Saturday, October 22, 2011

My hometown in Tonggu, China

My grandmother’s house, nestled in the mountains of Tonggu, China, feels like it belongs in the set of  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Not as a location for the action or dialogue, but as the unseen village tucked in the bamboo mountains in the movie's backdrop.

Tonggu is a four hour drive from the nearest large city, Nanchang. The last time I was there -- the summer after my senior year of high school -- I remember taking a long sleeper train from Shanghai, arriving at my aunt's apartment in Nanchang, and eating popsicles until my uncle rolled up in his gleaming black Audi. Mind you, it wasn't a "real" Audi; it was a Chinese Audi with a illegible license plate and second-class leather seats.

I almost threw up on the ride. We drove along country roads that, while paved and wide, creased along the cliffs and dipped dramatically through the valleys. I tried to hold it in for as long as possible; until, on a mist-covered plateau, I yelled for the car to stop. On the side of the road, I dry heaved.

When we got to the city, the vertiginous roads leveled off. The city itself, about 20,000 residents, is infused with an unshakable aura of tranquility. Chickens meander the streets, kicking up dust on the dirt roads to the local houses. Bikes are more prevalent than automobiles. The bamboo mountains in the backdrop are a 15 minute walk away. This isn’t the China of the 2008 Olympics—this is the China of purity, of vegetation, and of delicious food. Visiting six summers ago, having not seen my relatives for 15 years, I had a taste of real—and I mean The Omnivore's Dilemna-approved—food. The ingredients are sustainable and local, because everything comes from my grandparents' backyard. Every night for dinner, we gather at a dark, worn-down wooden table, and in front of us are dishes that 2 hours ago were collecting sustenance from soil and sun.  There's bitter melon, sliced horizontally and stir-fried. Wild greens, doused with vinegar and soy sauce, with garlic sprinkled in. A whole chicken, roughly cut, the skin loosely hanging from the steaming meat. We join hands, minds, and hearts to eat, and the next hour is a Slow Food meal: the atmosphere is convivial, we savor the food, and nobody watches their portion size. As we’re eating, I glance outside the window. There’s a chicken walking around, nibbling at plants. Around it are heavy, drooping tomatoes, snap peas with ladybugs scampering over them, and a kumquat tree, bursting with orange. The food in front of me: I feel like I know it, personally.

That's the chlorophyll joy that comes from living from your own farm -- the food is indelibly yours.

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