I recently spent 10 days in Wuhan, China (an average Chinese city of 10 million people that none of my American friends had ever heard of). I went to see my boyfriend, to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah, and for the premiere of The Han Show, a new Franco Dragone spectacle he has been working on since June.
“Moo!” he wails, imitating a cow as he holds two fingers up to his temples miming horns. “No Moo-ooo! No cow! Meyo niyo!”
I point frantically to pictures of vegetables on the grease-stained paper menu they’ve dug up for us, the only menu with photos of the food served in their modest restaurant, and smile at the giggling staff.
“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” he screeches flapping his elbows as wings for the now nodding waitresses, “No chicken!” Their cheeks turn red, but we think they understand!
I’m smack dab in the midst of the fantastic whirlwind that is China. Past the grueling 15.5-hour flight and dealing with the comforting fog of jetlag from the 13-hour time difference, I’ve ventured into a noodle shop with my boyfriend and the hopes of an at least vegetarian-looking lunch. We comb the menu and end up with two warm noodle soups, steam rising away from their bowls triumphant in the icy December air.
China is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, and since I haven’t traveled in Asia (save my 6 months spent over 4 yearly visits in south India, some of which you can read about here and here) landing in there is a special first for me.
I’m in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. As a city, Wuhan is distinct mostly because it’s MASSIVE. Walking along the many lakes, riding in busses through freeways and dodging traffic in taxis for ten days, I get the sense that it never really ends. Once on a bus, I’m crossing a river and see a skyline, but an hour later on the same bus I suddenly notice that we were crossing another immense river looking out over multiple skylines and city centers in every direction!
It spills out over itself, new construction sites clamoring against existing developments and bridges standing proud over the brown Yangtze River, each one worthy of being a city’s centerpiece. (Case in point: there’s one that looks exactly like the Golden Gate Bridge. Exactly.) Mall after mall after department store seem to overtake every neighborhood and in that way, that commercial way, it gives me the same urban feeling as any western city, and despite its incomprehensible size I settle easily into its rhythm.
Embracing jet lag’s calming murkiness, I spend most early mornings in our living room on my yoga mat. I do my practice between tight-from-sitting-on-a-plane-hamstrings and before sunrise, watching the sky gradually illuminate: high-rise buildings with neon signs and construction sites cluttered with cranes slowly visible through the haze, out the windows of our modern, fifteenth floor apartment. Some days I accompany my boyfriend to rehearsals or performances, and others I am on my own, left to discover the city for myself through museums and parks.
We have the chance to do some real sightseeing on the show’s dark days so we wander through The Yellow Crane Tower and its gorgeous, winding park full of monuments to both the ancient, idyllic China of legend and the modern Chinese cultural and communist revolutions. We laugh and almost give up as we loose our way searching for a Buddhist temple, only to find it by following the smell of burning incense. We emerge, tumbling happily through markets and smile at vendors selling hot breads cooked by slapping dough straight onto the coal oven’s inner wall. We make it a mission to decipher the symbols on the myriad of moon cake flavors; landing on red bean as our favorite and memorizing it’s markings. We pretend not to notice that our lungs ache slightly from the pollution. We dress up for the premiere of The Han Show and listen to terrible American music in a fancy nightclub (with squat toilets) at the after party.
Unlike many places I’ve traveled (India, Europe and even Israel) where English is learned in school, China is content imagining it is the center of the universe (just as we imagine in the States) and so Chinese people speak Chinese (Mandarin, in Wuhan, to be exact). Luckily, I have something of a language-wizard for a partner (and one who is not afraid, when language fails, to use his pantomime abilities!), so when we are together I cling to his skills and learn the fundamentals: “Hello,” sounds like nee-how, “Thank You” sounds like shey-shey, and “One coffee!” Sounds like E-Bay cafe.
Armed with the ability to say hello and caffeinate myself, I become more and more confident.
Despite his knack for language and being well aware of my visit and my vegetarianism, we just never learn the word for ‘vegetarian’ (and even if we had, we’re still not sure they would have understood!) So it is the same full on game of charades at most restaurants.
The food is delicious: we down rice and veggies on paper plates at a street-side joint, soaking the meal in thick black Chinese vinegar and soy sauce. We have an expertly seasoned side dish of bright green seaweed and peas at an upscale restaurant, which manages to be crispy and perfectly slimy at the same time. I eat warm, salty noodles in what I’m sure is chicken broth but hope is vegetable (and cry a little for the chickens just in case). And we finish off the week with one of my favorites: coconut-fried rice with pine nuts and golden raisins along-side a rich, saucy eggplant dish we are assured has “no pig,” sprinkled with, yep – pork (I ate around it).
I know I want to visit a teahouse but its hard to tell, when signs are written in Chinese and you’re staying in a sprawling 3,280 square mile city, where exactly to look for a tea shop. My boyfriend thought he had seen one or two just a few blocks from the apartment and thought that might be a good place to start. Sure enough, while flipping through the welcome pack provided by his company I find it; casually listed among the hundreds of malls and shopping centers: The Hankou Tea Market. Allegedly the largest in southern China and just a five-minute walk!
We set out one chilly, clear morning clutching coffees to roam amongst the tea. It’s early and still quite cold so we follow the fog of our exhales and as main city streets filled with pharmacies and post offices start to give way to smaller alleys and shops packed with barrels of loose tea leaves and vendors hawking exclusively things to add into your tea (like dried plums and bitter limes) we know we are getting close. We round a corner and turn down an alley that expands into the actual market to find dozens more stores and stalls selling everything from tealeaves to tea strainers to tea sets. I have my heart set on a traditional tea set of our very own, but how in the world will we be able to pick?!
We breeze through several shops selling perfect kettles and tiny cups, my heart adopting each one: delicate white porcelain with painted flowers, brown and red clay pots alive with their earthiness, sharp contours on a loud yellow set aflame with embossed red dragons, and one powder blue so light it’s almost transparent with a kettle whose rounded curves beg to be held, all nestled into individual boxes, shrouded in fuzzy fabric packaging.
We do finally find it: a 10-piece tea set which is both rough and polished: earthy with a clay foundation but alive and shiny with azure glaze dripping over the edges of its light, delicate cups.
After a successful Chinese haggle (every price is negotiable in China and success is when both parties feel a little as if they’ve taken advantage of the other) we decide to make the purchase and are ushered into folding chairs clustered by the register.
The owners serve us tea in a set not unlike our own: first pouring hot water over the tea and discarding it, opting only to serve us the second or third strain in cups so small they hold just a sip.
The store has a few customers already and they watch us closely, explaining in careful detail how to use our set. Explaining perfectly the secrets of Chinese tea culture. Explaining their love of this drink and of their country.
Explaining in Mandarin.
We don’t understand, but we are thrilled.