This week in China I participated in something the school have so beautifully named “Enjoy a weekend with your Foreign Teacher”. My student (whose English name is Amy) and her family invited me to Nanbei Hu 南北湖 (South North Lake) about an hour from where I live to pick oranges. In typical Chinese style they arrived to collect me at 8.30 sharp and little before 9 o’clock were trying to force feed me sushi. More culinary delights to follow later in this update… Amy’s friend, Zoe, came along too. At first she was apprehensive to speak directly to me, but before long they were jabbering away, half in English, half in Chinese; all of us getting mixed between the excitement of a second language and usually not starting a sentence in the same language we’d started. Zoe told me she didn’t love her English name and suggested I give her a new one. Once I’d told her it was a special name, as it was too my big sister’s name, she didn’t press the matter any further, but instead smugly smiled when the topic of my sister was mentioned; which for anyone who knows me, will know it to be a popular topic. Upon arrival we were brought to a small house which was filled with baskets of oranges and tools for orange picking. After giving us everything we needed, we continued our walk up a number of large stone steps, till finally we arrived in a valley of oranges (which my photographs do no justice) and were able to pick as we wished.
Some five ingested oranges later we tired of picking and eating. We gathered the baskets we’d filled and got back in the car to go somewhere for lunch, which is always a new adventure in China. Before making our stop, we returned to the small house to weigh the oranges and wash up for lunch.
The food served is usually reflective of money, so if entertaining guests Chinese people will try to give the best of everything, which is usually an unbalanced spread of expensive meats and seafood, with no vegetables or rice (except at the end- as a “filler”). Usually I’m not accustomed to eating seafood (or rather; avoid it at all costs), but when invited to a Chinese home I employ the tactic of eating whatever is presented to me. When I didn’t speak Chinese I enjoyed the added benefit of ignorance is bliss, only finding out what delicacies I had endured much later when the initial taste had settled. Now I have no such luxury. Today’s first surprise came in the form of a large crab, which was stealthily unwrapped from it’s bindings (after she assured me it was dead) and then repeatedly bashed off a nearby chair to crack the shell.
Then a joint effort was made to teach me how to eat the creature, after I confessed I hadn’t a notion what to do with it. It was tastier than anticipated, which everyone seemed to be thinking, as silence fell on the table while many crab claws were consumed.
After the crabs, we took a break from eating, and walked around, taking pictures of all the marvelous things that could be found outside a Chinese countryside restaurant.
I also took some sneaky photos in the kitchen, because try as I might there are very few words that can describe a Chinese kitchen, especially in such a place. I’m not sure what the man in the second photo is pointing to, but I had told them I write a blog and wanted to take pictures, so perhaps he is trying to redirect your attention to a pressing kitchen matter. If anyone discovers what it is, please let me know.
While mooching around outside, suddenly one of the children squealed and pointed to a pile of blood on the ground. Following the trail, we found a pile of snake skins that had been lazily discarded outside in the back yard. A pile of dead snakes was something I’d not expected to see on my sunny afternoon walk, but there they were. After that we went back inside to finish our meal. No sooner had I photographed the slaughtered snake than he appeared on my unsuspecting plate. Following my “swallow it down like a champ” approach, I knew I had no choice but to embrace this challenge. After tentatively biting into the snake (which had been covered in bread crumbs, making it an easier feat), my brain analysed the flavours and textures, as it was a strange combination of several. With half the table anticipating my reaction, I tried my best to explain in Chinese my feeling toward this new food. I told them; “If a fish and a chicken got married, then had a baby; it would be a snake.” (Not that a baby out of wedlock would’ve tasted any different, but I thought it better to be politically correct in this particular instance). They all laughed, repeating my analogy with amused faces. After lunch, we went to climb the mountain, which (to my relief) turned out just to be climbing up a few large steps, as we’d already driven much of the way. I think one of the common Western misconceptions of China is it’s lack of natural beauty. Too often the bustling cities, pollution and smog take the forefront. I could elaborate further, or I could let this next picture speak for itself. Bellies and eyes satisfied, we loaded our eight boxes of oranges into the car and headed home. In the car I taught Zoe and Amy how to play “I Spy”, and they were just as persistent (and impatient, if they couldn’t guess the word in under thirty seconds) as we were when we were kids. Because life in China is scheduled around solid eating times, the journey back was a long one, as everyone raced home for their 5.30pm dinner. Despite the fact I had to arise at the crack of dawn after two hours sleep with an unplanned hangover, we laughed most of the way back. And in China, even every fifty minute traffic jam has a silver lining.