太热了 (tài rè le)

March 1st we had our first taste of heat. It was like clockwork, this turn of the calendar page. The last week of February was below 10 degrees (Celsius) and it rained for three days. We shivered in the office. I brought in my 暖气 that broke my circuit at home and left me without power for two days and set it up under our shared desk space for warmth. Suddenly, March 1st, the sun is out, and we’re back above the 20s.

My friend had the day off from his 10am-10pm restaurant job. He picked me up on his 电动车and we set off, weaving through narrow paths to the outskirts of the city. On the back of the moped, buffeted by a cool breeze, I felt comfortable. Walking around, though, I could sense the incoming heat. Everyone was still in long sleeves and pants, some in jackets even, though I felt overheated in my light sweatshirt.

After the midday sun, though, it cooled right off, and I subconsciously thanked my basic survival instincts. There’s a reason we follow the herd. The herd has been through it. The herd knows. In my 老家 it snows half the year, so who am I to question the intelligence of a people baked by the cruel sun, who wear an overshirt over their heads, carry umbrellas, tuck fabric into their hats to shield one side of their face?

I am both nervous and excited for summer. When you’re cold, you want heat. When you’re hot, you want cold. Summer has always been my favorite time of the year. The pure comfort of warm air relaxing and expanding my body, not contracting it constantly against the punishing cold. Though when Chinese people who live here tell me the summer is too hot, much too hot, when I hear the lilt in their voice as they say 太热了,非常热, it gives me pause.

I think about flowy skirts and dresses, then about the inevitable painful chub rub of my inner thighs as I walk in the heat. The last time I was rub-free was a dozen or two pounds ago and it would take great (perhaps unnecessary — though I argue with myself on this point) effort to return to that state.

He drives us to a nearby lake tucked into the mountains outside Fuyong. The landscape is dotted with small farms and ponds. It seems the whole area is a harvest-your-own food collective. You know those u-pick strawberry places in the US? This is u-pick everything. People walk with baskets picking vegetables and fruits, and sit and fish at the ponds. We stop at a few farms before he is satisfied. I’m not sure what he’s looking for, my fruit and vegetable flash cards were several stacks ago and it seems they need a refresher.

We walk through the small plot with our basket. I see a women in a chiffon dress and high heels picking greens. Others in miniskirts and fashionable shoes walk the paths between farm stands. Us city people coming to get our fresh produce.

My friend asks if I want 茄子. I know this word, but the plant he is pointing to is not it. Dark green leaves, almost purple, shaped similar to a tomato plant. What is 茄子? Then I see it, a dark purple teardrop poking out. Eggplant. The cognitive dissonance instantly replaced with understanding and lighthearted embarrassment. Yes, of course, I knew it. 要不要, he asks. 要, I reply. He comes back with a pair of scissors and we start to gently squeeze each one, choosing the best ones then carefully trimming them down.

够不够, he asks. 够, I answer, three 茄子 in my basket. I think of what we will make for dinner later, deciding whatever it is, three eggplants should be enough. I am grateful for the variety of Chinese learning sources I am pulling from. Though my tutor hasn’t mentioned 够, and I haven’t had it in Duolingo, I heard it in a lesson on a Chinese learning podcast and remembered it. As always in these early stages of language learning, I am laying track as I run it.

We repeat this exchange for the rest of the vegetables, 要不要, 够不够, most of which only have Chinese names in my mind because they aren’t vegetables I normally eat or find in the States. Fresh greens, similar to yu choy or gai lan, and a variety of hardy lettuces that get steamed and added to dishes. Steamed lettuce is such a delight — one of my absolute culinary surprise loves in asian cuisine.

We were meant to hike, but I am finding joy in the rest, moving slow through the farms, stopping at each one for something new. Strawberries, vegetables, sugarcane cut and peeled. I stop to cut two small heads of cabbage and pet the farmer’s dog, a friendly yellow lab who licks my hands.

We sit and wait for our sugarcane to be cut. The farmer’s wife chatting with my friend, asking if I can speak Chinese (though we had a full exchange earlier, they told me they were going to get sugarcane and I told them I wanted to get cabbage and asked for a knife). 她会, he says, to which I add, 一点点.

The farmer’s children, a boy and a girl who look to be two or three years old, play in styrofoam boxes on the ground. The entire family is covered in dirt. There’s a couple inches of dirt in the box the boy is sitting in. The girl cries for his attention as she wheels a toy car on the lip of the box. Two cats cuddle and groom each other in a neighboring styrofoam box not far away.

We hang the produce bags on a hook at the front of the bike and head back to my apartment. He’s a cook at a restaurant and has been promising to cook for me for a while. Today he finally delivered. I watched as he poured water into the pan, taking mental notes. He cooked dry packs of noodles then steamed some chicken breasts and shredded them, then went to work chopping vegetables.

I wasn’t sure about the water at first, but when I saw swirls of olive oil, sesame oil, and hoisin sauce coming together with finely chopped fresh ginger, and smelled the aroma it gave off, I was convinced. He piled the vegetables high on a plate, adding fresh cilantro on top, and set out two bowls of noodles. I am more of a rice fan myself (only bilingual people will understand the deep pun I just unintentionally made — I’m super pleased with myself right now), but I didn’t have any prepared at the moment (an hour to soak plus half an hour to cook).

I ate heartily, relishing my first home cooked meal in China, even if I had limited ingredients compared to a regular Chinese pantry. I can’t read the bottles at the grocery store, and I don’t want to incinerate myself with spice, so I have been venturing out cautiously into sauces and condiments. “This is diet food”, he said. I think about the many glugs of oil and the instant noodles we are eating but think better than to argue. I smile. 很好吃, I say. He smiles. We eat.

After dinner he cuts the sugarcane into smaller pieces for us. He’s amazed this is my first time eating it. He can’t believe we don’t have this everywhere in the US. I assure him it is, and we don’t.

We sit and chew, sucking up the juice and spitting out the remnants into tissues. I think of all the piles of spent sugarcane I see on the street. I think of the bao’an at my school throwing his mask on the street. I think of everyone spitting onto the street. I think of the parents holding their young children out to pee on the street (this happens more in parks but still). Then I think of the street cleaners sweeping every day and power washing the streets.

So, this is the system. Littering, as it turns out, isn’t a universal evil. It’s only bad if there’s no infrastructure in place to clean it up. I wonder if recent Chinese immigrants to the US are catching dirty looks for littering. I wonder what else is lost in translation between us. How you never touch another person’s previously-sat-upon toilet seat when you only have squat toilets in public spaces. Our definitions of hygiene, cleanliness, order, all of these are subjective, wholly determined by our culture.

I am four months in Shenzhen, five months in China now, and every day still feels like an exploration. This is a mode I could not have dreamed of accessing living in my 舒适区, my comfort zone, in the US. Everything, from the smallest ways of life to the deepest underlying beliefs, is new. Every day is a chance to say yes to parts of life and the world I haven’t encountered before. I am grateful.

And hungry. It’s time to make some rice. 待会跟你说.



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