Posts tagged China
Food is a great way to experience culture, but when you put yourself in the hands of others, you are often at the mercy of what they throw on top of your bowl of rice. On previous trips to China, I’ve eaten anything from cattle tendon to sea cucumber to pig brain, but this time I was hoping to spare my stomach and eat more selectively while still being culturally sensitive.
I have a lot of admiration for the use of food in my village, from their fresh produce and meat, to their natural no-waste policy. My first night in the village, my arrival was honored by killing a chicken for dinner. I was grateful for the gesture, but I venture to say that most people don’t see the chicken being carried away to be killed and then have it in your chopsticks just a short while later. There are no refrigerators, no grocery store packaging, just a chicken from the backyard that until being selected for dinner, had lived out its days frolicking around the village. There are no cramped cages, no inhumane slaughter, no chemicals, just chicken.
When the chicken was prepared, the whole chicken, and I mean the WHOLE chicken, was made into a soup. As the chicken’s comb crested the top of the broth like a shark fin, I silently hoped it would steer clear of my white rice. It’s also really easy to identify the chicken feet, a common snack that I’ve tried before, but again, once was enough for that cultural experience. At a later meal, they prepared a cow similarly. Everything from the meat, to the fat, to the tendons to the intestines were all prepared in various dishes. This is where my previous knowledge came in handy, as I knew early how to identify and avoid the intestines (they’re the ones in the small bowl in the middle with round circles).
I love meals in China because they are served family style. All dishes are prepared in the center of the table, and everyone sits around with their own bowl of rice and chopsticks and you eat bite by bite, selecting what you want from the middle and eating it with your rice. The mother of the table might honor you by picking things up with her chopsticks and putting them in your bowl, and that’s when you might end up with a chicken head (the piece reserved for the honored guest). That situation is how I once ended up eating Thousand Year Eggs, which are buried underground until the inside turns a translucent green. Again, once was enough with that dish.
It’s not that I’ve walked away from every food experience with a smile on my face, but there is value in trying something new for the cultural experience of it. It’s not that I would go out of my way to eat pig lung or cattle vertebrae cartilage again, but I’ve at least tried all these foods and was culturally respectful, while getting a chance to eat things most people won’t. Most of it is actually isn’t that bad– so long as you can get over thinking about what you’re eating or can let go of your own cultural biases.
I still came up with a few tips to keep your stomach intact if you lack a sense of culinary adventurousness. I generally follow these rules every meal of every day.
1) don’t eat when no one is watching: Your hosts want to feed you and will notice if your not actively eating, so make sure they see every time you take a bite so you get “credit” for it.
2) fill up on the dishes you like and comment on how good they are: chances are they’ll make those dishes again!
3) if you see a bowl of animal, try to spot a piece you could eat and pick it up when people are watching: this can avoid people thinking your not eating and putting a piece you don’t want on your rice
4) if you’re pretty sure you are going to have to eat something questionable, don’t ask what it is until after the meal (or maybe never): it’s always harder to eat something when you know what it is
5) if called out on not liking something, try “im not used to eating this type of dish” rather than saying it’s not delicious: people can be receptive to cultural differences, and this way you won’t offend anyone.
And if you’re still hungry, you can always go much on some fish skin
As my luck would have it, my six day visit coincided with one of the biggest holidays in Buddhism for the Dai people: The Door Closing Festival. The holiday marks the beginning of a 3-month period in which no one can get married or have other big events, and it also included some honoring of elders in the village.
I had never heard of the holiday before, but my host mom (Yina) and sister (Meimei) began preparing the offering that I learned we would later take to the temple. I woke at 6:30am on the morning of the holiday and accompanied my host sister to the temple with our offering. I was back at the house in an hour and immediately wrote what I had experienced that I’ll copy here:
“It’s 7:30am and I just got back from the temple for Guan men jie (door closing festival). Meimei woke me up an hour ago to go. I didn’t have express permission to use my camera, so I started to pay attention to details so I could recount it and also remember it. Sometimes I think it’s so crazy that I get to see these things, real examples of untainted culture.
When Meimei woke me up, we went to the temple, me carrying two glasses of hot water, and her carrying their offering table with a bowl of rice, a bowl of pork and pork fat, cucumbers, bananas, and some snacks from the store. We put the offering outside the temple then Yina brought me inside (all together there had to be more than 200 small tables with offerings). Yina gave me a ball of sticky rice in a banana leaf and she had me take off chunks of rice and stick them on other clumps of rice in little bowls around the temple– 3 in front of the Buddha, one on the side, and 5 outside. I also lit a prayer candle ouside and came back inside to light one in front of the Buddha.
I had been to the temple before but never for this holiday. There were tons of women and children sitting around talking with their offerings. I eventually, at Yina’s suggestion, went outside to sit with Meimei with some other women. It was hard to navigate through the people and offerings because it was so crowded. Men and women were divided outside, but all in a huge circle around the offerings. Some men went around lighting cigarettes and standing them up in the bunches of bananas, some others opened up the plastic wrapping on the snacks. We sat there for a while before a smaller circle of men within starting praying and people brought their hands together and chanted the prayers. We lit candles and put them in the sticky rice to stand them up, and raised up a little water to be poured on the floor around the offering tables. After some more prayer, I was told to start taking out the candles and then if almost on cue, people started getting up fast, putting out candles, and carrying their offerings into the side room of the temple. A monk perched himself on the side to take money offerings, and just like that, Meimei said it was time to go home. ”
I’m sure there’s more to the holiday then that, but that’s a bit of the time in the temple.
Comparing Chinese brands and their imitations of US brands can be a lot of fun. After a few days of spending time in my family’s convenience store, I noticed that one US brand in particular had become the foundation of a few other Chinese products.
Which of the two below do you think you’d go for?
Red bull might not be considered a fruit drink, but Rid Bull is!
And if Red or Rid bull doesn’t fit your fancy, you can also go for Ice Bull! (Which is exactly the same color as Red or Rid Bull)
And if you wanted a drink that’s more local, you could get Meng Niu. The image is one way to identify the link to the all-American caffeine beverage, but ‘Niu’ also means bull or cow- go figure!
I’ll keep an eye out for other Bull beverages I may come across in the rest of my travels.
“The foreigner has come back!” I quickly learned this phrase in the Dai language the more people spotted me in the village, and as more children were crying in the vicinity of our house.
Despite the good number of people who were happy to have me back, the smallest kids are the ones who would rather see me go. Being a head and shoulders taller than most people in the village (really, we’ve yet to find a single person taller than me), and that I have the dreaded curly hair and unfamiliar eyes…I’m a monster to most. Some kids take the avoiding route, and simply take a wide angle turn around our house. Others are often brought into what they see as a “danger zone” against their will (aka carried on someone’s back), that is usually followed by waterworks, screaming, and the child being carried away. Some kids are just weary, and are fine so long as I don’t get too close:
Other kids just point, laugh, scream and get away as fast as possible either by foot or by bike.
Over time, I’m usually able to win over some kids, most likely with some sort of trick, toy or game. I used the camera on my iPhone as a way to intrigue some kids curiosity, and it was often successful, like with these kids below:
After the ice was broken, they were all about the camera and were very comfortable around me.
The funny thing is that none of them wanted anything to do with me until I pulled out my camera. After that, it was like we were best friends.
The kids who have absolutely no fear of me from the first meeting is rare, but it happens. Then sometimes I can win over the confidence of other kids, but in the end, there’s not much I can do to avoid their reaction, for most of the young ones, I’m the first non-Chinese person they’ve ever seen! Who knows, maybe they’ll laugh with me about it someday when they’re older.
Here’s a tour of our house in two videos:
Traditional houses look like this:
In a village of about 100 homes, I counted only 2 that weren’t renovated to be more modern. In the few years since my last visit, I couldn’t believe the drastic change.
Apart from these glimpses of modernity, I sometimes find myself going through my day to day in the village and thinking for a moment about the contrasts to my daily life in the US. In the groove of normal life, it’s easy to forget that there are people all over the world with their own habits, norms, and customs that proceed from day to day like everyone else.
From my own rural upbringing, there is a certain peace and familiarity that I get in the village. From the chickens running around to the darkness of the night and the quiet of the morning, I can feel the pace slow down. When I first came here in 2006, I had a hard time adjusting, having been well accustomed to the efficiency and pace of university life. It was through spending time in the village in my three trips that I remember what it means to relax and not go 100 miles a minute.
Now this doesn’t mean that these people don’t work hard. I arrived in a big growing and harvesting time, with people out in fields and up on mountains, working hard for their living. However, what they don’t have is other distractions. A lot of time is spent with family, people take naps in the afternoon, and people work together to get things done. I spent time bagging harvested rice both for our family, and raking rice out to dry for a neighbor. Everyone helps each other.
Where else can you sit and have the heard of water cows pass you by like local traffic?
Donning bright orange robes, every young Dai man must spend at least 2 years as a Buddhist monk. I’m particularly a fan of when they drive around on motorcycles, and interesting confluence of religious culture and modern convenience:
Babies and young children are carried around with a piece of fabric over one shoulder either on the back or in the front. Here’s my little sister with one of the neighbor’s babies:
Out the back of the village there’s a path to the numerous rice paddies and to the tea mountains where the land is divided among the families. Since it’s the rainy season now, everything was strikingly green, lush and beautiful:
Overall, it’s a great little place to have as a sort of home away from home.
I speak Mandarin Chinese, or what most Chinese people refer to as Putonghua (common speech). It is the language used for the government, in schools, and on television, but once you get outside of Beijing, Putonghua begins morphing, and when you get into minority territories like my village, their ethnic languages take precedence.
Each regional area in China has its own variation of Putonghua, consisting of some tone and pronunciation differences. In my village, Dai is the native language, followed by the Yunnan dialect for communication with other minority groups, and the IF the person has attended school for any length of time, he or she might speak a little accented Putonghua.
I can’t speak the Yunnan dialect, but can understand pieces and phrases, and I have gotten used to the accent with which they speak Putonghua. However, my language limitations keep me talking to a lot of young people (of whom a greater percentage have attended school) and those handful of others who know some degree of Putonghua from one experience or another. Otherwise, I rely on someone to translate.
Here’s a picture of some Dai that my host mom wrote:
The language itself is more similar to Thai in grammar and structure, as their culture is more similar to Thailand. I have tried over my last three trips to learn a bit of Dai, as many of the people I’ve come to know and appreciate don’t speak anything else. On my first trip, my host father used to sit at night with me and study Dai, writing out words in the native script and drilling me on pronunciation. This trip, I recruited my host sister and a few local kids to help teach me, and this time, thanks to modern technology, I recorded their voices so I can practice even after I leave.
Over the past week, I’ve made a lot of kids laugh with my pronunciation, but I’ve made definite progress, especially in listening comprehension. I’ve at least learned enough to know when people are talking about me. Every time I heard “mi kala” (foreigner) or “sao ha bi” (25 years old), I had fun surprising them that I knew what they were saying. Some people were very patient with me, helping me build sentences and correct my pronuncation, and I know they appreciated my efforts. I have a long way to go, but I love learning a new language.
I made it to the Xishuangbanna Airport ready to make the trek to the village, but was also anxious (and nervous) for what lay ahead.
I then continued my journey to the bus station to buy my ticket to Menghun. Here’s a clip of the station (I was trying to be inconspicious so please excuse the video quality!)
After somewhat of a stressful bus ride, I was in Menghun.
When I arrived in Menghun, I was immediately overwhelmed by my “plan” (or lack thereof). Despite having been there numerous times, it was as if the Menghun I remembered was locked behind a door and I didn’t have a key. I had walked the streets before, I knew exactly where my village was (a few kilometers away), yet I felt completely out of place. I walked up and down the main strip, still hoping that I’d either see someone I knew or be recognized by someone. I tried my luck talking to a few people, but I wasn’t getting far, and I was beginning to wish the weight of my bag on my back would sink me into the sidewalk to avoid the stares and frustration. I was tired from the traveling and decided to cut my losses and rest up for an evening in a hotel, and for less than $7 a night, I could afford it.
The next morning, I was ready for round 2:
I walked a bit to get to the motorcycle taxi stand, and it wasn’t long before a man in a red taxi helmet asked me where I was heading. We agreed on a fare and off we went. Just as we turned off the main strip, he asked, “Are you trying to go to Ai San’s house?” At the mere mention of my late host father’s name, I was shocked and it took a few seconds to piece it together– my driver knew who I was!
Still dumbfounded, he said that once I said the name of the village, he knew it was me and had apparently driven me 5 years ago! He told me Yina should be at home and that nothing had changed. I welcomed the wave of relief that followed, and my previous anxiety quickly morphed into excitement. Once off the main road, we wove through familiar scenery until the final turn before my village, and I could hardly wait.
I hopped off the bike expecting to see Yina, but I was informed by the villagers at the family convenience store that she was in Menghun! I called her cell phone, a number I never had before. She recognized my voice immediately, and as she tried to figure out how I got the number, I asked her to guess where I was. Needless to say, she asked me to repeat myself a few times before she was sure she understood me. It wasn’t long before I was back in Menghun and reunited with Yina and her daughter, my Chinese little sister.
Here’s a photo of my host mom and I a few days into my stay:
After all the time, the reason the phone number didn’t work was simple– everyone uses cell phones now! This is just one example of the many modernizations in this village that I’ve noticed since my last visit 3 years ago. My family had disconnected their land line, but had no way to inform me of the change. However, once I was hanging out at their house, it felt good to be back and see familiar faces. Now, I have everyone’s new cell phone number so we’ll never have to worry about losing contact again!
I’ve actually already arrived back in Kunming after 6 days in the village, but I’ll post over the next few days other aspects of rural life and Dai culture!
This is my fifth trip to China, but this trip has a special purpose unlike my other trips: I’m on a mission to find my host family. I haven’t spoken to them in a few months because their phone number no longer works. I tried older numbers I had of people in the area, but nothing works anymore. The biggest problem is, because this family lives in a rural village, there’s no Internet, nor do they have the resources to contact me. At a loss for ideas, I came up with my solution: show up at their house.
It may seem like a crazy mission, but this family was the first family I really connected with overseas in my own travels. I met them in 2006 on my study abroad program when I did a month long independent study on the lives of people with disabilities. For part of my project, I went to Xishuangbanna, an area for Dai Minority Chinese, to explore life in rural areas. My host father was an amputee who lost his leg in an accident in 1991, and I lived with him, his wife (who I called Ao and Yina, ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ in their minority dialect) and their two children. Unfortunately, while in the hospital in 1991, he contracted AIDS from a bad blood transfusion and passed away in 2008. However, during the short time I lived with them during my project, I had a deep and immediate connection to their family.
Here’s a photo of me with Yina and Ao at their home in 2006.
It was through my interactions with them in their village that I really started to understand what it meant to have a connection that bridges differences in culture or background. My original desire to do disability research in China came from curiosity that I developed from my own father’s disability. I wanted to see how other people with physical limitations might lead their lives in another culture. What I didn’t realize though, is that it would be a foundation for the connection that had kept me in touch with this family over the last five years, including another visit in 2008, up until a few months ago.
One day, while picking tea on their tea farm, Ao looked at me and said “You know that we’re family now, right?”. His question caught me off guard at the time, but what I came to find is that he meant those words with the utmost sincerity. One day while doing some work in front of the house with the family, two men drove by on motorcycles and stopped at the sight of me. They asked Ao who I was, and he replied, without hesitation, that I was his relative. Despite the confused looks on their faces, Ao assured them that we were in fact related. No matter how much they challenged him, calling out my height (a good head and shoulders above most people in the village), my hair, and every other physical feature that went against his statement, he did not back down. It was done, I was a part of their family. That’s the story of how this little village in rural Xishuangbanna became a home away from home.
Now the mission. Here’s a map of Yunnan.
You can find Kunming, the capitol of Yunnan. I will travel to a city called Jinghong (not on the map), then travel to a town called Menghun (marked with the A), which is the town nearest to the village. I’ll be at the Sunday market this afternoon, get a ride to the village, walk down the familiar dirt path to their house and see what happens. The week ahead is a blank page waiting to be written!
I had no idea the natural charm of Kunming would throw me back as much as it has to the days of my study abroad in 2006. I have enjoyed the overwhelming nostalgia and the luxury of familiarity- I know how to get to the places I need, and despite a few renovations, can still navigate the area. I can walk through the campus streets of my old university and remember playing basketball with Chinese people, or I can walk past the old train tracks and remember strolling down them in the evenings to find street food for dinner. My time this trip has been amazing, but not because I’ve been packing in a ton of activities. Having been here twice before, I’ve already seen it’s main attractions, so now I just get to sit and marinate in the city’s awesomeness.
Even the first day walking around I must have said in my head “I love this city” a hundred times. Its vibe, its people… even just the comfort and familiarity of the Chinese southern accent. After studying abroad here in 2006, my native Beijing Chinese teachers in college told me that I came back sounding like a southerner. It’s no surprise to me why I use the accent of the region that really defines my connection to China and is home to so many of my fondest traveling memories. I’ve been spending a lot of time exploring on my own and reconnecting with old friends, both Chinese and foreign. I’ve enjoyed the sights and sounds of the city, the buzz of the streets, and stars at night (Kunming is one of the few cities where pollution has not wiped out the night sky). I’ve met a lot of new foreigners as well, but the amazing thing is that most if not all of them speak Chinese in some capacity, which has allowed me to have more diverse cultural interactions without pausing for translation. I’ve really felt that the last few days have been a vertiable vacation: strolling around familiar places, getting $5 traditional Chinese massages every day, eating great, cheap food, chatting with local people, and otherwise just relaxing and enjoying life.
I originally was planning to head south right away, but the city and the memories sucked me in. However, tomorrow I am actually getting out of here and heading to Xishuangbanna to start my Chinese adventure of finding my host family. It’s a little overwhelming to think of what’s ahead with the unanswered questions and the unclear week ahead of me, but it’s also another opportunity to reconnect with an area of China that really is a home away from home for me. This corner of China, including Kunming, Xishuangbanna and all of the Yunnan province, is unique; it has its own flavor unlike anywhere else and I’m just really happy to have the opportunity to be back.
I didn’t know much about Shanghai, but I did hear that it is one of China’s most westernized, developed metropolis, often compared to New York City. I set out early in the afternoon with a vague idea of where Shanghai hot spots were, and headed east for the Huangpu river. As I walked around the city, I was struck by the contrast between the tiny side roads more reminiscent of older China…
…that ran parallel to modern roads with glittery storefronts with western names ranging from Gucci to McDonalds to Adidas.
I passed a McDonald’s around lunchtime and snuck in with my camera to take a peak (I had to try to be as discreet as possible with my camera):
Trust me, there is no shortage of western brands in Shanghai, food or otherwise.
And, my personal favorite:
I am usually not one to eat western food in China, but my Oreo Blizzard was delicious! Also, while I cooled off in their super-powered AC, I heard both Christmas songs AND the teenage mutant ninja turtle theme song… Just one example of how China always finds a way to keep things interesting.
With the overflow of everything western, I was eager to see what I could find that was purely Chinese:
I’ll try to catch some more interesting things in a park elsewhere, the afternoon heat kept things pretty calm.
As I slowly made my way to Shanghai’s famous Huangpu River, I got to see some of the modern architecture and buildings that Shanghai has become famous for. It’s skyline on the east side of the river boasts amazing structures, including the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jinmao Tower, and the Shanghai World Financial Tower (which looks like a bottle opener).
I heard that it’s best to see it at night, but it was still impressive even in the day time.
As I continued on my walking tour of the city, I needed to cross the river and took the glitzy Bund Sightseeing tunnel. This “exciting” ride was really nothing worth writing home about, but it’s psychedelic lights and corny decorations made me laugh enough to take a video. An example of Chinese tourism at it’s finest (the video isn’t great quality, but you really only need 30 seconds or so to get the idea).
I walked around the rest of the city, crossing highways on huge pedestrian bridges like the one below, and otherwise marveling at the city’s architecture and structures:
In general, Shanghai was modern, impressive and interesting to walk around. After an exhausting day in the heat and humidity, I made it to the airport and got on the plane to my favorite city in all of China: Kunming.
Onto the next adventure!