I said in my last post that I’d write about conservation in Laohegou, but then I went to Chengdu for the weekend…and now I can’t think about anything but food!

I visited Chengdu with two Nature Conservancy employees, both of whom would soon be flying out to their respective offices in other parts of China. Before leaving, they wanted to experience the capital of Sichuan Province in all its glory, and I was more than happy to accompany them. All three of us had the same goal for this trip: to eat as many local specialties as possible.

The Great Food Odyssey started earlier for me than it did for my travel companions. Having slept through breakfast, I decided to get something to eat from the food carts when our van stopped for a break outside Jiangyou. I pointed to some dumplings that looked good—chaoshou 抄手—not realizing that they would be served in a bowl of red-hot soup. The van honked and I clambered back on, trying to balance the soup on my lap. Turns out, nobody else in the van had gotten anything to eat at all, and there I was with my full meal of messy, soupy dumplings. Oh well, they were delicious!

When we arrived in Chengdu, we joined a big group from Laohegou for a fancy sit-down lunch of old fashioned Chengdu fare. Although many of the dishes were predictably spicy, some were much subtler than I would have expected, emphasizing the tangy flavor of Sichuan pepper without the usual mouth-numbing effect.

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After lunch, the three of us split off from the group and ventured downtown. First we stopped for a local snack called sandapao三大炮, which are balls of sticky rice coated in ground peanuts and served with sweet syrup. They are named, I’m assuming, after the loud “pow” sound of the rice balls being thrown into the peanut mixture.

Still full from lunch, we nevertheless made another quick stop at this place, famous for its local Chengdu snacks. Between the three of us, we polished off one order each of tianshui mian 甜水面 (thick noodles in a sweet and spicy sauce), zhong shuijiao 钟水饺 (dumplings), and liangfen 凉粉 (bean jelly).

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After a few hours of wandering around the department stores downtown, it was time for dinner. We joined two more Nature Conservancy employees to eat Sichuan’s most famous contribution to Chinese cuisine: spicy hotpot.

In addition to the usual hotpot favorites—beef slices, potatoes, mushrooms—we also tried some local specialties like frozen tofu. Apparently, freezing the tofu expands its pores, thus allowing it to absorb more hotpot flavor.

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We ordered our hotpot weila 微辣(mildly spicy), and it was pretty much at the upper limit of what I could enjoy. I wince to imagine the kind of stomach that could withstand tela 特辣 (extra spicy).

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The next morning, we stopped for some buns and fresh soy milk before exploring Chengdu’s famous Panda Breeding Center. Although the center felt more like an ordinary zoo than like the natural sanctuary I was hoping for, it was still incredible to see so many adorable pandas in one place, lounging and napping and eating bamboo.

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By the time we left the Panda Center, I was starving.

Perfect! An excuse to eat more food.

We found a little noodle shop that served feichang fen 肥肠粉, glass noodles with pork intestine, which is another Chengdu specialty. These were served with a fried pastry called guokui 锅盔, which was stuffed with deliciously tingly Sichuan peppercorns.

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Although this was one of my favorite meals from the whole weekend, we still wanted to eat more afterwards—so we hopped over to the Halal restaurant next door for some Lanzhou-style beef noodles.

Finally stuffed, we moseyed on over to one of the traditional teahouses in People’s Park to experience the “slow life” (慢生活) of Chengdu. I remember learning about Sichuan teahouses when I was studying abroad in Hangzhou in 2011, and it was gratifying to see that the abstract articles I’d read were actually true. Compared to the high-brow establishments in Hangzhou and other eastern cities, Sichuan teahouses are very informal and relaxed. We sat outdoors on simple bamboo chairs and sipped tea from gaiwan 盖碗 (cups with lids and saucers).

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All around us, people were hanging out, chatting, playing cards, and eating sunflower seeds. Some were having their ears cleaned by the professional ear-cleaner guys wandering around with scary instruments. We decided to pass on that aspect of the Chengdu Teahouse Experience, but we nevertheless managed to while away several hours drinking cup after cup of delicious tea.

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Eventually, even though nobody was hungry, we decided that it was time to eat again. We picked a random restaurant and ordered two Chengdu specialties that none of us had tried yet: fuqi feipian 夫妻肺片 (lung slices) and tihua 蹄花 (pig trotter soup). The pig trotters were a little bland and cartilage-y for my taste, but the lung slices had a surprisingly nice texture, and came smothered in a delicious chili sauce.

From there we moved on to another restaurant for some tangyuan 汤圆 (glutinous rice balls filled with sesame paste). Finally, we finished the night in Starbucks, since by then everybody was craving something sweet and hydrating.

The next day we split up and went our separate ways, but not before sampling some chuanchuanxiang 串串香 (skewers dipped in hotpot, basically the same as malatang). As a final taste of Chengdu before returning to the Laohegou nature reserve, I got a bowl of suanlafen 酸辣粉 (hot and sour glass noodles) at the bus station. A perfect weekend!

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After my first week in Sichuan, I am pleased to announce that my lost luggage has been returned, my jet lag has disappeared, and I haven’t gotten sick. Other than that though, I don’t have much to report. I’m still getting used to the routine at the Laohegou Nature Reserve, figuring out what’s going on, who’s who, and how to decipher the Sichuan dialect. Being thrust into a new group of people in a new part of China has made me appreciate how close I became with many of the people I met in Lijiang. Hell, I even dated a local. We aren’t together anymore, but we are still in touch and chat occasionally on Wechat.

This brings me to the purpose of this blog post. It’s something I imagine many people are curious about: what was it like to date a rural Chinese person? Weren’t there cultural differences?

The short answer is yes, there were. If the relationship were truly right, however, I believe that any of these differences could be overcome.

As for the long answer, I will attempt to explain several differences in mindset and behavior that I perceived to be cultural, rather than individual. This is not a complete list, and a Part Two might be necessary if I think of more points later. Bear in mind that since I can only speak from my personal experience, I cannot say for sure whether the following cultural differences are specific to ethnic Naxi people, whether they apply throughout rural Yunnan Province, or whether they are indicative of China as a whole.

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  1. Culinary Rigidity

In Southern China, people eat rice. Rice is their staple. Without it, a meal is incomplete. TF was not very adventurous when it came to food, and believed very strongly that without rice, he wouldn’t feel full. If we ate noodles for lunch, we had to have rice for dinner. If we ate at a western-style restaurant (which only happened occasionally), he would order the only rice dish on the menu. He didn’t like pizza, because as he saw it, the crust was a staple food and should be eaten separately from the meat, cheese, and vegetables. He had no taste for sweets, and little interest in trying new foods. Not to mention the fact that I consistently ate more than him!

  1. Insensitivity to Social Injustice

In the United States, most people are hyper-aware of political sensitivity and eager to avoid offending people. Even if many Americans are in fact prejudiced, we are usually unwilling to voice such opinions aloud. Not so in China. I heard several pointed comments aimed at TF, often along the lines of, “Most Naxi aren’t good looking, but you are.” Someone expressed disbelief that I, a foreigner, would choose a Naxi guy over all the fine Han specimens out there (this particular Han answered his own question). The interesting thing was, TF never seemed to mind at all. He even turned around and said similar things about other ethnicities. Uyghurs are terrorists. Yi are thieves. Et cetera. I had walked into a tangled web of Chinese ethnic relations, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it. My American sensibilities were immediately offended, but if none of the people in question seemed insulted, then who was I to judge?

  1. Brotherhood

I first met TF through his “brother” Yixiu, owner of Rock Bar. I soon came to learn that most of the guys who hung out or worked at Rock Bar were “brothers” from the same village in Yulong County. Closer than ordinary friends, these guys shared long histories and a responsibility to protect and respect one another. Yixiu, as the oldest in the group and therefore the “big brother,” demanded the most respect. This often led to complex tensions and conflicts among the lower ranks. If the guys felt upset with Yixiu, they did not dare to voice their complaints for fear of disrespecting their big brother. To me, as TF’s girlfriend, I was granted access to this unusual network of locals. Many of the guys came to feel like real friends. At the same time, though, with TF I consistently felt second-place to his friends. The brotherhood always came first.

  1. Moneymaking

As an upper-middle class American, I was raised to believe that education is the path to success. Pick a direction, follow through, earn a degree (or several), and a long career will follow. This same mindset is very prevalent in urban Chinese society. In Lijiang, however, I found the opposite situation. I’ve written before about Ljiang’s tourism-dominated economy, in which livelihoods are created and destroyed based on informal interpersonal networks. This environment provides easy money to uneducated locals from impoverished backgrounds. Most of the young people I met were dabblers: they played music, worked in guesthouses, led tour groups, and sold local products to tourists. Only a few held full-time “careers,” such as TF’s roommate who was a real estate agent. With his college education, TF might have had more career opportunities than many of the other locals. But surrounded as he was by Lijiang’s unique tourism economy, he remained firmly entrenched in the culture of one-time moneymaking schemes: a jade sale here, a tour group there. In a way, I found this culture freeing and inspiring. Anything seemed possible. If he were tied down to a full-time job, TF would never have had the opportunity to play music, learn about the symbolic significance of jade or tea, or interact with tourists from all walks of life. His experiences have given him a unique appreciation of his own traditional culture, an appreciation that is arguably lacking in many parts of China (and the world).

On the other hand, the Lijiang Lifestyle made me feel anxious. There was a persistent lack of ambition in the air, and the locals spent hours every day playing cards, computer games, and hanging out. As time went on I began to worry that I was losing touch with my sense of idealism, and my belief that continuous learning and hard work would make the world a better place. My decision to apply to graduate school came about during one of those long, lazy days, when I realized that I would rather work hard towards some idealistic goal than remain comfortable forever.

  1. Folk Beliefs

These were the little differences in belief that may not seem important, but tend to add up and constitute a large component of a person’s worldview. TF truly believed in the healing power of jade, Chinese herbs, and ivory (which is another issue altogether). He believed that the Chinese zodiac was of indisputable importance, and once admitted that if I weren’t a foreigner, to whom the zodiac doesn’t really apply, he never would have dated someone from the Year of the Ram. Although many of these seemed like superstitions to me, I had to admit that I probably believe many things that would seem fallacious to Chinese people. MSG is bad. Eggs must be refrigerated. Tylenol cures all. I often discussed with TF what it means to believe in something, and we reached the agreement that belief cannot be forced. Although I wanted to believe in the power of jade, for example, I simply couldn’t. I hadn’t grown up with the idea. All we could do, we agreed, was accept and respect the beliefs of the other person and hope that our own beliefs would expand and evolve with time.

  1. Political Beliefs

I used to assume, naively, that all ethnic minorities in China are somehow at odds with the Chinese government. This is what the American media seem to suggest when they print another piece about Uyghur unrest or a suppressed Tibetan protest. In Yunnan, though, I discovered that many minority people identify very strongly as citizens of the People’s Republic of China. TF was one of these. His upbringing and education had instilled in him a firm belief in the greatness of Mao Zedong, and a strong loyalty to the Communist Party of China. Growing up in America, I had learned a very different story. But how could I argue? How could I question the legitimacy of TF’s education, when I have no way of proving that my own education was any more objective? Every history textbook emphasizes one perspective over another, and every public school curriculum reflects a political agenda. When political topics came up, I chose to respect TF’s point of view and move on. But if our relationship had progressed into something more serious, we might have needed to delve more deeply into uncomfortable subjects.

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The next question, I suppose, is whether or not these cultural differences contributed to the demise of my relationship with TF. I wish I could say they did not. I wish I could say that any two people from anywhere in the world can be brought together, as we were, by curiosity, respect, and a good sense of humor. But the truth is, cultural differences do matter. Perhaps if I had spent more time in rural China before meeting him, or if he had learned English and studied abroad, these differences might have been easier to overcome. The truth is, I wasn’t ready to commit to someone who doesn’t speak English, won’t eat pizza, and believes in his heart of hearts that Mao Zedong made no mistakes. I am pretty sure that TF, similarly, wasn’t ready to commit to a flighty American who travels all over the world and might someday get a PhD.

This was a fascinating and incredibly fun experience, and I am so happy that it happened. But now it’s time to move on to the next stage of my life: working in the Laohegou Nature Reserve in Sichuan. That’ll probably be the topic of my next blog post, so stay tuned!

Why is it so hard to start writing this entry? I know that once I’ve written a sentence or two, the rest will start flowing more naturally. That’s how it always feels when I’ve neglected my blog for a significant period of time. It’s happened before. But three months? That’s too long. It’s time to start updating Malatang again…so here goes.

I’m writing this on the airplane from New York to Beijing, after which I will fly to Chengdu, then check into a hotel called the Verdy Herton (which will hopefully still accept me as I stroll in well after midnight). Tomorrow, I will begin volunteering for The Nature Conservancy’s Sichuan office, working in the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve in Pingwu County. By tomorrow, of course, I mean Friday, January 9th. But it’s still only the 7th here on the airplane, where my computer hasn’t updated to China time yet. We are probably flying over the North Pole right now. Does the North Pole even have a time zone? Traveling is confusing.

The important thing, though, is that I am on my way to Sichuan, the land of spicy stews, tingly sauces, killer barbecue…basically the Food Capital of China. Sichuan cuisine is renowned throughout the Middle Kingdom, from Nanjing to Lijiang. The very concept of this blog, Malatang, was inspired by the numbing-spicy Sichuanese soup I first tried while studying abroad in Hangzhou. Even far beyond the Middle Kingdom, Sichuan food abounds. Kung Pao chicken? Spicy string beans? Mapo Tofu? All-American staples, all from Sichuan.

This brings me to the purpose of this blog post, which is to commemorate the three glorious months I just spent at home in Vermont, gorging on fresh pomegranates, aged cheddar, and Snacking Chocolate from Costco. When this plane lands, I’ll have to turn my back on dairy and fresh veggies for a while to embrace six months of tongue-scorching Sichuan goodness. But first, I’d like to crystallize into my memory my top five meals from these last few months at home.

  1. Chinese takeout in Maine

Fitting with the theme, my #5 represents the most far-flung corner of China’s culinary empire: China Hill in Ellsworth, Maine. My family spent Christmas in Bar Harbor, hiking in Acadia and wandering around the dark restaurants and shuttered knickknack stores, closed until spring. As per Jewish tradition, Christmas dinner demanded a trip to a Chinese restaurant. With our limited options, that meant China Hill. While the food was, well, what you’d expect, this meal was memorable in its utmost coziness. My entire family was together (dogs included), and we huddled in our little rented house while winter rains pummeled the empty town of Bar Harbor. We watched a movie and pulled apart gluey dumplings, and the outside world ceased to exist. Plus we discovered a free order of pork fried rice at the bottom of the takeout bag, so that was cool.

  1. Indian takeout in Cambridge

I swear I ate more than just takeout while I was home! It’s just that this particular food was so delicious. It was listed online as the best Indian food in Boston, and the place was so tiny and so packed that we had no choice but to get takeout. I was visiting one of my oldest friends in Cambridge, the kind of friend with whom I could lose touch for several months, but then slip right back in where we left off because we’ve known each other since preschool and our families are practically relatives. I didn’t even know that she liked Indian food. Last I could remember, she didn’t. But this just goes to show that people can change, and I’ve probably changed in ways I’m not even aware of, but in the end those little things don’t matter as long as you can curl up on the couch together and watch movies and remember what kinds of tea you each like to drink. By the way, that was the best saag paneer I’ve ever had.

  1. Breakfast at Healthy Living

Number three was chosen purely for its deliciousness. Who knew that a health food coop would serve such good breakfast? My mom and I first discovered this when we had to bring the car into the repair shop next door, and we wandered into Healthy Living while we waited. These breakfast sandwiches are perfect. Eggs perfectly cooked so that the yolk is soft but doesn’t make a mess, sharp melted cheese, creamy avocado, and a touch of arugula, all held together with a perfectly crisp bread that doesn’t make everything spill out when you take a bite. Luckily, my mom and I had to make several trips to the car shop throughout my time at home, which meant that I probably ate this breakfast sandwich more than any other single item of food. As much as I love eating in China, breakfasts can be tough, and I’m definitely going to miss ol’ Healthy Living.

  1. Leftovers in Colorado

Since my time at home included Thanksgiving, I’m obviously going to include some Thanksgiving food in this list. We spent the holiday in my birthplace of Denver, Colorado, where my food-loving uncle prepared us a splendid meal. Like all splendid meals, however, the leftovers are usually even better than the main event. This is especially the case when you take said leftovers with you to a cozy cabin up in the mountains, layer them into various casseroles, gorge on them after a beautiful hike, then follow the gorging with a soak in the hot tub, gazing up at the stars.

  1. My First Meal Home

Way back in October, I stumbled off the plane from Lijiang, via Kunming, Bangkok, Shanghai, and New York—it was a long road home to Vermont. Knowing I’d be exhausted, my parents decided to forgo a lavish welcome-home dinner and instead prepared a simple meal of arugula salad with feta cheese, corn on the cob, and fresh crusty bread with real butter. These were the things I sorely missed while I was in China: raw vegetables, rich dairy, and simple meals that were considered complete even without any meat, oil, or rice. I was so happy to be home in my old house, with my family and dogs and cats, drinking tea out of my own mug and sleeping in my own bed. As time went on, of course, I got used to it again. I started to take the fresh vegetables for granted. I suppose this means I’m ready to leave again on another adventure.

I’m excited to go to Sichuan, have new experiences, eat new dishes, and write about them here—hopefully with more regularity starting now. I now know that every time I leave home on a new adventure, I come back with even more appreciation for the little, familiar things I grew up with, like seeing my family every day, speaking English to everyone I meet, walking the dogs to East Shore Drive, and real butter on the table.

Thanks for reading!

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I am writing this blog post from the window of New Moon Café in Burlington, sipping tea and watching the afternoon shoppers stroll by. That’s right, I’m home. After a train ride, a plane ride, an evening in Bangkok, then another three flights of varying lengths, I have arrived in Vermont safe and sound. My contract with The Nature Conservancy finished. My visa expired. I left.

I’m still going over everything that’s happened to me over the course of my time in Lijiang—the people I met, the places I saw, the decisions I made about my future (grad school!), and the lessons I learned about myself and the world. Cultural differences. Falling in and out of love in another language. At some point I’ll write about all those things, I swear. But for now, I’d like to back up to my last week in Yunnan and tell the story of how I took a traditional Tibetan art class in Shangri-la.

First of all, yes, there is an actual place called Shangri-la. It was thusly named in 2001 in an effort to boost tourism in the area, replacing the former name Zhongdian (which was a Han renaming of the original Tibetan name Gyalthang). The place that is currently called Shangri-la is a predominantly Tibetan county in northwest Yunnan Province, and it is home to the Thangka Center, run by the Shangri-la Association of Cultural Preservation. Thangka is a traditional style of Buddhist art. Painted in bright colors on silk or cotton, these highly symbolic works are common among Vajrayana Buddhist cultures across the Himalayan region. I have always admired the intricate details and vivid colors of thangka paintings, and I was excited to see that the Thangka Center in Shangri-la offered art classes to tourists.

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I emailed the director of the Association, Dakpa Kelden, and he replied in English saying I was welcome to stop by at any time. The Thangka Center has several full-time students from local villages, and I was welcome to join them for a few days of classes. I could even eat and sleep at the center for a very reasonable price.

A few days later I showed up…alone. I had been traveling with another girl, but she elected not to join me on this part of the adventure. I met Dakpa Kelden briefly, a well-dressed businessman with a posh Indian accent. Born to Tibetan exiles in India, he returned to his ancestral hometown in Yunnan as an adult to develop the community and preserve cultural practices such as thangka painting.

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The art teacher himself was Master Palden, a small, soft-spoken man who showed me the cavernous twelve-bed dormitory where I would be sleeping (alone) and got me started in the art studio. Six other students were already at work: five Tibetan teenaged boys, and one Han girl—a tourist like me. I was very grateful for her presence.

I could immediately see that thangka painting was not a skill that one could acquire in an afternoon. The students at work on large, colorful cloth paintings had been studying for years. A couple of the boys were still sketching in pencil on scrap paper. It takes several months of sketching before one is ready to begin painting in color.

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My first task was to sketch the head of the Shakyamuni Buddha. This involved copying an intricate framework of lines and angles onto the page, upon which the Buddha’s features must be carefully and exactly replicated. One of the more advanced students was assigned to keep an eye on me and give me pointers. Although he couldn’t have been older than eighteen, this boy struck me as extremely mature and trustworthy. All of the boys seemed a little bit different—less cocky and more disciplined—compared to teenagers in the United States.

After finishing the Buddha’s head, the boy came over to investigate my work. I was pretty proud of myself for getting the grid and the proportions right, and I thought I’d done a very nice job on the facial features thank you very much. But what did I know? The mouth was all wrong—too big and too downturned. The eyes were too wide. The ears were crooked and short. The chin was too pointed. Even the round thing at the top of the head was the wrong shape—it was supposed to be a jewel, I learned, although I couldn’t tell so from the scanned line drawing I was trying to copy.

I could see that thangka painting was very different from art classes I had taken in high school, where experimentation is celebrated and creativity is expected. Thangka painting is a highly exact and rigidly stylized process. Each building block—the eyes, the chin, the jewel—must be replicated perfectly and mastered before the student can move on. A finished thangka painting, no matter how complex it may appear, is simply a composite of these various building blocks, all of which are rich in symbolic meaning. I began to see why thangka artists never sign their work. Unlike art in the west, a completed painting is not seen as the accomplishment of a talented individual. Rather, it is seen as a new manifestation of a centuries-old spiritual tradition. A tiny drop added into the great ocean of Buddhist symbolism.

The boy handed me a blank sheet of paper and told me to try again. Once again I copied the intricate grid, then overlaid that with the features of the Shakyamuni Buddha. This time my efforts were rewarded—the nose was quite nice, and the shape of the face was almost right, although there was still something wrong with the ears. For homework, the boy told me to practice drawing the most difficult features over and over again: eyes, lips, and ears. I filled half a page with upturned mouths, spirally ears and wavy, heavy-lidded eyes, before it was time for lunch.

I am embarrassed to admit this next part of the story. Lunch was served with the other students in the little outbuilding by the studio, and it was very tasty—marinated cucumbers with Tibetan barley bread—but there just wasn’t enough to satisfy my American appetite. Since we had our afternoons free, I sauntered over to the nearest Western-style café (there are an astonishing number of these in Shangri-la) for some coffee and fried bananas. I felt like a pig.

That afternoon the other tourist girl left, leaving me alone with the boys. I had progressed by this point to Shakyamuni’s full body, which introduced the new challenges of hands and feet. Like all of the Buddha’s body parts, the hands and feet are highly stylized and must be precisely replicated in each of their various positions. After my first attempt at the right hand, one of the students peered over my shoulder and actually laughed. I couldn’t really blame him. My effort to recreate those fleshy, gracefully curved fingers looked more like a deformed tangle of spiders than anything else. The feet, meanwhile, proved even more difficult than the hands. I always made them too large, and the angle of the toes was never quite right. At some point my student teacher gave up trying to correct each spot where I had gone wrong, and started simply erasing my feet and drawing new ones.

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Dinner that night was much more satisfying than lunch (thank god), and my sleep in the cavernous dorm room was disturbed only when the middle-aged male caretaker decided his bed was too cold, and came in to sleep in the bunk two over from mine. Awkward, but whatever.

I was awoken bright and early the next morning by the sound of chanting coming from the art studio, which was located directly over my bed. The students, teachers, and caretakers had gathered for their daily recitation of Buddhist scripture. Their voices rose and fell together in a rolling cascade of syllables in 5/4 time.

After they had finished, I went outside and joined them for breakfast—tsampa and butter tea. I chatted a bit with one of the students, who I learned came from a Tibetan area of Sichuan Province and had been studying at the Thangka Center for three years. All of the students come from relatively poor backgrounds where they might not have had access to traditional education. Their studies at the Thangka Center are funded entirely by the Shangri-la Association of Cultural Preservation. This knowledge only deepened my admiration of their discipline and modesty.

The second day, after more or less approving my full-body Buddha (the ears were still wrong, and the feet were actually the work of my student teacher), Master Palden instructed me to add clothing. Again, I worked with a grid and a scanned line drawing. Despite the relative softness of the folds of fabric, the process of drawing clothing was no less rigorous than replicating the delicate facial features. I had lots of trouble with the left sleeve, and the lotus petals upon which the Buddha was sitting were too pointy. During my last class session, I attempted a new drawing of Tara, the female aspect of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. This one was difficult because her head was tilted at an angle to her body, but I’m proud to say that my attempts at her hands and feet passed inspection. Something was still wrong with the earlobes though. I still can’t quite say what.

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After two full days of lessons, I returned to Lijiang with a backpack full of imperfectly-eared Buddhas. I promised Master Palden never to throw my drawings away, out of respect for the image of the Buddha. If I ever choose to dispose of them in the future, I must burn them.

When I got back to Lijiang a couple of people asked me: what was the point? After all, I couldn’t really learn very much in just two days. Was it really worth the trouble? Although I’m no closer to being a thangka master now than when I started, to me the experience was absolutely worthwhile. My purpose in traveling isn’t to acquire tangible new skills; it is simply to expand my horizons as much as possible. Through my experience at the Thangka Center, I was able to glimpse the everyday life of a Tibetan art student and gain a deeper understanding of the cultural foundations of a beautiful art form. To me, such new experiences are always worth the trouble.

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I love new food. I love trying things I’d never heard of before and experiencing flavors I’d never known existed. I named this blog Malatang after my first experience eating Sichuanese cuisine and tasting the tingly, mouth-numbing pepper called huajiao. It was completely new to me, and I loved it.

I’ve just had another Malatang Moment.

After a week traveling in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in northwest Yunnan, I was introduced to a brand new culinary tradition. Sometimes it even challenged my notions of what “food” and “drink” even mean.

The staples of a Tibetan diet are barley and yak milk. Tibetans live in some of the harshest climates in the world, which means that fresh produce is scarce, variety is limited, and a high caloric intake is necessary for survival.

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The most common beverage is yak butter tea, which I think I drank almost every day while traveling in this region. It’s a hot beverage made from black brick tea steeped in water and churned with yak butter and salt. The tea is usually served in a beautiful metal pot and drunk from bowls. Tibetan people drink dozens and dozens of bowls of this stuff every day, similar to the way many Americans drink coffee, or to the way my family inhales Earl Grey tea morning and night. I can see the appeal of yak butter tea in such a cold climate—it’s hot, rich, and filling—but first I had to get over the psychological barrier of drinking something salty. It also tastes rather stinky. You know how goat cheese tastes goaty? Well, yak butter definitely tastes yaky. I almost spit out my first sip.

And yet, I hated the fact that I didn’t like a flavor that was beloved by an entire ethnic group. Since I hadn’t grown up on it, I simply wasn’t used to it. I therefore decided to drink yak butter tea at every opportunity I could, in the hope that I could teach myself to like it. I have done this successfully in the past with mushrooms and blue cheese (I’m still working on dill), so why couldn’t I now? One week later, I am proud to say that I don’t hate yak butter tea. It helped that the first one I tried was by far the stinkiest. Every other cup I drank afterwards was much milder. I still don’t want to drink it at every meal, but I can appreciate a little bit on a cold morning. Success!

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Moving on, the most common staple food for Tibetans is called tsampa/zanba, which consists of roasted barley flour mixed (with your fingers) with a hunk of yak butter and some yak butter tea to make a kind of dough. This is then eaten with your hands. I’d say it’s most analogous to eating raw pie dough, or maybe biscuit dough, something that consists of flour and butter and not much else. I only tried it once. It didn’t taste bad, per se…but again, I think I’d need to eat it a few more dozen times before I could start to really enjoy it. Although it isn’t technically raw, since the barley is roasted, there’s something about eating dough as an entire meal that just seems wrong to a western girl who always had to sneak licks from the cookie bowl.

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Besides tsampa and yak butter tea, the other Tibetan dishes I tried were much easier for my western palate to accept. We ate a delicious yak cheese that tasted similar to feta, which we dipped in sugar before eating. We had several different kinds of barley flatbread, meat dumplings called momos, yak meat hotpot, and many rice and vegetable dishes that were probably Han-influenced.

All-in-all, we only encountered one tiny corner of the Tibetan world, and I hope someday to explore more of their unique culture and cuisine. It was interesting to experience a diet so severely restricted by the limits of the natural environment. But then, when you’re surrounded by such breathtaking scenery, who has time to think about food?

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The village of Yubeng, located in the Meli Snow Mountain range, is accessible only by foot or horseback.

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I will no longer be working at Rock Bar as a server.

Business has been slow, and now that the peak season is over my services at Rock are no longer needed. This is a good thing, actually. I’m going home to the US in a couple of weeks to renew my visa, work on grad school applications, and enjoy time with family and friends after a long absence. Now I can use my last few weeks in Yunnan to travel and explore, hopefully lessening the shock before I extricate myself from what has proven to be one of the most fascinating, emotional, maturing, and unforgettable summers of my life.

But all that is for another time. What I really want to write about is something far more boring—the economy in Lijiang. Working at Rock has given me a glimpse into the inner workings of Lijiang’s tourism industry, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

I’ve written before about tourism in Lijiang, and the widespread commercialization and commodification of the Old Town. I already knew that everything in Old Town exists for the purpose of making money from visitors. What I hadn’t realized was how deeply this has penetrated every sector of the tourism industry. I’ve also written before about the importance of guanxi (connections) in Lijiang. Now I see that guanxi forms the very core of Lijiang’s economic structure. Without it, you’ll never survive.

Most businesses in the 21st century operate within the simple restrictions of supply and demand. In Lijiang, businesses must juggle three parameters: supply, demand, and commission. Tour companies receive commission from guesthouses. Guesthouses receive commission from bars and restaurants. Individual tour guides receive commission from everyone. This is simply how it’s done. No business succeeds in a bubble. Nobody survives outside the system.

Lets take a hypothetical bar as an example. This is a brand-new bar that just opened, and it’s in a difficult-to-find location. Thus it would make sense that the bar should keep its prices low—at least until it builds a reputation. After all, Lijiang is saturated with bars, and this new bar lacks a competitive edge. But the weird thing about Lijiang is that it is saturated with tourists as well. Even places far from the center, such as where this bar is located, are still swarming with people at all hours of the day. So in a city with practically unlimited supply (bars) and practically unlimited demand (customers), how do businesses compete? Why is Man Xiang Bar (one of the most successful in Lijiang) packed every night, while Rock Bar is so empty that they can no longer justify paying me?

The answer is that (almost) every bar in Lijiang pays 50% commission to guesthouses. If you sell a 40RMB bottle of beer to a stranger off the street, you make about 37RMB of profit (yes, the markup is that big). If you sell it to a tourist who came from a specific guesthouse, your profit is slashed in half.

In Lijiang, everyone stays in guesthouses. The average bar is filled 90% with guesthouse-affiliated drinkers, leaving very few tables available for independent travelers. This means that every bar in Lijiang is marketing themselves not towards average consumers (most of whom like to save money when they can), but to guesthouse staff. From the point of view of the guesthouse, a more expensive drink means more commission. The guesthouse would prefer to take their guests to a bar that serves 40RMB beer, rather than to a bar that serves much more reasonable 20RMB beer. This is why everything is expensive in Lijiang.

The problem with our hypothetical bar is that the location is inconvenient from the point of view of guesthouses. When a guide takes their guest around the Old Town, they take them through high-volume shopping areas where they will get commission, then to a nearby restaurant where they will get commission, and then to a bar where they will get commission. Our hypothetical bar is not located near any of the main shopping areas, so guesthouses usually don’t bother coming. Meanwhile, the prices are far too high to appeal to the rare individual traveler from the street. Add to this the fact that management has put far too little effort into advertising, marketing, and establishing connections with guesthouses (guanxi!), and it’s apparent why business is slow.

So who holds power in Lijiang? It isn’t the tourists. It isn’t the bar owners. It isn’t the local tour guides or individual guesthouse owners, although they certainly benefit from the system. There are really only a handful of truly powerful people in Lijiang. These guys not only own large tourism agencies, they also own numerous shops, restaurants, guesthouses, and bars. All of these businesses work together, and the commission money stays within a closed loop. Man Xiang Bar is packed every night because the owner sends drinkers from his own guesthouses, all located nearby.

The strangest thing to me about this whole system is that it leaves us—the consumers—completely stranded. The economy is neither demand-driven nor supply-driven. It’s like a private game played among the local businesses, and the consumers are trapped in the middle with no choice but to pay inordinately high prices. Until the massive groups of Chinese tourists catch on and stop coming to Lijiang—unlikely—the system will never change to meet the demands of consumers.

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First of all, I should admit that I’m hardly an expert in this subject. I turned twenty-one the summer before my senior year of college and moved to China right after graduation. I can count on one hand the number of bars I’ve been to in the United States, so I can hardly claim to understand what the American “bar scene” is like. Still, I’ve been to my fair share of bars in China, both in Nanjing and in Lijiang (and now I work part time in a bar), and there are many features of the bar culture here that strike me as distinctly Chinese. These are a few that come to mind:

1. Dozens of bottles of beer

When Americans go to bars in groups—as far as I know—it is customary for each person to order whatever he or she feels like drinking—a beer, a cocktail, whatever. When Chinese people go to bars in groups, they usually order dozens of the same cheap beer for the whole table to share. At Rock, where I work, the menu includes dozens of different beers, liquors, cocktails and wines (and even a champagne listed at over $3000). But despite the variety available, 99% of customers order the same thing—Snow beer by the dozen. Snow beer contains 2.5% alcohol, has less flavor than seltzer, and is the cheapest thing on the menu. Two people might order twelve bottles and hunker down with dice and cigarettes, cracking open one bottle at a time and barely getting any drunker. A large group might order two or three dozen bottles at a time. It’s quantity over quality, one hundred percent.

2. Whiskey and iced tea

Perhaps second in popularity to the cheap beer is overpriced whiskey served with bottled iced tea. This is less common at Rock, but I remember it clearly from the bars and clubs in Nanjing. My guess is that wealthy men—always men—want to show off that they know what whiskey is and can afford to buy it, but they haven’t quite acquired the taste for it yet. Thus they feel the need to dilute it with tea until you can’t even taste the whiskey. The iced tea they use is the cheapest bottled kind probably made from sugar, more sugar, and floor scrapings from the tea factory. In Nanjing, I remember a constant battle between a certain American friend, who would add more whiskey to the pitcher until it tasted strong enough, and a certain Chinese friend, who would keep pouring iced tea until the whiskey flavor disappeared. In the end they both got drunk, so it didn’t matter.

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3. Toasting

In China it is considered rude to drink alone. Before you take a sip, you must toast someone else at the table and drink with them. To really show your respect for the other person, it’s best to down your drink in one gulp (干杯). Because this is difficult to do with an entire bottle of Snow beer, most Chinese people pour their beer into a small glass and drink out of that. I actually really like this custom. It makes your drink last longer, keeps you interacting with the other people at the table, and it’s a great way to meet new people too. Just raise your glass to anyone in the room, and you’ve started a conversation.

4. Bar food

The first time I saw Chinese bar food at a club in Nanjing I couldn’t believe my eyes. Here was a room of sweaty young people nodding their heads to the beats of Nicki Minaj, just like in the US, pausing every now and then to snack on…sunflower seeds? Cucumbers? Fruit? Drunk Americans like cheese and grease: French fries, nachos, and chicken wings. Drunk Chinese, apparently, eat like a yoga teacher on a diet. They dine on unsalted sunflower seeds, plain peanuts, sliced cucumbers, and popcorn. The fanciest, most expensive snack is usually sliced fruit—watermelon, dragon fruit, apples, grapes, and cherry tomatoes—elaborately arranged on tiered platters. Rock bar offers French fries and pizza, but these are far less popular than the sunflower seeds. Seriously.

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5. Kids

In the US, the drinking age is strictly enforced, and children aren’t even allowed to enter most drinking establishments. Not so in China. The drinking age is officially 18, but I have never seen this enforced, and there is no limit to who can enter a bar or a club. This means that in places like Lijiang, where most bar-goers are tourists with nowhere to leave their kids, the bars are crawling with wee ones. They aren’t drinking (at least I hope not). But they do play under the tables, drop dice on the floor, and dance wildly to the music. More disturbingly, children frequently come in off the street trying to sell flowers to the patrons. I’m not sure I want to know where those kids’ parents are…

6. It’s great to be a foreigner

If you’ve never been to China before, it can be hard to imagine people treating you as a celebrity simply for existing (especially if you’re white). If you go to bars and clubs you can expect to get free drinks, invitations to the VIP rooms, and Wechat friend requests from seven thousand people you’ll never see again. From the perspective of a bar manager, this friendliness towards foreigners has an ulterior motive. A Chinese bar filled with foreigners is immediately assumed to be trendier, hipper, and more cosmopolitan than a bar filled with locals. In Nanjing, I was friends with some promoters (all foreigners) at one of the larger clubs. Their job was to attract foreigners to come and drink for free, in the hope that this would in turn attract wealthy Chinese who would spend a lot of money to drink in such a globalized establishment. At Rock in Lijiang, my job is less to serve customers, and more to chat with them and make them feel special, thus encouraging them to buy more drinks. My very presence in the bar elevates it in status. I suppose this is racial objectification in its crudest, most obvious form. The bar doesn’t want me to work there because I’m friendly and good with customers; they want me to work there because I’m a white girl. I usually try not to think too hard about this. After all, don’t bars and clubs in the US give preference to “hot” girls over everybody else? It’s a biased, racialized, image-obsessed world we live in, and in China I’m workin’ my privilege as shamelessly as I can. You know, for now.