animals, less food-related, out and about, temples, travel

So a foreigner walks into a bar…

06.11.09 | 2 Comments

I’ve been through many breakfast phases in my life. There were the frosted strawberry Poptarts, the toaster oven frozen hash browns, the Honey Bunches of Oats, the Honey Nut Cheerios, the hard boiled eggs and toast, the huge bowl of pineapple, the Good Friends, cold pepperoni pizza. These were all separate phases, of course. I know—I wouldn’t put it past me to have all of this for breakfast every day either, but I’m no Michael Phelps.

Unless I’m at a buffet. Because when your breakfast looks like this this:

you know the coming day will bring only good things. Such as a second plate of food.

The idea for the Coup d’Buffet was birthed the night before, when Erik and I, supersaturated with gnocchi, curry, and a quarter of a pie’s worth each of butter and carbs, began recounting all the things we love for breakfast. What—doesn’t everybody do that after dessert?

Breakfast nostalgia set in. My stomach promised to digest faster if I would just please have a real breakfast. Though one could argue my stomach had diverted blood flow from my brain, I managed to recall that my parents had raved about the buffet breakfast at the Huzhou International Hotel, where they stayed when they came to visit.

And the next morning at about 8:15, I was looking at that plate of food. All I needed was a Sunday New York Times crossword and my life would have been complete until dinnertime.

After the buffet takedown, Erik and I waddled belly-first to catch the bus to Nanxun, a small town about an hour away from Huzhou. I ventured there one frigid Sunday in December to visit Meifang, who has since moved to Changsha in the Hunan province. Almost exactly six months later, Erik and I picked the most scorching day of the year (so far) to visit Nanxun.

Walking down the street at ten AM was like moving through a sauna and breathing through a pair of moldy damp jeans. Occasional respite came from seconds-long breezes (thank god for skirts) and a guy on a street corner handing out hospital advertisements printed on fans. Genius marketing strategy. Plus, that way if I suffer from any heat-related ailments, I know exactly where to go!



We ended up at the factory Meifang and I had seen.

The baijiu was WAY stronger than I remembered. My throat was still raw a good half an hour later, and I didn’t even finish my thimble-full.

The houses lining the streets all have their doors open, because no one has air conditioning and the occasional hot breeze is far better than the stuffy oppression of still air. Erik saw a woman cooking in her kitchen and took advantage of this open door policy to walk in and examine the contents of her wok.

If that happened in America, the woman probably would have screamed bloody murder, called the police, and/or have threatened Erik with a kitchen knife/bottom of the wok. Instead, she just smiled and looked surprised and confused. It was the look I imagine a bartender would have if a priest, a minister, and a rabbi walked into a bar.

As we strolled along the house-lined river, Erik proceeded to make conversation with everyone he encountered. He peppers the few Chinese phrases he knows with laughs, smiles, and many hand gestures. I swear this man was a mime/clown in another life.

Talking shop with the fisherman.

I don’t think the fisherman was too amused. He moved to the other side of the river.

Erik popped into another woman’s kitchen, and the woman asked us if we had seen the bird’s nest yet. She pointed to said bird’s nest on the roof of the overhang. So Erik did the logical thing:

He started cheeping and whistling at the birds. This man is like Dr. Doolittle meets Snow White. Case in point: mere minutes before this avian encounter, we came across a cat in a bush.

Well everyone knows what you do when you see a cat sunning itself: you break the ice with a polite meow, carefully avoiding sensitive topics like politics, religion, age, weight, or canines. When relevant feline responds by going supine, purr.

And then give it your finger. [And then hope just a little bit that the cat will eat the finger so that you can break into a rousing rendition of “the cat that ate the kid my father bought for two zuzim. Chad gadya chad gadya.”]

[I’m sorry, I really needed to get that out of my system. For some reason, China brings out my Jewish humor.] But back to the cat!

I have never been so close to being a cat person in my whole life. The cuteness was unbearable.

With every dog that we encountered on the road, Erik barked. He clucked at the chickens. I am convinced that he does in fact speak animal, because he got every single creature riled up and responsive.

The houses along the river are quite picturesque and, I think, mirror some of the preconceived notions people have “China.” I think it would be very easy to idealize the lives of the people who live here lead—it’s beautiful, peaceful, and historic. But this is not a prosperous place; the people in these houses depend heavily on the river, but a cursory look at the river is all you need to see how dirty it is. People treat it like their garbage can. Exhibit A:

They also treat it as their washing machine. Exhibit B:

They wash their dishes as well as their clothes in the river; though I would say it’s more ‘dirt swapping’ than ‘dirt removing.’ I saw someone washing chopsticks in the river feet away from floating eggshells and assorted scum. This lifestyle seems to place a lot of faith in the human immune system. And yet, they’re all alive.

Since it was so hot, Erik and I moved in spurts, walking for about twenty minutes, then sitting and resting for anywhere from half to twice as long. We weren’t the only ones who had difficulty moving in the heat.

I have told Erik a few times about China’s hugely distorted population ratio, in which males outnumber females roughly 120 to 100. He doesn’t believe me, however, because at most places of business, at least in Huzhou (and in the university here), a huge majority of workers are women. He keeps asking me, If there are so many men, where the hell ARE they?

Answer: napping with their two-wheeled vehicles. Don’t these men WORK?

I’ve seen this everywhere I’ve gone—men squatting with their friends playing cards or pulling up next to their automobiles for a perpetual siesta.

Since we were still fairly sated from breakfast, not to mention put off by the idea of ingesting anything remotely warm, we had ice cream for lunch. Can you think of a better lunch? Because I’ve tried, and I say, no.

I taught my students the word ‘punk.’ I wish I’d had this visual.

Erik and I ended up in at the Daoist temple. I can never resist a good, incense-laced temple.

Nor can I get enough of the drippy wax.

This picture is grossly overexposed, but I think it accurately reflects the searing feeling of the day. By this time, just the act of being provoked copious perspiration production.

I explained to Erik the premise behind the dangling red blocks and tassels, which people buy, make a wish, pray over, and then hang around the temple in the theory that their wishes/prayers will come true.

We mulled over our wish blocks for a few minutes, trying to think of all the things we hope for in our lives: love, family, money, health, travel, happiness, and so on.

And then Erik suggested that we agree on a place in which to meet in three years. I’ve always wanted to make one of those pacts, but this was the first time I’ve ever done so. He suggested Egypt and I suggested Greece. We agreed on Greece.

So mark your calendars for Plate of Wander’s June 2012 Greek Binge. Yasu!

It’s a little mind-bending to see our new, bright red wishes hanging among the worn, battered ones, and rather comforting to think that ours will grow old with time and weather and be there, presumably, for a long, long time.

After that we slogged through the humidity to some old residence (we missed the name).

Classic examples of the energy-saving light bulbs of ancient China.

Erik took to basking.

We’ve seen that pose before.

All we needed was some tango music.

But when Erik did this:

I insisted he take my umbrella and jump back on the post and get his Singin in the Rain on.

And he obliged my slightly strange request!

But then he made me do the same. An eye for an eye, I suppose. And I will forgo my shame and severe mutation of the photogenic gene (Kelly!) and let you see the pictures Erik took.

And did I sing as I posed?

Oh yes. Yes I did. To Erik’s ears: I’m sorry.

Some things never change.

This proves it: days which start at buffets are destined to amaze.

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