My time in china can not be punctuated into words. I think I longed for the trip to be LIFE changing or transforming…and honestly…it wasn’t. I guess my winter of hip injury and rediscovering a sense of trust with myself, another, and the seasonality of life felt so incredibly shape shifting that even CHINA couldn’t compete.
More than that, spiritually speaking, certain themes resonated with me. The Ying-Yang brought up this revolving philosophy of the pieces of my life…that things change all the time, one moment light, another dark, coming together, falling apart.
But the current pulse of the country felt to me as if its beautiful essential core had been stolen…by a drive to produce and provide for such masses.
Let me inadequately summarize by noting that I did not feel secure or comfortable with the physical energy of the space. While moments stolen between people felt strangely relieving, operating within the mass history and souls proved overstimulating and produced an edge to my approach. I could never quite Blossom there and did not thrive emotionally.
And, Yet looking back, perhaps part of the reason lies in the fact that I Blossomed before my trip And part because there was little personal space for me to truly unfurl myself. Numerous people commented that a huge shift occurred in the “feeling” of the country after the Olympics. And yet, I learned and explored and tasted and created and received.
Over a series of posts, also labeled and saved on a page of it’s own, I plan to present my travelogue for China….gradually, most likely, and in spurts….as I continue to digest the experience, and weave it into the spring time I arrived back to with a warm homecoming.
No matter where I am, it is WHO I am that matters…and those I belong to. Thanks for being among that surly crowd.
On my second morning out, I ventured to the free Shanghai Museum, where participants can gawk at 5000BC bronze wine urns (beer was more prized during that time, and only given to Generals and Emperors…thus, the bigger the beer belly, the more clout you had) and 2000 beautiful carved Buddha relics.
Right away, I was “picked up” by three students in their early 20s, eager to talk to me (and most likely take advantage of my naïveté) and they ended up inviting me to join them for a traditional tea ceremony.
Included in the tea ceremony were priceless lessons: they provided a translation of my name:
They shared that each truly wanted to find a suitable marriage partner, and that arranged marriages were still common, but not successful because they wanted “is your love like that in your movies? That is what I want to feel.” Funny question about “do you have a boyfriend that loves you like Edward?” [Gosh! I had to think that they referred to Twilight, as my pop culture 411 is pretty dismal right now] they talked about their interest only to travel around China, rather than explore the world. Their studies. Their rent.
And then, of course, Chinese numerology 101.
We chose to have 6 teas, as 6 are the number of harmony, balance and wellbeing. The traditional teacup has three components: 1) a base, representing the earth, 2) a lid, representing heaven and 3) a cup, representing the people, which the tea is meant to warm and enlighten.
My teacher explains the history of tea in China…the blending of Buddhism (inner peacefulness) Confucius (inner knowledge) and Taoism (compassion). Having tea is meant to only be savored when you are happy in order to breed more peace and happiness.
Choosing the number 6, meaning harmony, good luck and balance, the tea ceremony began. The woman first poured the tea, from about shoulder length, splashing in the cup, mirroring the moves of a phoenix, gracious eternal strength, warming our cups, and also, as the tea master, ensuring that the tea contained no “poison”. Each tea signifies some health benefit as well:
Tea 1: Ginseng Oolong, for long life and mental clarity…a little bitter and a bit nutty
Tea 2: Jasmine Green: regeneration and “good skin”….slightly sweet and light
Tea 3: First Flower: for digestion…Fruity and tart
Tea 4: Chrysanthemum Flower for breathing and relaxation…. complex and a touch sour
Tea 5: Buddha Tea: for high blood pressure…. my note says “airy” and now, I can’t remember the taste!
Tea 6: “Big” Black Tea: anti-cellular growth (for cancer), woody
Look at those brightly colored dishes. They were 4 different dusted flavors of pumpkin seeds. I LOVED the red ones, but couldn’t find them anywhere after (although I scored some green ones).
As far as taste went, the First Flower spoke to me, which is odd as I am not partial to sweet fruit teas. As for the memory, I eagerly purchased 12 flowers as the moment won me forever. I did feel wondrous and lucky and full in this moment.
I paid the bill. With my tea, it was around $75. Yes, I was startled, but maybe the tea rubbed off on me? I had paid 30 cents for a subway ride, and had a large free breakfast and leftovers for lunch. And I could afford the priceless memory.
The young man gave me two traditional talismans, blue for “your romance man” and red “for energy and luck”. Feeling lonely, the boy placed the blue one on my bag, to protect me throughout the trip. Little jingles throughout the trip reminded me that there were people “back home” that loved me, and that something good protected me.
I must confess, that I was a bit deflated feeling “screwed” over by these new friends a few days later when other Westerners warned, “you shouldn’t have gone with them.” But, now, looking back…it truly was one of the best experiences on the trip.
And yet, that sense, of something appearing “authentic” and “traditional” and yet, somehow modernly false and twisted, then permeated the trip. And it was hard to “relax” and TRUST my surroundings.
Even now, though…. the tea ceremony sticks with me in a positive place, warm and happy and ready for another cup.
Wait! I haven’t DISHED it out yet…..
Sure enough, some of the most pleasurable moments of my trip to China arrived when I followed herds of locales into their eateries.
Here is a review of some of my MEALS!
The first came on day 1. …a simple mustard green soup and vegetable
dumplings and sheep meat dumplings
Dumplings and soup on my first night. 2 dozen dumplings, a mixture of
sheep’s meat and mustard green mushroom and a tofu, mustard green miso
soup. All for about $3.50.
upon an 8 by 8 food stall where you loaded a plastic bin with various
vegetables and meats…and then waited shoulder to shoulder for your
creation to arrive. Those 10 minutes felt like 30, as the locals stared
at me with perplexing grimaces or would whisper and point. But this
build your own “pho” (who knows what the broth really was!) hit my taste
buds with an “A-HA!” and I happily slurped it up. Again, $3.00.
Maybe it is just my style, but I felt more swayed of selections eaten
off the streets and from small local shops or market stalls versus the
meals shared at restaurants with the larger group. To me, most of those dishes shared together were overly masked by oil and over-flavored.
The place settings are often wrapped for each guest.
Something unexpected and yet welcoming…My 6th morning in China, I
devoured a huge hotel breakfast. Almost all the traditional foods of
china plus western favorites were offered. For breakfast, I favoured the
soy sauce infused boiled egg:
place Anthony Bourdain ate at on one of his shows. This is a big steamed
dumpling with soup inside. The “broth” is a concoction of crab roe and
fish. Superb and delicate and layered. Perhaps the food here is now
OVERHyped but the simple dumplings also tasted gloriously fresh.
Also…our last night in Shanghai, we chowed down on some good eats.
Maybe it was because I had some really tasty but cheap Chinese Wine (It
is seriously about $2.50-$3.50 but tasty, made from a Big Company Called
the Great Wall). There are now more than 500 wineries in the country.
This was mighty tasty… (those are shredded potatoes in the front)
Despite many shared meals with the tour group, eating from market stalls
on the go truly satisfied my stomach pangs and fit my spiritual hunger. The meals with the group tended to be less flavourful and tasty, more
salt and oil that in my opinion diluted the taste of the ingredients. My
taste buds didn’t sing at the gatherings.
Did I taste the bitterness of my own sense of overstimulation? A loneliness?
Or did I not jive with the culture itself?
I think it was a combination of commercialism (KFC RULED here!) and loss of tradition in China and my own disappointment… because when I ate what most locals did, well……
….let me introduce you to red bean paste…..
Despite many shared meals with the tour group, it was these small lovelies that truly satisfied my stomach pangs and fit my spiritual hunger. The most pleasurable moments of my trip arrived when I followed herds of locales into their eateries…guess I am a moveable feast. I liked being able to follow my own hunger and satisfy it with goodies gobbled up by the folks that lived there.
In Xian, I broke from my tour and found the outdoor market. Outside a stall, a group of 12 people shoved and pushed and grabbed as two ladies spun spider-web like concoctions of sugar around nuts, and taffy. Sticky, sweet and warm.
Then, I stumbled upon a glass cart where I waited 10 minutes to have this HEAVENLY dough cake transferred into my cold fingers, the heat warming them instantly, and my mouth watering. Immediately, a third of it pressed through my lips, and WOW!
You know how crunchy outside and gooey bread can simply yet significantly improve your mood? Instant elevation…a Chinese “churro” effect, and I exclaimed “wow!” so vehemently, an English speaking youth took my picture and explained it was fried Persimmon cake. It was 30 cents.
Roaming about Shanghai half starved from a morning of good bargaining, I treated myself to a roadside tortilla stand. Each patron tells the maker what he wants inside, and she stuffs it with, in my case, tofu, egg, bean sprouts, onions, and mushrooms. Lunch was 50 cents, and another 30 cents for a pear.
Another incredibly meal ($1) came from Golden fried tofu, soft on the inside like a spreading goat cheese, but doughnut like crispy skin (and the steam was heavenly)
A few of my lovely snacks: Mung green mochi filled with red bean paste, the outside stretchy and almost dough like in consistency and the center smoky sweetness
Steamed bun with vegetables, again steaming and lovely and typical breakfast fare, lunch or snack on the go.
But I REALLY loved the Taiwanese bread rolls at bakeries around China. This one is a flaky onion like dough wrapped around melted asiago cheese, some pickled vegetable and smoked meat.
This one has tiny shreds of pork flavored with chili sauce, then is smeared over a croissant dipped in custard butter. Yep. Intensely like no-other pastry I’ve sampled. And I would go back for more…
I think I love cheap fare while traveling. In fact, my perfect traveling days involves a European hotel buffet breakfast, stall food through out the day, a mid afternoon café, and following ambulatory explorations, reminiscing and chatting over a nice dinner.
That’s the way I like it.
I’ve traveled to cultures based on a collective sense of identity. Meaning there is no assertion of “This IS mine” and this is yours, and no one articulates physical space as an entitlement. Perhaps it was the language barrier as well, although many young Chinese know English much better than I know Spanish, but almost every attempt I made to engage with the locals, was negated.
Except for a wonderful tour in Shanghai, by the Noodle Tour Company. I have a soft spot for tour companies that give travelers insight into the lives of people who live in the city rather than just information regarding the top tourist spots. Especially due to the felt barrier between me and the “real
culture” of China, spending $50 on a 4 hour tour felt worth the expense and almost as if I thirsted for it.
Traveling, more than any other classroom or course, impresses upon me lessons of humanity, and every excursion contains the opportunity to run me amok, put me in my uncomfortable awareness that I am not the center of the universe and my circumstances truly are rich
I have a master’s in the field of theology. And yet, have met God more in my adventures than in a pew, a plane, or a classroom…or an essay. Divinity, God, is in the moment where allow myself to seek and find miraculousness in the simple moment. To be awed more so from the site of a broom, than the great wall.
This, perhaps, was most surprising to me. Even though I’ve felt for quite some time, more moved by a connection in these moments that confirms my, or a, place, within the mystery of things.
And Chinese life…continues to be a mystery to me…….but still, so fundamentally familiar, looking back on it now. Stolen moments, captured below:
Going into back alleys and seeing remanents of Mao’s portraits on the wall in the French concession. Hearing about the laws and interests of the people (such as a ban for two weeks on smoking. At least one out of every other male smokes there)
Going through the Market and eating local food there was thus moment where a friend dropped a vegetable Steamed bun on the ground and a woman began quibbling to inform the vendor.
The electricity and miscommunication but clear engagement was very pure…Eyes meeting eyes all around….Humourous confusion. A sense of not being understood…but connected. This was a moment I savor now…
Another time strolling through and seeing how communities utilise large chalkboards to give advice on how to get rid of rats, feed their families with local sales or encouraging exercise. Our tour guide pointed out small boxes for daily milk collection and ventured us into a local confucscious temple, where we escaped the hustle and fervour of the urban rounds to find serenity and peace.
Then clear as back “home” ….a bird song, which then immediately un-defeaned my ears to their chirping all around. The tour guide explained how birds are comment pets, almost always taken to the community park in the morning and then reperched swinging from the top floor over over hands.
These simple yet poignant evidence of daily life of the city inhabitants reminded me that we all are striving to achieve the best possible So simple, yet easily missed by a tourist attempting just to break through the crowd and break through the tip of an iceberg to discover …. SO MUCH
One of the most overwhelming aspects of traveling in China is the sheer amount of people occupying a short space. One morning, riding around on 600-year-old city walls, the sense of profound quietness felt a bit jarring. Okay…maybe it was the 40 degree overcast morning, and the scenery to the left and right of a busy industrial based existence assuring that, yes, 8 million people can occupy about 10 square miles.
What are the symbols of your culture? The day to day objects you reach for each morning, a french press, an electronic toothbrush, a tampon, a quadruple headed shower head. These images not so starkly contrasted to life thousands of miles away, in a tongue not your own, on land that doesn’t feel free, in a culture that cannot be simply summarized.