When a heaping plateful at our favorite noodle shop costs approximately $1.75 (11 kuai) it’s easy to want to eat out every meal of the day. Food is cheap (with a capital C) and, being in a country with so many mouths to feed, there’s plenty of it! Why trudge through the crowded grocery store when you can take 5 steps outside of your home and meet a street vendor whipping up a fresh batch of stir fry or rotating sweet potatoes in the barrel? There are no hot dog stands, ice cream trucks, or falafel carts in China. Walk down my street and you see a man pre-peeling potatoes for sale, a woman carefully arranging tangerines in an appealing pyramid, or a man spinning chestnuts over a flame. Sometimes, not even a waft of raw sewage and exhaust fumes can overpower the delicious scent of freshly sliced citrus or hot onion & chive pancakes.
As of late, I’ve been trying out more of the local delicacies, slowly conquering my hesitation towards the often questionable sanitation standards of food preparation in China. At the market, half of the fruits and vegetables are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’m curious how they taste. I want to try a bite, but the angel on my shoulder says to think twice. Growing up in American supermarkets, I was conditioned to choose the vegetables displayed under gleaming lights and wrapped in cellophane because they were the “clean” and healthy choices. In reality, if the label does not clearly say “Organic” you can never be sure the story of the head of lettuce. Americans are pros at not questioning the nutritional content of what they consume. Thankfully, I have many people in my life who have helped to shine light on the fact that it does matter what you eat and where the food comes from; I strive to make healthy choices and care about what I put in my body, no matter where I am in the world.
I know next to nothing about the agricultural system of China. From the school bus window, I see crops growing in muddy nooks near construction sites, climbing up mounds of dirt near parched canals, and shaded by freeway bridges. Are these greens for individual families or for sale at the market? I am frequently reluctant to grab a handful of leafy veggies tied together for sale when I could have sworn I saw something similar growing alongside the 5-lane highway. Maybe the best way to navigate the culinary world of a foreign country is to not ask questions and just go with your gut, your instinct and your belly. I try my best to keep my diet fresh and colorful. So far, I am A-ok healthy and happily indulgent in Chinese flavors!
Although I still don’t speak the language (currently taking lessons), I have learned some helpful ways to get around the neighborhood successfully. Did you know that the way we count on our hands differs around the world? In China, you can count from 1-9 using one hand. There’s always a good chance that I won’t understand what price a vendor says when I buy a bushel of bananas (the Chinese language is a fast one) so I pull out the sign language to communicate. I use my hands a lot in the classroom too, “Students, you have 10 minutes to practice the dialogue with your group… ready, go!”
Survival Chinese is my friend. I know how to say “too expensive”, “I want”, “I don’t want”, “this one”, “good”, etc. However, bargaining is not. I hear feisty women at the market stomping their feet, hollering at the top of their lungs with scowled brows, fighting to get the best price on dried mushrooms. Sometimes there is even physical contact: hand slapping and body shoving in disagreement. I try to get the price lowered once or twice and then I’m satisfied. I mean, it’s hard to bargain down a bag of green beans that cost 30 cents!
I’m becoming accustomed to using chopsticks instead of a fork, drinking yogurt through a straw instead of scooping it with a spoon, beverages being served hot or at room temperature in the winter (hot o.j., anyone?), and anticipating bones and fat still attached to hunks of meat in local dishes. Yes, those of you who know me well, I have broken my 6 year vow of vegetarianism. (gulp!) It was a survival decision. Although I have an over-sized heart when it comes to the humane treatment of animals, a heart that aches in my throat when I walk by a cage full of dirty and crowded creatures about to be placed on the menu at the local restaurant, I am just trying to live. Ian laughs at me when I look down at my plate of chicken and noodles and say, “Just tryin’ to live. Just tryin’ to survive.” The last thing I want is to shrivel up to nothing during my time in China because I didn’t get my protein. We’ll see what happens when we leave the country, maybe I’ll return to my old ways or maybe I’ll make Ian a happy man and cook chicken pot pies or lamb roast for dinner. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it…
Speaking of hungry friends, Mama Cat has found a new favorite place to rest…on our front stoop. As the temperature is dropping down into the 40s, she has become extra talkative and even more present. Sometimes I wonder if she’s a con-artist cat, who meows and looks cute to everyone who lives on campus in order to score leftovers from lunch and dinner. Or maybe she’s put the puzzle pieces together in her little cat-head that the laowai teachers will undoubtedly cave and feed her if she just stays put. It’s probably a bit of both. These days, every time I walk out my door I see (and hear) this.
Even the smallest of creatures are doing the same thing, just tryin’ to live, tryin’ to survive the frigid winter. I have 3 more weeks of teaching before a hefty winter break when I hope to take my new oven for a spin in the kitchen, as well as voyage to a tropical climate in a peaceful part of Eastern Asia. Stay tuned & bon appetit!