By the time I finished reading all of it, I realized how unfair I'd been in my wariness of this book. I can't think of anyone who has said it was a badly written book and I thought it was very successful in how it portrayed the concerns and perspectives of its characters. Without naming any events, it was pretty easy to infer roughly what time the events took place and what changes she was referring to. And how not all these changes came at the same time.
So though I realize that going to a place where a lot of writers (Bai Juyi AND Pearl S. Buck. I loved Bai Juyi's poem about Lao Tzu. I'll post it at the bottom.) lived doesn't mean that I'll find some great dedication or building there or anything, but all the same I'm sure it'd make a great visit. The scenery is supposed to be beautiful and full of places to hike around. And I saw something about a bus that goes up to Nanjing so maybe I could put the two into on holiday. That still leaves Xian though, and knowing the pace that I move at when exploring cities I'm pretty sure Xian would keep me occupied for at least a week with all its different sights.
So, I spent a lot of my traveling time missing Zhuzhou, my own bed and shower, and the people I know but now that I'm back resting and doing laundry, I'm dreaming of what next. I might have a week in May but I've heard of no other breaks coming up this term. The spring festival was the big one. I spent more than I meant to, but I guess it was worth it. I am now the proud owner of a young pu erh cake, a chunk of huo tui ham, the occasional craving for a big bowl of Yunnan's guo qiao mixian (crossing the bridge noodles), good memories of Pugaolao Village and its terraces, of day tripping around the Pearl River Delta and of trying things such as oysters with garlic, sugar cane juice, and finding a woman selling what looked like soy sauce chicken just outside the hostel. I really should have found a cooking class at some point but if nothing else, I have the big Chinese knife I received at the beginning of the school year and my own kitchen to practice in. I can do basic things like the pork and green peppers dish that I see at nearly every meal here and I'll have to look closely at the other dishes I enjoy to get a sense of how they are cut and cooked as well (maybe I should ask Pan Ayi/Aunty Pan, who fed us during orientation and who I've missed since leaving Changsha, if I can watch sometime if I don't get in her way). The eggplant slices here may not be so easy to puzzle out its ingredients as pork and peppers was if for no other reason than that pork and peppers was a pretty straightforward name and the presentation is never too fancy. I've also come to like the cauliflower here with crispy bits of pork and red peppers, and the egg soaked tofu with some other things mixed in which I've seen served in a cast iron dish with the egg sticking to the dish. I've found myself picking up on the lines to judge how things were cut at certain angles, though that still doesn't tell me everything. Maybe I'll finally find that "Rice and Friends" cooking class in Dali that is advertised everywhere in Yunnan and at least get some of the basics of Chinese cooking even if I can't have my choice in regional styles (though Yunnan never disappointed me).
Despite how cold and wet it is outside, I am really happy to be home and resting. It gives me a chance to regroup, see a different side of Zhuzhou, and both play with ideas for the next trip and play with my kitchen some more after having stepped outside of what's more readily available here (though we do have at least one Chongqing restaurant in the downtown area). I can't wait to get better at using my knife and to be more consistent in how I cut and how that will change what I cook for myself every week. My goals are to make my pork and peppers slightly less oily (or do a better job of draining the oil before serving), to make the kind of rich stock and thin slices I need to make my own crossing the bridge noodles, to actually make ma po tofu with huajiao instead of just peppers (when we tried it in Sichuan it wasn't so great, but that may have just been the place where we ate), cook up some hot and sour soup, and eventually do a better job of making a well balanced meal for myself. I guess I am kind of at an advantage here in being able to switch over to Chinese food a little more readily than some who found themselves equipped with a rice cooker, a wok, and a big knife upon entering their kitchen. Remembering how to season a wok without an oven took a bit of work but I got there, and it's served me well on nights I just go out and grab some chicken and bean sprouts for a fast and easy stir fry. I read something about how there are 7 essentials to a Chinese kitchen and opened my cabinet to find that I'd automatically bought 6 of them. I have tea, rice, vinegar, soy sauce, salt, oil and i'm only missing firewood. But my stove runs on gas and I have heating so I guess I'm set. It's also just been cheaper to make a soup or a stir fry than it has been to go out to Carrefour, Vanguard, or WalMart for a stick of butter that will set me back about 30 yuan. I used to want it for toast but now I've even traded my breakfast habits for tea eggs or egg folded in shao bing in the morning. More often tea eggs. I love getting up and holding warm tea eggs on a cold morning before teaching. I tend to move out of my bed earlier too so I can buy them next to the school. I still seem to be buying coffee, but I have big bag of tie guan yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) tea that I brew and put into a thermos to both wake me up, help digestion, and keep my hands warm for the first part of the morning. Trading my habits for their Chinese equivalents has proven to be much cheaper than trying to recreate Western food too often. Though since Hunan cuisine is often quite oily (I've talked to people who also say they notice that after being here for a while they reach for sugar a little more often than they would in the states) I guess it's just for the better to try cutting some of it by drinking tea.
Now that I've left Yunnan I keep thinking about the traditional pharmacies I walked past and some of Yunnan's famous medicines (there's a white medicine that uses 100 herbs and another one that mixes into tea) and wondering if I should have invested in a few grams. Though Yunnan white medicine didn't seem to address anything ailing me so that's part of why I skipped out. More often, when I'm feeling poorly the first thing I do is ask if I've eaten much fruit recently and that usually helps me perk up. Some have said that you have to make an effort to eat enough vegetables with all the pork that goes into food here but I've been fine with vegetables, it's reminding myself to finish each meal with an orange and a small bottle of Yakult that I have to make an effort to do. While I don't buy into everything traditional medicine has to say about food, it is really important to maintain a balance and since coming back to wet Hunan I do find myself thinking about more about dishes with Sichuan peppercorn which is said to be great for people living in humid places. And I did find it interesting that while I spent a hot humid summer in Changsha I was reading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food that mentioned some research that found very hot places tended to have very hot food. So maybe my changing dietary habits are influenced by the climate I've found myself in too, a natural response to being in a place where moderate temperatures only come for a brief period and you need those peppers to heat your body in winter and cool you down in the summer. Maybe part of the Chinese approach to food is also related to an awareness of its regionalism, that one province and its people will have different conditions and slightly different health needs as a result of those conditions. When I went out looking for pu erh, I heard that part of the popularity of Yunnan's tea was due to what nutrients it provided to the people who subsisted on primarily meat in places they couldn't grow a lot of vegetation and to people who primarily ate seafood. It seems to me anyway, that Chinese people have long been aware of the needs of their various dietary habits
In general, I do enjoy trying different foods and getting a sense of regional cuisines as I travel around. I know it was part of why I enjoyed going around Italy and here in China with its definite food/health culture that part of me seems to have grown despite the statistics I've looked at (1 in 10 out of home meals cooked with oil pulled from the gutters) and my awful time over the sink in Hong Kong. I guess it's a more accessible way for me to grasp at how big China is and how much it has to offer, as well as the ways people take what's given to them and work to make use of all they can. I know that certain regional cuisines or dishes tend to predominate in the US so it's also been quite satisfying to not only eat but watch cooks or street vendors at work. It's not as if there's a cookbook available for all the things you find out here, and honestly I've had to accept that some foods are just better left in the hands of specialists and trained people. I wouldn't dare to ferment my own stinky tofu though I love going out onto the street and getting freshly fried and covered in peppers, green onion, and cilantro. And roast duck is always delicious, but I don't think I ever experienced Beijing duck until I came here. I kept thinking that it almost looked like what I ate back in California but now I realize what I remember eating back home was probably Cantonese style roast duck. I felt a little lost the first time I came home with a bag of thin pancakes, thick green onion stalks, and two bags of dark savory sauce because I had no experience with eating that way. I used to want to try roasting one on my own but after watching the insane skill it takes to cut a bird into the exact number of pieces that Beijing duck has to be cut into (about 100 something) I have to concede that getting the right bird, finding the right wood and roasting conditions, cooking it properly and then cutting it properly is outside of my realm. People spend years just learning how to cook a duck right and I couldn't do it justice in my home kitchen. My favorite duck vendor out on the street probably isn't doing it in the true Beijing fashion and I'm still impressed by how fast she slices, drains, skins, cuts, sorts, and bags everything within minutes of me pointing out which duck I want. I'll have to film her cutting off the neck and getting the skin off intact someday. It's just incredible. I wish I had that level of expertise and control with my knife.
I'll close off this lengthy post here. I guess after looking for cheap places to eat while traveling for so long my mind turns to food more readily. I used to think the greeting "Have you eaten?" was primarily about China's food culture but I've since found that it's pretty key to understanding both its food culture and the very practical need to eat in a place where people have struggled to eat enough at times.