Wednesday, December 15, 2010

This is China

In the summer of 2006 I studied abroad in China. I was 21 and had never traveled to another country (besides Canada, but that doesn’t really count). My experience in China was filled with ups and downs, chaos and confusion, the thrill of new adventures but also a longing to go home. I kind of wish someone had said, “Hey, you’re going to have a life-changing experience!” And maybe some people did, but either I wasn’t listening or I just wasn’t prepared for the effect that China would have on my life.

Now I didn’t just study abroad in the standard, well-known Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong. I was in Chengdu. “Where the hell is that?” you may ask. That’s what I said too when I first found out about the program. Chengdu is in Sichuan province, way in the mainland of China. It’s got the same population as New York City and yet many people have never even heard of it before. I felt like I was embarking on a journey into unknown territory. And I was. But when I arrived there was so much I wasn’t prepared for. Even though I’d taken two years of Mandarin Chinese, the Sichuan dialect was so different and muddled I couldn’t understand anything. Traffic was insane. Everywhere I went people pointed and called out to me. Babies defecated on the streets. Nobody knew how to properly stand in a line. And I learned about aspects of recent Chinese history that surprised and scared me.

For a while I felt lost and confused. What was I doing in this strange country? I felt like an alien lao wai (foreigner) amidst the crowds of Chinese locals. But there was one thing besides the friendships I forged that got me through the chaotic experience—food.

When I returned home people asked what the best part of the trip was. The answer was always food. When people asked if I would ever return to China, I responded “Maybe. If just for the food.” 

Truly, I was in the mecca for food lovers. Sichuan province is known for its exquisite cuisine. I might even be able to attribute my development into a full-fledged foodie as having roots in my time in China. It certainly contributed to my unhealthy appreciation for MSG, and I would never love hot and spicy foods as much if I hadn’t lived there for three months and eaten copious amounts of hot chilies and numbing peppers. If I were to go back now I would be much more adventurous, but I still had some amazing food during my initial trip.

This new series on my blog, This is China (TIC for short), will feature tidbits of my food experiences in China. It will range from dining customs to cooking classes, suan nai to fish heads, and 24-hour train rides to street food.

When I think of China, I think of food. And I hope you’ll appreciate some of our upcoming culinary adventures in the savory, salty, and spicy city of Chengdu.

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