Asia, Destinations

Absorbing the culture of Xizhou

November 25, 2014 • By

Today, I ate to my hearts content. Chef Pang created some culinary magic at Linden Center and I provided the assist. Fearful of my lack of kitchen skills and the nearest decent hospital a plane ride away, I sliced and diced eggplant and peppers and then handed over the meat clever looking contraption (knife?) to the chef when my imagination got the best of me. I donned an apron and paid attention to the chopping but I promised myself no injuries on this trip. The next step proved to be even more challenging. When the chef loaded a wok with half of bottle of oil and the flames shot a foot in the air, I stepped aside and allowed the master to create.

First, he crisped the mint. Next, he bathed the meat in oil and put it aside. Then, he poured out half of the oil in the wok and added the eggplant, which rapidly soaked it up. Lastly, he took the rice noodles and threw them in the wok for a few minutes and added water and then mixed in the cabbage and tomatoes. As far as ingredients, he used several tablespoons of garlic, salt and red pepper specs and a dash of pickles.

Making tie-dye knots

Making tie-dye knots

With the meal hot and ready for tasting, he presented me with three dishes that potentially could feed five people: Cured beef with mint, eggplant and red peppers cabbage and tomatoes with rice noodles all sans onions for a real treat. I powered through a 1/4 of each dish before my stomach revolted and my mind finally transmitted the do not eat anymore sensor. The mint tasted liked crispy kale; the beef I couldn’t get into and the eggplant would probably have been delicious if I had not seen all the oil it absorbed. I most appreciate the simple meals and the rice noodle with cabbage and tomato proved the winner. I dismissed myself from the feeding frenzy and darted to the terrace for an afternoon nap in the sun.

When I travel, I prefer to participate in activities where I can learn about the local culture whenever possible. It’s the best way to truly uncover the local customs and way of life. Today my friends from the hotel joined me for a visit with a Bai family known for making tie-dye pillows, tablecloths, wall hangings and scarves. Cecelly and Elmer are both age 24 and assist the guests with tours and join to help with translation where needed. The three of us sat at a small table with the older daughter of the home and her three-year-old daughter and scrutinized various designs before we selected our patterns.

Never one to claim any domestic ability other than cleaning, I required help simply threading the needle to begin. We stitched for about an hour when the daughter of the family hijacked my creation and said something in Mandarin like, “you’ve done as much as you can do” and reworked some complicated knots and we readied for the dying portion of the day. The grandfather concocted a dye of flowers and he heated up a wok type pan and added the liquid. Foolishly, I complained about the flies for a good two hours before I put two and two together. Flowers + Fragrance + heat = flies! After some swishing in the wok, my butterfly tie-dye was born in my favorite color blue. While my handkerchief work of art took a mere two hours, the ladies of this house (aunts, grandmas etc.) spend about four hours a day each day making various garments. An 8×10 tablecloth takes about two weeks depending on the intricacy of the design, number of knots color scheme. The more knots the more time.

Cecelly and Elmer both attended university far away from home and neither returned after graduation even though their parents paid the tuition. Elmer is from the north near the Russian border and is an only child. When I asked him who would take care of his parents when they turned older, he explained that his cousins could provide that service. I perceived somewhat inaccurately that in the Chinese culture children provided for their parents and that the culture honored the elderly. That is not necessary accurate as children in this generation are exposed to more and move away for more experiences and opportunities. Elmer plans to attend an international masters program in Germany in January and it’s my prediction, if given the opportunity, he will not return to China. He desires to see the world and is serious about research and study. Whenever I asked him a complicated question, he armed himself with answers upon our next meeting.

Cecelly is from a more rural area in the south of China. She speaks English as if she lived in the states. Her story is interesting. She was raised by one set of grandparents and her sister the other as her parents went off to work in the city. She described how many families are torn apart like this in China because many people are migrant workers and she wants more for herself. She also has a brother but he accompanied the parents. The family seldom reunited unless on national holidays. Cecelly plans to remain in Dali working for another year and may follow Elmer’s lead and head to Germany for a masters program.

They both explained how they feel pressured by their parents to get married. Elmer prefers to experience as much as he can and may marry around age 30 and Cecelly is certainly in no rush. She hopes to marry a non-Chinese man and aspires to live abroad so she is saving money for her journey. I enjoyed their company. It’s clear they are hardworking, smart and driven young Chinese people. They opened their hearts to me and I appreciated their willingness to share. I especially respected Cecelly because she thought it was fine I wasn’t married!

Nothing says physically fit like a decent hike. Along with a fellow American, Cecelly and Elmer, we hiked Mt. Cangshan (foothills of the Himalayas) through the tea plantations of Dali. It’s the end of tea season so our hiked involved pure exercise and scenery but the heart palpitations due to the altitude made the views all the more worth it when we reached the top. I kindly reminded Cecelly and Elmer who bolted ahead that they too would be 40 one day.


The ranges in this area are about 11,000-13,000 feet and the mountains are known for Azalea flowers, smooth marble and tea. The Bai people are avid tea drinkers and the tea ceremony is a common event at festivals and marriages. There are three courses: a plain tea cooked in a clay pot with loose tea leaves, a sweat tea where brown sugar is added and a third type mixed with honey. I found the leafy tea to well taste like trees, the ginger tea with brown sugar divine and the honey tea to be a bit syrupy.

After a two-hour hike, I gladly accepted my last meal in Dali (Yunnan) with new found friends. We feasted on ginger chicken, ginger tofu, veggies and tea with vistas of Dali and Lake Ehrai with the mountains embracing us in the sunshine. We opted for the cable car to return giving way to breathtaking views all the way down.

As I leave this very beautiful region, it warrants saying that THIS is the real China I came to see and it’s slowly disappearing. Just like in our own countries traditions are fading and the demand for new outweighs the preservation of art, language, culture and tradition.   This presents certain sadness. To visit Yunnan is one thing; but to experience the culture and discover the heart of the people is quite another.

I’m off for Xi’an in the North and the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors.  I’ve been warned it’s cold, colder and coldest and I need to brace myself for the pollution. Sounds like I’m leaving paradise for the 1920s in New York City. I’ve sampled brown wine and it’s decent maybe even good. It may be the secret to surviving the next three weeks or it could very well be “Made In China” for the assist.

On a side note, I must be the only one with weird airplane issues but the flight attendant buckled in my book and scarf laying harmlessly on the seat next to me.  Go figure!

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