Day 74: Perspectives on Food, Plastic, and the Floor

04 Nov

Nihao da jia (Hello everybody) and shi yi yue kuai le (Happy November)!
你好 大家 和十一月快乐!

We had an uneventful but relaxing weekend and a normal day of teaching today. We’ve done the laundry, finished another round of books, and eaten all of our Halloween candy. Since there’s nothing new to share, today’s post is about my life in China outside of the routine:

For me, there is no such thing as following a diet here. In my daily life in the US I try to eat healthy and be as generally healthy as is within my means but here, especially living in Baoding, I’ve had to let that go. I can’t worry about what ingredients are in my food, where they come from, how they were grown, and how they are kept. Most people here do not have refrigerators in their apartments/houses so food is bought fresh and used immediately. Leftovers are thrown out if they cannot be kept. I assume most of the food I eat is made with fresh ingredients, but that does not mean they are healthy.
People have a disgusting habit of burning plastic (more of this in a minute) on the same land that they farm on, so I’m sure that a lot of the food bought fresh here, though not grown with fertilizers and pesticides, is probably grown in soil poisoned by pollution and leeched chemicals. As disgusting as this sounds, I actively choose not to think about it. I am only here for a year and though I certainly do not like this situation, I am going to continue having a unique and authentic Chinese experience by eating the street food and restaurant food. I have to remember that millions of people live their entire lives in Baoding, China (and other parts of China) and eat all of this food every day of their lives and are fine. One year of this is not going to kill me or probably irreparably harm me.

Before I came to China I heard a lot of people say to avoid the street food because it is disgusting and will invariably make you sick. This cannot be less true. The street food I have eaten has always been delicious and I have never gotten sick. Though the conditions it is in would not exist in the US (my point about the floor in a bit), the food itself has been very carefully prepared. Almost all vendors wear masks on their face and though they do not wear gloves, they do not touch food with their bear hands. Small plastic bags are turned inside out, used as gloves to pick up the food, and then carefully wrapped around your food and handed to you.
Part of this, other than hygiene, is because Chinese people do not use their hands to eat their food. Unlike in the US (and in other parts of the world) where our hands are our utensils sometimes (hamburgers, pizza, chicken strips, etc.), Chinese food is always eaten with chopsticks. Even Beijing duck, which is roasted and sliced duck wrapped in a mini tortilla, is wrapped and eaten, in its little burrito package, with chopsticks. Eating with your hands, especially at a restaurant, is seen as rude and dirty.

Plus, I like watching my food being prepared. If I’m getting a jamping guozi (a burrito sandwich thing filled with egg and sausage), I watch the vendors pull the meat and eggs out of a cooler and the handmade bread out of the insulated cooler keeping the bread warm, put it on the grill, and prepare the entire thing right before my eyes. There is never any concern about how my food was prepared because I have just watched the entire process. There is no worry here, like there could be in America, that you pissed of the waiter and then he spat in your food to get back at you. So not only is the food prepared in a very clean way, but it is also handmade from scratch. No microwaving, no freezing, no additives or preservatives.

So if you ever come to China, please try the street food! It will change your life. And, keep in mind, these vendors couldn’t stay alive if their food stands weren’t successful or kept making people sick. There are a lot of potential customers in China, but there are also a lot of potential naysayers after a negative experience.

On another note, I am not a vegetarian and I would hate to be one, especially here. The only way I can see the difficulty of that circumstance being eased is if you were fluent in Chinese and were able to read and discuss ingredients and the process of making food. So much food here is made with meat and other animal products that actively avoiding meat severely limits the food you can eat and, in my opinion, the Chinese experience. Food is a big deal here. People cook together, eat together, and discuss business and daily life over meals and having to limit that based on a self-imposed dietary restriction would not only be stressful and very difficult, but it seems to me to not take advantage of the uniqueness of living in China.

We’ve been told that the smog gets really bad in the wintertime in Baoding and have been mentally preparing ourselves for the worst. Recently, however, we were given an explanation as to why it gets so much worse in the winter. It turns out most people in Baoding do not have heat and so in order to get warm they rely on burning their trash. This (in the most infuriating and disgusting way possible for us) includes plastic and other things that just should not be burned. Plastic, for one, is a nonrenewable resource that is literally poisonous. Add on top of this, the fact that the people we see that live around the school are also farmers, and you realize they are burning plastic and trash in the same place they will later be growing crops. This effort to keep warm and to get rid of trash at the same time fills the air with the thickest, rankest smelling smoke that amplifies the smog and at times actually makes me wish I wasn’t breathing (not in a dying kind of way, just in the I would do almost anything to stop breathing this cancerous air kind of way). So on particularly cold and windless days, we live in a world of brown, smelly haze that cannot be escaped. Face masks will be ordered ASAP. (But unlike the people we only see wearing masks on sunny days and never on smoggy days, we will wear ours on the gross days.)

This seems like a strange topic, but you don’t realize how important the way you think of the floor is until you live in a place with a different view of the floor. Here, the floor is synonymous with the trashcan. As people cook, they throw their scraps on the floor. As people eat, they throw their used napkins, cigarette butts, dish wrappings, anything really, on the floor. People throw trash on the ground without any concern for the environment. (No, litter does not magically clean itself up, in case you were wondering.) People hock loogies on the sidewalk as they go down the street and little kids will use the bathroom on the side of the road (with the help of their parents dependent on the child’s age).

When you view the floor or the ground as no better than a trash can, it’s understandable why no one would want to touch it. Would you sit in a trashcan? This means that people take great care never to actually touch the ground. They do not sit; they squat. Nothing other than trash and the bottom of your shoes is placed on the ground. I even had one woman come up to me and let me know that the belt on my jacket was touching the ground and I had better pick it up.

As a result, I have a new appreciation for the relative cleanliness of floors in the US and I am excited to sit on the ground again, once I’m back.

I came here to have as authentic a Chinese experience as I can and to learn from it – good and bad, easy and challenging. I did not come here to be an American living in China (more than I already and necessarily am). So that means that I am going to try to eat the food like the people around me, do things like the people I see, and try to communicate with people in their language rather than demanding that they speak English with me (regardless of whether or not they can because of schooling).

It is difficult at times because it is so much easier to write about and describe negative things that happen than it is to describe positive things. I find myself habitually describing the things I dislike or that frustrated me while taking for granted the wonderful things that happened that made me smile and happy to be here.
So here are some of the things about China life that make me smile:

-The group of old men that meet up in a field outside of the school gate to play games and watch TV on a portable entertainment center they drag around town
-The donkeys we pass on the road everyday
-The huge numbers of well-trained German Shepherds we see everywhere
-Every time I get excited when I can communicate without any problem in Mandarin. For example, I asked a student the other day if they had a pen and they did and handed me one. We communicated with a purpose and without any confusion.
-Hearing old-school Britney Spears’ songs playing in a restaurant. Most recent example: “Hit Me Baby One More Time”
-All the old men that hang out in the park together flying kites just like men go out fishing with their buddies in the US
-Every single adorable Chinese child that says “HALLO ALEESA!”
-The way all my girl students try to play with my hair at once before class, making me feel like Medusa
-The crazy old woman that comes into QLH Monday nights and talks to herself for several hours while drinking her hot water. I have no idea what she is saying because she is speaking in Chinese and she frequently just starts laughing, but Samantha says she talks about everything and has full on conversations with invisible people. I enjoy seeing how happy she seems to be even though she doesn’t seem to be completely present.
-How accustomed we now are to being elbow to side-view mirror on the road with cars and buses while on our bike
-How comfortable people are singing in public
-The friends we have made with street vendors and at restaurants simply by being the friendly frequenting American couple. When we walk up or in the door, they seem genuinely happy to see us and we all enjoy it when they ask us if we want our usual today or something a little bit different.
-How frequently we feel like we are part of a community
-The hair dos and the clothing choices are…interesting
-Almost on a daily basis (for Duncan it’s sometimes a class-by-class basis), we are given food from our students. Just today I was given a cookie (that disconcertingly made my mouth go numb when I took a bite), a (really delicious) orange, and a piece of candy (that was sticky and looked suspiciously like medicine). Duncan was given a giant apple last week and I was offered half a grapefruit along with sprinkles.
-Thinking daily that we made the right decision for us to live here and how grateful I am for all of it.

Of course some things frustrate me and baffle me on a daily basis but other things are amazing and wonderful. All of it, good and bad, I am thankful for because it is teaching me about a life completely different from any I ever could have imagined and I think I am learning important life lessons about respect, understanding, tolerance, and perspective.

(Have a good week and thank you for reading!)


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Posted by on November 4, 2013 in Baoding, Uncategorized


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