Posted on March 18th, 2013
In the winter of 2005, I took a job as a research reporter for the New York Times Beijing bureau. The capital was blustery and bitter cold, coming off another long haul winter. A fresh round of yellow dust kicked up across the city.
Each month the Times paid me 5000 yuan, or roughly $620 at the time. Rent was 2000 yuan. 3000 yuan left. One yuan would get me around on the buses. Three yuan bought a ride on the subway. Taxis were in the double digits, plus tip. Walking was free.
But walking makes you hungry. So five yuan was enough to buy a full breakfast with soymilk. Twenty yuan, by contrast, was not enough to get a small latte. You plot your course carefully on 5000 yuan a month.
The warren of lanes and roads that made up my neighborhood bustled at its hardly-sewn seams. Old Wang fixed bicycle tires. Little Lin sold bundles of sweet popcorn. There were cigarette and gum shops, fruit stands, a cobbler’s station. In my neighborhood you could get everything done and usually you could get it with a nice lamb kebab to go. People flew kites in the afternoons. More than once I stopped to watch a dragon circle a shark in the sky.
On the last evening of the Year of the Rooster I rode my bicycle down Ghost Street. Hot pot shops rubbed shoulders with Shandong joints next to spiced Sichuan specialty houses. The road was littered with the papery rinds of New Year’s firecrackers. Men crouched in the alleyways, lighting whole hissing bundles and stepping back to observe the white flash and crack. The polluted night sky lit up here and there with the pop of their pow-pow bursts. Someone had hung a banner that read, “Support Public Security. Do Not Chaotically Explode Firecrackers.”
I stopped at a local snack stall to buy an egg sandwich. The seller, Mr. Meng, shifted his flat bread over the coals. In the background, through the slats of his door, I could see a woman’s face.
“Who’s this?” she asked.
“This is Kai Rui,” Meng said, using my Chinese name. I stopped by the stall often enough to have a passing relationship with Meng, enough for him to know my name and what I was up to and to ask about my crappy bike and why I wasn’t in my office or where my husband was or what about children and why I ate mostly food I didn’t make.
“When she eats Chinese food she always goes out,” Meng told the woman. “She eats in restaurants. She doesn’t know a thing about cooking.”
“Well that’s stupid,” the woman said. “How easy it is to cook food? Why waste all your money in restaurants? Where are you from?”
“America,” I told her. “Mei Guo,” literally “beautiful country.”
“Obviously. You Americans love to waste money, right? Where are you living?”
“Just up the road,” I said.
The woman edged her way into Meng’s stall and the two stood shoulder to shoulder, addressing me.
“Restaurants use only the worst, cheapest ingredients,” the woman said. “They’re all trying to make money so don’t think they won’t serve you the bad stuff because they will. It’s cheap and dirty. Really, it’s like no one tells a foreigner a thing.”
The woman made a disgusted face. Meng shrugged and indicated he needed a bit more room. The woman stepped out of his stall and onto the street.
“You need to learn how to cook,” she said. “You’re wasting your money and putting yourself in danger. That’s your problem.”
In the little warren behind her, I could see her home as well as three or four others, each orbiting with different planetary systems of daily life, each packed in an impossibly small space, each with its soot and steam, its dumplings cooling, its shadows lurching against old brick walls.
“Well,” I started. “Maybe you could teach me.”
“Huh,” the woman startled.
“The situation’s not easy, right?” I had some rickety Chinese. “I’m wasting my money and health. You could teach me how to cook Chinese food?” I wasn’t sure this would work. Why should it work? Who was I to impose on this woman’s time, demanding cooking lessons? Standing around inside her home? Taking notes? Maybe handing some of it off to the Times, maybe not.
“Well,” she started. “What do you know already? What can you do?”
“Tea?” I said. “Boiled eggs? Nothing really.”
“What do you want to learn?” she asked.
Chinese food is a universe all to itself. A typical emperor had the run of over 10,000 dishes, night or day. And those were just the items deemed suitable for the imperial stomach. Thousands of dishes exist beyond that edited repertoire. The full scope of Chinese food, the four dominant regional cooking styles of the north, east, Cantonese and Sichuanese, amounts to a lifetime of study. Jia chang cai, literally “family common eats” draws from all four and makes up the bulk of the daily diet in China.
“I guess I would just study some jia chang cai,” I said.
“Huh.” The woman paused for a minute. “Maybe I can help you. Just some simple things? Just things like dumplings, fish-flavored pork, the Earth’s Three Freshness’? Just things like that?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Just things like that.”
“Ok.” The woman blew into her cold, bare hands. She had come outside in a hurry and stood in a pair of slip-on house shoes embroidered with Mickey Mouse ears.
“Come back tomorrow,” she said. “We will cook a little jia chang cai. My name is Xiao.”
I arrived on time. Xiao came out in a large winter coat, sweats and running shoes. Her glossy black hair was pulled into a low bun and her wide, heavy-cheeked face looked freshly scrubbed. “Zou!” she called out. “Go!” And we were off.
We headed to a large warehouse market. Immediately, the fighting began. Everything was how much? What price? You want what? For this? I followed behind Xiao, keeping tabs on her observations, the places where her fingers ran. Next to us an old woman felt the mushrooms, all papery hands and Nike Air Max.
Mountains of produce, some long and stringy, some fat and bulbous, were everywhere. It was a festival of wintertime offerings: beans in all their forms. Gourds and tubers. Potatoes sat in an enormous, dirty pile that suggested hours of scrubbing, peeling and boiling. One by one, a woman in an orange coat selected sprouts.
In the frozen food section, Xiao pointed to a yellow package of dumplings embossed with the smiling face of a middle-aged woman. “This woman’s husband left her for another woman and she was forced to raise her child alone,” Xiao said, picking up a package. The woman smiled back at us.
“So she started small, selling dumplings in her neighborhood. And soon it grew into a huge enterprise. Now the whole country is eating her dumplings and she’s a very, very rich lady. So, as it turned out, it didn’t actually matter that her husband divorced her.” Xiao threw the package back down into the freezer.
From the dumplings we wandered north to the meat. “That’s the pig’s spine,” Xiao said, running her index finger down the knobs of my back. “Delicious in a soup or braised, the little nuggets of meat fall out. The marrow is also nice.” A Xiao-powered finger dug into my own spine, kneading for gristle and meat.
Back inside, Xiao’s courtyard was a study in efficiency. The structure was made of gray mulching brick and corrugated tin roof, all balanced on some precarious thread of order. Rent, paid to her husband’s work unit, was just over two US dollars per month. The whole place was, by Xiao’s estimation, seven square meters. “This is my life,” she said. “Everything is here.” I could understand how easily these fragile spaces were being destroyed, mile-by-mile, under the bulldozers of Beijing developers.
Xiao turned a key to her padlocked door and our cooking class began. “Chop and slice with the blade, Kai Rui,” she instructed, holding a cleaver up. “This is how you get the finest slices.” She see-sawed the knife in the air, mincing a shaft of late morning sunlight.
“Turned sideways, the blade becomes a plate. Lift everything into the wok this way.” Xiao flipped the cleaver again. “The pointed corners open fish heads, turn flesh from the bone.” Then Xiao brought the knife handle down onto the table with a sharp thwack. “Do that,” she laughed, “when you want to make a loud sound.”
Xiao’s husband Hu pushed aside the floral curtain covering their door. He was surprised at first to see a foreigner inside his home. Then he nodded at my notebook, which was by now full of notes and splattered with blood and drops of vinegar. I introduced myself, referring to his wife as lao shi, my teacher. Hu smiled. He seemed to take the arrival of a nosey American in stride, much like the way his fellow Beijing dwellers took their city’s exploding population and ever-changing landscape as a matter of course . But inside this fifteen square foot home, things hadn’t changed much in the twenty-six years that Xiao and Hu had lived there. Hu began to help with lunch, handing off plates to Xiao as an assistant would a surgeon.
Xiao stood at the sink, squeezing the leaves of a cabbage like a towel. She rubbed the chicken under the water, pulling away sinewy bits of fat and tendon. She diced the flesh into long strands that she sprinkled with potato flour.
I took notes in short dashes, trying to learn the broader plan, the trajectory of the meal. I wrestled a few more slivers of carrot out of the hard round lump of root. My main question was, why all this work? Why not big, hulking pieces of carrot that are easy to cut and probably taste the same? But as soon as I veered from the code of slender slivers into a land of wider, fatter chunks, Xiao shot a hand over. The carrot fell away in her hands like strands of orange silk.
“That is how you do that,” she said, returning to the chicken.
What was I doing in this home with these people, with my contrived idea of cooking lessons, my embarrassment and their generosity? Had I studied Chinese for 10 years just to wander around eating with strangers, decoding their instructions and admonishments, feeling accomplished when I could laugh at their jokes? I would have said yes at the time. That this was living. That I was writing. That this mattered. That stories could come from this. That this was the kind of thing the Times wanted me to do, probably. That I had a book idea, even.
What I couldn’t say was that I had constructed a large, ornate landscape of my own in which I now lived, six thousand miles away from my family and my now fully schizophrenic brother. It was a plan that took me into the steamy kitchens and wok-warmed homes of strangers like Xiao. Years before, in my own home, my brother disappeared into a threatening, terrifying, erratic hole in his mind. Several times my family had gone into hiding because of his threats and behavior, his talk of raping and killing. More than once he has tried to kill my father. I remember police at our door. I remember my brother’s strange and graphic messages on our answering machine. I remember many strained smiles and sighs from my parents. The assurance that “all is well.” The warning not to tell any of my friends. The clarification that this was “family business.” The importance of “protecting the family.” I went far away for college, and then even further away to China. Then to Indonesia. Then back to China. I have been gone for years. I haven’t seen my brother in over a decade.
So this is how you go to China. This is how you meet Xiao and say, “Teach me to cook.” “Take me into your home.” “Feed me.” “Hello.” This is how you marvel at the prospect, the possibility, of a whole family living in a fifteen square foot space and how you are reminded of certain American laws, certain American procedures, and of the intricacies of mental illness itself that leave officers to sit at your spacious kitchen table after midnight with cups of black coffee, nodding and listening again to the recordings, the “playback,” and saying , “Yep” and “That’s definitely what I would call a credible threat.” But also, “Of course, there’s nothing we can really do until he actually does something. Harms any one of you in some way.”
Every expat has a reason. This is how schizophrenia obliterates more than just the afflicted. And through another country and a different language and through people like Xiao and a more than passing interest in the dumplings of divorcees, in carrots and pork spine, this is how you, too, can disappear.
Xiao called me over to her side. She pointed to the chicken.
“See this?” she asked. “Make the chicken slices thin, Kai Rui. Very thin. In our cuisine you must chop everything very fine. Don’t forget that. You are forgetting it. Write it down.”
Xiao poured a bowl of beaten eggs into the hot oil. The pale yellow mixture puffed and spun like a yellow cloud in the heat. She removed the eggs and into the remaining pool of oil added coarsely chopped spring onions, sugar, salt, a little soy sauce and a heaping pile of tomatoes. The mixture bubbled and churned. Then Xiao returned the eggs to the mix and the light and dark, the red and yellow, came together in a fragrant, muddled bloom.
The dishes began streaming onto the card table: the red, soupy mixture of tomatoes and egg, a plate of sautéed tofu, a plate of chicken and a mound of cold beans marinated in garlic and vinegar that had emerged at some point from Xiao’s green refrigerator.
Next thing we were four, as their daughter Fei Fei appeared for lunch. Fei Fei had short, spiky hair that spoke more of economy than fashion. Like Hu, she was startled to find a foreigner seated at her parents’ card table.
“A real American?” she asked her mom.
“Yes,” Xiao replied as if just home with a new appliance. “A real American.” Turning to me, Xiao announced that Fei Fei was actually very good at English.
“Call me Veronica,” Fei Fei said. I never could. I asked her about school. She told me she was a junior studying e-commerce. “After I graduate I want to become an office lady,” she said. “And sometimes a tourist.”
Xiao brought out a large bowl of rice. Hu pulled a couple of beers from the refrigerator. A tremendous spread weighed down the card table. Hu raised his cup.
“To America!” he announced. “And to China. To jia chang cai!”
We pushed our cups together in dry, papery cheers and drank. Then, piece-by-piece we began plucking at the dishes. Xiao scowled at me. “Too polite! Here!” she said, stuffing spoonfuls of tofu and chicken into my bowl. “You need to jia rou—add meat,” she said. I chomped away at my full bowl, its enormous range of flavors, its warm comfort. It was the best.
“Beijing is about roast duck,” Hu said. “You might as well not come to Beijing if you’re not going to eat duck. Shanghai is ben bang cai, Guangdong has its yue cai, and Hunan is hot, numbingly hot, we call it ma!”
Xiao sent me away that day with two full boxes of food, giving me exact instructions for how to reheat everything in my wei bo lu—the microwave she assumed I had. I bowed deeply, the plastic bags of food swinging from my hands. Xiao reached to tuck my hair behind my ears.
Fei Fei was coming home from school for the summer, Xiao told me, so we should prepare a big meal. In recent months I had become Fei Fei’s de facto English tutor. “Come back at 7 am,” Xiao said. “That’s when I’ll leave for the morning market. Don’t be late. If you’re late, I leave without you.”
While we had been to smaller markets and grocery stores, now we’d head to one of Beijing’s busiest morning rush tucked into an alleyway beside the National Art Museum. Xiao wanted to get in early.
“If we’re late, nothing will be left. Everything shuts down by 9. Over. Finished.” Xiao cast a stern eye over me, assessing my ability to get up and out the door in the morning, a point over which she had long expressed skepticism. “Don’t be late.”
The next morning I put on my running shoes and was outside Xiao’s red door at 6:55 am. Meng called inside that I was ready and waiting. “It’s so hot today,” he said, handing me one of his test-run rolls. The bread was slightly salty and still steaming. I checked that my shoes were well laced, nothing to trip on.
Xiao came out. “Good,” she said, tucking some plastic bags into her pocket. “You’re on time. Let’s go.”
The place was teeming. People snatched pink watermelon samples from a vendor’s fingers as soon as he cut them. Xiao took two, handed one to me and charged on. She gestured to the long gourds, to piles of roots. “Do you have these in your America?” she asked. “What about this? That one too?” I had no idea. Some of what was on offer, long reedy things, short squat somethings, dried piles of this and that, were indecipherable to me. Xiao felt the bright purple eggplants and then ran a hand through some salted peanuts. She scowled at the cucumbers, evaluated the bitter melons, and cast an expert eye across a discounted group of spring onions. She got some free fennel with her water spinach.
Back in the hutong, Hu peeled and chopped celery on the card table while Xiao washed and examined a chicken. The produce we bought at the market would last them about four or five days, Xiao estimated. She had spent just over one dollar. Outside, Meng sold his bread, repeating over and over the same phrases: “Yes, I have that.” “How many?” “No problem.” “Thank you.”
I asked Fei Fei about her job at Le Jazz Café. “I make 6 yuan per hour,” she said. “Is that experience? Can I put it on my resume for my e-commerce job?”
Hu spread newspaper on the card table and took out a plastic bag of sunflower seeds while Fei Fei and I chatted in English. He began snapping the seeds between his teeth, expertly extracting the kernel inside. China could turn anyone into an expert seedeater. I’d seen extraordinary skills in trains, parks, taxicabs, restaurants. Hu had his own style and, when I bit down on a seed with my molars and awkwardly fished the hull out, he scolded me. “Use your front tooth,” he said. “Like this.” He snapped another seed.
I noticed Hu had the same worn grooves in his two front teeth that I had seen in so many other people. I watched him eat another sunflower seed, carefully fitting the edge into the worn ridge and crushing the casing. The groove served its function perfectly. Hu spit the papery hull. It didn’t look like it did, but I wondered if it hurt.
Fall in Beijing is the best time of year. Clear weather, blue skies. Stuff you can breathe. Xiao called me the night before I was leaving for a trip. She knew I’d be gone for a while. “Are you home yet?” she asked. “I thought you might not be home until late.” I said I was home.
“Listen,” she said. “When you travel, take extra care to bring medicine for an upset stomach. When you leave Beijing, the food quality will not be as high. People will sell you anything so be careful.” I said I would be careful.
“Take your medicine with juice, lots of water. You need to keep your fire down, Kai Rui. You have too much fire.” I agreed to keep my fire down.
“Huh,” Xiao paused. “Was Fei Fei any good today when you spoke Business English with her? I think maybe she is no good.” Fei Fei was just great, I said.
“Huh. Well, when you get back we’ll cook meat. Maybe some lamb brain if your eyes hurt—don’t read too much.” I told Xiao I’d come back to the hutong as soon as I could.
“And don’t forget the stomach medicine. You have stomach medicine?” Yes, yes. “Because I have some medicine here. Do you need any of my stomach medicine?” No, no. “Okay then, that’s it. I’m closing the phone now. This is expensive. I close the phone now.” The line went dead and a Xiao void spread out in front of me.
I got up early the next morning. I threw my bag over the front rack of my bicycle and pedaled out to the subway station. I caught a southbound train, transferred twice and walked into the Beijing Railway Station. I had a one-way ticket to Chongqing, central China’s largest city. It would take nearly two days to get there. I found my bunk, threw my bag down and stretched out. By the time the train blew its departing whistle I was asleep again. When I woke up, we were somewhere in the Hebei plains.