Went to Nanjing this weekend, and mostly for the food. The city is an hour and a half away via rail from Shanghai and is known for, among other things, its crawfish. The critters are bigger and cleaner, Shaun says, than the ones in Shanghai. We go for dinner Saturday night and I try to remember the last time I went to a crawfish boil, years ago with a friend in Austin.
In Nanjing they came out in three large bowls, one in a slurry of savory garlic, another in a bath of sichuan peppers and black-red oil. The third in a mouth-numbingly savory smoked broth. There were plain noodles and crispy bread texturally between scallion pancakes and roti canai that we dipped in the cooking liquids for flavor and carbs. There were plates of quartered tomatoes doused with sugar, sliced cucumbers in sweet vinegar; both dishes cold, both to cut the savory heat of the seafood. And for dessert: cream-filled cakes that Shaun’s girfriend Wei Wei’s friends brought with in petite pink and white boxes, to this hole-in-the-wall crawfish restaurant.
“Hole-in-the-wall” is both the right and wrong phrase. In New York the term is set against the norm, whereas here in China they’re a lot more normal. Here it’s not always a hole, either; often it’s more of a tunnel, or burrow, goes through an unfinished stone or brick hallway into a back room, and then another back room.
Earlier while we were waiting for the train, Shaun told me that Wei Wei had never traveled outside of Asia, and had never been on a plane. She hasn’t worked overseas like we have, and I forget the exact words Shaun used but it was something along the lines of her not having caught the cleanliness bug. “It’s not that she doesn’t like things to be clean,” Shaun said. “But it’s not the same.”
I thought about it Sunday morning, at a wonton place with crumpled napkins strewn all over the floor. I thought about it during lunch at Wei Wei’s family’s place, with its walls that needed paint and no moulding where the floors met the walls. I thought about it upon return to Shanghai, after having to pay for my crawfish meal by using one of the squat toilets in the subway because I couldn’t wait until I got to a mall or Dad’s apartment. I thought about this while, sweaty, tired, mildly dazed, and recovering from a cold, I read Charles Foster, writing in Becoming An Animal about trying to live, literally, like a badger:
Those first few days and nights underground taught me a lot. They taught me that, despite my shaggy, anarchic pretensions, I was dismally suburban: I preferred a whitewashed wall to the endless change and fascination of a real earth wall, and regimented ranks of floral wallpaper patterns to the Real Thing. In fact, and this was the main worry, I preferred almost any confection to the Real Thing. I preferred my ideas of badgers and the wild to real badgers and real wilderness. They demanded so much less. They were more obedient and less complex. And they didn’t broadcast my inadequacies so deafeningly.
He goes on to call these symptoms of colonialism and when I’d first read it I wondered why he chose that word instead of “civilization”. But now, I realize, what we define as “civilization” is typically defined along colonial values – mainly economic, political, technological. We say first- and third- world as if to place-rank various ways of being.
Foster also philosophizes about the mental shift that must have come with becoming bipedal. To suddenly see the horizon and stars, he says, meant that suddenly there was a future, and this observation rings me like a bell. Maybe another way to look at cultures is to look at their closeness to the ground. Higher-height cultures are obsessed with cleanliness and abstraction. Conceptual purity is paramount; waste and complexity is concealed, repressed. We favor the idea of a dining table reminiscent of a real tree to the tree itself, with all its nests and burrows and writhing critters. We do our duties (and our doodies) and they disappear into a series of tubes; our toilets and wastebaskets all have lids. We convey our children feet above the ground in a stroller turned toward the sky, as if to prepare them for a life in the clouds.
“Third-world” cultures are closer to ground-level. Their rituals involve sitting, lying, prostrating on the earth. They squat or crouch to the ground while they wait for a bus or deer. They must deal with more immediate, less conceptual matters and dangers. They seem more youthful, perhaps because they are more regularly at the eye-level of children. And they have a more intimate relationship with waste and filth, and thus a more indifferent attitude toward its presence, toward what taller societies perceive as a lack of cleanliness, but to them, is just the view from where they live.
Perhaps part of travel is adjusting the height at which one sees. Or learning, at times, to squat.
(And I type this from a melamine table, while wearing earplugs, at a clean, modern cafe, at the bottom of a mall.)