Some of the best and worst in China

Some of the best and worst in China

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How is the food in China?” That is one of the most often-asked questions when people learn that I have just returned from my trip accompanying my son (see also last week’s column). The answer is the same as it would be here: It depends where you eat. As my son was invited to speak at a half-dozen medical centers, his hosts graciously provided some meals that we enjoyed, although we didn’t always know what we were eating. Yes, the food was somewhat different from that served in Chinese restaurants here. In China, vegetables can be eaten, especially greens, at every meal with abundant tofu. Some of the dishes I had not seen before, and also some of their delicious fruits were new to us. There were fewer heavy sauces, less fried foods, lots of fish and seafood and smaller portions of meat — pork, chicken and some beef — often in combination with vegetables. Depending on the region, there was varying emphasis on sweet or spice. Dumplings were a constant, and soup with noodles came at the end of the meal. Dishes were placed on a large Lazy Susan in the center of the table, and each person plucked morsels with chopsticks as the turntable rotated. There were almost never any dairy products; many Asians are lactose intolerant.

A treat for the Chinese, and therefore for us, was “hot pot.” We sat in a restaurant at a round table, in the center of which was a heating element topped by a pot divided into two compartments. One half was for herbs floating in a consommé, the other for “spicy” — and they mean it. The wait staff brought dishes ranging from fish to meat to vegetables and tofu, all cut into bite-sized pieces. We had prepared ourselves with small bowls of spices that we had chosen from perhaps two-dozen offerings on an adjoining side bar. As the liquid boiled, we dipped in our bits of fish or spinach, much as you would with fondue. But instead of coating the food, we were actually cooking it, for a few seconds or however long we wished, then dragging it through our bowl of spices on the way to our mouths.

During our trip of more than some 3,000 miles, we visited six cities and a dramatic near-9,000-foot volcanic mountain with a crater lake in the center. The cities were Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Changchun and Beijing, while Changbai Mountain is right on the border with North Korea. All had their special sights, and all had their stories. Throughout, the people were friendly and open, spontaneously answering a smile with one of their own, and interested in us. We knew they were curious because they stood in front of us and stared, something that is not frowned upon culturally. Some of those who spoke English came up to practice and to inquire where we were from and why we had come. The majority of tourists in China, especially this past year, are Chinese which speaks to the growing middle class; most of the rest are from other Asian countries.

We moved from place to place but only rarely saw the sun and blue sky. Pollution sits atop the country like a bathing cap on a swimmer’s head. As we rode on their bullet train, a high-speed marvel traveling at some 300 kilometers per hour (about 190 mph) from Shanghai to Hangzhou, we could understand why. Through the window, we could see tall buildings with a school in their midst and children playing in the schoolyard. Adjacent to the residences were a couple of factories with thick black smoke rising from their chimneys. Beside the factories were a number of farms, their produce neatly growing in rows carefully tended by the farmers. This pattern was repeated often. There appears to be no zoning; water has to be boiled or bottled for drinking; and agriculture is poisoned by the toxic air. The people and the government well realize the situation and they are trying to rectify matters. It is a price the population is paying for their incredible economic leap forward.

An American woman, living in Beijing who grew up in Northport, told us that she and her husband were staying only one more year because they feared for their baby’s health. Why were they there at all? Both of them were making such high salaries teaching English in the schools, and household help was so cheap.

China is a land of contrasts.

Final installment next week