Noodles LLC

I’m sitting on a rickety plastic stool. I’ve fallen off this stool seventeen times in the last year. I’m shit at sitting in stools. I’ll leave China without ever mastering the skill. I do my best. Life is hard. A tower of fried rice noodles lands in front of me. I lean forward, shifting the impossibly fragile ass–to-stool balance, and lovingly serenade the noodles with vinegar. It begins—my weekly reunion with the divine noodles, the only food in the world that I would ever repeatedly risk breaking my ass and the subsequent public embarrassment for. I’ve told their story here: https://tloebchina.wordpress.com/2014/12/28/stuck-in-ambrosia/ 302659

The chef, a tireless middle-aged woman with that Indira Ghandi-esque shock of white hair, sits down at a table next to me. She pulls a baleful of chives out of a bag and sets them on a cutting stone. She leisurely begins to chop.

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“How much longer you got here, Mr. Luo?”

“Three months, more or less. How about you, boss?”

She laughs, as though the thought of leaving her corner stall is the funniest joke she’d ever heard. “Probably longer than that.” She says. “I swear to you boss, I’m going to miss your noodles more than anything else. Far, far more than any living thing.”

“They don’t have Er Si (Are-Suhh—these particular noodles) in the USA?” We’ve had this conversation seventeen times in the last year.

“Boss, they don’t even have Er Si in most parts of China. I’ll tell you what. If they did… If we opened up this place in the middle of New York City, we could get $15 for a plate like this. I’m serious.”

“How much is that in Renminbi?” She asks, never drawing attention from the task of chopping chives.

“A hundred, more or less.” She laughs, because 100 Renminbi for a plate of her simple noodles is too much too handle—like when a you tell a kid to guess your age and he says 1,000 years old and thinks he’s blown your comedic mind.

“A hundred for these!” She holds up a fistful of uncooked Er Si—uncooked, it resembles shredded paper. “That’s… that’s stupid.”

“I’m telling you. No one has even seen Er Si before. You… we open up a little shop and do exactly what you do now. Fried Er Si and Er Si soup. We don’t even have to charge $15—a hundred. We could charge like $10—sixty RMB. I’m telling you, just the fact that people in New York have never heard of it will mean they’ll buy it. Er Si, LLC. Er Si Limited.” She tossed some cut chives into a ceramic bowl.

“How much would the stall be?”

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“I don’t know. Maybe $15,000 a month. So, 100,000 RMB” She roars with laughter, waving the imposing cleaver back and forth. “100,000 for a place like this. For a month! My god.”

“No, smaller than this. No seating, either.” No stools.

“Wow. Pshh. Where would we even get the money? You’re rich, right? You have the money?”

“No, I don’t even have enough for one week. We’d go to the bank.”

“Ha!” She motions across the street, where the Yunnan Rural Credit Union and their floppy disks and nice, but incredibly robbable security guard are located. “The bank doesn’t even have that much money.”

“Yeah, well boss, we wouldn’t get the money from that bank.”

No, we wouldn’t. We’d get it from a much less robbable, less nice bank.

“And then we’d open more Er Si stalls. And we’d have them all over the country. You wouldn’t even need to cook anymore.” She scooped up the last bit of chives with the blade of the knife and shook them into the bowl.

“I don’t know, Mr. Luo. You sound like you’re a little bit crazy. Er Si Limited, it’s too much. Why would I want to have a restaurant and not cook?”

“You’d be rich!”

She laughs, dismissingly. I finish off the last of my vinegar-soaked delicacy—the boss’s crispy hypothetical golden ticket to prosperity. I lovingly rub my belly. And, as one does at the close of any satisfying meal, stare longingly at the thick, lonely, barren oil on my plate and recline. A mistake. I slide off the stool and land ass-first on the dusty concrete.

“Fuckin’ stool.” I gripe in my native language. “Boss, you gotta get some new seats. It’s dangerous out here.” I advise from my position on the ground. 302659-1

“Mr. Luo, if I got new seats, we’d never get to see you fall off.” She cackles.

I think she has a point, a point at my expense, albeit still a point.

All that stuff I said above, I was only really barely joking. Obviously, the boss isn’t going anywhere. She’s got kid(s) (shhhh), can’t speak a word of English, and, more importantly, seems pretty damn happy. But, if I could somehow weasel her recipe and synthesize it for the American palate with stuff like Maltodextrin and Yellow 6 Lake, success is a given. Fast, cheap, and exotic noodles from a part of Asia that’s pretty close to Tibet, has trend dripping all over its oily curls. There isn’t even an English Wikipedia page for Er Si. In fact, the only page, the Chinese page, is five sentences long—with 20% of those sentences explaining that drinking cold water after eating Er Si can cause diarrhea (not necessarily true—sometimes hot water is enough). No one knows about this stuff, and it should be the most popular noodle in the world.

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But, the boss is right about the stools. It wouldn’t be the same without them. It certainly wouldn’t be the same without the cigarette bong offered as a courtesy to guests. Or the dust. It definitely wouldn’t be the same with health-code regulations. The ingredients, that the boss or her friends probably picked—those couldn’t change. Shit, everything good about this is un-replicatable. What’s more, the thought of having an Er Si LLC on every corner, the thought of Er Si having a Wikipedia page, the thought of writing a blog about Er Si—it seems like a betrayal.

You can’t recreate anything. Especially not this.

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The Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament

“You’re insane. Completely oblivious to rules and regulations. Unreasonable!!”

“You’re breaking the rules.”

“Insane! You’re breaking the rules! You called me for five three-in-the-keys (three-second violations) in one half! And that was just me.”

“You went into the key.”

“I know I went into the key! You can’t call a three-in-the-key because I go into the key. I’ve got to be in there for three seconds. And, to be honest with you, no one calls three-in-the-key unless the guy is in there for at least four seconds!”

“It’s dangerous to spend so much time in the key.”

“That’s where the basket is!”

“Very dangerous, indeed.”

It’s halftime of Sanzhuang Elementary’s first game of the Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament. We’re playing against Songgui Elementary School tonight. I sit on a concrete ping-pong table, sipping a boiling paper cupful of tea, the official hydration method of the Songgui District Male Teacher Tea Drinking Basketball Exchange Tournament. Of course, boiling tea does little to quench thirst and replenish electrolytes, but does function effectively as a laxative agent—a fact that unsurprisingly slows gameplay as the second half begins.

I’m complaining to the ref, Mr. Li, who’s also the superintendent of Songgui Schools, the man in charge of my salary, and a not-so-infrequent drinking buddy. He’s taking desperate drags of a cigarette—a combination of referee-induced stress and heightened physical activity. He is not the only one. In fact, the other referee, Mr. Shi is smoking and has two cigarettes lodged behind as many ears in preparation for the second half. Besides the refs, almost all of the “teacher-athletes” are relishing their halftime smoke break, too.

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Mr. Li with a cigarette in his ear, preparing to call a three-second violation.

Mr. Li has gone rogue. He’s called an unprecedented 8 three-second violations in the first twenty minutes of the game—a number so preposterous, that were he a professional, would have gotten him suspended and fined large sums of money. But, Mr. Li is a man of power and means, and today he has chosen to wield his power in the form of baseless, reckless, and incessant three-second violations. He is feeling antsy right now, because the halftime break has made it impossible to call frivolous three-second violations. I can tell he is considering calling one, even though both teams are on the sidelines and the game is currently not being played.

“OK, I’ll lay off,” He says to my surprise. “But as you know, safety is our priority.”

“In that case, maybe you should consider calling a foul, Mr. Li.”

To his credit, Mr. Li only whistles two three-second calls in the entire second half. Sanzhuang wins 70-50.

This year marks my second annual Songgui District Male Teacher Chain-Smoking and Basketball Exchange Tournament. A more suitable name for our little tournament might be Songgui District Middle-Aged Men in Capris Beating Each Other Indiscriminately in Pursuit of Orange Ball Invitational.    

For two weeks in April, five or six teams of teachers, administrators, security guards, kitchen staff, and dubiously employed and suspiciously tall “staff members,” rise up from the valleys and peaks of the greater Songgui District to get together for a thing they call basketball. Schools are spread far apart in this corner of the world. Teachers drive miles and miles to show up for the contests, which take place on beautifully warm Tuesday through Friday nights at six o’clock. Hundreds of students, townspeople, and teachers come out. They cheer without reprieve as the chaos unfolds.

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Rebounds & Capris

I, for my part, am a phenomenon—a Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament anomaly. I am six-feet tall, relatively large, and have played basketball before. As a result of these three middling characteristics—that have come to define me for most people in the region—I am a basketball Jesus. On more than one occasion, I have been asked seriously about my NBA career. I can only say that it is yet to begin. I decline to divulge, out of the Chinese cultural norm of humility, that I was once the seventh or eighth best player on a slightly above-average middle school team.

The tournament is a spectacle. There are announcers, multiple referees, water girls and boys, and scorekeepers, all of whom know just enough about basketball to recognize my NBA-level talent for what it is. Each team buys a full uniform (shirt, capris, and sneakers) out of the school budget for the five-game tournament.

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A typical example of defense at the The Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament

The gameplay is a spectacle. The typical possession begins with a wayward heave from one end of the court to the other that invariably results in either interception or ball-to-head contact. In the event that the ball is successfully moved up-court, there will be a mad rush at the dribbler, who will be defended as though he is a leg, and his pursuers, dogs in rabid heat. If he manages to evade the attack/homoerotic advance, he will more than likely frantically hurl the ball at the basket, where it will rocket off the backboard. Should someone on the offense be unlucky enough to snag a rebound, they will be physically violated by a mass of sweaty, pot-bellied brutes, many of which will likely be wearing the same jersey as he is. A foul will only be called if the play results in a crippling injury. If—if—the ball does make it through the hoop, the crowd of hundreds will roar crazily. And the wild rumpus will repeat.

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A pick is set during the The Songgui District Male Teacher Basketball Exchange Tournament

Timeouts are a spectacle. The competitors will congregate on the sidelines. Cigarettes will be dispersed and smoked while guttural sighs and heaves of discomfort echo from each end of the bench—even from those who have not yet entered the game. The self-appointed coach (Principal Yang in Sanzhuang’s case), will offer seemingly erroneous, but contextually sage advice like, “Shoot toward the hoop,” and “Pass to the ones on your team.” The players will groan and nod, before flicking out their cigarettes and gradually returning to the court. Principal Yang, should he enter the game, with almost surely disregard his own advice.

I should note that, despite my relative skill, I am still (a lifelong struggle) one of the slowest in the game. I am at an utter loss as to how chain-smoking, middle-aged, fupa-packing men can constantly beat me up and down the court. It’s sick.

When the game ends, everyone congregates in the teachers lounge and gets shitfaced and talks about how much fun they had beating on each other for the last hour and a half.

Obviously, there is little rhyme and little reason to the events that go down on the court. It’s a crazy—albeit pretty fun—free for all. It’s not often that these teachers get to see each other. Most of them are stuck at school all week long. Few even get to see their family more than once a week, let alone friends, old classmates, and ex-colleagues—relationships that most of the teachers that play in the tournament share. The students get a rare chance to step out of the classroom and scream and yell for (at?) their teachers. There is no pretense—there is little to be pretentious about. No one complains about not having the time or not being good enough or being afraid of certain embarrassment. It’s endlessly hilarious, crazy, cigarette-filled, a little boozy, confusing, so damn genuine, and chock full of peculiarly arbitrary, yet harmless, abuses of power. It’s the only way a basketball tournament at Sanzhuang could ever be.

I Don’t Know

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“Want something to drink?”

Ah. Here we go.

“I’m good.”

I roll to the left. I’m on a bus, about to pull away from the station. I’m headed five hours west, straight for the heart of 临沧 (Lincang) prefecture. Lincang means water-facing, an allusion to the 澜沧江 (Lancangjiang) river, also know as the Mekong—a beautiful waterway that might evoke eerie green and black images of bloody jungle war. Lincang is home to the 佤族 (Wazu), an ethnic group that the British and French—when colonizing the region around Burma and Vietnam—characterized as too “remote,” too “savage,” too “fierce” to attempt to administer—a designation essentially unheard of in the historical record of the two most ruthless and obstinate colonizers.

The area, and its corresponding region just across the Burmese border, would later become home to sweeping narco-armies that played one of the most pivotal roles in the worldwide opium trade. But, of course, very few people know this outside of the region itself. Certainly few people in China. Certainly fewer people in the West.

I won’t see any of it.

The guy sitting next to me offers me a can of Red Bull. He’s not offering me Red Bull, though. He’s offering me a conversation and I tell him “I’m good.” Not right now. Almost every bus/plane/train ride begins this way. Understandable. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner is infinitesimal. The likelihood of finding yourself next to a foreigner who can carry a conversation with you is pretty much zero percent. Perhaps there are 50 such people in the entire region. Should a rarity of such magnitude pop up in anyone’s daily routine, it would be difficult to resist conversational temptation. It’s important sometimes, as the object of endless small-talk, clandestine photo attempts, and countless barrages of “hello!’s” to remember and even embrace your inherent rarity—your uncommon opportunity to represent (or be perceived to represent) an entire country. Otherwise, you’ll go insane.

“Where are you from,” A few minutes later the guy has abandoned the Red Bull angle—probably because he’s now drinking it. He’s going straight for the conversation. This question, the most potent weapon in any small-talker’s arsenal, is never not the first one I’m asked. Sometimes I wish I had a different answer—Moldova or Andorra—or something. Something that would immediately quash the conversation for lack of questions. But, alas…

“The United States. Where are you from?”

“凤庆 (Fengqing county). I’m going home. I need to attend to some stuff at home. What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to meet some friends. I live in Dali. I teach English in a small town.”

“How old are you?” He asks.

“24.”

“Oh! Me too.”

He tells me a story that is ostensibly synonymous with nearly every other young person I meet. He is from a small town in Fengqing. He now lives near Shangri-La, the deceptively renamed tourist town that sits at the Yunnanese base of the Tibetan Plateau. He works “up the mountain,” crushing salt for a big company. He’s on a six-year contract that ends in 2017. I do not ask him why he is coming home, as it’s almost certainly not for leisure. But, he says the return trip is extremely rare. He usually can come home once a year during Spring Festival. The journey takes about two days and is expensive. And, besides, the month-long Spring Festival holiday is the only vacation he has all year, except for Sundays.

He shows me a smiling picture of his girlfriend. He says he wants to marry her, but thinks he needs a more stable job first.

He talks about his perceptions of my home country. It’s so big, so developed, so full of opportunities. I, as always, point out that this isn’t entirely true. There are many parts of China—say Shanghai—that are more developed and more full of opportunity than many or most parts of the United States. But, he points out that those parts of China have very little to do with him. They might as well be on another planet. And I, acknowledging that the same can be said for the places in the US that I’ve just referenced, agree.

Because I’ve told him I’m a teacher, we begin to talk about education.

“I envy your American system.”

“Why do you say that?”

“It’s much more relaxed and much more stimulating. I think it would have suited me well. School was very difficult, very tiring. I think I would have done well in America.”

“How did you do here?”

He laughs. “Average. I, you know, cheated a lot.”

“Sure. Me too,” I say.

“We would go to school at 7 and leave at night. You know how it is. Writing, cleaning, busy all day. No extra-curricular activities. No tutoring at home. These are important things.”

“How do you know about those things? You know, if you didn’t have that?”

“Well, I am 24 years old now. I will get married soon and have a child, of course. I think about my child. I want to learn about what I can do for my child.”

“That’s big stuff to be thinking about.”

“It’s really all I think about, you know.”

I don’t.

The bus twists through the green and black mountains. Twilight falls. We meander along the path of the Mekong’s upper reaches. Strikingly blue, turquoise even. Much different than the sepia-toned rivers cutting through Shanghai. We flow through mountain village after mountain village, clusters of mud brick homes dug deep into whatever passes for flat ground.

I rarely meet people my age. Mostly, the folks I come into contact with are decades my senior or pre-pubescent types. Why? For the reasons described in the conversation above. Young adults are simply not here. They are in the mountains, in the cities, already getting started on the next generation. I wish I did meet more of them. Not only because it would be nice to have more friends, but because it’s impossible to understand a place without seeing it through the eyes of people born when you were born. Older people are part of something else. They came up as players in a game almost entirely devoid of the “opportunity” or “choice” we like to think of. They speak a different language, they have an entirely different outlook on things, they will change little. Children are living in the now for the future. That future is hard to forecast, because it will almost surely be “brighter” than it would have been twenty years before. They are young, unformed, mostly unaware of the relative world they live in. In some ways they are like the grandparents that so often raise them. Both groups are abstract to me.

But, people my age are not so abstract. I can understand, that if I happened to be born in Fengqing County in 1990 the likelihood that I would be teaching in the capacity I do is, for all intents and purposes, zero percent. The likelihood that I would have already been crushing salt for four and a half years on a mountain above Shangri-La, entirely wiping out my four years of college, is much higher. The likelihood that I would be thinking critically about my next career move—where, how, how much, ­why?—is zero percent. The likelihood that at 24, I would be thinking instead of my as yet unborn child is much, much higher.

The word unfair did not once cross his lips. He has probably said it many fewer times in his 24-year-old life than I have in mine. And I think, though I often refuse these conversations, I should not. I will never have enough of them.