In the Shadow of the Great Wall

IMG_2829I once spent a long weekend hiking the Great Wall. Rather than traveling the most touristy part, we followed a “tour guide” who helped us to, shall we say, circumvent the Chinese authorities guarding the less maintained parts of the Wall. After a full day of scrambling up crumbling staircases and stepping gingerly on narrow pathways, we descended wearily from the Wall into a village.

This village was made up of fields upon fields of corn with one-story houses scattered on the surrounding hillsides. The roads were all dirt and loose gravel, and at night, it was so dark and quiet that if you stared at the sky long enough, you could almost see the stars move and feel the earth turn. We drank warm beers because the weekly shipment of water hadn’t made it to the village yet and when the power went out after a sudden thunderstorm, we played Murderer in the Dark until finally, everyone fell asleep.

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A misty morning at the foot of the Great Wall

I awoke to the quintessential crowing of roosters and stepped out into a grey, cool morning. Our hosts were awake and already busy preparing the day’s meals, but everyone else was still asleep. I wandered down the road, passing a graveyard of discarded couches, several loud and territorial chickens, and some angry (but thankfully chained) dogs. As I walked on alongside the fields of gently swaying corn, I came upon a young girl and an old man walking silently side by side.

IMG_2546This sight isn’t so uncommon, especially in the Chinese countryside. Rural villages have depopulated over the decades as young people leave for modernity and opportunities in the cities. After passing through the minority communities of Tibet (西藏) and Inner Mongolia (内蒙古) and talking with the people there, I learned the fear of these people that their culture and even language will be lost as the old die and the young leave forever.

As the mist cleared, I walked back through the corn, past the still-ruffled chickens, and back to the house where everyone had since woken up. Our hosts placed a large pot of noodle soup on the table, made with fresh-picked tomatoes, hand-drawn noodles, and probably freshly killed meat.

As it gets colder, I have found myself thinking back to that soup they made for us after a cold night (cold for summer at least) spent without electricity or running water. I remember their small dogs, their dented tables emblazoned with the “Coca Cola” logo. I remember how warm, how delicious, that meal was after a long walk on a damp morning. But I cannot remember the faces of our hosts.

I always thought that it was the language barrier that prevented me from learning more about Chinese culture, but even after spending months in China learning how to speak the language, I learned very little about the people themselves. Now I wonder about the story behind that pile of couches, about our hosts’ small garden carved painstakingly into the hillside. 

We barely spoke to them except to say our thanks. We packed our bags. We hiked back up to the Wall. And so we became just another bunch of foreigners (老外) who had passed through their village, our tourist money merely prolonging the end.

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Jook

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As a kid, one of the staples of my illness-ridden childhood was jook with yuk sung, or dried shredded pork. For all the haters out there, yuk sung may sound strange, but the salty, yet sweet taste and the chewy, almost fuzzy texture made it one of the best parts of being sick. (Too be fair, most of the other aspects – the sore throats, the congestion, and the general self-pity – were pretty negative experiences.)

Seeing as this is the second post I’m writing about things I like when I’m sick, we can deduce three unalienable facts:

1. I’m sick way too often.

2. My parents are wonderful people.

3. If this was Sparta, I would definitely have been discarded as a total weakling in some ditch on the side of the road.

Thank god for modern medicine.

Upon arrival freshman year at college, I quickly came to the scary realization that when I got sick, no one was going to take care of me. Growing up with a doctor as father and a protective mother, I had always had an immediate diagnosis – no, I was not dying, it was just a bad cold – and dishes lovingly left on the stove for me to eat whenever I felt well enough to wander down to the kitchen. No one was going to take time off from work to check up from me, no one would have extensive medical knowledge to talk me down from my hypochondria, no one would cook me delicious jook, the quintessential Chinese sick people food.

As one of my friends discovered this year, jook is actually pretty difficult to find in suburban Boston. In his sick delirium, the closest he could find was…chicken rice soup. While I did not experience this concoction firsthand, from what I understand, it was simply some chicken and rice in what might have been really watery chicken stock, or just water, with a few limp pieces of cabbage. Good try, America, but China’s got you beat on this one.

Yet another reason why my parents are just fantastic people: they taught me how to make jook. Once I heard my friend was sick, I was able to cobble together some frozen chicken breasts, rice, and ginger into simple yet satisfying jook. (Alas, I have yet to find yuk sung that can be easily accessed by public transportation. Oh, the woes of having no car.) Jook is one of those dishes that just makes you feel healthier after just one spoonful. I swear, it’s like the Chinese found a way to recreate the flavors of life force.

Humans have accomplished some pretty amazing feats – there’s the Battle of Thermopylae, which inspired one of the most memorable movie quotes of all time, then there’s penicillin and and polio vaccinations – and then there’s jook, simple peasant food ingeniously imbued with some kind of ability, be it placebo effect or some medically based phenomenon, to make people just feel better. And from my frequent forays into illness, I can promise you, just the promise of feeling healthy can itself be a powerful cure.

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