Language, linguistics and travel. A blog that tries to bring them all together.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Fen Huang and the Doctor

I met the Doctor at the old Miao theater in Fen Huang. He'd been running around the decrepit, old complex snapping digital images of the empty buildings and antique woodwork. With infectious enthusiasm, he tried to explain to me what everything was and how it used to function. I barely understood a word as he delivered his lecture in a cascade of incomprehensible, academic Chinese. Fortunately he'd interject a few heavily accented English words once in a while to help clarify a point. I'd grasp at them like a starving man being thrown grains of rice. Unusually for a Chinese, he was traveling by himself and had come to north-eastern Hunan Province driven by a passion for the local Miao culture. He later told me that he'd spent ten years in the region.

The Doctor was a short man with even grey hair and a pair of thick spectacles that he took off whenever he read something. It was inconceivable to him that I was incapable of understanding Chinese characters as for centuries they have been the lingua franca that have allowed Chinese people with wildly different dialects to communicate. Every time he wanted to be sure I understood exactly what he was saying, he'd use a finger to systematically slash out complicated ideograms on his raised palm. Never once did he seem to fathom I couldn't make head or tail of a single a stroke. He'd spent four years studying medicine in Japan and spoke fluent Japanese. When I told him I was in the process of putting together a system for speaking Japanese quickly, he started peppering his sentences with smatterings of Japanese words and phrases, which only helped to confuse the issue further. Together we wandered around Fen Huang all afternoon, exchanging comments and finding out personal histories in a mixture of three languages.

The town has become a hot spot for Chinese tourists as the center of town managed to survive the scourge of all of China's twentieth century upheavals virtually unscathed. Twenty-first century tourism has, however, seriously rearranged the place. The ancient streets and stilted, wooden waterfront buildings have all been turned into souvenir shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and travel agencies. In a flurry to look quaint, new old-style buildings have shot up, the wood still a honey yellow. Women in ethnic costumes ply the tourist trade, posing for pictures and selling mass produced handicrafts. The covered bridge over the river has become a seething market of knick-knacks with an elongated teashop filling the second story. An armada of specially crafted, wooden tourist boats continually passes below it. When they arrive on the other side, a singing, costumed woman on a raft greets them with a bright Miao song that invariably ends in a jaunty "woo-hoo, wheeee!" that the boat passengers can't help but emulate. Fen Huang also boasts an old walled city, with several pagoda'd gates leading into it. These streets too have been taken over by stalls with a repetitious touristic theme of hand-painted t-shirt shops, pseudo-ethnic costumes, silversmiths, Chinese style wine shops, and places selling thick chunks of blackened, dried meat, one of the local delicacies.

Part of our wanderings brought us to his hotel, where we used my computer to look at his woefully amateurish photographs and videos of Miao villages. He'd paid ten yuan for his tiny, threadbare room and the way he'd been careful not to buy anything told me that he'd budgeted his money very carefully in order to make this journey. Both of us had skipped lunch so I invited him to have supper with me and said I'd pay.

At a restaurant by the bridge, the Doctor removed his glasses and examined the menu. He asked the owners a barrage of rapid questions and decided it would be better to eat elsewhere.
"Too expensive," he explained.
On the opposite side of the street, a macabre selection of dried animal and bird parts was hanging from hooks at the front of a food stall. They looked like the leftovers from a mummy unwrapping and, trying to keep any hint of revulsion from my voice, asked the Doctor if he'd ever tried that type of food. He said is was known as "la rou". He said he'd eaten it many times and that it was delicious. My curiosity was piqued and I suggested we give it try. The Doctor fancied himself a bit of an expert on the subject of Miao delicacies and immediately rejected the meat we were looking at. Good la rou, he said, should be black on the outside. After a short search we found a place exhibiting meat with just the right hue. Once again the Doctor scrutinized the menu and cross examined the staff. To be certain their la rou met his high standards, he asked to see their secret stash then had them dissect a couple of pieces so he could sniff the insides. After inspecting all the vegetables and apparently finding them adequate, he disappeared in to the back the restaurant, presumably making sure it was acceptably clean. Meanwhile, I sat nursing a beer, wondering if I was about to find myself the victim of a culinary ordeal I couldn't extricate myself from.

The la rou was delicious. It turned out to be the Chinese version of Spanish Jamon and cooked together with greens and chiles set my taste buds singing. I'd asked if they had any mushrooms. After their thorough inspection and subsequent cooking they also appeared on the table transformed into a exquisite dish of subtle flavors. The dishes kept on coming, an entire platter of stir-fried greens in a gente, garlic sauce and a great bowl of chopped up, seasoned roots. Together we worked our way through the food, passing comments on how good everything was, with special credit given to the la rou. My stomach was almost at capacity when a large bowl of steamed rice was added to the table followed by even bigger bowl full of egg and tomato soup. It would have been rude not to eat some of it so I continued snapping away with my chopsticks until I finally had to announce that I couldn't eat another bite. For some inexplicable reason this made the Doctor unhappy. He soldiered on until almost all the food was gone.

I was getting ready to order the bill when the woman of the establishment came over and handed the Doctor a few bank notes. I suddenly realized he'd paid for it all beforehand while at the back of the restaurant. Following the Chinese face saving custom, he was treating the foreigner and picking up the substantial tab. He couldn't afford it but I knew there was no way he was going to let me repay even a little bit.
I sputtered out a defeated, "But I wanted to pay."
"You pay next time," he said with a sour grin.
As we walked back toward the covered bridge I insisted I at least buy him a drink somewhere and he kept stringing me along until we arrived at the street leading to his hotel.
"How about we meet tomorrow for breakfast? Please, let me buy that for you."
I knew it was pointless. He made some excuse about always getting up late, which was obviously untrue, then he bade a hasty farewell and hurried off to his shabby room.


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