Food is one of those things that stretches across any boundary, be it time, culture, or perhaps even space. China certainly considers food a crucial part of its culture. Often, food is part of what distinguishes a particular part of China or a certain minority. Most every ethnic group, province, and village, has a special food that is very much a part of its identity.
Throughout the semester, eating not only became a way to bond with other students, but it was also a key tool for cultural exchange. You don’t need to speak the same language perfectly in order to try the food of another culture. How it tastes, how it is made, and often what it is called can reveal a lot about the culture it comes from. Food is a daily necessity in any country, and as such, by tasting the food from other cultures we can try to understand their day to day lives. In fact, it could even be said that food characterized my semester here in China. When I first arrived, I craved, well what I believed to be Chinese food. I wasn’t looking for fortune cookies or anything; I wanted food such as baozi (steamed dumplings) and jiaozi (boiled dumplings). True to form, the first time we all went out to lunch at a restaurant, I ordered nothing else but baozi and I was quite content. Now don’t get me wrong. Baozi are actually Chinese food (ordered Chengdu style baozi), but they are more like fast food than anything else. They are also eaten for breakfast a lot of the time, but they just weren’t exactly what I imagined.
Nor were the moon cakes exactly like what I’d expected. I thought they would be flat, handmade, and have an egg in the middle (to symbolize the full moon). I’d had moon cakes before for Chinese New Year in America and hadn’t liked them much. However, on the day of the Moon Festival with my second homestay family, I was pleasantly surprised to find that their moon cakes were both delicious and adorable. Interestingly enough though, I discovered that almost no one makes them by hand anymore. China wasn’t exactly what I expected, but it wasn’t a complete surprise either.
As the semester continued, my tastes expanded. Hand-cut noodles are really really really good. You have to wait a while longer than usual for them, but they are worth the wait. Rice noodles and chaomein are great and all, but the hand-cut noodles are a taste of home-cooked Chinese food.
Hot pot is representative of southern cuisine. In Shanghai, we literally had a metal pot with hot coals in the center heating it. You put the raw vegetables, meat, and anything else you want into the boiling broth to cook. Once it is done (everything is sliced thin so it cooks fast), you fish it out and eat it with a variety of sauces. Believe it or not my favorite hot pot restaurant wasn’t the really expensive one in Beijing or the one in Shanghai; it ended up being Xiabu Xiabu, which is a chain individual hot pot restaurant. It has the best curry soup to boil everything in. As I slowly discovered, it is the hole-in-the-wall restaurants and sometimes the “fast food” that have the best tasting food (and it was cheap!).
The same turned out to be true of many of my experiences. Going to the “tourist” places like Tiananmen Square was cool and something everyone should do when they are in China, but you feel like, well, a tourist. When we just went out to find a park or a random restaurant, we would end up having the best day possible. One of the (many) times I got lost, I found a street filled with nothing but costume shops for blocks. As I got to know and understand Beijing and China, I felt less and less like a tourist and more like I belonged.
By the end of the semester, I was eating like a local. We often made a point to try new foods, many of which were local delicacies. If you eat only at the tourist restaurants, you will miss out on some of the best food China has to offer. A good rule of thumb is take your money where the locals go. Chaor (grilled anything with spices) is a must try and it quickly became an IES staple. The food wasn’t fancy or expensive; it was what ordinary people eat (though I did not want to try scorpions or sea horses!). We were no longer foreigners. We had become locals. In our little corner of Beijing, we had China wired.
(Scorpions and sea horses) (Pork chaor)
(Bamboo rice – basically fried rice roasted inside a bamboo stalk) (Famous Guilin rice noodles)
Now, by no means am I trying to say that we all totally completely understand China. I could spend ten or twenty years here and still not completely understand it. China is a complicated, frustrating, ancient, traditional, modern, exciting, amazing country. There is much more to learn here than just language (or food). China caused my perceptions of not only itself, but also of America, to change. Neither is perfect, but neither is one country or the other fundamentally wrong. There is the American way and the Chinese way. They don’t have to be set against each other. There are more similarities than most people think (such as problems due to majority privilege). Perhaps if people simply took the time to look past their initial expectations and see the real depth that exists (so in other words, try some chaor rather than having only baozi), they would see the beauty in the differences. After all, having differences and variety is often what make the difference between living and being truly alive.