Tag Archives: China

Missing China

Four months ago, I left for China. Two months ago, I came home. But, in some ways, in many ways, I’m still not home yet. My body adapted long ago to the time zone I find myself in, but my heart hasn’t. My head hasn’t. My suitcases have long been empty, but I’m not emotionally unpacked. Part of me is still lagging behind in China, wandering like a ghost through the carefully manicured gardens, past the women selling steamed buns on the street early in the morning, past the man who rides his bike with his little dog in the front basket. I’m clinging to the days when monumental successes were simple things, as small as ordering a meal and then receiving the food I thought I was ordering. Bargaining for a lower price and winning. Eating a steamed pork bun while walking the tree-lined streets of campus, on my way somewhere, or nowhere. I long for that sweet respite, when everything was new, when everything was an adventure—at the grocery store I walked to almost every day we were in Nanjing, there were aisles and aisles of food I had never tasted. I wanted to eat all of it.

And there’s a beauty in existing in a place where people don’t speak your language. Your thoughts belong to you more than ever. You belong to yourself and no one else. You answer to no one, if for no other reason than you can’t.

But I am no longer there. Now the new semester is fully under way, and I have lovely classes with brilliant students, but there are days when I walk the halls of my building, not sure exactly where I am going. Though I’ve been teaching in the same four rooms for weeks now, I’ll be in the hallway on my way to class and will be suddenly struck with the thought that I might not be going to the right place.

I found myself in the library the other day, browsing through the cookbook section, until my finger traced the spine of a book I knew I had to have. Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop. In it were recipes to actual food we ate on a regular basis: the noodle soup we loved at the shop near campus. The spicy gong bao chicken we ate in Chengdu the day we saw the pandas. Eggs and tomatoes. Sichuanese green beans.

I’ve cooked a half dozen recipes from the book now, and I’m in love. It tastes like China. For the first time since coming back, I can say that about something: it tastes like China. There’s a thrill for me in this cooking, in the trips to the Asian markets in our small city, in boiling the noodles and testing for doneness, in frying eggs in the wok until they’re crispy on the outside and runny on the inside.

So far, one recipe, Hangzhou Breakfast Noodles, has been my favorite. The noodles are silky, the egg delightful, the sauce perfect. It’s comfort food, in the best sense of the phrase. It’s deeply satisfying, in a way I can’t fully explain. I hope you’ll make it and see for yourself.

I could eat this every day. I don’t know when I’ll be back on a plane bound for China, but in the meantime, I can eat the food and remind myself that it really happened, that I was really there, that I will be there again.

Hangzhou Breakfast Noodles
(Adapted from Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop)

Ingredients:

  • 4 spring onions, green parts only, sliced
  • 7 oz dried noodles
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil or other cooking oil (plus more for eggs)
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 eggs
  • Chinkiang vinegar to taste

Directions:

Boil noodles until cooked to your liking (be careful not to overcook). Fry eggs in oil in a wok, leaving the yolks runny. Set aside.

Heat oil in a wok until very hot. Separate noodles into two bowls and top with green onions. The oil is hot enough when a few drops of it make the green onions sizzle. Drizzle oil over noodles and onions. Top with soy sauce. Add egg. Add Chinkiang vinegar to taste. 

Welcome Home

I remember a day the week we left for China, a bad day. It was hot—unseasonably hot. Way too hot, way too early. I had errands to run, a chiropractor appointment, books to pick up on campus, a hundred thousand items on my to-do list and a rapidly shrinking window of time in which to complete them all. The night before, I hadn’t slept well, and I woke up to a distressing text from someone I loved very much who was in trouble. I panicked. Called her therapist, who suggested I call the police, which I did. Put in the call to 9-1-1 on my way to the chiropractor.

She was okay. Things turned out fine. My fears weren’t realized, much to my great relief. But by mid-morning, I was jarred. My nerves felt frayed, jerky. For this point in the semester, the very end, as I was catapulting toward China, the feeling was not new. Spring 2014 had been the hardest semester I’d ever faced, for a number of reasons, the workload, the preparations for China, the added weight of the budgets and the checklists and everything that goes along with making sure twenty people have the time of their lives in China for a month. And my dear friend, who was struggling, whom I was trying to help. Stay, please, stay.

After the chiropractor appointment, I ran my errands on campus. Acted like a perfectly normal person. Smiled to everyone I saw. But I felt like my body wasn’t able to contain me, wasn’t able to keep all of the emotions in one place, as if I might tumble out of myself, spilling all over the concrete. The sun bore down on me, as if it the sky were sinking down, ever closer, ever hotter.

By the time I got home, I was exhausted, dehydrated, hungry, and spent. As soon as I walked in the door, the air conditioner cold, I stripped off my clothes and fell onto the couch, facedown, and sobbed. I sobbed like I was breaking. I was breaking.

I remember repeating, I can’t do it, I can’t do it.

Jesse brought me water. Something to eat. I calmed down, cooled down. Rested. Dressed myself. And pulled it together.

Got to China. No one died. No one was lost. I think, even, some people did have the time of their lives.

And two months later, I am back. I am back in the same house, with the same living room, the same job. But I am changed. Those two months were healing for me. There were tears—so many tears—there were hours of writing, and talking, and thinking. About my life, about what I wanted to be the same when I got back, and about what I wanted to be different. About how much I can—and cannot—help other people. About how much I needed to help first myself.

How much I need to be good to myself. To care for my body and my soul. To nourish myself, physically and spiritually. I am back with a peace and a calm inside that I haven’t had for a good, long time. I am back with a strong desire to listen to my body, to listen to my spirit, and to give myself what I need, when I need it. Everything else has to be secondary.

These last two months, I’ve taken nine flights. Nine times I was told to secure my oxygen mask on my own face before helping anyone else. Nine times. And it has begun to sink in. It is not selfish to turn my phone off when I go to sleep. It is not selfish to take the time to exercise, even when I have other things I ought to do. It is not selfish to feed myself well, to take the time to cook a meal, to chop the vegetables, it is not selfish to love who I am becoming, to appreciate myself and what I am good at, it is not selfish to surround myself with beauty, it is not selfish to live a life of desire, to seek out what I love, to seek out the people I love, to collect in this life what makes me happy.

The day after I returned from China, my sister-in-law brought me to a nut and seed milk class with her at a beautiful space called Grub, where two lovely women talk about how important it is to listen to our bodies, to give ourselves what we need, and what nourishes us. They talked about the joy of food, how eating transcends a collection of nutrients and minerals, the act of fortifying our bodies, about how it becomes an act of love.

I thought about my semester, the healing that began in China, and how I would like that to continue. It struck me that food could be a primary vehicle for communicating with myself—my self—hello, dear one, what delights you today? And how may I provide that for you? What will make you strong? What will empower you and others?

Since then, I’ve been making coconut milk and hemp seed milk at home, and these simple acts have been bringing me such delight.

I bought a huge bag of hemp hearts at Costco. Hemp hearts, or hemp seeds, are tender and nutty, sweet and earthy, almost like a tiny, earthier pine nut. I’ve been putting them in my oatmeal in the mornings, in addition to making milk with them. (They won’t get you high, by the way, in case you were wondering. They will give you a ton of nutrients, though.)

As I walked out of Costco that day, the sun bright but not overbearing, cradling a bag of hemp hearts in the crook of my arm, the man who checked my receipt at the door said, “Enjoy your hemp.”

I pulled on my sunglasses and smiled, genuinely happy. “I will.”

Hemp seed milk
Recipe adapted from GRUB

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup hemp hearts
  • 4 cups water (filtered)
  • 2 dates
  • pinch of salt (preferably sea salt or Celtic salt)
  • maple syrup to taste (optional)

Directions

Blend all ingredients in a blender until the dates are fully broken down. There’s no need to strain the milk, though you can if you want to.