What It Is Like Here

By Marjorie Hakala

Quzhou, China, June 2010

Recently I had a discussion with two students who were preparing for an English competition, and we started talking about city life and country life. I asked them what was grown on the farms here. They were not sure. Their teacher reminded them that the biggest crop here in Quzhou is oranges. “Oranges are cheap,” one of the students said. “Oranges are cheap here,” I told him. The task these students had been given was actually an insanely hard one: they were supposed to contrast their home province of Zhejiang with Western Australia. Describing Australia was not necessarily the hardest part. In college I once had lunch at the same table as a girl who was shocked to learn that I was from Minnesota and asked what it was like there. I could think of absolutely nothing to tell her.

The usual prescription for this kind of ignorance is travel, but travel is not necessarily enough. Language, for starters, is a significant barrier to understanding and learning about the places one visits. I know about enough Chinese words to fill a teacup: I can greet people, thank them, order a bowl of noodles, and tell a taxi driver to take me to the school. I most definitely cannot follow a Chinese-language newscast. I don’t know what the people at the table next to mine or the people outside my apartment or the people I pass while walking by the river are talking about. When my friend Jane realized this, she exclaimed, “Wow, your world is really small! Just you and the people who speak English!” What this really means is that the only perspective I can get on life in China besides my own is that of high-school English teachers, because these are the only people I can talk to.

Besides the language limitations, there is the rather difficult question of what to say. How do you explain a place?

My friends in Quzhou tell me, “Quzhounese love food.” I have heard this a lot. When I was planning a trip to Hong Kong, one teacher told me, “They love food in Hong Kong too.” I replied, “Everyone loves food!” But she was trying to tell me more than this. Hong Kong has a complex food culture that incorporates Cantonese and global cuisines. But to say “Quzhounese love food” is to refer to something different.

It refers to the tiny restaurants with plastic tables on the sidewalk where the customers order by choosing from the meat and produce in the cooler. I’ve seen a family—parents, grandparents, an uncle or aunt or friend or two, and a very little boy—that goes to a restaurant of this sort, the same restaurant, every night. They drive there in a minivan and after dinner they hang out on the sidewalk watching their toddler learn how to walk.

“Quzhounese love food” refers to the weddings, which roughly resemble a Western wedding reception sans ceremony, except with much, much more food. The wedding cake is served at the beginning of the night, just to the children, who eat the cake with spoons and then—or at least this is what happened at one wedding I attended—they take the cake box apart and play with it while the adults eat the meal, which comes in dish after dish after dish, the servers constantly shifting food around to different serving plates to make space for the next dish to go on the lazy susan in the middle of the table. Some of the most “exotic” Chinese food I’ve eaten has been at weddings: duck tongue, spicy turtle, soup made from a fish part that is apparently extremely precious, although I couldn’t tell you where it goes or what purpose it serves when the fish is alive. And “Quzhounese love food” refers too to the custom of long, long dinners and lunches out, where there are not so many courses as at a wedding banquet but they come out at a more leisurely pace. I have been at lunches where the noodles or rice, which is served last, appears on the table an hour after the last meat or vegetable dish.

Then there is street food, which Quzhounese love in a way American city-dwellers just don’t. I lived in New York for two years and the only food I bought from outdoor vendors was the occasional ice cream. But here, the street food is something else. When I go out with my friends here to the bar where the foreigners go, there usually comes a point in the evening when the English and German guys are all playing foosball and my Chinese friend Fay and I slip out for street food: stinky tofu and cauliflower and seaweed and fried meat on a skewer, usually so spicy that we hurry back to the bar where our drinks are waiting. Once while waiting for one of these treats to be ready, Fay mentioned, “They don’t have this in Hong Kong,” and I blurted out, “Hong Kong is going to suck!” Some street vendors make a thing called a kaobing, which is a flat cake stuffed with meat and vegetables and baked on the inside wall of a little, wheeled, coal-fired oven. I have seldom felt more favorably toward China than when walking down the street with a hot kaobing in my hands and mouth.

So Quzhounese love food, and there is Quzhounese food I love; but of course it’s not that simple, because another aspect of this food-love is love for food that I can barely recognize as such. I mentioned eating duck tongue at a wedding. That was strange but basically fine. The bigger challenge for me was duck feet. They were mostly bone, and the small amount of meat was so heavily spicy that it made my lips and tongue sting as I pathetically mouthed the duck’s toes, trying to figure out how to eat them. I was recently offered duck head, and despite my best intentions to try new things and be a good ambassador, I discovered that I did not have it in me that day to pick up a duck head and eat it.

That was on Easter Sunday, in fact, and I was at a farmhouse. We had spent the whole morning standing around a low table making dumplings: pinching off balls of sticky green rice dough to flatten into a pancake shape, scooping a clod of raw pork and vegetables into the middle of the pancake, and then folding the whole thing into a half-circle and pinching the edges together in a rather elegant fluted pattern. Everyone had traces of raw meat on their hands, and nobody apparently minded or did more than wipe their hands with a tissue before tucking in to our rice and vegetable and tofu and duck-head lunch.

The door of the farmhouse was open—the doors of these houses are always open, I am told; otherwise the neighbors wonder what has happened to you—and outside were pigs and ducks and children playing king-of-the-hill on a large pile of dirt. The children and the dirt went in and out while we ate. Our hostess fried up some of the dumplings over a woodstove. The green flour takes on a dingy color when the dumplings are fried. Later, another teacher would tell me that the dumplings are made this way because of an emperor in a story, who had to flee from some enemies and so smeared his face with animal dung to disguise himself. When he regained his throne, he told his subjects to make these dumplings to look like animal dung. They are made every year for the Tomb-Sweeping Festival.

What this kind of story suggests is not different taste, exactly—the dumplings are good, hearty food, and for all I know so is duck head—as a different set of assumptions about what is appetizing or appropriate at the table. Chinese food culture, to an outsider’s eyes, seems to combine a highly cultivated gourmet tradition with a starving person’s indiscriminate appetite. There are as many experiences of Chinese food as there are people in China, but I have found the endeavor of eating here to be one of constant experiment and surprise, consolation, frustration, and above all immediacy.

I can predict this already: me, in America, tasting something with the same balance of garlic and sesame oil that is found in the food of Quzhou. I’ll know it when it happens. That doesn’t mean I’ll be able to describe it, but I can try. When my students in America inevitably ask the harder question—“What was it like in Quzhou?”—maybe I’ll just explain the simple joy of the kaobing.