Aliza Wong is an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University. She lives in Lubbock, Texas, with her son and husband, but hails from Portland, Oregon.
My husband, son, and I spent 10 days in Beijing and Shanghai recently, walking, observing, exploring, breathing, tasting, watching. And I discovered that my little boy who is so shy in English is quite gregarious in Mandarin — repeating ni hao (how are you), xie xie (thank you), and zai jian (good bye) with much more zeal and enthusiasm than he ever has in West Texas.
I also learned that staring is not solely an act of aggression but can be an expression of curiosity, of friendship, of encounter. I found that there is stillness in traveling, that there is tranquility in constant movement, and that there is speed in calm. And I loved realizing all this with my son’s hand in mine, my husband beside me.
In a time when we are increasingly aware of the carbon footprint we leave behind, there is some discomfort in planning these trips abroad. And yet in a time when the world seems to be in chaos, from Darfur to Tibet, when the world seems to need to be rebuilt, from New Orleans to the coast of southeast Asia, I want my son to know the world is a little smaller, the people a little bit closer, and the issues a little bit bigger.
As we explored the old hutongs of Beijing and prowled the traditional markets, it was not so much the unfamiliar that struck us but the familiar: The smiles. The desire to provide for families. The curiosity. The sadness. The joy. The community.
We walked the millennia of the Forbidden City. We climbed the ancient steps of the Great Wall. We climbed the heights of the Summer Palace. We gazed upon the sacred harvests guaranteed by the Temple of Heaven. Thousands of years of history, captured in monuments, in architecture, in space.
My son, with the audio guide dangling from his ear, walked from one end of the park to the next, pointing at statues, urns, doorways, and arches. He attracted grins from Chinese people walking in the parks. “Big eyes,” they said to me in Mandarin, smiling kindly, gesturing at his big browns. “Beautiful boy,” they said to me in Mandarin, patting him gently on the head. We were not so far away then, as I stumbled in my fake Mandarin, twanged Cantonese for which I was reprimanded many times in my college Chinese classes.
We watched as the people exercised in the parks, elegant, slow, lengthy movements, stretching, pliable, malleable. They danced, they sustained, they pushed and pulled. They leapt. They flew. They squatted low. They played hacky-sack. They walked and snacked.
And how I wanted to snack, too. Little cakes, small biscuits, noodles, dumplings. Everywhere we turned, someone was eating, carrying their bits in plastic bags, a part of their accessories — bags, wallets, scarves, food. Families sitting down, divvying up pieces of fresh steamed bread. Mothers wrapping napkins around soy-sauce-poached chicken drumsticks for their hungry kids. Older people sucking on preserved plums, getting the saliva juicy in their mouths. Men carrying big glass cups of loose-leaf tea, taking big slurping gulps, warming their insides, softening the rice crackers in their cheeks. Children eating big skewers of candied strawberries, apples, crunching through the caramelized sugar to the tart sluice of fruit.
It didn’t matter what time of day it was, whether morning, mid-morning, noon, mid-afternoon, evening, night. Everywhere: food. Big bowls of steaming noodle soups. Sticks of skewered meat. Steaming hot buns filled with minced meat. Cakes. Cookies. Candies.
I had told my son before we left that we were only going to eat Chinese food in China. No McDonald’s. No KFC. No Pizza Hut. No American fast food despite its proliferation and its “boutique” status in China. And my son, my boy obliged. He ate dumplings in the morning, some filled with shrimp, others with pork, some with peanuts and spinach. He ate noodles, congee, rice. He tried hot pot, duck, ox tongue, kebabs of lamb, noodles cut by knives, by scissors, thrown from a distance into a pot. And as he ate, as we ate, we began to understand how close we are. And yet how far apart.
As we ate, meals upon multiple meals, in between meals, after meals, during meals, we came to realize that as familiar as this love of food, of cuisine, was, we were truly experiencing a different approach to food. I finally understood what I had internalized as a little girl growing up near Chinatown.
As a Chinese-American girl growing up with my Chinese immigrant parents, I would accompany my family to visit the kitchens of restaurants, the homes of friends, the loud din of parties broken by the clicking-clacking of the mahjong tables. And everywhere we went, no matter where we went, our friends greeted us not with the traditional “How are you?” They shouted out, as they sat on their crates shelling peas, as we walked into their living rooms, as they lifted their heads from the cool, glass tiles of their game, “Have you eaten yet?” Literally, “Have you eaten rice yet?”
And I finally understood, hand in hand with my son, my husband pointing at the curios offered by the hundreds of food stands, that that is really what it is all about. Food is community. It brings us together.
And now I ask you, as my future stories will take you on my food journey in Beijing and Shanghai, “Have you eaten yet?” And I will try to feed you so we can be together.
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