Monday, March 17, 2008

China -- A Sense of Place

I didn’t take a slow boat to China, it was a non-stop jet, and when I landed I found that many of my preconceived notions about what I’d find and what China would be like were just as outdated as that old steamboat.

It was altogether an amazing experience, especially for someone who grew up in an age when China was a forbidden and forbidding destination. Every so often I’d have to stop and just blurt out “I’m in China. I’m really in China.”

Sometimes that would happen when I was experiencing places I had only read about – the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors museum, the Forbidden City. Sometimes it was when I was surprised by sites and scenes I hadn’t known about or hadn’t know what to expect such as the old neighborhoods along the canals in Suzhou; the Muslim district in Xi An; the night market, the Lama Monastery, Prince Gong’s garden and the old neighborhoods in Beijing. It was the sight of seniors everywhere practicing tai chi and folk dance in the morning, taking their birds in their cages for an airing in the afternoon, working out in open air gyms in Beijing, and overflowing the long corridor of the Temple of Heaven performing for their friends and passersby.

Sometimes it was when the cities I visited could have been major cosmopolitan capitals almost anywhere with skyscrapers, trendy high-end shops, Starbucks and Mercedes. (There were also KFCs, McDonald’s and occasional Subway fast food restaurants.) I have to admit, at those times I said "I'm in China" almost in disbelief.

But just when China (I was mostly in very urbanized China) began to seem just like it could be anywhere, something would happen or I would catch a glimpse of something and, bam, my sense of where I was in the world would be switched on by observances small and large.

A few times it was by babies toddling around swathed in thick quilted jackets and pants with the back of the pants slit for easy access. Other times it was by street food stands with smoky charcoal braziers offering the familiar, the identifiable and the I-can’t-believe-they-eat that, all cooked and served on skewers to munch on while you strolled with friends. Sometimes it was a bicycle or motor scooter loaded down with people or goods or the occasional stray vendor with a scale in his hand peddling piles of fruit or vegetables from bamboo trays suspended from a pole across his back. Or a line of rickshaws parked for the night in a shadowy street that evoked a movie set from the 1930s. Or the huge plastic thermoses of hot water with cork bungs that every worker everywhere I went seemed to keep handy to refill their tea mug.

There was so much more that I saw, experienced (and, of course, ate), and while China enriched, entranced, entertained and enlightened me it also left me wondering. Recent news reports have complicated my feelings, but have not dimmed my enthusiasm for the people, places and activities I encountered during my visit.

Please watch for my reports on my trip to China here in Blog Appetit. Some will be food oriented, with recipes on occasion. Others might be about what moved me or made me think or react. I look forward to sharing my adventure with you.

About the photo: A snack street in Shanghai

1 comment:

Cate said...

Sounds like a fantastic trip!