Friday, September 12, 2008

The Contrast

For the past few days I have been trying to figure out how to capture an image, a moment, an event which exemplifies my new Chinese life, and I haven't been able to do it. There are so many small things which, after experiencing them once, it is difficult to remember why we ever noticed them in the first place. Adaptation has been paramount to survival - which is something that I think we all knew coming into this, and really, is one of the reasons we agreed to take such an adventure, but there is no preparation that can be done for this adventure (Well okay, learning Mandarin would have been moderately decent prep, but such is life). I know that myself and the other waigouren (foreigner, for those who don't know) are loving every minute, and because of that I've been trying to capture why it has been amazing but I'm really not sure it can be done.

On our way to the second banquet of the week last night, I decided that the best way to show my life was not by taking pictures of the strange juxtapositions of old and new, wealthy and poor, familiar and unfamiliar, which I encounter on a daily basis, but rather attempt to describe the few things which have become commonplace in my life day to day and week to week, in a feeble attempt to show you all a bit of whatQufu is like.

The daily lunch routine which the four of us have slipped into typically involves an array of street vendors located just outsideXintan's main gate - the same carts are there day in and day out, a large cluster of push carts, three wheeled bicycles with large coal cookers on the back, tents with tables and stools (I'l l have to take a picture of a Chinese stool, they're about a foot off the ground, hardly large enough for your butt, and somehow comfortable), fruit dealers, women frying strange looking spam skewers, a cart with about 10 soup pots, and a random smattering of other foods. An interesting side note - all things are given to you in a small plastic bag.Imagine when you go to the grocery store - the little bags which they put the meat in so its separate from the other food? yeah, imagine a clear bag a bit thinner than that, and there you go. And when I mean you get everything in these bags, i mean EVERYTHING. including soup. We don't buy soup on the street, mostly because it comes in plastic bags. Anyway, so the four or five different options which we have deemed safe to eat (this is an arbitrary distinction, based mostly on taste as apposed to any health concerns which may be present) have become a constant rotation. First and foremost is what we endearingly call the "bing," or more accurately, it is a "Jidan Bing." It consits of an egg scrambled in a wok with green onions, carrots, and cabbage placed inside a warm piece of flat bread (very similar to a pita) with a red bean sauce on the inside - it costs about 1quai 5, or roughly 21 cents. Another staple is bao zi (pronounced kind of like "bowza"), which is similar to a steamed dumpling - they come in a wooden tray called a jin - 10 pieces to a jin . Along with it comes a bowl of soup which we have named "snot soup," because it has egg in it which resembles snot, and the first time we ever ate thereKarrin and myself witnessed the lady making the dough blast a big snot rocket onto the sidewalk in the middle of kneading dough. You learn to ignore the little stuff that normally would gross you out, I guess. Third, there are two carts which sell what we have dubbed the giant spring roll. It's like a burrito, but filled with shredded vegetables, very similar to a spring roll. Finally, one of my new favorite vendors is a noodle and fried rice guy - he has his coal heated wok, a bucket of noodles, a tub of rice, and three bags of vegetables - usuallyshredded carrots, potatoes, and cabbage. You point to which one you want, he fries it. Can't go wrong for 2 quai.

The downside to street food is the oil. Everything is oily. At the banquet last night the president of the college asked us if we thought Chinese food was too oily - I responded by saying if you seek out balance with fruit it'smanageable, but there is no denying the excessive amounts of oil which you find in everything.

Dinner typically is a much more complicated affair - most restaurants, however delicious they may be, have old menus written entirely in Chinese. Luckily, we have a conversion chart given to us by one of the foreign teachers at Qushida who has been here for 15 or so years. Even still, pointing to dishes they may or may not have, stumbling with the phrase "what do yourecommend?" (also very dangerous to ask, we've decided - you never know what you're going to get)

Then there is the ubiquitous Chinese banquet. We've had the pleasure of two of these this week, and they consist mostly of everyone sitting around a table filled with enough food to feed the party three times over (this is the tradition, if the food gets anywhere near being gone, they immediately order more - leaving food on the table is polite and indicates you are full, so the more food which is left the more satisfied you must be... we try not to think about waste), eating and consuming largeamounts of either Chinese Wine ( Baijiu), or beer. After the first banquet this week, I decided to make a permanent transition to beer only - I will quote one of our closest Chinese friends for anexplanation as to why: "Drinking is very important to Chinese culture... it's almost like a competition, wouldn't you agree?" ...Yes Peter, I would agree. The good news was that I was much more composed at the second banquet - after four years of college you get good atskulling 5 oz containers of cheap, light beer.

These banquets are usually held in very nice establishments, however one thing I have noticed they tend to be kind of sticky - the lazy susan's especially (everything here is served on lazy susan's by the way, and I highly recommend Americans adapt this concept because its amazing), and many of them have flies buzzing around them. The room last night had a beautiful vase off to the side with a fly swatter sticking out of it.

These are the types of contrasts I've become accustomed to: the snot rocket next to the dough, the flies buzzing over our heads at dinner with the president of the college, the peasants weldingmattress frames on the street next to the hair salon, the fine layer of coal dust coating the window sills of the classrooms, the Audi whizzing past the three wheeled tractor spewing black smoke and pulling a trailer full of mortar or hazardous materials or apples or some combination of the three. I don't know if this really does any justice to daily life inQufu, but hopefully it's a glimpse.

So that's all for now - we just got paid yesterday (I'd like to point out that I have lived comfortably on the 100 dollars which I converted in the airport until now), so a grocery shopping expedition is in order. Happy Mooncake Festival!

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