It was summer and the humidity hung in droopy browning sheets above the city. We emerged from the cool chrysalis of the Youth Hostel, ducking under the little wooden archway that divided the green oasis-like yard from the city outside.
We were looking for some lunch. We often had different instincts in this regard. Having been in China for six months already, I tended to prefer local fare where my companion was not used to spicy food.
On this day, we turned right, instead of left out of the small alley the entrance to the Youth Hostel was hidden in. The road still followed the general curve of the lake’s edge although the lake itself was totally hidden from view by buildings and parkland. Not far along we came to a short alley which turned out to be the back entrance to a restaurant. The restaurant’s bins sat neatly against a wall and only a few small black plastic bags strayed on the ground. But the asphalt was suspiciously damp and an odour of rotting fish and vegetable matter assailed our nostrils. The fumes instantly drew our hands to our faces and we walked on quickly trying not to breathe too much.
As we walked, I told my friend about a trip I had taken with the other foreign teachers at my place of work. Some of the toilets we had come across had truly tested our delicate constitutions. I remember one of the Japanese teachers coming back from a public toilet in a small clearing on a mountain road. She looked distinctly green. I had always had a phobia of public toilets – even in Australia. But on this trip I found myself squatting over a trough in a cubicle with no door and just dealing with it – the infamous “ni hao” toilets. I can’t claim to have enjoyed the experience but it taught me that as long as you can come out and laugh about it with friends, it’s all just part of the cultural learning curve.
Further along the road, we found a little stall that sold dumplings which we both loved – especially the jiaozi – little pastry crescents with a frilled edge and either fried or steamed. You pick up the neat parcel with your chopsticks and dip it in soy sauce and then risk the steaming-hot interior and take a bite. Meat and herbs with that mysteriously flavoursome clear juice that the Chinese magic up so beautifully. Simply amazing. In Australia you pay $10 for a small take-away pot of these morsels. In China, they were so cheap. In retrospect I can’t help thinking that I should have pigged out more than I did.
We sat outside on the pavement under an awning. The tables were round and white with squat little four-legged plastic stools around them in marbled green. When I sat, my knees were almost on a level with my shoulders. But it proved a useful angle for hovering over bowl and sauce. On the road, many motor scooters zipped by but relatively few cars. The lady making the jiao zi eyed us curiously, as her fingers busily rolled and stuffed, but she made no comment. In the city where I was working, foreigners were far less common and she would’ve likely been astonished that we could order in Chinese, let alone that we were there in the first place.
While we ate, I was still talking. On the same trip with my work colleagues, we had stopped for lunch in a tiny noodle house in a mountain village. My memory is that the whole village was no more than about twenty or thirty buildings. The road dipped down and wound through almost like it was a dell in between steep mountain passes. It was in Sichuan Province – famous for its spicy food. Knowing this, most of us ordered our noodles “bu la” meaning “not spicy” please. But the French teacher decided to take a risk. He requested “yi dian la” (a little bit spicy). We couldn’t help laughing as he took his first mouthfuls. His eyes widened perceptibly and soon he was coughing and asking for more drinks. And although the rest of us had been so conservative in our orders, we all felt we had the breath of dragons.
My friend and I finished our jiao zi lunch and headed back, past the stinky alley, past the Youth Hostel and to the lake shore where we were meeting a friend to catch a boat to the island in the lake which contained a lake within the island.