When I lived in Dalian, in northeast China, my host family would cook me two meals a day. I had moved there for a summer during college to study Chinese. Every morning I would wake up to a bowl of hot milk, which came from a plastic bag, accompanied by two slices of bread. It wasn’t 面包 mianbao, the steamed bread that’s ethereally white, has no crust and is slightly sweet; this was plain old white bread, the kind with an ingredients list the length of the bag, and which never seems to go moldy no matter how long it is left out.
In the evening I would sit in my room copying out Chinese characters and I would know when dinner was nearly ready by the sounds of hissing oil, the tendrils of smoke that curled around the door, and the smell of deep-frying.
Dalian is not known for its cooking. When I told my professors that I was moving there for the summer, both said that it was a fantastic idea, and then noted that the food is awful. ‘Unless you like seafood!’ they added, which is a shame, because I’m allergic.
Every day I would see people on bicycles pull up to street corners and open polystyrene boxes that they’d fixed to the back, and inside would be the day’s catch. There would be oysters, there would be crustaceans of every kind, and there would be fish, in a few centimeters of water, gasping for air. All of them fresh, and I imagine delicious, but for me untouchable.
At home with my host parents—the improbably named Frank and his wife, who I called Frank’s 太太 TaiTai because I never caught her actual name—my allergy was met with some confusion. On my first night, they produced a lavish banquet of fish, shrimp and crabs, but even though I had told them before I arrived that I couldn’t eat seafood or fish, the message must have been lost in translation. Understandable, considering I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin and they didn’t speak English.
The dinner table was where I learned my Chinese. When I arrived I could barely say my name. The first words I learned were 水 shui—water—and shortly thereafter, 过敏 guomin, allergy. Through an elaborate game of charades, including semi-throttling myself to death, and then giving up and grabbing my dictionary to find the word for allergic, we eventually came to an understanding. By then the food was cold.
Taking fish and seafood away from someone in Dalian is like removing sugar, salt and complex carbohydrates from an American’s diet. Even when not immediately visible, fish or seafood would invariably find its way into my meals, either in the sauce or peeking through the array of vegetables. Eventually I learned to avoid it, though this meant that for some meals I was left eating plain rice. This is how I learnt to say, 别担心，我很喜欢米饭 biedanxin, wohenxihuanmifan. Don’t worry, I really like rice.
It also meant that my menu became very limited in general. Occasionally we would have meat, sometimes offal, but usually we would just have vegetables. Whatever it was, it was always deep-fried.
The night I realized my mistake, Frank handed me a bottle of Nongfu spring and I let the cold water dance along my upper lip like a kiss.
Frank used to be a champion badminton player, the top seed in Liaoning province for many years. In the evening, when he would get back from work and I would return from class, we would duel. He was lithe, nimble beyond his sixty years. I never once beat him, and if I ever scored a point it was usually by accident. He was diminutive but with a solid core that he would sometimes expose in the sun, rolling his t-shirt up to expose his abs to the air. In China they call it Beijing air-conditioning, because people believe that by letting the belly breathe they will cool down.
We would play next to the vegetable patch, and his wife would often watch us while picking that evening’s dinner. She would cheer us on, and we would play until the light failed. Frank would never tire, and he would always look disappointed when it finally got time to call it a day. 好球 Haoqiu, he would say collecting the rackets together. Well played. I never understood where he got all that energy from, considering how bad his diet was.
As we’d walk back in the house, he’d reach into the fridge and hand me a bottle of water, an honor reserved for me as a guest. He would drink boiled water, waiting for it to cool to a palatable level, usually a few degrees above room temperature. At first I would check the expiration dates on the bottles, and I’d always freak. Often they’d be two months out of date, sometimes six months or a year. It took me two weeks to work out that water doesn’t expire, and that the date on the bottle was the manufacturing date, not the expiration date. For two weeks almost all I’d drunk was green tea, or the filtered water from my classroom. The night I realized my mistake, Frank handed me a bottle of Nongfu spring and I let the cold water dance along my upper lip like a kiss.
It took me a month to learn how to say the word 健康 jiankang, healthy. Chinese doesn’t really have grammar, so when you learn a new word, conjugation is never an issue. In front of a glistening plate of deep-fried vegetables, I announced that it was 不健康 bu jiankang—not healthy. A silence descended; they considered what I had said with furrowed brows.
China is pulled in many directions when it comes to health. Aside from the fact that two distinct medicine systems exist, whichever measures one takes towards being healthy often tends to be a case of one step forward and two steps back.
I had no way to explain that when you use half a bottle of oil to cook something, even if that thing is a vegetable, it loses all the nutrients and stops being healthy.
It was summer in Dalian. Frank and I would play badminton under the immense sun, and when the birdie would sail over the net I’d look up and lose it. The sun would loom ominously but, instead of blinding me, I could look directly at it. The birdie would be washed out, and I’d only find it when I’d hear it drop nearby. Even on clear days the sky would be off-white, thick like a milkshake, the pollution smearing the edges of the sun such that it appeared three or four times its usual size.
Frank’s muscles were firm, and instead of sitting he’d squat on his haunches, which when I emulated him caused my knees to buckle and my thighs to burn like I’d just run a marathon. I once saw him spend over two hours in that position while chatting to his friends. He walked everywhere, and the only suppleness in his body was not from fat but rather from his skin sagging in old age. When we played badminton under the smudged ochre sun, Frank would only ever pause to cough, or spit huge globules of phlegm on the floor. The same exercise that had gifted him his iron core had smelted his lungs.
It was this type of contrast that I was trying to point out when I said the vegetables were 不健康 bu jiankang. Frank asked me if I was sure I wanted to say 健康 jiankang, and not something else. I reaffirmed that I had meant it. Frank intensely pondered it for a moment, and then responded, ‘but it’s a vegetable.’
I had locked myself into a verbal trap. Aside from being rude, I had no way to explain that when you use half a bottle of oil to cook something, even if that thing is a vegetable, it loses all the nutrients and stops being healthy.
I know, I said, and for a moment I wavered, envisioning me play-acting deep-frying and nutrients disappearing, but—remembering I’m not trained in the art of kabuki—I merely nodded. 我错了 Wocuole. My mistake.
Reassured, Frank sat down and studied his wife’s vegetables. If you looked to the left and out the kitchen window, you could see the vegetable patch where they had grown. They were some of the freshest, most beautiful vegetables I had ever known. Until they crashed into the wok, two minutes before they were served.
On my final day in Dalian, Frank and his 太太 TaiTai took the day off work. We went to the beach, we ate ice cream and I pushed Frank around on my skateboard. Every so often I would let go and he would glide forward a few meters, wobbling precariously, and I would run over to grab him before he fell. When we got home we made dumplings and while they were steaming I went to pack the last of my things. I heard the reassuring hiss of vegetables hitting the wok, and knew dinner was almost ready.
Barclay Bram Shoemaker is a writer living in Shanghai.