-tech college education. The pool isn’t diverse and isn’t representative. I understand their distaste for Han Chinese having only seen Han residents of Xinjiang, especially if they are from a small Xinjiang town where the pool of Han immigrants is even more extreme and less diverse. The Han Chinese of Beijing and other Chinese cities find their speech and their manners a little strange or off-putting too. I did not spend five years in China because I disliked Chinese culture or Chinese people; I would have developed a very different opinion if I had started my journey in Xinjiang.

Like many southern Xinjiang cities, the Han immigrants into Korla arrived in three waves. The first came with the Army Construction Corps: landless, jobless, less-educated peasants who were secured employment for life providing food to the Xinjiang brigades. Their children and now their grandchildren have climbed up the social ladder through education, but the older generations are still often entitled and uneducated. In Kashgar I once saw a seventy-something Han Chinese women spend half an hour arguing in spitten broken Chinese that she could, she must, send two kilos of dates stuffed in only a pillowcase through the post across the country.

Following the opening of China’s economy and the discovery of oil came the experts, scientists and engineers assigned here by the state, or lured westward by the promise of greater economic incentives. Following in their footsteps came another flock of uneducated, rural-originated Han Chinese: people who came to set up shops and small restaurants; people who, due to low skills and education, would not have succeeded in running a profitable business back home. The educated and cultural creatives don’t migrate west, not nowadays.  They travel and take peeks off giant tour buses, marvel, flash their cameras, and are gone just as fast. 

Run into a restaurant and all the waitresses are older, with sagging faces and scruffy pony tails. Not the pep, demur and insouciance of slim waitresses, mandatory height 1.65m or taller, back in Eastern cities. They talk loud, in kitchen-couth brash voices; catch one thing and say it three times, four times, five. There was great audible excitement when I walked into a Sichuanese restaurant in a side of town so far from tourist tracks, a Sichuanese restaurant with fantastically cannibalistic English translations on their menu (tobacco shoots pork, acid radish old duck, more bacteria pot, soy fried blood skin dishes) and traditional scrolls hanging over laquered wood tables and a trash-strewn tile floor. The owner came over and greeted me three times in anxious ardent Chinese, then insisted that I try the tasteless tofu soup (豆花, douhua) for free. After a month of travelling in southern Xinjiang and staying with student’s families and friends I just wanted something that wasn’t mutton meat, wheat or rice. I ordered a southern standby – bitter gourd and scrambled egg. No oil, I requested. That’s impossible ; it cannot be done. The waitress looks askance at the crazy, unknowing foreigner – does she know what she’s ordering? Ok then, absolutely as little as possible, please I pleaded.

Thirty-five minutes later the dish arrives, fat and glistening under a sheen of pan-slick cooking oil. The owner came over a gushed forth apologetic hullabaloo. I told them I have a stomach problem and would get sick if I ate it – not true yet, but it would be if I did – and the cook was incredulous. Sichuanese food not dripping in oil? How could one gag it down?
Greens are poured over a table in the restaurant and a man separates stems from leaves, picks out the bad ones. A balding man with vacant stare mans a register backed by dozens of red and white bottles of expensive baijiu (white liquor that goes down like fire mix with the cooking grease to churn volcanoes in your gut). I wait, the clock ticking to count the dry winter sun outside. The owner assures me that they will use no oil. Or spices apparently. When it comes out again the omelet is dry and tastes like paper. Bitter, waxy paper.

Ruijin Days

Ruijin Days

All day I wanted to write, but now that I’ve sat down to it, I’m exhausted.

By 11am the heat and humidity wipes us out, weigh us down. It’s near impossible to think through that dense fog, let along move. Or maybe I’m still suffering some from the shock of jetlag and removal from California’s chilly summer coast. I spent most of the early afternoon sitting on the stone floor of the [slightly] breezy upper hallway writing down Chinese vocabulary and, after I drooped from that, lolling on a rattan summer sleeping mat half sleeping, half reading. We’ve nearly forgone furniture here, living in this half-built house; in the summer there’s no need for more than a desk, a table, a temporary wardrobe, a few chairs and stools. At night we roll out sleeping mats in the hall, which runs the length of the house, a balcony on either side. At noon there’s nothing I can do until I acclimate to this heat. We hide inside, hibernating from eleven to three.

By three-thirty I needed to get out, so we hopped on the motorscooter and rode up to the base of a nearby [short] mountain, then hiked to the temple on the top. Twenty steps up the mountain we were covered in sheets of sweat, so slick we were swimming up the hills in our own perspiration. When we reached the top we heard – what? – the shuffling of mahjong tiles. This past year some innovative soul built a two story hotel right under the temple, cut into the side of the mountain. But honest hotel it is not. The open courtyard facing the mountain slope and half the rooms upstairs are filled with mahjong tables, bone cards clattering, hushed voices shuffling in the temporary breezy cool, money piling, bets growing far from the ever-watchful eyes of the city government (for gambling, and playing mahjong for money, while a popular pastime, is illegal in China).

We then sauntered down the hill, dipping our feet in the cold spring that dashes from cool stone tunnels, and passing several groups of people who remarked among themselves that I must be Russian. Serving the foot of the mountain are a dozen or so small restaurants, mostly offering up deep-fried food, milk tea, and beef soup. The last one in line, however, has tofu from Rentian (壬田豆腐干), a town within Ruijin county famous for its varieties of tofu and weak “water spirits” (水酒). So we stopped to have a bite… or six of savory hot tofu baked on a wooden grill above smoldering embers, tart skin on the outside, juicy soft tofu on the inside, fire in your mouth and shivers down your back when dipped in hot sauce.

Then further down the road we passed a partial family of six squeezed on a motorscooter: sinewy grandmother on the back with two children of five or six squeezed between her and a young mother, then two toddlers in the front. In Xiahe, Gannan (the Tibetan area of southern Gansu) I once saw nine people in a taxi, but six squeezed onto a single motorscooter must beat that out in terms of raw nerve and skill. How do you even get four small children to mount and balance on a motorscooter, much less drive without any of them falling off? Talent.

After every meal or snack of fruit we throw our scraps to the chickens in Pierre’s back yard, gluttonous beasts. They cock their heads and eye us with shifty, golden eyes whenever we munch on watermelon, their favorite snack. As soon as we toss them the watermelon rinds they pounce on them like tigers, ripping off the white and green flesh until it’s stripped to its hard hide. Then they shoot us accusing looks and congregate around our feet, pecking at our darting toes, squawking for more. Sometimes they try to sneak off the back stoop into the dining room while we’re eating dinner, just so they can grab food scraps. Silly thing is, they’re being raised for us to eat.