“Oh…the way you eat!” Kate says to me. With her accent it’s difficult to tell what she means. We haven’t been walking through Jiezi Ancient town that long, and my hosts keep stopping at every food stall asking if I’m hungry. I’ve said yes once or twice, and now I’m holding two glutinous dumplings and a brown sugar cake thing. Kate’s exclamation came after I took a healthy bite out of the dumpling.
“Should I take smaller bites?” I pick my words carefully. I mean, what could that mean? Do I look gluttonous, or perhaps I missed a social clue somewhere? Me, the meaty-pawed American, devouring gentle Chinese food?
“No, no – you eat so easy, with much passion! I like it!” She says brokenly. I look at the glutinous dumpling in my hand, filling starting to ooze out of the middle. I can’t begrudge her that. I do eat with passion. I reserve dainty eating for high teas and formal wear outings. I know all my forks and spoons – none of which are required for street vendor dumplings.
We walked on, and I eat bean curds and more bean curds. The first set is fried on a skewer, the second is served like hot jell-o in a bowl with scallions and peppers. I was going on a cup of coffee and a cup of black sesame insta-porridge, but I tell myself that this is a great chance to live like the locals. If savory and spicy is what’s for breakfast, then bon appetit! People stare. Lily says that some in the crowd have me pegged as a Russian beauty. I love the quaint idea of me being a Russian beauty – it is so far from reality.
Jiezi Ancient town is meant to emulate old Chinese villages. Some genuinely old structures exist, like the paper burning tower and the Lucky bridge, but around it spring “traditional” tourist shops, statues, and carnival games. The sight of tourist shops makes me very happy. Souvenirs! I can get all my trinket shopping done now! Lily and Kate agree that it is better to wait until the walk back to buy things, so my arms don’t get tired. This doesn’t stop over-eager Lily from assuming I must want to purchase everything I stop to inspect. I stopped to examine a key chain, and suddenly she’s rifling through the basket, asking me if I want to buy every sample she holds up. She wants to be helpful. I go back to being more discreet in my interest.
We walk and make small talk. Lily and Kate are eager to practice their English with me, and I need to remember how to make small talk.
“Jean, do you like mountains?” Kate asks at one point.
“Uh, sure.” I reply. Truthfully, as soon as that baited hook hit the water, my brain was yelling for me to abort, to lie. Claim an injury. You want to shop! This is going to be an easy day! Souvenirs and dumplings, damn it!
“There is a small mountain here. Would you like to climb it?” Lily asks.
“…Ok, if it’s a small mountain.” My brain throws its hands up in exasperation.
“Oh, yes. Not very tall. I’ve never climbed it – only been up in a car,” Kate says. Off we go. About two hours into the ascent, it occurs to me that there were any number of follow up questions I could have asked. Like how small is the mountain? How high does it go? Are you sure you want to climb in plastic shoes? But I like nature, and goodness knows I’ve climbed some small peaks here.
It’s pretty – there are bronze colored lizards and more of those red and black millipedes. Bamboo arches over us in a thin canopy, and black and yellow butterflies flit through the sunlight.
All of these things I saw and appreciated during the first half of the climb. But after two hours of unexpected mountain climbing, my shirt is soaked through in sweat. It’s not very hot, but it is humid. My non-climbing appropriate bra is doing the best it can. I didn’t bring a hat, or sunglasses, or my walking stick. I haven’t stretched. I am not in a mental state for any sort of strenuous activity, but at least I’m wearing what I think are good shoes for climbing. They have to better than Kate’s jelly sandals, or Stone’s canvas boat shoes.
Then I slipped and fell on my ass. Hard. The steps were slick with moss, and I got preoccupied thinking about everyone else’s feet while going down one such flight. My first thought, strangely enough, when I hit the ground was Fuck. Now Lily is going to have a heart attack. Lily, the maternal teacher, does indeed grip my upper arm as though she thinks I’ve killed myself on her watch. Later, she would explain that she feels responsible for me, since she took me from the school on this trip. As though she could have stopped my foot from losing traction through sheer force of “not on my watch.”
At that particular moment, however, I wasted precious energy on making sure I didn’t yell at her as she tugged at me. In the few times in my life where I’ve been in sudden and great pain my response is to withdraw to do inventory, and to snap at people. It takes so much more effort to reassure everyone else that you’re ok! But I do, I reassure everyone, repeatedly. I tell them to let me sit for a moment, and then I ignore them. They chatter because they don’t know how else to express their worry, I tell myself. The same as most people.
I have this theory on pain. You have to face it straight on – nitpick it immediately. It will either stay strong or get worse, which suggests that you’ve really hurt yourself. Or it will hurt, but you’ll be able to see through it a little, which suggests that you might actually be as ok as you keep not-screaming at the clucking hens around you. I go through each joint, and each is undamaged. But my butt – Jesus Christ what have I done?! It’s not my tailbone, or my hip. But I have decidedly damaged a part of my backside. It’s a deep, stinging pain. I can almost feel the bruise forming already. But I can feel it dilute ever so slightly as the seconds tick by. Lily and Kate are debating whether to hold me the rest of the climb – no way. I put on my cheeriest “What me, worry?” face and push on. I will not be coddled.
As we reach the 902m marker – the summit? – I look at my watch and realize it’s been over three hours of hiking. Worse, they let the saplings grow all over the “scenic” area, so that you can’t see anything at all. We press on, and eventually reach the temple at the end of the way. It’s pretty and peaceful, removed from the town. We sit for a break in the shelter of tall, leafy trees and drink tea. Lily tells me she really does love me, and Kate wants to know if Tommy Hilfiger costs as much in the US as it does in China. Stone is happy to pour the hot water and shrug whenever I look at him.
We took a bus down the mountain. Lily tells everyone on the bus that I am the greatest English teacher from America, that I could teach them all English. I’m just trying to sit correctly so that searing pain doesn’t make me wince and reveal I’m still in pain. A little girl sings a counting song for me – it’s cute, but also I feel like I’m on show again. Everyone watching me, watching this little girl who looks exactly how I feel. We both wish for a moment of peace.
Upon arrival we search for a clean toilet. Once we find one, I check my back in the mirror – a red and purple patch the size of my hand blossoms like a ripe plum. A plum bum.
By this time, most of the shops have closed – primarily all the souvenir shops. I don’t try to hide my disappointment. Four frickin’ mountains I have now climbed, but I still don’t have the tiny glaives for my friends back home. Resigned, I walk back to the parking lot.
Having said earlier that I like hot pot, Lily chooses a “chicken hot pot” restaurant. My excitement returns. I haven’t actually gotten to eat proper community style hot pot since my arrival because I usually dine alone. I give Kate and Lily free rein to order what they want.
The waitress brings our pot, filled with chili oil, broth, and chicken bits (including the feet). Accompanying this is a tray with our dishes. Here are some of the dishes added to the pot: lotus root, potatoes, rice noodles, duck intestine, baby octopus, cow’s stomach, chicken blood, chicken liver, mushrooms, another type of noodle, and what appeared to be bacon. Everything starts raw. I think of witch’s cauldrons.
Here’s how it works: First, you build your own small bowl of “soup” using the contents of the hot pot, mixed with scallions, parsley, garlic, oyster sauce, vinegar – however spicy or bland you want it. Then, you either dunk a raw something into the big boiling pot individually, or pour the whole plate in (we did this with the lotus). Once cooked, you put it in your own concoction for added flavor, then eat it.
Before I do this, I have another accident – apparently I was in fine form. The manager comes by to talk to me. He’s saying something about Nixon, but it’s really noisy and I lean closer to hear him. Then my eye is on fire. Somehow, I got the chili broth in my eye – probably because I was leaning closer to the boiling pot. I practically jump out of my chair with a hasty “excuse me” and then I’m in the bathroom frantically trying to rinse burn out of my eyeball. Fan-tas-tic, let me tell ya. I return, and try not to feel like the klutz I have suddenly become.
We eat. I was exhausted by this point, and gleefully tried everything. I don’t get the inherent contradiction that is chicken’s blood. Lily said they serve the blood so you know the chicken is fresh, but when I asked how they get it to cook solid, she said they add salt and let it sit. So technically that means the chicken is only as fresh as the blood takes to congeal? Anyway it tasted fine. The digestive tracks of the cow and duck were also tasty.
They bring out porridge, a welcome blandness to the spice of the meal. I am sated and full and praying that I don’t get sick. Or, if I must get sick, that I don’t throw up. That would be awful.
“Oh, Jean, you are a very good eater!” Says Lily. I look at my bowl. Again, I really have no idea how to interpret this. I get the sense that it is a complement, and thank her.
“Yes – it’s good you try all the foods,” Kate agrees. “Shows you are open-minded person!”
I send a silent thank you to my grandparents. All those lamb roasts at the Croatian center, sucking marrow from bones, and those livers and gizzards my other grandma cooked have made me hearty. There’s something to be said for having Depression era style food as part of your ancestral heritage. Makes eating pasta-like intestine not seem so other worldly.
On the trip back, Kate wants to know about movies. Lily drives slowly in the fog, asking me multiple times if I had a good day.
I broke my posterior. I got chili oil in my eyeball. The shops were closed and I somehow climbed yet another mountain. I discussed oolong tea and Sichuan opera. Some guy gave me a free piece of metal frame which I am going to try and use to keep my shower from flooding my bathroom.
It was a wonderful day.
PS: It is really hard to take a clinical picture of your own backside.