I’m back in Wuhan, and the high today will be 101 degrees. It’s only 10am, and already it is incredibly hot, humid, and still. Few places around here have air-conditioning, so when you leave somewhere cool, you must be prepared with water, an umbrella, a fan, and low expectations. It is amazing to me that in this heat people are still walking around, visiting with friends, sitting on little stools fanning themselves, and just generally hanging out. In the US, you would never see people outside on a day like today. I imagine that if the folks around here could afford air-conditioning, they would be hanging out inside, too.
I think I’ve hit a wall. Remember those toilets I mentioned? Well, I finally got to know one really well. Too well. My good friend John back in CoMo says it takes about a week or ten days for the local bacteria to catch up with you, and I do believe I’ve been caught. In the train station in Nanjing, I could feel something wasn’t right, which is not a good feeling when you’re about to get on a hi-speed train and can only speak the equivalent of toddler Chinese. Sure enough, I completely fouled a toilet in the train station, barely managing to keep from falling in myself from the dizziness that followed. The woman who walked into the stall after me was not pleased. I took my Imodium AD and hoped for the best. I’m happy to report that yes, Imodium does exactly what it claims to do.
Speaking of toilets, if you can’t remember the Chinese word for restroom, cesuo, then you can say “WC,” and most older people will know what you mean. At the Confucius Temple in Nanjing, I got to experience a new level of Chinese-style WC. There were stalls, yes, but no doors. Running between each partitioned space was a little open canal, like a little tiled river with water flowing through. I was confused as to how to utilize this kind of WC, but fortunately, a young Chinese woman was squatting in the first partition (typing on her iPad, no less), so I did what she was doing a few stalls down, and then broke out my ever-present bottle of hand sanitizer. Wow. Who knew toilets could provide such fascinating cultural experiences?
After signing my prayer card at the Confucius Temple in Nanjing, my friend Xiaolong and his girlfriend, Chen, took me to a true Communist-style commissary. In the sixties during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s government opened commissaries to feed the peasants. Anyone could come eat for free.
My friends, Xiaolong and Chen, brought me to a modern version of one of these commissaries. The tables were made of pine and were simple, sort of like picnic tables in the US. There were partitioned dining spaces along the wall numbered for each work block, but since we were eating as the lowliest of the low, we sat in the loud central area of the restaurant. The waitresses were all dressed as peasants, and they brought us tiny plate/bowl/cup/glass/spoon sets. These sets were wrapped in plastic because this restaurant didn’t wash its own dishes–they sent them out to a dishwashing service. Just the day before, I had seen a storefront with bins of dirty dishes in front, but there was no place inside to eat food, so I was wondering where all the dishes came from. Here was my answer. The dishes in the commissary restaurant were small, but fortunately, our meal was not. Xialong and Chen ordered lots amazing food for us, including crawfish, fish balls with edamame, cabbage sauteed with red peppers and soy sauce, chicken with green peppers (the kind used in wasabi), tomatoes sprinkled with sugar, and seaweed soup. I ate two things I’d never eaten before–sea snails and pig skin. Yes, pig skin. When I asked what this dish was, I thought Chen was saying “peach skin.” It did resemble the fuzz on a peach, and because I was hungry, I probably saw what I wanted to see. Well, the pig skin was delicious, but once I realized what it was, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I couldn’t eat anymore. Maybe China is going to make a meat eater out of me. The sea snails were amazing, too.
Today, Jeff and I will have lunch with one of his students from University of Illinois–she is home (in China) for the summer. This is a great big world, but it’s amazing how small it feels when you know someone who lives here and speaks the local language. This morning, I got my first serious English-speaker smack-down. Usually, if I ask a young person if they speak English (I ask in English and in Chinese), they will know enough English to help me with whatever basic task I am trying to accomplish. This morning, though, I asked several young people for help at a dining court, and none of them could figure out what I was saying or what I wanted. One young woman actually laughed at me and tugged at her boyfriend, pointing at me and walking away. It was a bummer. I was really hungry and couldn’t figure out how to get anything other than soymilk. The market where I usually buy an egg and a banana and some soy pudding was demolished three days ago, so now I’ve got to figure out how to navigate a different place to buy my breakfast. It was all too much this morning, especially after the rough night I had intestinal troubles. As I was walking back to my hotel, feeling dejected and too far from home, I realized the shop where I buy fresh yogurt was open an hour early, so I got to eat my favorite dish of yogurt with raisins and honey for breakfast. Yum.