Stuck in Ambrosia

You tumble out of a van that exceeds the legal capacity by a factor of three or four. The first thing is the dust—thick and mobile. All those trucks you see filled to the brim with loose rocks are coming here to be dumped, tirelessly smashed one by one with large hammers, and ground into the invisible substance floating in the air. Then the sound. Giant tankers incessantly, gratuitously announce their arrival with profound horn blasts. A little kids sets off a firecracker in the middle of the street. A stray dog yelps. Then the heat. All these people, all this movement, all this progress, a sun that cuts seamlessly though mountain air. You feel, in so many ways, at the heart a massive movement. You are at a literal intersection of then and now—people from the past fashioning the future because that is what people from the past do. Women in traditional Baizu dress splash water on rocky dust that congeals into cement and someday into a sidewalk. A chicken darts around a speeding, honking BYD SUV. It’s hard not to feel it.

IMG_0506

Then the smell. You follow it a moment—past drying concrete and some badminton-playing kids contemplating a birdie that just landed in it. You know where it’s coming from. It’s in a pot. It’s wedged between a tiny convenience store selling booze and cigarettes and ramen in a box and a stairwell that leads to an oft-empty bar. It’s at a dusty intersection in a dusty mountain town. It’s in Yunnan, China. It is the greatest food in the entire world.

I’ve eaten some things. Tsukiji fish market before sunrise, a quiet taco shop called La Gringa serving simply captivating al pastor with a lime on a hot dry street in Cuernavaca, $3 Banh Mi sandwiches from Dong Phuong bakery in the middle of desolate New Orleans East, a steak so preposterously good at La Cabrera in Buenos Aires that I pondered vegetarianism purely out of respect, the footlong Sweet Onion Chicken Teriyaki crafted by my local green and yellow clad sandwich artist. Deep in the middle of nights (such as this one) as my feet dangle over icy tiles and my stomach grumbles without reprieve, I think of these things and how impossibly far off they are. And I feel like you feel when your girlfriend says its over. I feel deeply, deeply stomach-broken.

But, every Friday afternoon I squeeze into that van between a slobbering infant and a stare-y old lady and I am taken to the intersection. I get out and follow the smell. I take off my bag and fall onto a foot-high stool begging to be crushed under my weight. There’s a large-mouthed steel cigarette bong resting against my table. A line of thermoses sit under a shelf, hot with water for tea. I glance at the chef, waitress, owner, busser, personality, and possible validator of any and all claims of higher-power. She nods and reaches into a bag of long white strands that look like the transcribed remnants of a Bush-Cheney sit-down. She tosses the strands into a wok, film-thick with what remains of the pleasures of those who once sat in these stools—a well-crisped recent history of culinary perfection. There are two things on the menu—though there is no menu. Er si (thick rice noodles) and Mi xian (thin rice noodles). You may have them fried or you may have them boiled. You may have them in a small bowl or you may have them in a big bowl. Smoke flares up and I get Pavlovian.

IMG_0504

There’s an aged and withered man wearing a scuffed blue suit and a newsboy working on a cigarette at the table next to me. His bowl is empty. A young mother watches her infant daughter struggle with the epic historical pairing of evasive noodles and thin wooden sticks. Two middle-aged van drivers sip tea as they pound on the table and complain about the road, the sound of their keys jangling faintly discernible through the dust and commotion. Sometimes you’ll see the county mayor sitting here with his comrades, methodically slurping soup and talking about the high-quality of the road. There’s a sign above the chef displaying a green happy face, a yellow “satisfied” face, and a red sad face. The three faces are paired with A, B, or C. In the box where this particularly establishment’s happy, satisfied, or sad face should be, there is nothing. It doesn’t matter. A scruffy dog scoots out of the kitchen. A, B, C or “high likelihood of sickness and/or death”, it doesn’t matter. Everyone from every corner of the social spectrum can be found at these tables.

IMG_0505

A, B, C.

She calls my name and I shoot up. Sitting in the hazy window is a mountain of Er si capped with shredded scallions. I thank her and snatch the dish and set it down on another counter and generously add leaves of sour Chinese cabbage. I return to my stool and drown the noodles in a dose of vinegar. I say grace for the proprietor and begin. The noodles are sticky with oil. They bind together and I lean closer. The flavor is something like salt, sour, spice, heat, grease. The texture sticky and smooth. But, truthfully, like a special book or a transcendent movie or a glass of baijiu or the rice terraces down the road or anything that is incredible in its way, there is no description aside from experience. It is what it is.

I proceed through the mountain and watch it disappear before my eyes. For these few moments at this intersection of future and past, there is now and only now—so too feels the old man and the young mother and the drivers. The final few bites are golden-brown pork strips and scraps of sour cabbage and oily vinegar soaked noodles. Like a great novel that you can’t stop reading but never want to end, I finish them off. It is a flavor rollercoaster with no drops. I ponder the remaining pool of vinegar and grease and weigh the social implications of lifting it and pouring it into my mouth. I lift it and pour it into my mouth. I pat my stomach and rise for the bill.

“Boss, you work too hard.” I tell her.

“Every day, seven days a week.” She says, smiling.

Every day, seven days a week behind a smoky little opening at a hot and dusty intersection, bending and lifting—with only the occasional helper. I think for a moment about the riches she would reap with a shop like this on Canal and Mott.

“You need to take a rest, boss,” I say contradicting my true gastronomic desires.

“No breaks. This is my iron rice bowl. This is my life.” She says, referencing an indelible Chinese concept.

“Well, it’s the best food I know. You’re the best there is.”

“Bah. None of that! I just make noodles for people to eat, Mr. Luo. Today’s on me,” She says as I reach into my pocket.

“Not in a million years, boss.” I hand her a crumpled five and two ones. One dollar and ten cents. That’s like a small bottle of Poland Springs or four gumballs. Shit, I can’t think of anything worth a dollar and ten cents. I’d pay 15 bucks for it if she asked me to.

“You should charge more.” I tell her every time.

“I charge one Yuan more and no one comes. I charge one Yuan less and I go out of business. Seven Yuan is the price.” Hard to believe the initial statement, but I know it’s true.

“Take it easy, boss.” I head back into the dust’.

IMG_0416

This is where the best food in the world is. It’s here, lodged in an open stall at the intersection of before and after. Stuck firmly between six and eight Yuan. Caught between a day off and some extra cash. A simple rendition of something that’s been done here for centuries. Some noodles and a lot of oil. Something for the people to eat. A few sticks and a plate. A tiny stool. A newborn child and an old man in his twilight years. You can see it all from here. It’s hard to try to imagine it anywhere else. The reality of what it is, its genesis is so inextricably chained to this small corner. It’s not a gastropub or a hot new chef’s foray into molecular gastronomy. It’s function first with barely an eye to form—here they are the same. It really is the best there is. It is straight-up ambrosial. And it has to be. It’s a labor borne of necessity. It’s a matter of fact. It’s life. It’s the only way it could possibly be.

Advertisements

Smoke & Testicles

imgres-2

I stood at an existential crossroads.Turn left: I’d be in front of my computer, shrouded in clothes I bought on taobao and thinking terrible thoughts about taobao. Turn right: I could be sitting around an incompetent space heater with a bunch of middle-aged dudes insistent on shoving flammable liquid into my throat.

I eagerly turned right.

It was a solid crowd of 5 or 6—the familiars: The principal, the security guard, a couple of administrators, a local shop owner. They were watching local news and screaming at each other. I sat down and the security guard—the host—filled my glass. There is no such thing as “say when.” “When” is “when” pouring more means losing some. I noticed dozens of empty bottles of baijiu in the corner. Our security guard would not do well in Salt Lake City.

You can always tell what kind of a night it is based on sip to gulp ratio. This is something I learned in college. This Wednesday evening, as it were, was a gulp night. A cavalcade of cheersing ensued. After a few minutes, I was two glasses deep and starting to feel warm. On my left was Mr. Zhao, a new teacher at our school. Mr. Zhao spent the last six years at a 1-4 school in an isolated area thirty minutes off the main road. He was one of two teachers at that school. As an aside, this is only plausible because the village where he taught, Dongpo, sends its kids to school every two years. So, if there is a new 1st grade class in 2014, there will not be another one until 2016. For obvious reasons, Mr. Zhao was forced to teach English. Consequently, Mr. Zhao has a fluent command of the 3rd and 4th grade People’s Education Press curriculum.

“It’s cold.” He says.

“Yes.” I say.

“I’m old.” He says.

“Nah. Mr. Zhao. If you told me you were a day over 30 I simply wouldn’t believe it .” I say in Chinese.

“I am forty.” He says and then proceeds to state the age of each person in the room in rapid sequence. “He is fifty-two. He is fifty-nine. He is forty-three. You are twenty-four,” etc.

“That’s true, Mr. Zhao. Not bad.”

Mr. Zhao smiles.

After the collective BAC climbs to “ambitious,” the local shop owner (not drinking) suggests that we get some food. It’s 10 pm now. Food is twenty minutes and a lot more baijiu and cigarettes away. Another existential crossroads emerges. I have things to do, matters of consequence to attend to, goddamnit. I’m still at the level of inebriation that allows for—potentially enhances—work.

I go with them, naturally.

Mr. Zhao, who is long past the aforementioned level begins banging wildly on the doors of other, likely asleep, teachers. After minutes of persistence he manages to roust Mr. Duan—a tall, thin, quiet man—from slumber. The crowd lets out a raucous roar as Mr. Duan emerges grouchily from his room. They (we) begin chanting “Lit-tle Duan, Lit-tle Duan,” as we move toward the shop owner’s Ford.

url

We pile into the car: Two in the passenger’s seat, four in the back. Seven total. Mr. Yang is on my knee, shouting orders at the driver. Mr. Duan is crammed in the corner, imbued with feelings opposite warmth, love, and affection. We arrive in town—Songgui—after twenty swervy minutes. The driver pounds the breaks and Mr. Yang hurls forward, letting out a roar of approval. We dodder into a shaokao (barbecue) spot. The place is flush with middle-aged males—the fast crowd in this pocket of the human universe.

After the obligatory volley of introductory head nods and “Ehs, ohs, and ughs” we sit down at our own table and the waiter produces two fresh bottles of baijiu and sparks the grill. The security guard takes initiative and fills everyone’s glass. Mr. Duan’s feeble attempts at refusal are met with collective guttural chortles of shaming disapproval.

The waiter brings out the food—not a vegetable in the house—at least not until Mr. Zhao powers through three or four more tall glasses of firewater. The shop owner tosses some livers and ligament-y looking things on the griddle. The fire roars and the smoke swats me in the face and we sit back and cheers. Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhao drain their glasses with frightening impunity. They are small dudes and notorious lightweights. Cigarettes are passed out and smoked livers and ligaments are crisp. Mr. Zhao and Mr. Yang are screaming at each other in nearly unintelligible dialect. I think I can make out small bits.

“I clean the damn bathroom. Clean it with my own hands, Zhao.” Mr. Yang says.

Mr. Yang gestures from a hand with a cigarette and a re-filled glass of baijiu in it. The drank sloshes and falls onto the grill. I get a fresh sheet of meat and cigarette smoke in my eyes.

imgres-3

OK. I’m sorry,” Mr. Zhao is speaking English again.

“Listen here, Zhao. I clean the damn bathroom. It’s my job.” He is so sure of it.

OK. I’m sorry. Meester Yang.” I suppose Mr. Zhao had disparaged the bathroom.

The waiter brings out some large, beanish looking things. The shop owner strategically places them on the grill, one by one. Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhao are shouting. The security guard appears to be asleep. Mr. Duan is pondering into his glass.

“What’s that?” I ask through the smoke.

“Oh, you know.” The shop owner says, smiling like a 10-year-old boy.

It is eggs! Pig eggs!” Mr. Zhao points emphatically, returning to the fray. Egg is the Chinese slang for that particular anatomical feature, as it were.

imgres

The shop owner paints the testicles with oil (lol) and they flare up. I receive a thick cloud of testicle smoke to the eyes. I wonder what happens when a pig is tumescent, if you will, before meeting its fate. First of all, awful way to go. Second, well you know, what’s the flavor profile there?

IMG_0491

Eggs!” They all shout in English. Mr. Duan, an actual English teacher, drily repeats the word. We eat the eggs. They’re not bad. We finish one and a half bottles. I hide the remainder behind my stool. I fend off Mr. Yang when he discovers it. He relents. We drive back with a Styrofoam box full of testicles. Messrs Yang and Zhao, and the security guard rest peacefully on the seat.

When we arrive it’s just past 1 AM. Mr. Zhao has morning study hall in 6 hours. We approach the on-duty room, where a teacher, Yang Yan Han, is sleeping. They begin pounding on his door. I quickly make my escape. They pound and chant, “Give Yang Yan Han the testicles! Give Yang Yan Han the testicles!” I find out the next morning that they gave him the testicles. I return to my cold bed.

When I walked to the security guard’s room, and then when I piled into a car, and again when I was getting faced with fumo de cojones, I kept having this thought. I was thinking about the interplay between things we have to do, should do, want to do, need to do. The way you live your life boils down to what types of things you slot into each of those categories. I was thinking I should go “get shit done,” I should “do some work,” whatever that means. Everyone always wants to “get shit done.” Then I was thinking, I have to go down the hill and drink baijiu and smoke cigarettes with these guys. I have to. What could possibly be more important? Now, I recognize that that sounds like some sort of Nihilist excuse for debauchery. It very well could be. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe once in a while we should reprioritize our priorities.

(comm)Ode

imgres

“只要去探索,美无所不在”

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

-Confucius

The earth shook for months. Everyday, every single day, they pounded and blasted. Dust drenched men and women took hammer to stone, trowel to loam, and heart to progress. Their toil, routinely forged under oppressive sun, often endeavored through searing torrents, was a toil for the future. It was a toil for henceforth. It was a toil for progress. It was a toil for a toilet.

It’s over now. History is written. The scent of the past will soon be flushed from our collective consciousness. For that, at least, no one will complain. But I have lost a dear friend.

On the night of Sunday, December 7, 2014—a day before a day that might live in infamy—I walked to the bathroom. It was late. After 10:30. I heard two voices, one unmistakable. I walked in. The sole bulb tasked with illuminating all nocturnal lavatorial activity dangled and swayed, as always. Spider webs clutched at wooden beams, as always. Some place to live. Chinese schools teem with inspirational graffiti. In the cafeteria it says, “Food Safety is Golden.” On the basketball court it says, “Health Comes from Exercise.” On the peeling, faded wall above the communal urinal it says, “For a Little Gift Approach the Trough. For a Big Gift Approach the Hole.”

IMG_0485

As I prepared to follow the latter instruction, I noticed the sources of the voices. The unmistakable one was Mr. Yang, my ubiquitous principal. The other was a fifth grade student, Shane (Liu XingYang). Shane is a chubby, reserved kid with buckteeth and a crew cut. He’s the number one student in 5th grade. Shane apparently didn’t feel so good.

“Yes. I think so.” Shane managed.

“Of course it’s important! A person needs good habits. Habits are everything. An idiot even knows it.”

“Yes. That’s true.”

Mr. Yang turns to me. “Good evening, Mr. Luo! I was just talking about the importance of habits with this guy here… What’s the name guy?”

“Liu XingYang.”

“Yes, XingYang. He’s quite sick.”

“Good evening, Mr. Yang. Yeah, Liu XingYang. He’s the best student in my class.” I take the spot next to principal Yang.

“Wah! How about that? Then he knows about all of this. You know about all of this. Never mind it.”

“OK.” Shane squeaks.

“But, I bet you don’t know a damn thing about traffic safety.”

“I don’t know.”

“What are you up to Mr. Luo?” The principal asks me as Shane mentally checks off the shortlist of less desirable places on earth.

“Using the bathroom.”

“Ah, yes. An honest man. Ha!”

We chat for a few moments. I did what I did and departed. Walking away, I could still hear Mr. Yang’s virtuous seminar and Shane’s strained acknowledgements. Preachers have their pulpits. Professors have their lectern. Mr. Yang, too, has his oratory platform. Oh! The pure, raw humanity of it all!

When the sun rose on December 8th an era would close. The era of the new bathroom—under construction (and “nearly done”) for over half a year—would be (fl)ushered in. It is a crowning achievement of sorts—an architectural marvel. It is a flawlessly white building, replete with elegant artwork and sophisticated Chinese proverbs that I don’t really understand. It has stalls with wraparound walls that almost create an illusion of privacy. It has squeaky, easy to scrub tile floors. It smells bad (it’s a bathroom) but nothing like its predecessor. It has a mirror. It has a sink. It flushes. It is Principal Yang’s magnum opus, his urinalis maximus, his Big Gift to Sanzhuang. He is proud.

IMG_0478 IMG_0479

I feel weird though. I’ve had a rather ambivalent year-and-a-half relationship with the old guard. It’s all I know. A piece from August 30, 2013 may help put my then and now into perspective. Consider this an update. Back then, the thought of public Big Gifting was almost out of the question. Imagine going full-squat right next to your elementary school teachers. That’s a notion you’d have trouble warming up to, even next to your dearest of dear friends. Now, imagine you’re the teacher—and you’re foreign. I generally made use of the fact that students are in class 90% of the day. Sometimes though, we are slaves to nature. In a school with 150 male students, 15 male teachers, and one men’s room, privacy is a laughing matter. I learned to deal with it and even disentangle decades of bathroom usage schema embedded deep into my conscience.

I’m not going to write that approaching the hole in the presence of others is a profoundly delightful leisure pursuit. I was never psyched about the proposition. I never brought the People’s Daily and made a morning of it (as some teachers did). But, at the very least, it was an interesting process in destigmatization. Hygienic privacy is not a universal human right. In fact, I would venture to guess that half the world doesn’t have it and certainly a far greater number do not approach rigorous American standards.

I won’t miss that, though. But, this building with seemingly no redeeming qualities has been a fixture of my time here. The new swirled order will change things. Some indelible memories have been forged. There was the time Frank—my fourth grade student—fell in. This is not funny. It is incredibly hilarious. There was the time when Mr. Yang brought all of the boys in the school together to investigate the party responsible for a footprint on the white paint. There was the time Mr. Yang gave a school-wide lecture about “屁股位置” (positioning) after one too many missed approaches. There was the time Mr. Yang lectured Shane about traffic safety under a cold moon and a swaying light bulb. The new toilet will deprive me of this inexhaustible preposterousness. I used to make egregiously bad students clean the bathroom. The new toilet even undermines my authority.

IMG_0486IMG_0482Old & New

It’s quite a contrast—the shiny white new and the drab flaky old. There’s still a long way to go. After all, this new toilet isn’t exactly a model of seclusion. It’s not the best on the market. It’s progress though, I can’t deny. It’s interesting, the excuses we make for tradition. It feels strange to espouse the virtues of something that a group of outside observers would unanimously regard as “not so good” or “ungodly” or “I cannot breathe in here” A day will come when some other conflicted and confused blogger living in rural Yunnan writes this same piece about the new toilet that, by then, will seem so unseemly. “The memories!” But, you know, I have to tell myself, “Taylor, you can’t live in the past. You must squat forward with the people. You must receive the future as inevitable. You, too, must change.” That is what I tell myself. That is how one copes.

In China there is the phenomenon of the “钉子户”(Ding Zi Hu). You know it. It translates roughly into “saboteur householder.” These are the people who won’t leave their homes in the face of developers. They place themselves between hulking construction apparatuses and their house. The Ding Zi Hu almost always loses. But, they fight an honest fight. They stand up—quite literally—for their past. I wonder, has a Ding Zi Hu ever squatted for his past.

I wonder… Has there ever been a Ding Zi Hu for a toilet?

IMG_0483