2017 was been quite an unpredictable year, and China was not on the list at all. In January, I was going through my post-Peace Corps period of depression that came in part from moving from a sunny, tropical country to single digit temperatures in Washington State. I was adjusting to a new country all over again, in much the same way that Americans are adjusting to a new country ever since the election happened. It still feels like I’m adjusting to a new country that isn’t quite how it was when I left it.
2017 has also been a year of disappointment. After getting rejected from my second Fulbright Application to study arts therapy in South Africa, I had booked a one-way ticket to Cape Town from Seattle through Gotogate.com, hoping to see a new place for about a month starting on January 18th. The Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle was closed due to a snowstorm, so I drove 6 hours nonstop around the highway through snow and freezing rain, and I still missed my nonrefundable flight. So, I decided to move to Washington D.C. the next day because of the strong Wellesley and Peace Corps networks there. I had been planning to move to D.C. eventually, just not right after getting a $150 yellow fever shot intended for my South Africa trip or with only two carry-ons with my Hawaiian shirts. That’s how it worked out.
2017 has also been the year of surprises. China had never been on my list of places to see. The only Asian country I’d been to was Japan, and I’ve always wanted to travel to The Philippines or Southeast Asia, not China. Why would I bother getting a visa?
Then, I was given the chance to go on a freelance work trip. I applied for a rush visa on Monday morning after waiting outside of the Chinese Consulate at 7 a.m., then I picked it up on Thursday morning. That night, I took my ten-year visa with me on a flight from JFK Airport to Shanghai with my new coworkers. I had no expectations. I just knew that this was a wonderful chance to immerse myself in a new language and culture.
During this whirlwind trip, we flew to four different cities in one week. I didn’t even know what day of the week it was, and that’s how I like it.
I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the culture, and more specifically, the food. I expected the food to be decent, but not worthy of dedicating an entire article to it. I’ve heard people say that the food in China isn’t good, but that couldn’t be farther from my experience. I love trying new foods. I love exploring the textures of different foods and I love the memories and emotions they bring. It’s a sort of exploration that was absent during my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua, where beans and rice were eaten three times a day. People ate to survive there. I’m privileged because I am have the economic advantage of seeing food as an experience, not as fuel for survival. I’m lucky.
Now, about the best meal of my life. The dinner in Changzhou was an otherworldly experience, and I must tell you about it because it reminded me of why humans bother putting effort into the food they prepare and present in the first place. From the moment the first dish arrived on our spinning, glass table to the last scoop of our chopsticks, he entire process was art.
It began. We sat down in our private, white-walled room and waited with anticipation for the operatic spectacle to commence in all of its glorious sensation.
Alan, one of my new coworkers, ordered in Mandarin. I couldn’t understand any of it. To me, Mandarin sounds like a harsh language. He and the waitress sounded so annoyed with each other, but my perception was just based off of the tones of this language so different from my own. In China, the people sounded as if they about to get into a fist fight until, all of a sudden, they’d burst out laughing. I’d feel relieved after that. In college, though, I remember some of my white friends telling me that myself and my Latina friends would sound loud and upset, but then I’d clarify that that’s just how we spoke to one another. To me, it was normal to speak with emotion. The tone of my voice definitely changes when I speak in English vs. Spanish.
Once Alan ordered, we’d wait for a minute or two for the hostess to take her stylus and tablet back to the kitchen. First, some cold dishes would arrive so that we wouldn’t have to worry about small talk. Green, hose-like noodles. What’s this? I asked, countless times. Mussels with vermicelli. Pork belly. Buttered shrimp. More butter—this time, mushrooms in a buttery broth. Spicy soup with peppercorns. After this, I wanted to cook everything in peppercorns.
This was a meal to remember, and it just needed a soundtrack. So, I imagined Vivaldi’s “Winter” to accompany my euphoria. In between bites, I’d pause and watch Gia pick up a mussel with her chopsticks and spoon. Wayne took his chopsticks and jabbed at some greens, scooping them up like a heron catching a fish with its beak. The tapping of the chopsticks on the porcelain plates and the clinking of a beer bottle against the rims of the wine glasses broke the silence.
Not all of the food was unforgettable. The sliced, brown jellyfish tasted bland. It was gelatinous and crunchy, but without much flavor. I’ll never forget its magnificent presentation over ice, though. If my tongue couldn’t enjoy it, my eyes would.
My favorite dish? The pig lungs. They came so thinly sliced and beautifully spiced. Each slice melted on my tongue, as if I’d finally tasted the most expensive cut of meat imaginable. The chile it was marinated in reminded me of some sort of Mexican chile (maybe guajillo), bringing in a foreign familiarity to it.
“Ganpei” I said, after we poured Snow Beer into our wine glasses and clinked them together. We spun the glass table around and around to make sure no one would emerge dissatisfied. I loved the equitable feel of not only the round table, but also of the round spinning wheel. If someone wanted some steamed buns across the table, you just had to spin the table yourself or ask someone else to spin it for you. Eventually, you’d get a taste of each dish anyway.
I wish every meal would be this communal. Growing up, my nuclear family made it a point to eat together. Now, my friends have replaced much of my nuclear family. I’m used to eating alone and traveling alone, but in this moment, I was happy I was doing none of those things. My temporary, adoptive family took me by the chopstick and helped me navigate this new world, this new country I had had no desire to explore until it swept me away. These people didn’t seem like strangers much anymore.
This meal reminded me of the artistry involved in presenting the simplest foods, whether they be noodles or pig lungs. I wanted to stare at the food instead of poking at its elegance. Nonetheless, hunger always wins and consumes all in its path. I was so full. I thought I’d explode, but it wasn’t the fullness in the American sense of being fed horse troughs of unreasonable proportions. Contentment, appreciation, and gratitude filled my being.
What a heavenly, otherworldly, sublime meal. The feast of my life that reminded me that life is good. Life is forgiing. Life is a rollercoaster. La vida es un carnaval, como dice Celia Cruz.
The next day, as I sat in the airplane on the smoggy descent into Beijing, an old man in a golf cap sat in front of me and stared out the window like a little boy who had never flown before. China, and this meal, made me feel like I was flying for the first time all over again.