An acquaintance of mine told me that after living in Europe he is picky about chocolate and beer.
After living in China for fourteen years there are certain things that bug me that America just can’t seem to get right. Here are just two of them.
I am picky about Chinese food. I miss the freshness in Chinese cuisine. I cringe every time my Mom takes out a bag of frozen wontons (I call them jiaozi) from the freezer for dinner. I do eat them. But if I had a choice I’d prefer fresh wontons over frozen ones any day.
There is a reason for this. In China there are restaurants and food stalls everywhere selling noodle and rice dishes. Customers can watch women scoop a lump of freshly ground pork with a pair of chopsticks on to a wonton skin that fits in the palm of their hand. Hissing bamboo steamers are stacked so high and customers can smell the scent of fresh meat and spices in the air. If it is a noodle restaurant, customers can watch a Muslim man in a skull cap knead, throw, stretch, and twist the dough before stringing it and throwing it into a boiling pot of soup stock.
Chinese are not squeamish about their meat ingredients. Open air markets sell live fish in water tanks and farmers sell live chickens. There is blood, but freshness is important in Chinese cooking.
I’m not a fish eater. I hate having to deal with the bones. But I do love the fish head. That is the most savory part of the fish, especially the flesh behind the eyes. I was told that in Japanese culture the fatty tissue behind the eyes makes one wise. I’m not sure if this is true. But it sure is tasty. And since Chinese restaurants usually serve the whole fish everyone is happy. My friends get the meat while I usually have sole possession of the head.
So imagine my disappointment when my family orders a fish dish in a Chinese restaurant in America and the head is missing.
There is something fishy about this story. Americans can’t stomach the idea of a fish or a pig staring back at them while eating. But the eyes tell the chef if the fish is cooked or not. They also indicate how fresh the ingredients are. To me, frozen wontons just doesn’t cut it. I don’t want food that tastes like a machine. I want fresh food.
Open air markets, however, do have a caveat. In the winter of 2008 avian bird flu resurfaced in eastern China where I was living at the time. The virus tends to thrive in temperate winter climates so I stopped buying chicken wings and thighs at the open air market. Instead I opted to buy chicken in a western style supermarket for health and safety reasons. However, I’d still buy fresh fruit and vegetables from open air markets and street vendors.
Still, even supermarkets in China sell fresh meat. Supermarkets still have live fish swimming in tanks and meat departments display fresh chicken legs on a giant mound of ice. Blood seeps through the ice indicating how fresh it is. I have never heard of a bird flu case originating from a supermarket and I know inspectors do come and check the place so I was ok with eating meat purchased from a supermarket.
Another thing I miss that has to do something with food is learning about another culture that is totally different from mine. I firmly believe that food brings people of different cultures and beliefs together in a peaceful manner.
In my book Banana Girl I write about a minority family in China whom I had the pleasure of eating at their restaurant. The Mu family and their workers were all minorities. The adult men all wore skull caps and Mrs. Mu wore a hijab.
They are Muslims.
In a world of anti-anything sentiment I wish I had more cultural experiences with people of a different culture or religion over a cup of tea. With the Mus I celebrated a birthday over yang rou gai jiao fan (mutton over a bed of rice). I celebrated Christmas with a plate of Yangzhou fried rice. I did these things while chatting about American and Chinese culture with Mr. Mu and his family. I learned that Mr. Mu is from a minority I’ve never even heard of; the Salar minority. I learned he’s a fan of President Obama and that he and his family are from Qinghai Province. In exchange I gave Mr. Mu a bag of fruit for Christmas and a packet of Tibetan butter tea for Chinese New Year. Mr. Mu also allowed me the chance to use my Chinese since I had to teach my students in English.
I wish there was something like Mr. Mu’s restaurant in my hometown where people of different faiths and backgrounds could come together over a meal and just share ideas. Through this simple act of showing hospitality this simple act of showing hospitality to a foreigner I learned more about Muslims than I could ever dream of. Not all Muslims are killers or hate Americans. If that were true then I should be dead.
When I hear all this anti-Muslim rhetoric being splashed on my Facebook wall and presidential candidates suggesting Muslims should be barred from entering our country I think of my experiences with the Mu family and wish that my anti-Muslim friends could meet Mr. Mu who always joked about wanting to go to America. If my American friends could meet this man they will see an ordinary man just trying to make a living like everyone else. They would be most welcome in his restaurant. He would not turn anyone away.
That is what we need in my country. We need to be more hospitable and accepting of people from other faiths and cultures.