Friday, October 29, 2010

Tourist will eat

A tourist moves through a foreign city driven by desire. She is looking for an undefined, unknown experience that will somehow effect change upon her. The more unfamiliar the culture, the more opportunities it seems to offer for radical transformation of her consciousness. She yearns to study, to learn, to grow, to understand. At the very least, she's looking for some kind of human interaction that will allow her to feel less foreign in this formidable city, less alone. She finds souvenir shops and street food. Buns of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. Hot dogs on sticks. Spinach dumplings. Corn on the cob. Chestnuts. Pearl milk tea. Black sesame cookies and cream-filled pastries. Hard-boiled eggs. Bowls of noodles and cabbage. Pancakes with scallions and unspecified meat. Melon on sticks. Barbecued chicken on sticks. Baked potato. Stinky tofu. She samples these by pointing and counting out coins; at the end of the day she still hasn't talked to a single human being, and if she's been in any way transformed by what she has seen, the transformation has been so minor as to go entirely unnoticed. But the desire--an undefined yearning for something extraordinary--has been successfully channeled into hunger, and the hunger satisfied. Stomach full, she keeps walking, stuffing her purse with baggies of dried fruit and nuts, hard candy, sesame balls, lychees and apples, bars of chocolate, boxes of miniature mints, gum. The desire has been transformed and satisfied, and yet it's still there, burning in the back of her mind, driving her down miles upon miles of narrowly paved roads, through crowds of goal-oriented locals, by ways of hundreds of vendors that offer more opportunities to put off the inevitable realization that what pushes her along has nothing to do with her surroundings. The desire is born of something deep within her self, and must be answered by looking inwards, not outwards. She sits down at a cafe, at a bookstore, at a curbside, leans against a lamppost or a granite facade, and starts writing. This, isn't this what she was looking for in the foreign city: the way to stop looking. This, she thinks, is freedom. This is happiness. Her thoughts are fueled by the full stomach, and the supplies in her purse will ensure that her stomach will remain pleasantly full at least until the next day.

Meantime, Dave's conference ended somewhere between 3 and 11:30 am this morning, and the touristy part of the trip has officially started. Our new friends David and Cici drove us to the nearby city Hangzhou. On the way, we stopped by what looked like a truck stop in a town called Jiaxin to try a local specialty dish, zongzi -- a bun of sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves and filled with deliciously soft pork. David and Cici were telling us the tidbits from the history of this dish in Jiaxin, and while they were talking they started remembering all the wonderful Hangzhou specialty dishes: shrimp cooked in tea soup, Beggar's Chicken cooked in lotus leaves and ashes, fried tofu skins dipped in tomato sauce, fried ice cream, Dongpo pork, named after a poet and a governor of Hangzhou from the 11th century, Su Dongpo (also known as Su Shi). After finishing our snack, we rushed to Hangzhou, quickly toured the famous West Lake, had tea with lotus root starch soup in one of the tea houses on the island in the middle of the lake, then took the boat back to shore, and rushed to the restaurant where we could sample all these other famed dishes. Today offered a kind of culinary experience that puts the idea of a "Chinese restaurant" to shame.

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