Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Food and Drink in China

I learn something every day and no matter how much knowledge I think I gather, one truth remains: no matter how much I know, I could never be prepared enough. If I sound like Mr. Wu, our guide in Lijiang, who dropped an adage every third sentence, let me say that with the numerous gaffes and “doh” moments we racked up on our trip to China this summer, in my situation it was just so. Being the Chinese family in our group, my friends often looked to Bill and me for pointers. Many times it turned out that if I thought I knew something, it was always so-ten-years ago. In time I found it was more fun to sit and listen. I was seldom wrong doing that.

Getting to the important things first, I’ll start with meals. During our first meals in Shanghai we made many toasts with new friends. The combination was infectious: cold beer, exhilaration and sleep deprivation. It only seemed right in such situations that we raise our glasses and we raised them high, American-style.

"Gangbei!" everyone cried.

As the air conditioners blew away the superheated summer air into distant memory and the cool liquor warmed my goose-fleshed arms, through the happy light-headedness I dimly registered that our new Chinese friends seemed quiet. They didn't holler, "Gangbei!" as we did and barely seemed to raise their glasses. We, Americans, must seem so loud and overtly expressive to them, I thought to myself. It’s a cultural thing, I surmised. So thinking no more of this disparity in toasting styles I lifted my glass high and enjoyed myself.

None of this mattered until the Banquet. Bill's friend, Mr. Xiao, had invited us to dinner on the last night of our stay in the city. Bill had given us some idea that this would be a special night. The moment we stepped into the restaurant, the serenity of the establishment washed over us. The staff was solicitous but not fawning. Small votives lit the stairwell ascending to our private room. Sino-western classical music played softly, soothing our travel-frayed nerves. Our hosts were already present, waiting for us in the inner chamber of the restaurant. Mr. Xiao stood up to welcome us. Right behind him were Marilyn Chao and Dexter Hu.

Once introductions were made, we took our seats. Mr. Xiao, as the host, took the most strategic seat at the table, facing the door. Bill and I flanked him. Pam, ever fearless, would take the hit for the whole table for she had her back to the door. We joked that should ninjas come, she would be the first to fall, possibly toppling forward into the turtle soup.

We visited for a long while. Hot hand towels arrived, drinks were served, the first course arrived and we kept talking. Perhaps I was worried that the children were hungry, but most likely it was my training as a working mother to get things done quickly. To Bill’s horror, I addressed him past Mr. Xiao, “Should we start?”

“Mr. Xiao is the host, honey,” he replied, sotto voce. Everyone heard him, including Mr. Xiao.

Mortified I sank back into my plush chair, smiling ingratiatingly and completely self-conscious for the rest of the first course.

Mr. Xiao raised his glass. Everyone paused and a hush settled in the room.

“Thank you for coming tonight. It is an honor to have you with us.”

We all raised our glasses and thanked him.

“Gangbei,” we chorused.

This time, to my guilty eyes, I watched everyone, except Bill and our Chinese hosts, raise their glasses heavenward. Obviously they hadn’t gotten the memo, but worse, I had never sent it.

A few hours earlier that afternoon, I had sat next to one of Bill’s numerous friends, Mr. Huang, who spoke very little English. To my surprise, my rusty Mandarin had shaped up miraculously. Not only did I understand ninety percent of what Mr. Huang said but I managed to carry on the conversation without awkward pauses. Somehow in that conversation Mr. Huang and I spoke about culture and making toasts and we had talked about how differently both the Chinese and American cultures handled the same things. To show respect, Americans raised their glasses high. To show respect, Chinese kept their glasses low to acknowledge the superiority of the other holding the higher glass, presumably the guest. I made a note to tell my friends before dinner. In my attempts to improve China-US relations I carried on my mandarin-only conversation and quizzed Mr. Huang about the counterfeit market of which he knew nothing being that he was a member of the Communist party.

When we heard that an involuntary “Really?!” came out as most of us gasped on hearing that revelation.

In that moment every pretension fell away. He was just a guy with a job, political beliefs and daily chores. All we saw was the person before us. We were not the same but we could have a good conversation.

Cut to the Banquet, after the glasses were back on the table, I leaned over and told my side of the table that we were supposed to hold our glasses low. Or better yet tap them on the lazy susan as it was impossible to reach over the 12-foot long table to clink glasses. Moreover it was better not to say, “Gangbei” which implied we had to drain our glasses each time that word was uttered. Again, through the many encounters with our new acquaintances I recalled that not one of our hosts ever said, gangbei.

They just waved vaguely in our direction and smiled, “Ching. Ching.” In other words, “Please. Please.” Please drink.

We all laughed but by now everyone was completely embarrassed. For the rest of the wonderful dinner, we all drank our beers deeply and in determined silence.

Now that we had mastered one custom we ventured forth to many more meals with confidence. However that was not to last.

In Beijing, we were treated to an Emperor’s Banquet one sultry August afternoon. The van dropped us to the entrance of the restaurant. From there we walked on until we met our first costumed attendant. Dressed in Ching dynasty clothes, the attendant bowed us in. Lanterns hung from the eaves of the roofs and the soft flow of falling water heralded more within the walls beyond. The second entrance led to the actual restaurant. Inside, pathways meandered through a large and beautiful garden, connecting shuttered structures and leading back to the entrance. More lanterns, man-made streams and dragon sculptures evoked the closely guarded inner chambers of the royal household. And more attendants appeared, this time dipping on one knee and holding their left hand facing us in a Vulcan-like gesture—thumb and pinkie separated from the three middle fingers held together. Even the bus boy, dressed in royal yellow, on his way to deliver spoons to our room dipped at us. The reaction of the children in our group was mixed: The younger children were somewhat traumatized by the constantly bowing attendants and refused to make eye contact. The older kids checked out the gesture, filed it away and practiced on us after. I nodded back a few times and then ignored the attendants because I couldn’t muster another quasi bow in the thick, damp heat. And I don’t think I was ever expected to respond.

We were seated in a large room and the food began to arrive. Familiar foods prepared in unfamiliar methods flooded our table. Thin strips piled high turned out to be matchstick chicken, shredded tofu skin unrecognizable in a delicate salad, braised beans cooked to melting perfection, spicy shredded beef in a dark heap, and stir-fried mushrooms cooked to a crisp tenderness.

As we made our way after the meal to our next engagement, suddenly from the corner of my eye I saw several attendants approach us from all sides with umbrellas.

“Now this is too much,” I thought to myself as an umbrella opened over me.

Literally seconds after, the skies opened and a cascade of rain slammed down on us in a drenching torrent. The dry street became a large puddle and eddies formed where the drains were last seen. By the time we walked to the gate the van had to repark several times to get to a point where we would not have to walk through the huge body of water in the street.

In time we got used to the bowing. But if it wasn’t one thing, it was another. The dynamics of our group evolved according to local ambience. One night we went out for pizza in Lijiang. Winding through the narrow streets of Old Town we had walked into a stream of humanity thronging the shops and restaurants. Dusk had fallen midway and as the last light of the summer sun had faded, the thousands of lanterns, lights and lamps lit the town. Mr. Wu, our guide, kept walking and we trailed behind him in a long caravan. I was lost in the twists and turns, which they later told me was a single road: I had never been lost. All I had to do was back track and I would be back at the hotel if I caught the turns here and there.

Pizza turned out to be a light dough loaded with mild goat cheese. Fries came quickly alongside the fried yak bacon. There was veggie pizza for the adults and everyone was happy. The kids had unwrapped the chopsticks and were eating fries and bacon with them. I reached over to point that out to the adult table when I saw everyone there eating with chopsticks.

Obviously the chopsticks were there for a reason.

I sank back again in my chair, unwrapped my chopsticks and began eating. As I worked through the fries and pizza I remembered my college friend Beth who who ate everything with chopsticks in our chaotic apartment in Brooklyn. She hasn't been to China but she would fit right in. I haven't spoken to her in years. I made a mental note to give her a call when I returned to catch up about life and travel.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Wu's Wise Words

Wu’s Wise Words

When my husband Bill introduced us to Xiao Wu he said, “Mr. Wu is my best friend in Lijiang.” Mr. Wu, bespectacled was dressed in jeans and t-shirt, sporting a close, near-shaven crop and a similarly closely trimmed mustache. An infectious, and kindly, smile played on his lips as if he found us either immensely charming or strangely amusing.

“Is this true?” Param asked Mr. Wu.

When you are traveling with a sizeable group, 14 at last count, as quick studied and witty as ours, nothing is sacred, nothing off-limits.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” Mr. Wu rejoined.

The collective jaw in our van dropped. And then cackles of laughter rippled through. Bill slapped Mr. Wu’s back and Mr. Wu’s smile cracked into a wide grin. We already liked him.

We had just flown in from Kunming and had tasted the rich diversity of the area by just walking around the airport. Unlike any other airport I had ever seen, it was filled with stalls and shops for the traveler. As if sensing the pressing demands put upon the traveler to bring back an obligatory gift or memorabilia, the shops offered a full range of items for purchase. Packaged cakes, ham, tofu, knives, jewelry, flowers, dried flowers, fruit, traditional dresses, KFC, drinks, stamps, wood carvings, stone items, books, ice cream were available for sale. All that was missing was a yak waiting to be milked. Everyone, except us, seemed to be dressed in traditional dress. It was like stepping into China Pictorial. After looking around some more and overhearing conversations it turned out the traditionally dressed were employed at the various hotels and tourist traps and were dressed in their uniforms. I was enormously relieved to learn that we were not venturing into virgin tourist territory—my secret and greatest fear when traveling.

Lijiang was our second stop in China. Lush, cool, green, clear, verdant, it was the perfect foil to Shanghai’s six-lane highways and high rises clawing skyward. Everything my husband had said about Lijiang was true. It was beautiful and rustic, old and street wise, young and vibrant. I fell in love with it, desiring to escape immediately into the expansive meadows, flanked by distant, blue-tinted mountains. Wishing the vacation would never end, I purchased a house with a strong dollar and lived off the land.

I fell out of my reverie when Mr. Wu started introducing us to the area. Lijiang, he told us was in Yunnan province, so far west as to be bordering Assam, India just on the other side of the Himalayas. Indigenous people: the Naxi, Bai, Yi had lived here for centuries. He himself was 25% Naxi, 25% Yi and 50% Han. Being 50% Han by the census guidelines in China, he could have claimed himself a Han but by choice he claimed Yi ethnicity.

Mr. Wu’s speech was peppered with idioms and adages used in the most unusual and disarmingly charming fashion. He pointed out that this was the first clear day in weeks. Indicating the clouds rolling over the mountains into the valley, he declared, “Maybe we will have good weather. There’s a silver lining in every cloud.”

For centuries Lijiang had occupied a strategic place in the Tea Horse Road. A major thoroughfare for the merchants and their mule trains among several other important towns, Lijiang was midway between Sichuan where tea was produced to Kalimpong, a small town at the end of the road in India. The migration and interlinking of culture, religion and commerce resulted in the rise of closely linked groups: the Naxi, Tibetan, Bai, Mao and Yi who to this day share common ancestry and traditions. From Tibet horses entered the Middle Kingdom and from Sichuan tons of tea made their way to India. The Tea Horse Road has special meaning for me. At the beginning of the 20th century, my great grandfather moved his family to the end of the Road and began a new life in Kalimpong. I knew much had changed in more than a century, but I also realized barring the telephone and electricity poles, vehicles and trappings of the technological world, not much had changed. The little old ladies wore skin aprons, women sold peaches stacked in neat pyramids, mules walked the cobbled streets of Old Town.

Mr. Wu told us, to our delight, that the Naxi practiced matriarchal customs. Property passed on to the youngest daughter. Women also did most of the work. We (the women) weren’t surprised by that. In that manner, it seemed life of the Naxi did not vary that much from the rest of the world. Courtship in the old days pivoted around the group dances in the villages. Boy spotted girl, girl caught boy’s eye and they went off together. In later years, men were able to take more wives as did women who took multiple husbands. In doing the math, eventually everyone was married to a loose group. We didn’t get to see a courtship dance but second best was the daily dance outside the hotel where staff, locals and tourists held hands and danced in a large circle to a popular Naxi song.

We went to a vegetable market with Mr. Wu. Among piles of greens, sacks of grain and stacks of stainless steel utensils, the chilies that were so famous in local food appeared everywhere: as mobile decorations, jewelery, food. Fine dust wafted from the mills grinding down baskets of fiery reds making us sneeze. There were mangoes of all variety, including a long curved variety called elephant trunk mangoes.

The clouds hanging over us broke the next day in a steady rain that lasted all morning. Unfurling our umbrellas we visited the goddess of the spring, a tall, gold female figure endowed with the tail of a snake. Large phallic totems rose from the ground; square were female, round-tipped male. We visited a temple worshiping guardians of the Naxi, the most fascinating of which were the frog women with amphibious heads and Laker Girl bodies. Drawn from Naxi lore, a super being part human, part frog and part serpent was the guardian of the people.

The afternoon pivoted around Jade Dragon Mountain, the highest mountain in Lijiang. Zhang Yimou, the famous Chinese director, who had helped design the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony co-directed an outdoor theatre production called Impression: Lijiang. An entire cast of 500 non-professional participants and an impressive number of horses performed for us with the Jade Dragon Mountain as the backdrop. The main themes centered around the Naxi people and unrequited lovers who failing to unite in life were reunited by the Goddess on Jade Dragon Mountain.

By the time we followed the entire audience flowing out of the theatre, the rain had stopped and a fine mist hovered over the mountains. Twenty minutes later we were at the cable cars that would take us to Yak Meadow. Whatever excitement we felt leaving the ground escalated as we ascended the first mountain. By the time we had crested the second mountain we were well on our way to hypothermia. The mist had intensified and by the third mountain we prayed, ears popping in the thin ear, the end was near. The cable car clanked to the terminal where two assistants pulled us off the cable cars. They were dressed in long wool coats. We were dressed in shorts, scarves, baseball caps anything we could don to preserve body heat.

“Where is the hot chocolate?” Sehej asked Mr. Wu.

It was like Mr. Wu said, the plea was as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Hot chocolate there was none, but what we saw in the desolate cold was a magnificent expanse of meadow emerald green and lovely disappearing where the mist met the distant mountains. In the middle of the meadow stood a Tibetan monastery, its prayer flags ragged having released its prayers in the wind. A raised wooden path snaked across the meadow connecting the arrival area to the monastery and other ends of the meadow. Clanking sonorously in the cool evening, a herd of more than 200 yaks grazed, cavorted in the wet grass.

“Don’t go near them,” Mr. Wu advised from behind us.

The yaks were over 700 pounds each and milling close to the wooden path. Great shaggy coats almost in dread locks lumbered around, supported on four sturdy hooves, horns out ready to charge.

Signs around us warned of the dangers of the yaks and commanded good behavior from us tourists. Since few of us read Chinese, the English version of the signs kept us laughing all the way to the monastery. Thanks for the photos, Pam.

To explain the monastery, I have to describe what I felt standing outside the small, ancient structure. I’ve never been to 14th century China but that is what it felt like: An outpost along the Silk Road inhabited by monks who toiled in devout duty year after year.

 Boys who scanned the road to see what visitors would pass their way, day after day, year after year. Prayer flags, prayer wheels, white silk khada, portraits, gold statues, incense, carpets, red robes. I made a donation remembering the numerous Gelukpa (yellow hat sect) monasteries I had seen in Bhutan and India. For people who had never seen the others, they were the same.

A monk gave me a khada. It was the first I had received in years.

We ended the day with a dinner at a farmer’s house. I envisioned sitting on a hard clay floor, eating rice and pickles and being swarmed by mosquitoes. The farmer would be sitting with us and passing food to us. En route, Mr. Wu explained that it was “A Farmer Dinner” not a farmer dinner. The place we were going to catered to tourists and served traditional Naxi food. We entered a large courtyard the periphery of which was raised. On this raised platform were tables and chairs. We had entered a restaurant. After the requisite beers had arrived and been poured, a barrage of plates started arriving. Sliced sausage, boiled pumpkin, lettuce fritters, spicy chicken. Then the farmer himself, the patriarch of the house, arrived with two women of the house to toast us.

“May you continue your journey in happiness and prosperity. We are honored you have come to our house today,” he declared.

In the kitchen area, his son, the next farmer ran the kitchen. The other groups had left. We listened to the chatter at our two tables. The cicadas shrieked. The last raindrops fell. It had been a full day and we were glad to be on our way to the hotel.

The next day, the skies had cleared as Mr. Wu had promised.

“You never can tell, till the fat lady sings. Something like that,” he said of the weather.

We first stopped by the Black Dragon Pool to meet Rocky, Bill’s friend. Rocky, like Mr. Wu, was a tour guide. He was also a master Tai Chi practitioner. He was going to show us a few forms of Tai Chi. Lean and lithe, Rocky radiated a quiet strength. He went through the basic steps and we followed. Perhaps Rocky had designed the lesson to take us through a few forms but after looking at us lurching around, decided to stick with the basic form. Before we took our leave of him, he demonstrated a routine that took five minutes to execute. He told us later that the entire form took 30 minutes to complete. Whatever dim ideas I had previously had about Tai Chi had evaporated. The martial aspect of fighting had been sublimated into a core strength training that centered the spiritual and physical forces and merged them into a graceful but powerful physical art form. I knew a little more about Tai Chi than when I started but I had barely touched the surface.

Our bike ride, by Lake Lashi, and through the Yunnan countryside started at a paved road. It turned out a truck with the bikes and a mechanic had followed the van from our hotel to the starting point. After a half hour of fitting and try outs, each member of our group mounted a sturdy mountain bike and pedaled down the road. Busses passed us on the left while on the right the water canal flowed. I followed my 10-year old son Andrew closely as we navigated the busy road and turned into a wide unpaved path cutting through densely-packed fields of corn. Once we left the paved road, a whole new world opened before us. We passed large fields, old settlements, older houses, elders watching children, children waving, children shouting sometimes firing toy weapons on us, tourists on mules. The sturdy bikes ground over potholes and puddles. We made a few stops to photograph, rest and snack. The last stretch before getting to the van took us by surprise. Since we were meeting the van in a different place from where we started, no one was prepared for the road. The rain from the previous day had pooled in large puddles. Andrew went into the first hole. Shouting his discover to us he forged ahead. All of us who were behind him, dismounted and tried to avoid sinking into the large red oily expanses that spanned nearly every inch from the left to the right of the road. Most of us made it without trouble and those who didn’t recounted their travails in great detail. The children showed off their red patches and wet shoes.

We had stopped at a large Tibetan monastery. In front of the large gate, a group of young monks kicked a soccer ball. By the time we were done with the prayer wheels and had made our way out, Ayan was playing soccer with them.

The last dinner in Lijiang was a pizza and fries feast. We walked at twilight from the hotel to the restaurant, winding among the thousands of locals and tourists streaming from Old Town’s shops, restaurants and hotels. As the evening darkened, the lights of each establishment brightened, transforming Old Town's streets into ribbons of light. There was so much energy and exuberance that the night was a festival. If there was a recession, the travelers were not aware of it. Trinkets, yak jerky, pancakes, jewelry, wooden frogs that croaked, shoes, t-shirts filled the stores from floor to ceiling. The loudest shouts came from the most entrepreneurial store in Old Town. Three women modeled the dresses of the shop and yelled at potential customers to buy.

Mr. Wu and Rocky, our tai chi instructor, joined us. Pizza and fries dominated but did not overshadow the crisp-fired yak bacon that snuck in. By the end of dinner I realized that things had shifted without people even noticing. Everyone, adult and child, was eating with chopsticks. Especially the fries. The chatter in our tables drowned the sounds of Old Town. Even as we had become denizens of OT, we were saying goodbye, looking forward to our next stop.

Somewhere in our dreamlike state, Mr. Wu’s many words floated above us. He had said pigs can fly and I distinctly remember him quoting former Chairman Deng Xiao Ping, “It doesn’t matter what color the cat is, as long as it catches mice it is useful.” I’ve forgotten what the context was in either case, but it didn’t matter. Mr. Wu and his words had become family.