So, I’ve now been in China for well over a week and I have to say that this has been the most amazing experience. I have an odd relationship with traveling: I love seeing new places and exploring things, but I like my own food, my own bed, and plenty of alone time. Trips like this offer the former, but generally withhold the latter. Normally, this proves a bit of a problem and leads to either homesickness or just a general crabbiness, but for this trip, I’ve had no real problems at all. I feel like a good part of the reason for this has been the amazing food. As a rather picky vegetarian, I tend to like, in order of preference, having my mom make my food, making my own food, or going to a restaurant I know well. Again, these generally aren’t options while traveling, and there have been several trips in the past where I survived almost entirely off of Starbucks frappachinos and McDonalds french fries due to a combination of my own pickiness and a lack of options. Whereas, on this trip, not only has the food been plentiful, but my questions regarding it have gone from a litany of “What is it?” “Is there meat in that?” “Is it spicy?” etc. to simply “Can I eat it?” since everything has been absolutely amazingly tasty, or at the very worst, quite palatable, though I have relatively little idea of what precisely I’ve been eating. There have been quite a lot of noodles (my favorite are the medium sized clear ones), oodles of vegetables (some of which I recognized, like broccoli, cucumbers and zucchini, others of which I have no idea what they were), tofu in every shape and sauce imaginable, various delicious little things filled with red bean paste or covered in sesame seeds, and an assortment of tasty broths made with rice, or tomato, or millet, or corn, or occasionally a chicken or beef broth that I’ve just pretend doesn’t have meat in it. There’s even the occasional food that I normally dislike, such as mushrooms, that I have ended up thoroughly enjoying due to the way it was prepared here.
Not only is the food incredibly tasty and simply bursting with vegetarian delights, but particularly here in Taigu, there is just so much of it. I do not walk away from the table full: I stagger away from it positively bursting with food, dizzy with deliciousness (or perhaps that’s the fenjo) absolutely sated, and often slightly regretful that I didn’t have room for that last little delicacy left to languish forlornly on a plate. And not only do I leave the table stuffed with food, but with conversation, or simply a very strong sense of community. The way that dining is so group oriented- with the rotating platters, the take a little of this, a little of that, hold the lazy susan for your neighbor, let your neighbor help you fish the last stubborn sliced vegetable onto your own plate- is wonderful. It’s just nice to be a part of something, to eat as a group and not each person alone with their individual plates. More than anything, I have felt very welcome in Taigu, by the members of the Shanxi University and also by my fellow travelers. I’ll take the bit of “tease the vegetarian” that comes along with that any day.
On the other hand, all this communal eating seems to come with a price: excess and magnificence mean waste, and there seems to be a great deal of all three generated from these meals of ours. Those rotating platters, of which I am so fond, are constantly being filled and refilled, and so by the end of the meal a great deal of food, quite easily enough to feed several more people, remains on the table. I don’t really know what happens to it, but even assuming the best, that all of it is composted properly, the excessive amounts of food waste are hardly healthy for the environment, or an efficient means of feeding a large group of people. Particularly in a nation where there are shortages of food and water in many regions, I’ve felt a bit guilty about the way in which we have been hosted, and the amount of food that has gone to waste. In addition, the persistence of the hosting here has meant that not only do I generate far more food waste here than I do at home, but I also eat far more. It feels wrong and rude not to try the things presented to me, particularly when someone takes the trouble to assure me that they have provided this vegetarian dish particularly for my benefit, and even spoons some of it onto my plate for me. And to make matters worse, I have proved woefully inept at figuring out when a meal is likely to end, therefore eating far more than I intended as more and more dishes appear on the table, that, of course, I really should try.
I’ve wondered, as I’ve been feasting, how my experiences with food here compare to the experiences of those who live here. I’m sure that, particularly in Taigu, the way we were hosted is not representative of the general dining experience. And that feels wrong too. Because while I certainly appreciate the generosity that has been shown to us, I don’t really feel that I deserve this much special treatment. When all is said and done, I’m just another student. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to take the experiences I have on this trip and do something worthwhile with them, but it’s not as if I’m going to be able to have any sort of significant impact on the world just on the basis of this trip. Just feeding me at the dining hall, though less fun and likely less tasty, would have been more than enough, given that I am in the end just a temporary guest, only earning special treatment because I happen to be from another country. It puzzles me a little, the degree of importance we seemed to be accorded. And not just with this feasting and these banquets, but among random people. I’ve been asked twice by strangers to take photos with them and stared at a great deal, and it’s weird, frankly. I don’t really understand this, and I can’t quite imagine why, in a world so full of imported American and European culture (from the language, to certain foods, to advertising and the types of products being sold) that I’m seen as remarkable enough that people I’ve never met ask for my picture. Its this sense of undeserved importance, that, almost more than anything, including not knowing the language, has made me feel foreign here. It’s a not entirely comfortable feeling, and has been sitting oddly in my stomach alongside all that wonderful food I’ve been consuming so eagerly.