Each dish starts out the same. A few cloves of garlic minced into thin ovals, limbs of ginger pureed into a thick pulp, and finely chopped stalks of green onion, sliced so that the flimsy green leaves coil out from the white stalk. Each is used in equal quantity at the base of the wok, to which is added a few hearty shakes of salt and black pepper, a dash of Asian five spice, and a dollop of spicy chili peppers.
We've been trying to cook together at least once a week, me and Yao Jie, this year's Shansi Visiting Scholar from China. We improvise a little with the ingredients, substituting what we can't get in America with its closest equivalents. The contents of each individual dish don't seem to matter much—strips of eggplant and squash, scrambled eggs and sweet onion, cubed pork and diced potatoes—the preparation is amazingly, eerily, consistent.
Sunday dinner at Shansi House (photo courtesy of Yao Jie).
In a bizarre twist of fate, Yao Jie also hails from Shanxi, the province home to my beloved Taigu, and is enamored by the same iconic Northern Chinese fare. When I lived in Taigu, I never thought I would miss it. So soon had the foreigners tired of the same five or six lei (types) of food that we eagerly sought out non-Chinese dishes at almost every opportunity. But amazingly, that plaintive disdain has quickly morphed into something more like desire. Food has become a metaphor for my unbridled nostalgia for China. The smells and tastes touch my taste buds in dreams, tantalizing me with the utterly fantastic notion of their feasibility, where the closest we get is the once-a-week meals we bastardize using ingredients from Stevenson and IGA.
I am constantly awed by her fascination about Oberlin. There is a certain wide-eyed focus to her gaze, a quiet calculation and analysis of the new world surrounding her, not too dissimilar, in fact, from my own. It’s been interesting, too, hearing what kinds of questions she has, and how even the most ordinary things require a lengthy explanation: “What function do the blue boxes on street corners serve?” “How do you choose the best cell phone service provider?” “What is the meaning of the sign in the Walmart parking lot that reads ‘Reserved Parking: Horse and Buggy Only?’”
I had nearly forgotten how much these small, seemingly insignificant queries dictated my own attitudes toward my first month in rural China. How even the most ordinary things were no longer easy—crossing the street, mailing a postcard—and how it forced me to pay special attention to the little details in my every day life. But pretty soon, everyone learns to adapt. Back in America, you get used to the wide sidewalks, the lack of honking, the monolingual road signs, the orderly grocery check-out counters. By now the joy of those small accomplishments has already fallen away, replaced by preoccupation with bigger, more pressing goals. But to the outside, it’s imperceptible: no one here, perhaps save for Yao Jie herself, understands that loss in quite the same way.
Yao Jie demonstrating Chinese paper cutting at this year's Culture Festival in Tappan Square (photo courtesy of Dale Preston).
I like to think I won’t have culture shock when I eventually return to visit Taigu, but I know that that won’t be the case. My reality is entrenched in my surroundings. I may no longer be shocked or amused by America, but I still yearn futilely for pieces of my past life. In one way, I’m paying it forward, helping to indoctrinate Yao Jie with the same welcoming and patience as those friends I made in Taigu provided for me, but in another, we’re both new to America, struggling with acclimating to this strange, different culture. At our last dinner Yao Jie refused cold water, opting instead to drink the boiled noodle water customarily paired with noodle-based dishes in the north. I paused for a second before I too dipped the ladle into the scalding pot and helped myself to a bowl.
I rarely cooked in China because from a pragmatist's point of view there was no ostensible need—restaurant food was laughably cheap and was much more efficient than cooking at home. Cooking always required what felt like a full day's preparation—shopping at the local supermarket in town for things like meat and tofu, the little mom-and-pop granary for rice and flour, and the farmer's market for things like eggs and vegetables. There was a two-three hour stretch of time at night devoted to the actual cooking—six pairs of hands in a crowded kitchenette taking turns by the electric hot plates, sharing cutting boards, and alternately washing and plating dishes. Then, the hour or two dedicated to eating, and finally the clean-up—scraping pans, storing leftovers, and wiping down tables.
Here there is almost none of that camaraderie. Most of my meals are cooked for one, and yet still, I find solace in that solitary act—returning home at noon, turning on the electric stove, letting the chop and sizzle of the saucepan add layers to Ira Glass's inflection. Then at night, the neat simplicity of reheated leftovers for dinner. It's not the co-op at Oberlin and it certainly isn't a Thursday night banquet in Taigu, but it suffices.
Two weeks ago I received an unlikely gift. Hand-delivered by Alexandra’s sister over seven thousand miles to Oberlin—what in Taigu could almost pass as a food staple unto itself—a package of Taigu bing. These particular bing—Chinese for “cookie,” “biscuit” or almost any breaded ration—came in a red plastic bag, the words “red date” emblazoned across the bottom to indicate the flavor. They are particular to Taigu and absolutely ubiquitous—rare is it to pass a store that doesn't carry them in large plastic crates, the stylized gold characters practically dancing across the label. But to receive them here, at a fancy restaurant in Oberlin, felt like something outer-worldly—my brain just couldn't process it.
I have been holding out on eating the last one, perhaps so long that it will end up spoiling in spite of my efforts, but I can't quite seem to let it go. This, a food staple that I bought with such utter regularity as to never question whether or not I'd have enough, a breakfast item I paired with a bowl of yogurt and a sliced banana each morning. For want of the more conventional Western pastries I once craved, these fluffy, sesame seed-studded cookies were all we had. And now, a single, solitary mouthful is all that remains.
It's a feeling that I find hard to explain. It's like being the sole proprietor of a contraband food ration in the army. Or, perhaps, like a foreign teacher laying claim to the only personal pizza in a rural Chinese town of 80,000. The pie that Gerald took back with him after each trip to Pizza Hut in the nearest big city of Taiyuan, an over four-hour journey in all. At each unveiling, there stood a small group swarming hungrily around the microwave or, more accurately, Gerald holed up in his own room alone, careful not to draw attention to the prodigious gift, like an archaeologist protecting a new discovery.
I can imagine him there, and then again after having returned back to the states—frozen pizza stocked in nearly every grocery store, Domino's delivery never more than 30 minutes away. But staring into that microwave, there was that one extraordinary moment—the collective hopes and dreams of seven foreigners pinned to that gleaming vessel of tomato and cheese, a time when any one of us would have traded the world for a bite. And now, as if in some distant universe, Gerald heats up a slice of pizza in his microwave back home in America, thinking to himself: remember when this used to be valuable.