I don’t know how this happened, but somehow I have eaten snake two days in a row. You know. As one does.
Snake is something that I had been wanting to try for a while. They eat it in Vietnam, but the only places where I saw it on the menu were the sort of places where I didn’t even want to eat something that wasn’t poisonous.
When I say that I had been wanting to try snake, I, of course, mean that I wanted to have tried snake. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the actual act of eating it—but more to the time when I could lord it over my brothers. Who’s picky now, boys???
So when one of our students’ families invited Brad and me out for lunch at a fancy hotel, and then told us that our two entrée choices were snake or white pig stomach, it was an easy decision. (I think I would pick almost anything over white pig stomach. Or any stomach. But that’s just me…)
Our lunch was held in an unbelievably elegant room with crystal chandeliers and sweeping views of a bamboo forest. There was a giant, sparkly lazy Susan in the middle of the table onto which numerous waiters kept piling dishes. (They actually broke the sparkly lazy Susan when they brought out a tureen of fish head soup so heavy that it threw off the balance.)
This was Brad and my second experience being taken out for a feast in a private room at a fancy hotel. The first time we were hosted by another student’s family. Her father also invited several colleagues. Both times we were served more food than our group could possibly eat in a week. I tried to eat one bite of each dish, because finishing anything was inconceivable.
You will probably find this hard to fathom, but at neither meal—feast would be a more accurate term—was white rice served at all.
At the dinner, toasts were frequently made and it was clear that there were many rules about the order of toasts, who toasts, and how. One by one the various guests would stand up and circle the table to stand beside the person they were toasting (everyone was individually toasted, including me and Brad). The host family toasted, but did not have to travel around the table. And they frequently toasted as a group, with all three of them standing up together. At the lunch, we sipped wine but there were no toasts (which was a bit of a relief because I was sure I was doing it wrong! Apparently it’s more polite to hold your glass with both hands when you toast, and I’m sure there are a dozen little rules like that that I was unconsciously violating.)
At the dinner Brad and I felt a little left out because most of the conversation was in Mandarin. The woman seated beside me could speak English, but she had brought her toddler with her and so she spent most of her time chasing the baby. (She is Chinese and her husband is French. They speak English to each other and French to the baby, whose grandparents speak to her in Wuxinese, the local dialect. The baby is also surrounded by Mandarin speakers. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t really speak a recognizable language yet (she is two). But she did say one thing clearly; her father wasn’t present at the dinner, and when she saw Brad she raised her arms excitedly and said, repeatedly and insistently, “Papa!” Everyone laughed. I guess all white people look alike to those racist Chinese babies!)
At the lunch our student’s mother engaged us in conversation the whole time, explaining the significance behind the food and how to eat it. The snake—which did not even appear until halfway through the meal, making me eye every plate of sausage with suspicion—was a five-step snake—if it bites you, you will only get a maximum of five steps away before you die! She instructed us to pick it up in our hands and gnaw at the place where the skin meets the meat. I tasted it very tentatively—it tasted like a cross between chicken and fish. At first I confined my slow eating to the meat, but when it became clear that everyone else was also eating the skin, I knew I had to do it too. It was hard not to gag at the idea, but the skin actually ended up being my favorite part, because it was bland and had no bones.
Both of these lavish meals were accompanied by day trips. Our first student took us to Mei Yuan (Plum Park), a local park known for its beautiful plum trees.
It had been the private estate of an extremely wealthy family who made their money in textile manufacture (there is a little museum about them in the park), but then they donated the estate to the city. When we were there it was absolutely packed with people—to the point that it was impossible to take a photo in front of the pink blossoms without getting a few other people in the shot. But we gamely fought our way to the top of an observation tower and had our photos taken with the Wuxi skyline.
The same student brought us to see the Yangtze River, which was a huge thrill for me. When I was in fourth grade we had read a book about the daughter of missionaries in China, and I had written a very derivative story about it that my (Chinese-American) teacher loved and submitted to a national story contest. The Yangtze figured prominently in the story. And here I was, twenty years or so later, finally seeing it. I must call Mrs. Wu and tell her…
This weekend’s outing was to Yixing, a town on the other said of Lake Tai that is considered part of Wuxi. The hotel we dined at was adjacent to a famous bamboo forest. As we drove there in the driving rain our student’s parents told us disappointedly that we would not be able to climb the mountain the forest was on. But when we arrived, we decided that getting a little wet would be worth the experience. The hotel lent us huge umbrellas, and we climbed a winding road through the tallest bamboo I have ever seen.
Lisa (the English name of our student’s mother), explained that bamboo can grow 1.3 meters per day! These bamboo trees were about 13 years old. Soon they would have to be cut down (they die at about that age and if they die before you cut them down you can’t use them for anything. If you cut them down while they’re still alive you can make all sorts of tools, clothes, and furniture. And it is rapidly becoming one of my favorite things to eat in China. It’s very sweet and has the consistency of an apple.)
Lisa told us that bamboo won’t grow if there’s any pollution—a marked contrast to Wuxi, where the sky is usually gray and it is rare to be able to see any stars.
After lunch we went tea-picking nearby. They took us to a house on the closest thing to a suburban street I have seen in China (there are virtually no houses in Wuxi, just huge apartment complexes), which had about 10 feet by 20 feet of large bushes in front of it. A man came out of the house with two large red plastic baskets and showed us how to pick the sprouting leaves from the bushes. That was the tea.
Because the leaves were so small, it was very time-consuming to pick enough, even with the entire family helping, but eventually we had an amount the proprietor deemed sufficient. He brought us into his kitchen, and started a fire underneath his giant, built-in wok.
Lisa explained that usually he does this with a machine but the machine was broken so he had to do it the old-fashioned way. He poured the leaves into the wok and stirred them with his hands. Lisa said that you have to be very careful or you will burn your hands. Then he took the tea out, put it in a basket, put the basket on the floor, and began manipulating it.
Lisa said he was squeezing out the water. Then he put it back in the wok and stirred it some more. We began to smell something burning and Lisa said, “Oh, no—the fire is too hot.” Back the tea went into the basket. I think he cooked it one more time after that. Then he brought us into the dining room (think: unheated room with table) and put the tea into a number of glasses which he proceeded to fill with hot water.
He tasted it first and said immediately that the second glass is always better than the first. Lisa tasted it and said it was very good. I said the same (though to tell the truth I am not crazy about Chinese tea. It reminds me of mate, the South American tea. Which to me tastes like dirt. But hopefully I will soon develop a taste for it, since they gave me not only the tea we picked, but a lifetime supply of beautifully packaged tea, and a teapot! (Wuxi is famous for its teapots)).
Our first student gave us a gift, too—I think it must be compulsory to give gifts in situations like this. She gave us two little figures of two children from a famous folk story about Wuxi that I currently can’t remember the details of… When she presented the gifts to us I forget the instructions my friend with Taiwanese parents had given me: when someone tries to give you a gift (or even just a drink) in China, first you should say “no, that’s too much trouble for you,” “I couldn’t possibly,” etc. a few times before gratefully accepting. And you should accept the gift with both hands. So I was terribly rude and just said it was beautiful and so thoughtful of them and took it with one hand. Someday I will get the hang of this!
So now I should explain how I came to eat snake a second time. The five of us—Brad, Liam, John, Alexis and I—go out to dinner almost every night. I don’t even keep real food in the apartment anymore—I think it’s cheaper and tastier to go to a restaurant. (Even though I am sorely tempted to cook an elaborate meal with a pigeon from the market behind my apartment complex…)
Most of the restaurants we go to are very simple; small rooms with abut six tables. Often the rice cooker is right there in the main room. (Though we have discovered that it is not easy at all to get rice. I frequently have to ask for it three times before they bring it to us, even though each time I ask they indicate that they understand. Once I even resorted to saying, “mifan, xianzai!” (rice, now!) We joke that there is a city-wide conspiracy to keep us from eating rice. We think it’s because rice is usually eaten at the end of Chinese meals, to fill you up in case the meat and vegetables left you hungry. Being American, we would rather eat the rice with the meal than as dessert.
No matter how small the restaurant is, the cups, glasses, plates, bowls, spoons and chopsticks all come shrink-wrapped in plastic. At first this seemed terribly wasteful to me–and then I observed what the hygiene standards are like in China. So I’m glad they do this, though I’m still not quite sure how it works (I suspect they must all send their dirty dishes to a central place to be washed and shrink-wrapped–but how?)
Most of our meals cost between $2 and $5 per person, including rice and drinks (usually soda and/or beer). Bars and restaurants popular with expats easily cost twice that for a meal, and can be as much as $10 a drink!
My biggest frustration with Chinese restaurants has been the way the waiters hover over you after the give you the menu. And by the menu, I mean THE menu, since they only give you one per table. And since we have to look at all the pictures, guess what everything is, and get the consensus of five people, it’s not a quick process. I know the waiters are only doing their job but it drives me up the wall. Especially since every time I point at something to ask everyone if they want it, the waiter starts to write it down! One of the first things I made my tutor teach me was how to politely tell them to leave us alone. I used it last night and I only had to say it five or six times before they understood me. It was glorious. (If you get the tones wrong you say something completely different. I tried to say “eat dumplings” to my tutor and she said, “Did you just say ‘go to sleep?'”)
Credit cards are an option, oh, nowhere, here, so we pay for everything in cash. Which is how we are paid at school, too. On pay day you go to the office and they put a huge brick of cash through a counting machine in front of you to show you that it’s the right amount, and then hand it to you. I’ve only been paid once, so I’m using the money to live off of (which is a relief since I had a scary experience at an ATM where all the words changed to Chinese while my card was still in there, and I was afraid I’d never get it back). When I get paid again I’m going to open a bank account and deposit the money. That should be easy, right? Right…. Sigh!
In other exciting news, after a month I finally know how to say my address! Xiangxie Hua Yuan (Champs-Elysee Garden). So now I don’t have to show cab drivers a map or the slip of paper on which my colleague wrote my address in characters. It’s a small thing, but it makes a real difference to me.
That’s all the news from here. Zaijian!