Monday, December 18, 2006

Update

It's been almost 2 months, and I'm starting to feel reasonably at home here. Reaching this point has not been as difficult as I anticipated. In many ways the lifestyle here fits me very well.

I feel vindicated in my decision to come to Luoyang. At least two people recommended I not go there, citing the relative poverty of the region, the prevalence of industry and the accompanying pollution, and the lack of western amenities. All of these observations are true, though exaggerated, but it simply doesn't bother me, and the city, and my place of employment, have much to offer.

What struck me strongly from the beginning is the warmth of the people. I should state right now that there are at most 40 westerners in all of Luoyang, a city of 1.2 million. Any time I go out, I'm guarantied a few stares, "hello"s and calls of "laowai!" (the Chinese casual term for 'foreigner'). I suspected at first that the friendliness I encountered was a result of being somewhat of a local celebrity. Observing folks around me, though, has convinced me that this isn't the case. Most people, whether in restaurants, shops, and seem open for casual conversation. Also remarkable is the apparent lack of classism here. College educated, up and coming young people seem perfectly comfortable chatting with the owner of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

Luoyang is one of the oldest cities in China. According to Wikipedia, it was founded in 1100 B.C., and lies in the heart of ancient Chinese civilization. It has served as the capital in about 13 different dynasties. It is said to have been one of the most glorious cities in ancient China, but this came to an end with the Jurchen and Mongol invasions from the north of the 13th century, during which the city was mostly destroyed. The city never recovered its glory, and in the early 20th century its population was around twenty thousand.

Luoyang experienced rapid growth with the intense industrialization of the 50's and 60's, but lagged behind the coastal areas during the economic boom that began in the early 80's. A lot of what started happening in cities like Shanghai and Beijing over 15 years ago seems to have only recently started here- rampant construction, outside and foreign - investment, an and generally broader exposure to the outside world.

As I mentioned, the experience of living in this sort of a place has been less jarring than I'd expected. I've certainly been witness to the some weird, and occasionally shocking stuff (on which I won't elaborate here, out of respect for the more delicate sensibilities among my readers), but by and large I move around and and go through my daily routine as I have at home or anywhere else.

I work Tuesday through Sunday, Tuesday through Friday I go into the office at 2 PM, and teach two classes starting at 6 or 6:30. Saturday and Sunday are the long days, I usually teach 4-5 classes, which keeps me busy from about 9-5:30. I get every other Tuesday off. I have Chinese classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9:30 to 11:30 AM. So I'm kept fairly busy.

I saw most of the local sights when my father came up to visit about a month ago. We visited the White Horse Temple (Bai Ma Se), the Longmen Grottoes, and the famous Shaolin Temple (I'll post pictures of these on my blog soon). I find Buddhist temples to be the most aesthetically impressive places of worship I've seen. The Longmen Grottoes are certainly worth a visit if you're passing through central China (let me know if you are!).

Some of you might be wondering how I could have written this much with not a mention of food. Well wonder no more! In short, the food and food culture here are almost a perfect fit for my sensibilities. The amazing variety of foods here strikes me on a near-daily basis. Basically, people here eat almost anything in any form imaginable. Most of the local stuff is more on the level of street food or what you'll find in a whole in the wall restaurant. Upscale restaurant serve mostly Sichuan (or Szechuan in the old romanization) food, which is enormously popular here.

Henan stradles what might be called the Rice-Noodle border of China, the former being predominant in the south, the latter in the dryer, colder north. Both feature prominently in the what local people eat. There are several other staples, including flat breads, rice noodles, and noodles made with sweet potato starch. Widely used spices include anise, Sichuan peppercorn, white pepper, and ginger. The climate around Luoyang is quite dry, and the local cuisine features a lot of soups and broths. If you order noodles here, without qualifying it in some way, you'll get noodles in soup. It's very common to have some kind of soup or broth with every meal. If you order fried noodles, you'll get a small cup of broth with it.

Some of my favorites eats include Lanzhou lamian (pulled noodles), which you'll find in almost any Chinese city. The noodles are made in theatrical fashion by experts in this craft, who stretch, braid, and skillfully manipulate the dough to create several noodles simultaneously. These are served in a flavourful beef broth.

The local haute cuisine is the Luoyang Water Banquet, which consists of 24 (!) courses, all soups and other liquid-based dishes. I tried a miniature version, consisting of 4 courses, of this at a famous local restaurant with my dad, and it was excellent.

I could go on, but I'll let it suffice to say here that I'm deeply impressed by the conection with food here. I'll try to pass on more meaningful food experiences as I have them. Some pictures are also in order, I think.

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