China had not yet become the Next Big Thing when Fuchsia Dunlop signed up for a year of graduate studies in the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province. Although a major metropolis with a population of eight million, at the time Chengdu was home to a mere handful of expatriates and a single Western restaurant. With familiar food almost completely out of reach, Fuchsia found herself on an unavoidable culinary adventure, discovering along the way just how tightly food is intertwined with culture and identity.
“You take on the food of another country at your peril. Do it, and you inevitably loosen your own cultural moorings, and destabilize your fundamental sense of identity. It’s a risky business.”
Food is an anchor to our past. Don’t we all find comfort in eating the foods of our childhood: macaroni and cheese, Lucky Charms, mom’s hotdish? It’s not the quality or the flavor of these foods that we love; it’s the emotional baggage they carry with them. As Fuchsia found, “Sometimes the most disgusting things can taste delicious when they are associated with a familiar and beloved place.”
The textures and tastes and appearance of authentic Chinese food were so far removed from anything familiar to her that what was a delicacy in Chengdu—the black ooze of thousand year egg yolks, the crunch of goose intestines, the slippery skin and bones of chicken feet—at times seemed barely edible. She had to learn a whole new set of rules for appreciating what appeared on the table.
“You can’t just waltz into a Chinese restaurant and attempt to judge the food as you might a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. If you do, you’ll find much of it rather disgusting. Chinese gastronomy is unlike European gastronomy: it has very different criteria for the appreciation of food. I think it took me years to fully understand this. In the beginning, although I ate with great gusto, I was able only to appreciate Chinese food that resonated, at least distantly, with my own experience.”
Fuchsia’s experience with food illustrated perfectly one of the main pitfalls of interacting with other cultures, particularly when it comes to immigrants in our own country. We view them through the lens of our own experiences and values, and thus the “other” always comes up short. We measure by our own standards of what is appropriate and desirable, while the other culture is using an entirely different measuring stick. As author Wade Davis put it so succintly, “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you.”
I’ve read so many memoirs of immigrants to the U.S. and the challenges they face in earning acceptance that it was fascinating to read Fuchsia’s story in which the script had been flipped.
“It always seemed to me comically ironic that while most of my compatriots saw the Chinese as barely civilised and promiscuous eaters of snakes, dogs and penises, the Chinese repaid the insult in spades. They saw what we ate as crudely simple, uncivilised in its rawness, and barely edible… Cheese is still widely regarded as disgusting: it was memorably described by one informant of the American anthropologist E.N. Anderson as ‘the mucous discharge of some old cow’s guts, allowed to putrefy.’”
As Fuchsia’s journey progresses, she finds herself drifting gradually away from her graduate studies to pursue her exploration of Chinese food full time, learning much more in the process than she ever did in a classroom. She eventually enrolls in a Sichuan cooking school, the first foreigner ever to do so, and is totally immersed in the local culture.
“To learn the language of cookery in China was, in part, to learn the language of life. And as I went deeper into my culinary studies, I found that I was not only cooking, but also in some ways thinking, like a Chinese person… I had to face it: I was no longer simply an adventurous English traveller, pandering while abroad to the strange customs of the natives. Living in China had profoundly changed me, and my tastes. My English friends might think I still looked the same, that I was still one of them, but actually I had crossed to the other side.”
Food, for Fuschia, became a gateway into another culture. It opened doors for relationships; it opened her eyes to another way of life; and it the end, it changed who she was. Her memoir is not only well written and a must read for foodies (recipes included!), it is an incredibly insightful examination of cross-cultural experience.
Verdict: Highly recommend
A few more quotable quotes from Fuchsia Dunlop
Growing up in Oxford, studying in Cambridge, working in London, I had been propped up by a string of academic and professional credentials that had seemed to define me in the eyes of other people. But in China none of that mattered. I was just one of a bunch of homesick and culturally disorientated foreigners, trying to find our feet in a country about which, despite all our studies, we actually knew very little. It took me some time to accept this, but in the end it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
Walking home with Liu Yaochun, I burst into tears. I couldn’t help it: I was ill, I was tired, I was lonely. I had exhausted all my reserves of patience. I was sick of being a foreign diplomat, of having people nodding sagely at my every trivial utterance as if I was expressing the wisdom of Confucius.
They were curious and open-minded, and with them I could be honest about my thoughts and feelings: I didn’t have to be a foreign diplomat.
Many of the Chinese people I met viewed me and my foreign student friends through a bifocal lens of disdain and envy. On the one hand, weren’t we in some sense barbarians? We were large; plump and overfed. We were a little bit smelly (all that dairy food). We were loose-living, decadent and immoral: one Chinese student told me that the ‘Panda Building’ [the foreign students’ dormitory] was known as a hotbed of sexual promiscuity (it probably was, by the Chinese standards of 1994). On the other hand, we were rich, and we were free… But if the Chinese were confused and ambiguous in their attitudes towards us, one thing was certain, and that was that our food was unbearable.
Later, I realised that if you want a real encounter with another culture, you have to abandon your cocoon. It is necessary to dine with the natives in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense, and danger is part of the territory. Over time, I became nonchalant about risk.
It is tempting to suppose that Mao’s own unsophisticated tastes and his loathing of fancy food played a part in his willingness to oversee the destruction of elite and bourgeois culture. Fine dining had always been one of the foremost trappings of wealth in China.
The American writer Graham Peck described seeing a party of Nationalist officials dining lavishly in a restaurant during the hard years of the Japanese invasion, as a family of refugees stood by in silence, gazing at the food ‘with narrowed, starving eyes.’ For the communists, food was a political issue.