by CIA Student Leah
Glad you didn't hold your breath for my China post, huh?
Well guess what folks like this beautiful bride who I encountered on the streets of the Bamboo Forest, she's finally arrived.
From the bottom of my heart, I am sorry that this has taken so long and I can explain in one minute, but I will also be honest: I like moments like this. I didn't intend to make my China blog post, my final post on the CIA blog but I like that I'm going out the same way that I came in---with China on the mind. It is after all one of my most significant CIA experiences.
So why has it taken so long? Because I have tried my best to capture China's magic but she is a wild thing that must be experienced firsthand to truly value her acquaintance, and attempting to tame my memory into a collection of meaningful statements has been quite a feat.
I have a penchant for lists, especially in situations where I need a strong hand on my thought organization. So here's what I've prepared for you, dear reader. Sweet travels and happy reading.
Seven Things I Learned on My Food, Wine & (Agri)Culture Trip to China
1. Try to speak the native language. Just try.
My most commonly used phrase in China was “how much is this?” The irony in my use of this one Mandarin phrase is that I never once understood the reply. And I didn’t mind the awkward situation that would ensue when I would immediately follow up my one measly Mandarin phrase with pleading English asking the question again, or I would instantly produce a piece of paper and pencil with Arabic numerals to negotiate a price. It was far from graceful, but almost always effective. If I was lucky enough to snag Chef Cheng as my personal tour guide while we walked around a market, my experience was heightened by her exquisite depth of knowledge and deft Chinese language skills. People in China love her.
As for me, I like to believe that people were willing to communicate with me because I extended an effort initially, a miniscule one as it were, to make this relationship work. It was further proof that we constantly appreciate and respond when someone else is willing to take the first step towards cooperation in a relationship.
2. Do your daily exercise
When faced with a toilet that requires squatting, one will find the entire experience more manageable with strong glutes and a stable lower back. In addition when your skin and bones are faced with the Great Wall, your body will welcome the challenge of the oscillating mountain step path (that’s really what it is after all) if your calves are defined and your lungs have had a good test drive.
3. Eat it
Crunchy duck intestines cooked in spicy oil or crispy fried scorpions purchased from a street vendor. Steaming Jasmine tea sipped during a traditional Chinese tea ceremony or oily dan dan noodles at the hotel eaten as an introduction to this faraway land after traveling for close to 24 hours. Creamy pig brains eaten with chopsticks or late night salty cheese lobster flavor potato chips. Stinky rice liquor that burns every part of your throat or juicy lychees that leave your hands stickier than they were in your childhood. Thin pockets of fried dough with mystery filling that were ordered simply by pointing, or the allure of a rich compound soy sauce that covered pork dumplings.
I could follow every single food item with a story. This sheer fact served as further proof that food is not merely substance but rather a collection of emotions, experiences, ideas, and circumstances. It is intimate in a way that I didn’t understand until I trusted a stranger enough to feed me. There is an undeniable exchange of trust when you open your stomach to another’s cooking.
Sometimes it will be a disaster. And sometimes your memory is permanently altered by a flavor.
4. People are people
The familiar smell of roasted coffee fluttered around on the sidewalk one rainy afternoon in southern China, and my heart settled into the warmth of the shop as soon as the doors opened. About halfway through the trip, I was exhausted from feeling like an outsider. By traveling with 20 other American college students, I was constantly surrounded by the glances from Chinese people who recognized that we were tourists. When my friend and I set foot in this coffee shop, the shopkeepers welcomed us with charming hospitality. For two espressos, a cappuccino, and a citrus water, my friend and I forgot that we were drenched in a painful stigma of being a tourist. During a late night walk around the city of Chengdu, we found 200+ people dancing in a park square to classical music. As a gentle woman held my hands and twirled me across the stone square, I knew that I was exactly where I needed to be in the world.
The coffee shop and the dancing square were two places where I satisfied a craving that I believe is innate for many humans: the desire to belong. My physical appearance betrays the mystery of my national identity and denies the idea that I am a Chinese citizen. During my time in China, I was often treated like an outsider and people responded to me like they knew who I was because of my physical appearance. I was a prisoner of bad American stereotypes and I was constantly at the mercy of a stranger’s judgment. Make no mistake, many people were inexplicably kind and welcoming to our group. The experience of being objectified as a symbol and not valued for my individuality was unforgettably painful. I aim to be a traveler and not a tourist, one who respects the differences and accepts the education with a humble attitude and an open heart.
5. Walk alone
Escaping the influence of other’s comments or interpretations allowed my mind the opportunity to foster my own perception and support my individual experience. I always told people where I was going and when I expected to be back. Those details are the difference between being reckless wanderer and an explorer.
6. Be comfortable
Being comfortable took a few different forms. My clothing was practical and reliable. I chose the articles that made me feel confident and sensible, consequently both emotions ensued for at least the first hour after I got dressed each day but usually dissipated as I wandered the streets of a foreign land. I also packed a reasonable bag that contained only the essentials and included extra space for items that I collected along the way. Finally, I was comfortable in my room by taking naps or closing my eyes to relax in the sun. Those moments of stolen comfort are regenerative in a way that cannot be measured.
7. Bring toilet paper
Every place in the world is unique. Sometimes the variations are stark and other times they go unnoticed. I didn’t comprehend the unique characteristics of a place including my own hometown until I started to travel. We often call them differences, but really that word is only appropriate based on our individual experience. It’s a selfish word in some regard because it can subconsciously lend an attitude that makes one place or tradition, “normal” and the second place or tradition, “weird”. This is evident in the fact that to me, something as simple as toilet paper seems “normal” to expect next to a toilet, however in China that is not the case for public toilets. Of course in homes, hotels, or fancy restaurants, you will find toilet paper. But no toilet paper in the bathroom at a museum is not “weird” to a Chinese person. When I was in China, I learned to play by their rules and accept the normal that was present there.
So what does all of this mean?
I have officially caught the travel bug and find my mind captivated at the thought of uncharted frontiers in the far corners of this world. The possibilities are overwhelming and inspiring. After all of this, one thing is for certain: my heart now includes the people, food, sights, sounds, smells, traditions, ideas, and rituals of China.