Afterword

There really wasn’t anything left to do except to go for Peking Duck. Rob and I joined a friend and made for the closest branch of a popular Beijing chain, Quanjude, which brought to the table thinly-sliced slivers of fatty duck meat along with the traditional pancakes and scallions. It was very un-Sichuan, but I loved it anyway.

The next morning I did all the things one has to do for international travel and entered that strange liminal space called airport. I was in the Beijing Airport, then the Shanghai Airport, then the Tokyo Airport, finally the Honolulu Airport. About 18 hours passed but by the magical absurdity of modern timekeeping, I arrived at about 7:15 on the morning I departed. A friend graciously picked me up at the airport, and soon I found myself back where I started from– literally and figuratively.

Everything I had set out to do, I had done. Take cooking classes: check. See new areas of China: check. Talk with scholars: check. Hike Taoist mountains and sleep at Buddhist monasteries: check. I’d even found a good Chinese wine, a special bonus. From the perspective of my goals, I was very satisfied; maybe even a little surprised that it had all come off.

Returning home is always a little anticlimactic, though. You re-enter your conventional life and immediately are confronted with a list of mundanel tasks: mail, plants, bills, laundry, email. It’s easy to forget about all these things when you’re traveling– and somehow life goes on without you worrying about it. At home, too, there’s nothing obvious to do on a weekday night. You have to create something and make it worthwhile; in China, you can literally just step out on the street and see something and write about it. I can’t say I’m sorry to be home… but perhaps I am a little sorry to lose that sense of aliveness and wonder.

Does one have to lose it? That’s the trick, isn’t it…

D

Beijing, Last Day

For some reason I hadn’t really tried to do much in Beijing. It felt like going against the flow. Every part of my trip had a theme; in Shanghai it was academic, in Sanxia and Emeishan it had been scenic, in Chengdu it had been culinary. Beijing started out unclear but evolved into reflection and appreciation. Reflection on opportunity, political values, peace and security, and community; appreciation for friends, for food, for love, and for youth. Traveling in China made me feel young and alive.

Actually, I’ve been feeling younger and younger ever since leaving my job in D.C. three years ago. Maybe it’s fewer office hours– but I think it may also have to do with giving up on who you’re supposed to be and fully embracing who you are. The Chinese ask me all the time how old I am, and usually I force them to guess. There’s always a certain level of “disbelief” expressed out of politeness, but it was often genuine disbelief when I corrected them. In Chengdu, Adam had opened our first dinner conversation with “Well, I’m sure I’m older than you…”– to which I said, “I bet you’re not…”. (I was right.) A fellow train passenger had tried to correct my Chinese– “you mean er-shi [twenty-], right, not san-shi [thirty-]?”– and a flirtatious Zhang girl had confided that she was ready to break up with her present boyfriend because their “age gap” was too big. (She was 20; he was 24.)

I don’t necessarily want to go back to being young in years. I feel fortunate to have all the experience I’ve had– and even with an adventurous spirit, you buy that experience with a certain amount of measurable time. My life is also more stable now; I haven’t “made it” yet, but neither am I struggling. I like being able to choose between a $10 cocktail and a Y5 bottle of cheap maotai, without stress. I also don’t miss the self-doubt I used to carry around; over the years I learned to project confidence, but that’s all it was. Now it’s more than confidence, it’s clarity– clarity simply about who I am. True, I still make mistakes, sometimes even stupid ones, but almost always it’s when I ignore something I already know in my heart.

When Chinese people learn my true age, they often comment on the significance of my birth year. To be born male in a dragon year (as I am) is considered especially auspicious, kind of like hitting the jackpot in the cosmological lottery. Many Chinese go out of their way to have a child in a dragon year. It’s a bit overdone, since dragons have unique weaknesses and all types are needed to make the world go round. Dragons are finicky; dragons can be arrogant; dragons can overreach. Still, this year has almost made me a believer when Chinese tell me about cosmology. Each twelve-year anniversary of your birth year in the cycle is especially important, a time of transition and (usually) good fortune. Several things that I really wanted came to me this year; I worked for them, but unquestionably there was also some unusually good fortune involved. What will next year be like?, I wondered. No matter. I will accept whatever comes, while squeezing everything I can out of 2012.

I spent most of my last morning in Beijing packing my bag– my same small carry-on bag, now with many additional items. Amazingly, it all fit, with a little imagination and full use of my second backpack. My next task was to make my 40 lb. Chinese cutting board more transportable; with a little help from the building maintenance staff, I managed to fasten two metal handles with screws to either side of the tree stump. It still weighed a ton, but was definitely more manageable. I wondered what they would say at security.

Domestic tasks accomplished, I took a taxi down to the Chinese Military History Museum and from there walked a few miles to Tian’anmen Square. The military museum has the wreckage from a U.S. U-2 spy plane shot down over China in 1962, during the height of the Cold War. I guess I could have been offended, but there were also U.S. fighter planes given to the Chinese Army during World War II, when we fought together against the Japanese. By 1974, we had restored relations and were aligned against the Soviet Union. Cooperation, conflict, cooperation, more twelve-year cycles. And now I was here, an American tourist, buying a ticket to look at the wreckage of an American spy plane. To me it simply said, “Look, this is where we used to be– and this is where we are now.”

As I strolled down the wide avenue toward the square I noticed the heavy security presence, and yet most Beijingers went about their daily business without taking much notice. Families took pictures under falling autumn leaves; friends posed under famous monuments and statues. I found it especially amusing how elderly Chinese would line up for photos in front of old U.S. tanks– beaming, like they had been waiting for years for this moment. At Tian’anmen the street and the sidewalk were blocked. At first I assumed this was because of the Party Congress, happening across the street, but it turned out to be for the daily ceremony to take down the national flag in the center of the square. PLA soldiers goose-stepped in unison out of the Forbidden City, crossed the empty street and slowly, slowly took down the red CCP flag with great ritual. Hundreds of Chinese crowded the square to watch, and I thought about everything they had gone through and all the things they had seen right at this very spot. This was where Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic and the end to feudalism, in 1949; this is where legions of Red Guards waved Mao’s Little Red Book in the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution; this is where the People’s Army turned on the people in 1989 and left many shot and killed. I had to wonder: what do they feel when they look at that flag? Patriotism? Reverence? Maybe it’s simply: this is where we used to be, and this is where we are now.

With that final thought in my mind, I took the subway back and prepared myself to depart.

Beijing, Day 24 & 25

Tuesday I had only two priorities: to buy take-home gifts and to meet with an American professor for dinner. Since everyone in my family can already pretty much buy themselves anything they want, it becomes more of a challenge to find Christmas gifts every year that are both original and somewhat desired. Occasionally, I err more on the side of “personally amusing” than “useful,” so to take care of my impending holiday obligations I walked to a nearby grocery store and simply purchased every strange and delightful thing I could put my hands on. Milk flavored face masks, check. Red jujube flavored drink mix, check. Meat candy, pickled squid (inexplicably packaged in bright white with a smiling guy model), check. Untranslatable metal tins with mystery candy inside (they turned out to be cough drops), check. They even had snake oil. Who doesn’t love snake oil?

I tried to pick things that were sort-of lightweight, but eight of anything is still pretty heavy. By the time I walked out I was not sure I could get it all in my bag… but I figured I could probably find a way to make it work. Shopping accomplished, I did some reading and then headed out to meet with the professor at a Hunan restaurant near the university. He had what to me seemed like a dream job: he was the lone foreigner in the International Studies department of is considered China’s first or second-best university for political science. Well, he was indeed successful, but not everything was as it appeared from the outside. He felt unimpressed with China’s anemic intellectual environment and the poor preparation many students received from an education system focused on rote memorization and repetition. “Innovation” had recently become a popular theme in the CCP’s domestic propaganda, but there seemed to be no apparent irony felt in the Party trying to mandate a process of creativity and independent thought. To become a Ph.D in China, he said, was to basically admit you had no better prospects– that you were incapable of making money. People still went to university– mostly for the contacts– but increasingly, even the best high schoolers were dropping out to pursue careers.

We had an interesting conversation on career planning and I left feeling that maybe things had worked out all right for me. True, I wasn’t in China, and that was still my goal– but I had a good job, a lot of intellectual freedom, and an chance to teach good students without any of the funding worries or administrative struggles that many professors dread. Year by year I was becoming more of an “expert,” and if I could do a trip like this regularly I would gain more of the personal experience and ground truth that I felt I lacked. Hawaii, despite its shortcomings, is a really nice place to live– you’re never cold, and except for the volcanic ash there is no real pollution. It was not perfect; but beneath the surface, few things are.

Wednesday I got up early to watch the U.S. election returns, alternating between meaningless updates on CNN (Kentucky goes to Romney; what a surprise) and blog postings. When it was over and done I was happy to see Obama get re-elected, though disturbed as always that it had once again been close. By some counts Romney would win the popular vote; even if not, roughly half the country felt in league against the current President. For me it’s not really about being Republican or Democrat; its about feeling part of an American subculture that triumphs education, international engagement and social inclusiveness. Republicans could be that party as easily as the Democrats– but to do so, they would have to abandon core ideological positions on things like immigration, homosexuality, abortion, creationism, global warming and shallow patriotism. It’s a Catch-22: if they abandon those positions, they put themselves on the right side of history but lose many of the features that distinguish them from their opposition. They keep their base of conservative Christians and rural voters, but increasingly lose the support of more educated, sophisticated, and multiracial urban dwellers– and it is the urban and multiracial population that is growing, not the rural.

Fox News was a delight to watch. They actually called the election for Obama before CNN, but then of course “senior strategist” Karl Rove had to come on and dispute the awarding of Ohio to Obama. As the minutes ticked by and Romney refused to concede, polling showed more and more of a tilt against him– taking what could have been a gracious and proud concession and turning it into a late-night footnote. Most of the people I was in touch with over Facebook went to bed before Obama was even able to give his victory speech.

Election in hand, I turned to the matter of Beijing’s art district, Dashanzi or “798.” Formerly an East German warren of ugly industrial stock, innovative Beijingers had turned it into an industrial studio area and turned the Stalinist architecture into a kind of ironic canvas for commentary on China’s trajectory. Many of the artists featured there were now famous, and the threadbare unheated workspaces had long since been abandoned in favor of clean, temperature-controlled galleries. To be honest, I was unimpressed. I failed to meet a single artist, and at least half of the galleries had “no photos” signs which seemed designed to– what?– encourage me to buy a painting? A lot of the exhibits seemed to be “art for art’s sake”; or to put it another way, devoid of any real meaning. Still, it was enjoyable enough to walk around the area, and the Banksy-like graffiti was encouraging.

I walked back at sunset and Rob and I planned to meet up for some dinner. To my great surprise, I ran into a friend from D.C. just outside my hotel, and given the opening Rob and I attached ourselves to the outgoing dinner party. My friend and his wife had just been posted to Beijing, so had been there only a couple weeks– it was great to see them, and we traded stories of cultural ennui and crappy Embassy furniture. Later we made our way to a bar where seven of us traded stories of our travels or glorious past. One of the other attendees knew another friend of mine from D.C., so we took a picture to send back. It felt good to be part of an identified community– one that triumphed education, international engagement and social inclusiveness, and that could authentically be called “American.”

Beijing, Day 23

Monday blossomed as bright and clear as Sunday had been cold and gloomy. Barely a single cloud scarred the vibrant blue sky, and the rain had washed away the grimy pollution that usually marks Beijing weather. I was not entirely prepared for this dramatic improvement; I had assumed it would be cold and miserable, and so had anticipated a leisurely morning sipping coffee and reading books inside. Somewhat fuzzy, and possibly a little hung-over, I rustled around in the kitchen for coffee: tea, tea, tea, tea, more tea. Well, that decides it; out into the city I go!

I keyed “Starbucks” into my smartish phone and headed in that direction. As I walked toward my caffeination, I noticed the long lines of people queued up outside the various foreign embassies as well as the grim looking Chinese security guards that watched over them. I wondered if the Party really needed to be so sensitive, but then no one had asked me to plan their Congress. I shrugged and settled for my quiet life and cappuccino. Much merriment had ensued the previous night and I needed a little recovery time.

After nursing my way through coffee and some reading, I decided the next order of business was a serious thermal upgrade. I was still wearing everything warm I had, and while I wasn’t uncomfortable I also didn’t want to have to worry about being cold any longer. H&M is my usual destination, but I knew Uniqlo had special “Japan Technology” thermal garments on sale and that sounded like just the thing. I bought a pair of long underwear bottoms to line my jeans, and then a ultralight down jacket and some thermal socks. I walked out feeling invincible.

The day had gone by quickly and I was due to meet up for cocktails at a swanky bar in the Sanlitun area, about four miles away. Given the time press, it seemed worth grabbing a taxi. Ha– not so easy in Beijing at rush hour. The first one simply dismissed me with a wave of his hand, saying “Get out.” After I flagged down a second one I was a little annoyed, so instead of negotiating I just piled in. After learning my destination he unleashed a long stream of heavily Beijing-accented invective. I understood almost none of it, but I argued with him anyway. “That’s where I’m going. You want to take me or not?” His slurry of abuse indicated more on the side of “not.” Fine, I told him, it’s up to you– but I’m going to take down your number and report you. (I was pretty sure it was illegal to refuse passengers, but even if not this seemed like a good threat.) I got out and snapped a pic of his license, then told him to smile for the profile shot. Now he was really pissed, and for the sake of improving my street Chinese I wish I could have written down some of what he called me. (Something involving a dog, some fornication, and my mother… also possibly a turnip.) He shifted into reverse and made as if to run me over– but we were locked in heavy traffic, so I called his bluff by calmly standing my ground. I was no closer to my bar, but at least I had a sip of sweet, sweet revenge!

I made it in a third taxi, and the drinks were surprisingly good at the swanky Sanlitun bar. I had two raspberry martinis made with chili-infused vodka, while my companion had a pair of muddled blackberry mojitos. After two weeks of traipsing around China’s interior (where even requests for “butter” got strange looks from shopkeepers) it felt decadent to take in a few Western luxuries like a cappuccino, a martini, and a good grilled steak. At the same time, over dinner I heard more on a familiar theme from this trip. All the foreign expats I talked to were tired of China– tired of feeling sick, tired of the spitting, tired of the rudeness, tired of the cold, tired of the ignorant animosity. And yet they stayed… why? For some it was about the money; you could actually make a decent living here, even pay off some debt back home. For others it was a career move; something to endure for promotion or greener pastures later. And for still others it was just the subtle day-to-day challenge of taking on a wholly different culture. I recognized all the things they brought up– and still, I wanted to be there. I felt more alive and more in my element than I had in a long time.

After dinner I strolled around Sanlitun; the bars weren’t my scene, but it was fun to people-watch. I had heard stories about how more and more foreigners were coming under random attack in Beijing, and especially Sanlitun– which doesn’t seem like a “dangerous” area. But sure enough, I came upon a scene where a blonde foreigner was holding up quite well in a verbal dispute with an obviously drunk Beijing man. The man’s friends were holding him back and the police were there, so it felt safe, but it was interesting to see the reactions of the Chinese bystanders. There was no attempt to intervene– and yet you could hear sympathetic chuckles when the drunk Chinese guy made some offensive comment about the westerner. (I couldn’t understand much of his ranting, as he was both drunk and a Beijinger.) I wondered what the bystanders were thinking; did they, too, wish a kind of revenge on this arrogant outsider?

My companion told me that she too had been attacked in Beijing, by a pedicab driver in a dispute over fare. He had grabbed her and tried to wrestle her bag away; ultimately the bag had split in two, leaving her with a bruised knee and personal items strewn over the street. She went to the police, but rather than arresting him they simply assessed a fine of 700RMB. She quite understandably felt this wasn’t enough of a response; although in fairness, 700RMB is a lot for most working people in Beijing. It seemed strange to me that a Chinese man would believe it was somehow OK to attack a woman, Western or no– but because of their strange assertive behavior Western women sometimes comprise a third category, neither “man” nor (as Chinese understand it) “woman.” In any case, she was sufficiently traumatized by the interaction to sour her view on Chinese men.

It may sound like China is a dangerous place– but in three weeks of traveling through both cities and countryside, I had not detected the faintest sign of discrimination, animosity, or resentment. Chinese cities are statistically far safer than any in America. If anything, Chinese often seemed to go out of their way to help me, tapping into that deep reservoir of Chinese hospitality. Yes, I had been pushed, duped, ignored, and impatiently dismissed– but that was just China. None of it seemed personal or antagonistic, at least until Beijing. That made me wonder if it was simply the politically-charged nature of the place; self-doubt and infighting and cheap nationalism seeping out of the walls of the powerful, slowly poisoning the water of the capital.

Beijing, Day 22

When I told my friend Rob that I was coming to Beijing straight from cooking lessons in Sichuan, he immediately suggested a dinner and of course immediately I agreed. I didn’t necessarily expect it to be the *first* night– but that’s when people were free, so we rallied Sunday morning to figure out a menu and buy ingredients. I sleepily browsed through Rob’s substantial cookbook collection while he researched wet markets online. Reviewing the available culinary implements in Rob’s kitchen, we found them to be lacking and added tools to the list. Finally we decided to do this the same way I usually do things: buy a bunch of ingredients and beer, and figure it out along the way.

We grabbed a taxi and headed to Beijing’s Dongjiao Market, a legendary culinary destination rumored to have everything an aspiring chef might need. Man, it was cold. I was wearing everything warm I had– long underwear shirt, turtleneck, sweater, jacket– but I still felt chilled. I switched shoes, but these too quickly became soaked as we jumped between puddles and dodged traffic. It was quite a change from sunny Chengdu.

Dongjiao lived up to the legend, at least for us. Rows and rows of meat vendors stretched into the distance, all selling their obviously fresh wares for no-bullshit prices. We were immediately drawn to the tanks of mao xie (hairy crabs), and an entrepreneurial fishmonger enthusiastically promoted their virtues to us. “Look, they have lots of tasty crab sperm!” he showed us, lifting the tailbone to expose a juicy reproductive organ-packed underside. Mmmmm, crab sperm! Since my mao xie recipe in Shanghai, the season had turned and it was now considered the optimal time to eat the males rather than the females. How could we argue with that?

We bundled up four aggravated crabs, a guiyu (fish), some chicken and pork, and then made our way for the spices. Oh, the spices! I know huajiao, qingjiao, baijiao, huojiao and heijiao, but there were still piles of intriguing spices that I couldn’t name and had never cooked with. Rather than figure each one out, we bought a spice combo pack along with some white pepper, dried hot chillies, star anise, sichuan peppercorns, and these wonderful little red peppers that look like scary red habaneros but actually aren’t spicy. At the veggie aisle, it was cabbage, leeks, green onions, bell peppers, the mystery green vegetable, ginger, garlic, and lotus root. Then, finally, the sauces and condiment vendors: cooking oil, cooking wine, minced chili paste, sesame oil, chicken stock, and vinegar. Rob got a couple pounds of purple passion fruit. We had four bags full of food and, at that point, four confirmed guests.

Giddy with excitement, we moved on to the kitchen supply stores. Stainless steel glistened everywhere. Obviously we needed a good wok; next came a long cooking ladle, a large bowl for oil, a strainer, and a metal spatula. We eyed the solid wood Chinese cutting boards stacked in a corner– each literally a cylindrical cross section of a tree, waxed to prevent moisture from seeping in. How much would one of those cost?, we wondered. Oh, for that I’ll give you a good deal, assured the shopkeeper– and for once, it was. (50Y: about $9.) Rob dragged our grocery bags out the door while I hefted a forty pound tree slab, my knuckles white from the cold and the strain.

But we still needed a good knife– and that might be a problem, said Rob. Apparently, the Chinese Communist Party had outlawed the sale of kitchen knives that week in the run-up to the 18th Party Congress. That… along with balloons, ping pong balls, street food, the internet, and anything else that someone might somehow use to ruin the Party’s perfect, perfect day. It reminded me a little of a “Bridezilla” on the day before her wedding: This is going to be the happiest – fucking – day – of – my – life, and nobody is going to fuck it up! But no problem, I assured Rob: this is China. Everything’s negotiable. But at the first two places we asked, the shopkeepers shook their heads and looked away, almost as if the question itself was subversive. “Shi Ba Da!” they whispered: the Party Congress!

Then we found a third place– and from the hesitation on the guy’s face, I knew we had scored. With all the conspiratorial tone of a backstreet drug deal, he leaned in and asked “What do you want?” A kitchen knife, I whispered, a good one. He nodded. With his partner keeping watch, he carried a ladder over to a shelf and accessed a box perched high above and sealed with tape. His first offering was a cheap western chef’s knife. I shook my head and said “No, Chinese-style. A big one.” It was almost like a test; and maybe we had passed? He got down another large box. Under the table (literally), he cut the tape and pulled out a collection of cleavers for my inspection. My eyes must have lit up, because he took one out of the packaging and showed me the clean, fine edge. It was a thing of beauty; obviously well made, strong, shiny, sharp, though thin. “Can it cut through bones?” I asked. No problem, he assured, then wrapped our seditious purchase in newspaper. We secured them in Rob’s bookbag and exchanged looks that showed we understood that we were never here.

The dinner turned out great. We broke in our new tools and I re-made several of the recipes I had learned, along with several new ones made-up ad-hoc. As a rule, I never make exactly the same thing twice– so I changed up the mushroom dumpling soup recipe by adding Chinese dried fungus and lotus root, rather than the dumplings and western mushrooms. The result was even better, I thought; the spiced sausage mixed with the earthy fungus base and the lotus root added a bit of crunch. (I don’t like mushrooms, but I find Chinese fungus OK.) The deep-fried hairy crabs were fried to a delicious crisp and coated with a spicier version of the tomato-based sauce I learned in Shanghai. The fish was steamed with garlic and ginger, though I added some minced chili to the finished product. The best dish by guest consensus was the chicken stir-fried with the small habanero-like peppers, which I doused in a sauce that included a little black vinegar marinated in star anise and mixed with brown sugar. The peppers soaked up the spicy sugar and the vinegar mellowed the taste. Our guests asked what this dish was called and, since I had more or less made it up on the spot, they designated it “kick-ass ji-ding” (kick-ass chicken cubes). Really, what better symbol of culinary triumph is there?

Beijing, Day 21

I am not known for getting to the airport early. It seems like a waste of time; you get there, check in, and then sit there with a bunch of other early-riser types for an hour that you could have been sleeping. But in China, I don’t quite trust life to unfold predictably– so for once, I was eager to get to the Chengdu airport a little early to make sure I caught my flight to Beijing. But alas… easier said than done.

The first hurdle: cultural. Upon learning my plans, Adam very helpfully called a taxi service to arrange a car for the morning:

Adam: “Wei? Yes, we need a taxi tomorrow morning.”
Me: (“Tell him to come at 9:30.”)
Adam: “Yes, 10:00 should be fine.”
Me: (“9:30 would be better.”)
Adam: “10:00 it is.”

Somehow it didn’t seem worth fighting after the fact. Still, that should be enough time; my flight was at noon, the airport was 45 minutes away, it was a Sunday, there should be little traffic. But as I packed my things Sunday morning, I wondered repeatedly if I wasn’t playing it a little too close. Would a half hour matter? Well, it could– if there was a traffic jam, if the taxi didn’t show up on time, if there were 500 people in line at the airport, if giant purple space aliens descended from the sky and insisted on a quick game of Yatzee. You never quite knew in China.

Second hurdle: structural. I didn’t have much to pack and didn’t have much to do, so by 9:30 I was sitting on the couch trying to calmly sip tea. My brain was fixated on making the flight, and given nothing else to do it conjured up apocalyptic scenes of traffic jams and me running desperately for the gate, only to learn that all the flights were booked and my plans were ruined. Should I just grab a taxi now? No, I thought. I would have to call the company back, which meant finding the number and arguing in Chinese. Better to just relax, head out right at 10.

At 9:55 on the dot, I donned my coat, grabbed my bag, and waved goodbye to the apartment and my brief career as a culinary student at SHIC. Maybe I would come back some day, I thought, as I reached for the door handle. The door handle turned, but the door did not open– which made sense, because Kevin had told me it was broken and that you had to use the key. The key, the key, the key… the key that I lost last night at the Tibetan bar.

Wait.

SHIT.

Desperately I realized that yes, in fact, I was actually locked inside the apartment and was going to miss my flight after all. I quickly surveyed the options. Option 1: Jack the door open somehow. Potential: nil. Door is solid and covered with security bar that covers slot between door and lock. Option 2: climb over balcony, scoot my way into adjoining hallway. Potential: possible, but extremely dangerous. Nine floor drop, no ledge, heavy backpack, little chance of success. Option 3: Call Adam, who has a key. Potential: high, but time consuming. Probably 30 minutes to get here, if he picks up. Option 4: Find spare keys that Adam says he has in apartment. Potential: murky, intrusive, but ideal. I started searching around.

There was no terribly obvious place to look for spare keys in a bachelor pad, so I dug through drawers, cabinets, and corners. Finally: a set of keys in plastic, all identical! But, as I discovered upon pressing they key to the lock– not the right identical door keys. Now 10:05. Just as I was reconsidering the balcony option, I heard the door lock engage. Adam opened the door to tell me he had come back to tell me that the taxi was going to be five minutes late. Ha!

Third hurdle: temporal. Could I make it to the airport in 45 minutes, check in by 11:15 and squeeze under the 45 minute minimum check in time? Maybe. I was cutting it real close, but at least the taxi would be there, waiting… Or not. Adam called again from the street; yes, he confirmed with the driver, the taxi would be five minutes late. I looked at my phone: 10:15, no taxi. Yes, hmm. I couldn’t stand it– I flagged down the next taxi I saw, and dashed to make my flight.

The taxi dipped and weaved and accelerated like the best Daytona 500. Chinese taxi drivers do this on principle, not because they are obsessed with getting you there faster. They must reach a point of utter boredom with speed, hurtling through streets at 70 mph, so there is incentive to continually up the stakes. Can we make that tight gap between the cement truck and the construction site unloading explosive gas canisters? Yes! Yes we can! Or die in the attempt!

My friend Rob had warned me about crappy weather in Beijing, but I didn’t really believe him until I saw the sleet running down the glass windows of Beijing’s swanky new airport several hours later. We took the train back and then ran out for dinner, jumping between puddles. I quickly discovered that my shoes are NOT waterproof. Bundled in everything warm I had, I hurried into our restaurant which specialized in a kind of fish pressed flat and broiled with chilis and tofu and served in a sea of simmering oil. It was superb, yet another reminder of how varied and creative Chinese food can be. But the longer I sat, the more the cold soaked into my socks and my soul… I was thoroughly chilled and ready for a long hot shower and bed.

The next morning, snow graced the rooftops of the Chinese capital. Beijing would not be quite as warm or relaxing as Chengdu, it seemed.

Chengdu, Day 20

The last day at SHIC was bittersweet. The week had gone by very quickly; I honestly enjoyed my lessons and felt I could stay for another month. It would do me good to change my lifestyle, the tuition was much cheaper… and how awesome would my cooking be at the end? But I reminded myself that I had other priorities, so I booked my ticket to Beijing and prepared for departure.

Thursday afternoon found me drinking cheap Chinese beer and dividing up Hawaiian volcanic salt on the kitchen table, carefully using a knife to redistribute piles of rough crystals like some sort of culinary drug dealer. I had bought a large bag of the salt at the Honolulu airport, figuring that it might make a good gift for someone at the school. I didn’t exactly plan on 20 classmates… but nevertheless I found tiny ziploc bags and created little packs for everyone. Not perfect, but better than nothing– and, at least, it was something unusual and culinary from my state.

I had promised a Western-style dinner for a Peace Corps volunteer that night, so I went to the nearby market and bought chicken, pumpkin, greens, wheat noodles, spices, salt, and cooking oil. The cooking oil turned out to be infused with green Sichuan peppercorns (oops), and the wheat noodles lacked the chewiness of fettucini, but I made the best of it and after a few hours had a pretty legitimate Western-ish meal. I sautéed the noodles in black pepper and a little butter that I had secured at the school, and for the chicken I made a Kona coffee reduction that had star anise, chili pepper and brown sugar. The pumpkin got boiled until soft and then mashed into a soup with chicken stock, butter, milk, and cumin. The dessert I was especially proud of: real dark chocolate (two Dove bars) melted with a bit of mandarin orange juice and drizzled over cookie fingers.

Friday morning, I passed out and explained the small gifts of natural Hawaiian sea salt to my class. In Chinese, I tried to explain that it was colored by the volcanos on Hawaii’s Big Island, that it had a special flavor, and that it was good for your health since activated carbon traps impurities and is used for things like filtering water. This last part didn’t quite come through. When the instructor showed up, the other students explained: “You can use it to cook, or purify water.” Ooops. The instructor looked alarmed as he examined the small black crystals. “Is it safe? I don’t know if I would eat it…” he mused out loud. I tried to re-explain, but I may have only made things worse. To this day I think he believes Americans eat raw carbon from a Brita filter.

My pathetically small gift of black sea salt provoked a very sweet– and in hindsight predictable–backlash from my comrades. One by one, they came up to me after our afternoon class and presented me with Chinese tea; some small packs, some large, some so big they came with a carrying case. One gave me a small ziploc of verdant threads that came from his parent’s farm in northern Sichuan. I was genuinely touched– and alarmed. I hadn’t intended for people to buy me gifts; I was the one imposing on their class, and I’m sure I had a lot more disposable income than they did. Also… the truth is that I didn’t have enough room in my bag for everything! The final straw came when the school director presented me with a full Chinese tea set.

Friday evening I was determined to do something different– something edgy– something adventurous. So I talked my friend Adam into coming out with me to go to a bar somewhere. Where, he asked? Not knowing anything outside the school, I pulled up a map and I suggested a street near the Sichuan Normal University, about 15 minutes away by taxi. I figured even if there wasn’t anything very interesting, it would be different– and there must be something around a major university. Right? Adam looked dubious. “But you have a place in mind, right? You looked this up? You know where we’re going?”

Not reeeeeeeeeeealy. But with giddy anticipation, I flagged down a taxi and we bundled in. Then I got worried. For fifteen minutes, we drove by dark office buildings and empty streets… not even a cheap corner restaurant! Not a single plastic-table beer joint, not a single corner convenience store. It was bleak, and I started to think I had made a really bad call. But at the last minute, a strip of bright storefront lights emerged from the darkness and the familiar sights of restaurant menus, KTV rooms and neon came into view. I made a beeline for the first bar I saw, which turned out to be a slightly-seedy dive bar dominated by Zhang minority students. At first they ignored us, but then one broke the ice and as soon as they found out I spoke Chinese, we were ushered in to their table. Toasts were proposed, pictures were taken, drunken questions were fielded about Kobe Bryant. I sang a duet with a Zhang girl half my age; even twenty years on, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” will not die in Asia.

In short, fun was had. The only down point to the entire evening was when I discovered I had lost my apartment key– somewhere between velvet cushions, cheezy Canadian arias, and toasts to Kobe Bryant.