One of my favorite simple, failsafe Chinese dishes is mápódòufu 麻婆豆腐, a smooth, spicy, and subtly-má-numbing tofu stew found in just about every hole-in-the-wall restaurant in China. This particular plate cost me 9RMB, or about $1.50. It was delicious.


When I first arrived in China at about 10pm local time, I was practically delirious with exhaustion. The plane ride was a long, jumbled mix of dozing, eating vaguely gelatinous airplane noodles, and reading Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. As it turns out, this is a very strange book to read while intermittently falling asleep. It tends to permeate dreams with tentacled Tourettic mishmashes of language.

For example, here is a sentence from the book: “Pierogi kumquat sushiphone! Domestic marshmallow ghost! Insatiable Mallomar! Smothered pierogiphone!” (p. 202).

Occasionally during the flight I would look up and catch half-asleep glimpses of whatever movie was silently playing on the little fold-down ceiling TVs. At one point, there was a scene showing a bespectacled man shouting gleefully at a beautiful woman, who was jumping up and down with equal energy and glee. The man was shouting, “You’re a genius! You’re a genius!” The shot zoomed in onto his typewriter, and he carefully typed the word “genius.” When the camera panned back out, the bespectacled man was all alone, a hunched-over writer in an empty room.

Later, I caught a glimpse of an anime movie where little anime children were praying to a patch of dry ground, bowing and bowing with hands clasped. Little seedlings began to sprout out of the ground, which grew into saplings, then trees, then continued to grow higher and higher while the anime figures grew smaller and smaller, until they were engulfed.

Engulfalupagus! Engolftapus! Un-golfable Mallowmar!

See what I mean? It was a long, strange flight.

Finally, eyes bleary from exhaustion, I found myself in the back of a taxi, barreling through the steaming hot streets into downtown Shanghai. Drab, fluorescent-lit apartment complexes gave way to glittering modern skyscrapers. And when I say glittering, I don’t mean metaphorically in the soft summer moonlight. I mean literally glittering, with entire walls plastered in blinking and flashing LED lights. My hotel is in Jing An district—huge, modern, international, and expensive. We drove past Dior, Prada, and Tiffany’s—stores that don’t exist in the entire state of Vermont.

The next couple of days were a blur. Staggering into my hotel, meeting my roommate for my job’s training period, getting lost in the sea of designer department stores, and eating several meals in a row of bland, greasy noodles.

Finally, on Tuesday night, a group of us new education advisors went to the Sichuan-style hole-in-the-wall restaurant right next to our hotel. Dirty floor, fluorescent lighting, picture menu. I think the moment I tasted my mápódòufu was the moment I finally got over jetlag, opened my eyes, and felt truly excited about my upcoming time in China. Finally, I woke up.

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