My third trip to China in November 2019 cannot possibly be conveyed without first considering where I had just come from. Sitting on a flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong, the final morning of my holiday in Bangkok was still resonating on the pathways between my heart and brain leaving me feeling numb and displaced. A whirlwind of fresh memories were streaming thru my mind and it was clear I had made a tactical error scheduling the business trip at the end of a two-week holiday instead of reverse. The week ahead in China was tightly scheduled and there would be very little room to ease into a rigorous work routine or entertain reflections of what the last couple weeks would mean on a more universal scale. From the moment I set foot on Chinese soil, the freedom of joy-riding in a tuk tuk was replaced with being crammed into a car with a bunch of guys eager to squeeze as much work into one week as possible . As I arrived into Chengdu International Airport after my connection in Hong Kong, Bangkok suddenly seemed light years away.
The week was a routine of piling in and out of the car, working, and eating. Only one person in the group knew any English, albeit of the severely broken variety. He was, however, a master at using the word wait. It always seemed like I needed to wait for something. Wait, wait, wait… It was like the word wait would simply appear out of thin air. Most of the time, I had no idea why I needed to wait or what I should be waiting for. But when you are already feeling a bit claustrophobic and irritable, having someone constantly telling you to wait… I really wanted to not wait.
November 2019. Chengdu
It was ironic that the first city I would visit on this trip would be the last city from my previous trip four years earlier. Chengdu. However, this time there were no Giant Pandas or lovely strolls around the city.
There is one part to this story that worked out in my favor though. By the time I left Bangkok, I was immersed in a newly found passion for food. Something happened during my holiday that lifted a veil from my narrow-minded, unimaginative food tastes. I was not craving a burger, steak, or pizza anymore. Which was fortunate, because the only time of the week in China where I could pause to soak in the moment and enjoy myself was at the lunch or dinner table. Most of the time, they were the same place. Revisiting the same restaurant again and again. But as opposed to Parts 1 and 2 of this story, when the various dishes were brought to our table, my chopstick hand was already in high gear, and what used to be a sinking feeling of desperation at the sight of the food became a small patch of wetness in the corner of my mouth, known as drool…
At the first meal in Chengdu, I could sense everyone at the table expecting me to be a clumsy Westerner fumbling with my chopsticks. One of my hosts waved the waitress over, mumbled a few things, and a few minutes later she showed up with a plastic fork. I swiped my chopsticks thru the air in a get that sh*t out of my face motion, and everyone looked at each other muttering things which to Western ears sound like words going thru a rotary blade meat slicer.
Thus began a long week of dividing time between factories and restaurants. It became quite clear right from the start that this was going to be a completely different eating experience than previous trips. My host soon learned what my tastes were and would make an effort to always include certain types of food in the spread. One of them being greens. I didn’t know what the vegetables were called, but if they were green, my chopsticks became lethal weapons.
One of my favorite reoccuring dishes during the week was a spicy pork which you scoop into a hollow soft bun.
Most meals were eaten in local, sanitary-challenged eating establishments where you just channel the home-cooked meal vibe and accept it. But occasionally we would splurge on a nicer, more decorative restaurant such as this place in Chengdu. Here I was reunited with a variation of the Chongqing hot pot. Fortunately, we skipped the brains, but it was here that I discovered that frog legs (or more like frog lower body halves) are actually quite tasty in a hot pot.
One of the things I came to admire about the food was not just the taste but the variety of colors in each dish. Looking back, I find it very difficult to distinguish what the ingredients were in each one. Every dish was a blend of numerous colors and components. If you take the time to observe, you realize that each dish takes a lot of effort to compose. They are not the barbaric concoctions that categorized my previous stereotypes.
November 2019. Xinyu
To the dismay of all of the pandas in Chengdu, it was time to move on. First a flight to Changsha followed by a 3-hr drive to the steel city of Xinyu.
Xinyu is a city with just over 1 million in population which seems on a Chinese scale to be nothing more than a backwater village. The city is dominated by it’s steel factory, a smoking, rusty behemoth like an old sleeping dragon, deformed and scarred from centuries of battles, the city folk living both in reverence and fear, their survival relying on its protection at a steep price.
Naturally, I stayed at the Vienna Hotel because nothing screams Baroque and the Hapsburg Empire like Xinyu, China.
Eating-wise, Xinyu was uneventful. Every meal was taken in the same private room in the steel factory restaurant. But to liven up the monotonous proceedings, my hosts would order a series of fancy bottles containing what they would call Chinese wine. To call this clear liquid wine is a diabolical deception. The real term for this devil liquid is baijiu and it is a liquor made from fermented grains, usually sorghum and is generally between 35-60% alcohol level. In other words, it single-handledly turns any dull private dining room full of grim-faced, chain-smoking, Chinese men, into a frat party.
November 2019. Fuzhou
The last stop on this trip was reached by high-speed train. Fuzhou, a city of over 7 million people, felt modern and glitzy, like a smaller version of Shanghai. The extent of my visit was a factory visit and dinner in the neighboring shopping mall. I am fairly certain that was not enough to get a proper impression of the city.
Dinner in Fuzhou was highlighted by a fish which looks like it exploded but was instantly fried and seared before the fish bits could escape. It looks a bit like buffalo chicken wing sauce but is more akin to the sweet and sour sauce that American-style Chinese restaurants serve. Meanwhile, frog legs showed up again on the menu, and I have to admit, I am sold on them. There is this bit of succulent meat on the elbows that is like… I am lacking the purple prose for it, but I highly recommend it.
By the end of the third trip to China, I couldn’t get enough of the food. I was a changed man. This trip was grueling, I won’t mince words. I loathed every moment of the strict routine. But I also look back on it with a fondness for the different kind of experiences that I had compared to my previous two visits. There were the eating experiences and the occasional dizzying over-consumption of the baijiu. But since the lunch and dinner tables were the only sources of joy during the week, I had a lot of opportunity to bond with my hosts. I would phonetically type every new word or phrase I would learn into a note on my phone. By the end of the week, I could count to 100, say the days of the week, and more or less make a table full of non-English speakers laugh hysterically at my attempts to say different phrases. I couldn’t help but think of all the ways that Western culture has made fun of the Chinese bad-English stereotype, so I figured this was their payback. I loved every minute of it.
As I look back, China trip number three was bittersweet. I still feel the emotions as if they were yesterday. I realize now in these Covid times just how precious those experiences were, on so many levels. I lived those moments to the fullest that I could, yet I still feel something unfulfilled. In some universe, the story did not end on my plane ride from Fuzhou to Amsterdam. Bear and butterfly. Forever and eternal. Perhaps this trip was intended to prepare me for the strategy of getting thru the pandemic. I can still hear the word, like a mosquito buzzing around my ear that I futily swat at. A word that no amount of baijiu could possibly make palatable.