Noodles

Winter mornings dawned cold, wet and white in the chalice bowl created by the convergence of the Wu and Yangtze Rivers, as the fog thick as a concrete sweater (and often the same colour) settled into the valley and the damp chill settled into your bones. Students would dress in layers and we’d do finger calisthenics to warm their swollen red hands before writing. Teachers were a bit luckier (at least foreign teachers were) because we had a bit of heat in our apartments. I had a small wall unit in my bedroom that served as both heater and AC, as well as an oscillating fan space heater that gave off a tremendous amount of heat in a small area and was, I’m certain, a fantastic fire hazard.

But I had a hard time getting warm that first winter.

Six months in to the Peace Corps experience, still battered by endless waves of culture shock, unprepared for the incoming ideological culture shock, terrifically lonely, having just had my teaching abilities challenged by the majority of my students plagiarizing their journalism finals, and discovering infidelity in my long-term relationship – it was a chilling place to be on every level.

***

Gansu was as far from Chongqing as any rural Midwestern town is from Anchorage, Alaska – not quite in physical distance, but in food, people, feel and liberation.

All of the PCVs were there for training, but I wasn’t feeling at my most social.

One day, on a trip to climb a mountain, Bei Xiang and I took a detour when everyone else stopped for lunch. We navigated cramped, brown back-streets where dust hung in the air with the smells of dried spices and both clung to our clothes. There was an open air market in an alleyway, with live animals in various states of animation beside their butchered and hung-for-sale counterparts, beautiful, bent-back grandmothers jockeying to grasp the hanks of meat with bare hands – lovely faces lined like maps of their lives and withered lips pursed in intensity as they began the bargaining process.

This was not the farmer’s market from home, nor even the brilliant green shock of vegetables ever available in the warmer climate of Chongqing, and we would not find lunch here.

Still, my fingers ached to be freed from the confines of gloves and pockets and dipped deep in a rough burlap sack of smooth green mung beans, to dance over a dozen different kinds of fungus. (I wish I’d known K then.)

And then it hit us.

Like the lilt of a snake charmer’s flute, a warm, soya, oniony broth arrested our senses, and both of us turned.

A man in a long white apron over a brown striped polo shirt and a wrapped white chef’s cap was stepping out of the ceiling-to-floor strips of thick overlaid plastic that are so commonly used to keep heat or cool in. With him had come the irresistible draft, and now we could see the source.

Another man in cooking attire stood inside, dusted liberally with flour and standing before what looked like a fantastically large cauldron. Under one arm he held, like a baby, a baby-sized block of what appeared to be dough – in the other, an oddly-shaped knife. In smooth, repetitive motions that seemed absolutely second nature, he ran the knife across the top of the block of dough and a long, thick, triangular wedge of noodle backflipped into the pot.

Transfixed, we moved inside and took a seat, watching as our portion was shaved off the top, boiled, and whisked away for a few moments while something magical happened to it involving soy sauce and scallions. Bending over the shared bowl with one of my dearest friends, I suddenly realised that comfort food could exist outside of one’s own culture. I would find many comfort foods in China, including Uighur lamb, hot pot (as unlikely as that may be), and pretty much everything my Chinese mother cooked, but it’s this moment of shared savour, biting into those intensely-flavoured, thick, chewy, spicy ribbons of warmth that I remember thinking I could continue on this journey.

It was reluctantly and with runny noses (spicy!) that we wound our way back to the group, but there was nothing disappointing about that day. I had found new heart, and new appreciation for the whimsical and downright odd things we passed (amusement park equipment standing old and idle at the foot of a holy mountain). As we climbed, we found ourselves above the smog-level of the city, and though it was unnerving to see the layer of brown spread like peanut butter below us, the clear blue sky above was a revelation all of its own.

The sky wasn’t the only thing that was clear. We were able to drink from a crisp cold stream that had its genesis in the mountains. There was a hollow cavern with a narrow aperture in the roof, and on each solstice, the sun would shine directly through. And there was a deep but small pool for women to reach into, and what they first touched would determine the gender of their first child. I shed my protective layers and reached my entire arm in to the shoulder while Bei Xiang looked on. But what I felt remains known only to me.

Do you know what else I felt?

Hope.

Perhaps that’s why I loved those two weeks in Gansu so much, despite the pain that came with them. Or why the moment I returned to Fuling, I sought out the local noodle joints to see if I could get Dao Shou Mian (Knife Hand Noodles, as those are called). I could, by the way, just outside the front gate of my university, and I spent many hours reading the Harry Potter series and talking with students over a bowl of my favourite comfort food. Perhaps that’s why I’m trying to recreate them, even now, six years back in the States.

And why am I writing about noodles tonight?

I had a preferred brand of instant noodles in China as well. I ate them when I was very busy, or very sick – so, a lot. K and I spend a lot of time visiting Asian food stores, and I’ve tried to find those noodles. Not so much because they’re transcendent, but because they’re transportative. Unfortunately, all I could remember was that the package was red.

Never one to turn a new red package down, I picked up one while shopping for the ingredients for my Chinese mother’s famous dumpling-stuffed eggplant last week. Tonight I tried it.

Transportative indeed.

I don’t care if it’s not a word, Spell Checker – one minute I’m standing in my kitchen looking out at a cat chasing a bird, and the next I’m sitting at my kitchen table on a grey day in Fuling studying pinyin. If that’s not transportative, then I don’t know what is.

We eat so much without thinking about it. I’d like to be more conscious about what I consume, both in terms of health and of memories. Life is too short to consume dross.

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