April 26, 2011

China's style of China

Three middle-aged men sat with their eyes closed, fully relaxed on old sofa chairs as two other men sat on stools scraping the dead skin off their feet. Their bellies stuck out as if they were pregnant and their faces had a swollen, reddish glow that can only come with too many shots of potent baijiu (Chinese rice liquor – aka – poison).

Nate and I glanced at each other with looks of uncertainty as to what we should do next. My Chinese friend Emma encouraged us to give it try – after all, the massage and skin scrape was only a few USD.

“Really, try it!” she encouraged us, “This is very traditional Chinese.”

So we sat down, put our feet into a scalding bucket of water, and waited for the guys to start tending to our toes. Using nothing more than a knife and metal file, the men cut off our calluses and trimmed our toenails.

I was freaked out that I would flinch and in order to keep my mind off of it, I kept rambling away about any little thought that came to mind. Nate must have thought I was nuts.

After our skin was safely scrubbed, albeit possibly in an unsanitary fashion, the foot rub began. For more than one hour our feet were kneaded, pulled, and massaged into gloriousness – I literally felt like I was walking on air.

The massage was certainly not for relaxation, I spent most of the time holding my breath and trying hard not to grimace. It was a reflexology massage, so the masseuses were able to tell which part of our bodies were out of balance by determining which part of our feet had knots or tension.

My guy kept rolling his knuckles on the inside arch of my foot; he told Emma I had bad digestion and that was the part of my foot that would fix it. The wild thing? My stomach had been wonky for two or three days.

While living here, I’ve discovered that there are varying degrees of “China.” It’s possible to completely escape through western comforts, other days lack western influence altogether. On Friday, Nate and I were amidst a very “China” day. Before our feet were kneaded, we went to a salon on a small street behind where I take Chinese lessons.

We were in residential neighborhood where most meals are less than $1 and shops aren’t constricted to four walls – the shoe repairman sets up his sewing machine and tools under a shady tree, another entrepreneur has a bicycle cart that sells dumplings, local onion donut snacks, and slippers (yes, slippers), and some other men have set up a Xinjian flatbread shop underneath a tent.

The salon was across from the slippers and dumpling shop. It’s very popular and inexpensive to go to a salon and get your head and hair shampooed, massaged then styled. After 60 minutes of delightful relaxation, most Chinese people walk out looking stylish for around $1.50.

We certainly got the local treatment. We paid the local’s price and we walked out looking like we had lived here our entire lives. Nate’s curly and thick dark brown hair was blow-dried into a three-inch high faux hawk that was remarkably elastic, yet was sprayed with something so strong that Goo Gone would have been a welcome product.

I on the other hand was a 1950s housewife; my ends were curly, while my crown was straight with lots of body. Copious amounts of the ultra-sticky hairspray were laid on thick on my curls.

After I got home, my hair immediately went into a bun, while Nate was forced to shower.

That night, we joined some friends and new acquaintances for dinner at what The Telegraph touted as the best restaurant in China. Nestled in Hangzhou’s famous green tea fields lies Longjing Manor. The restaurant is a bit of an adventure to get to, but that’s half the fun.

Our taxi driver dropped us off at least one km away from the restaurant, so we had to get directions and start walking. We went along a narrow highway for a few hundred meters then we turned onto a stone path.

The night was quiet and the air was thick and cool. Mountains lay between the tea fields and downtown, blocking the city lights and providing a soft silhouette overlooking the tea trees. Mist was settling in on the valley and our dimly lit path was lined with trees and flowers. Running alongside the path was a strategically placed man-made stream. The sound of running water culminated the vision of a stereotypically Chinese scene – I halfway expected a Mystic to emerge from the fields with a long, silver beard and a bamboo staff.

The restaurant is organic and strictly local. The menu is set, the drinks are expensive, and the service is only so-so. The place is so stringently local that they pass around a photo album that shows famers picking vegetables and taking care of livestock. The famer’s name, location and telephone number are listed, you know, just in case you want to find out what the weather was like the day the bok choy was picked.

The food was nice; it was all typical Zhejiang provincial fare minus the oil and MSG. The dishes were simple rural food, like mushrooms, tofu, duck, fish soup, bamboo shoots and greens. Each dish was clean, fresh and not too spicy.

If you plan on visiting Hangzhou, eat there. Had I hosted any visitors, I would have taken them to Longjing Manor without hesitation. But because I’ve been here so long and I’ve had nearly all the dishes cooked by the hands of countless working-class Chinese, I was underwhelmed. It was less about the food  and more about the experience, and it was certainly cool…and very Chinese.

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