I’m sitting here, on the night before final exams begin, trying to sleepytime tea myself into a state of sleep-inducing exhaustion. The last few nights, I’ve been tired, but tossed and turned for a few hours before falling asleep. My students are going crazy with end of semester ants in the pants syndrome, and so am I. Their crazy involves making noise in class and galloping all over campus; my crazy involves lying in bed every night with my mind woefully awake and my body unable to sleep. I think we’re all ready for the semester to end and the winter holiday to begin. Two days ago, I got the welcome news that our last teaching day is December 30th instead of January 6th, which is wonderful sanity-wise and also because it will give us more time to travel before the Chinese New Year, in which–check it–2 billion passenger journeys occur to hometowns and back. So, the earlier we can book train tickets out of dodge and go south, the better!
I love planning trips and researching countries. I’m not a big planner with everything in life, but when it comes to traveling, I like reading up on every detail about the places I’m going to go, absorbing everything I see in pictures and read in traveler’s stories. Right now, after hours spent browsing the online Lonely Planet forum and various other information caches, I have an idea in mind that involves train and bus hopping from southern China to northern to southern Vietnam, and I’m getting braver with the notion that I’d like to hop over to Laos and/or Cambodia as well. After all, when am I going to get the chance to visit South Asia again? I may, but I also may never come this way again. I want to see river towns, and old buildings (get me out of high-rise country, please), and countryside, and rice paddies. I want to taste local food made by people who’ve passed down traditional recipes for generations, because loving and appreciating someone’s food is a big step towards seeing their culture more clearly, albeit as a born outsider.
Coming to China has made me appreciate food more than I ever have, which may sound somewhat silly, but it’s true. Food is so much a part of who we are, what we value in life, and what memories make us love the food we love. Ask any vegetarian or die-hard steak lover, or even a grilled-cheese addict. I love grilled-cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, because my mom always made the two together, and I have memories of eating that meal when it was cold, rainy, or snowy out, and it was comforting and delicious. Chinese people, at least the ones I have met in this city and at the school, have little to no interest in trying Western food, which boggled my mind at first. Of course I wouldn’t understand this, because in America, though we have our particular styles of cuisines that vary from country to country and town to town, we have access to international food. We can eat Italian one night and Chinese the next; Mexican one day and Indian on the weekend. We may not have access to the most authentic international foods, depending on where we live, but we are aware of and lay claim to various international foods as our favorites.
It’s not like that here. My students are always telling me that their favorite foods are dumplings and noodles, oh, and maybe KFC. That’s it. They don’t even have much interest in any neighboring country’s cuisine, save for occasional Korean barbeque or sushi, but even then, they don’t count it as their favorite. But, they make up for the foods they never try in their zeal for Chinese cooking. Which, I can’t blame them for when I’m eating hotpot, or lamb kebabs, or any number of wonderful concoctions that they fry up for dinner. Chinese food is wonderful. But, I still can never fully understand how anyone can live without good bread, cheese, or any variety in cuisine. I’m still an outsider in that respect, and always will be. But, I’m glad that after finding new favorite dishes by ordering random things off the menu, and spending some time in the homes of Chinese people who are outstanding cooks, I can appreciate the culture more than I would have if I had stubbornly insisted upon my Western comfort food and just lived on PB&J here.
And now, after these paragraphs of much too compound sentences, I will hie me to bed and hope that I have thought my last thought for the night so that sleep will come quickly. Actually, my last thought is this: final exams begin tomorrow morning, and I am happy as I consider what (limited) power will emanate from me as my students meet the grade-giving-teacher side of Laura at last.