Did you know there’s a great new(ish) print magazine about Chinese food and Chinese food only? The Cleaver Quarterly comes out of Beijing, but it’s written in English, because, as the founders note, Chinese food is a global phenomenon.
I am happy and proud to be included in Issue #4, which just came out. The editors take a wide view of Chinese cuisines and culture, which means they published my quite long, very personal and slightly political essay about my daughter’s first trip back to her village in China since her adoption three years before and the disappearing way of life she found there.
The essay fits the “family” side of my blog and is secondarily about food—the eradication of farm-to-table in the country that invented it. It is not about Sichuan, and there are no recipes included, but those of you with a real interest in China may enjoy it nonetheless.
I hope you’ll subscribe to The Cleaver Quarterly or look for it in more and more bookstores. The issues so far have been super smart and eclectic, with a wide array of voices and art. The magazine is not published online, but you can get a taste of its content and style from this guide to Chinese dumplings that the editors wrote for Lucky Peach.
Or you can read this piece I wrote for them, which they are happy to have me publish online here:
The Bittersweet Taste of Home
Most of Fongchong’s secrets and surprises about her previous life came out at the dinner table: “Best chicken feet ever eat, by school, really spicy sauce.” “After school eat spicy snack; only play, no homework.” “I feed and clean foster sister; she no talk.”
As our new daughter began to learn English, her dad and I sat on either side of her, laser focused on anything she might attempt to say, Chinglish translation radar turned on high, hoping the Chinese food I made her would loosen her tongue again.
Fongchong joined our family at age 11 after four years with a foster family in Guangzhou, southern China’s megacity previously known as Canton. We had since learned what far-flung district of the city she’d lived in, but knew little else about her or it, since we weren’t permitted to know where she had lived or meet her foster family at the time we adopted her, in 2011.
She spoke not one word of English when she got to Nashville, a comparatively small city in the American South. But she picked it up fairly quickly, as kids usually do, even the older adoptees—a group who had only just started getting their chance at families after American adoption activists convinced Chinese authorities that yes, crazy Americans absolutely would adopt the kids no one in China would adopt. Not only those with special needs ranging from cleft palate to cerebral palsy, but also healthy children older than four, like Fongchong.
Even in those first excruciatingly difficult months after her arrival, when we could help her with her bewilderment and anger at finding herself in this strange land only through my rudimentary Mandarin, Google Translate and hand gestures, our dinner table “conversations” revealed a lot about Fongchong’s early life. By the three-month mark, her English was better than my Chinese, and we learned that she had lived in a rural part of Guangzhou. But it came as a surprise when she told a Charades-enabled story about getting up before dawn some days, right after her Popo (foster grandma) lit the candles in the village Buddhist temple, to accompany her up the mountain to collect wild fiddlehead ferns, which Popo sold at the market.
The most unexpected thing she told us in that first year was that her foster family—city dwellers with city jobs—grew all their own vegetables and even their own rice, and that Fongchong herself, from age six on, helped plant, weed, pick and dry that rice as part of her chores. Really? we exclaimed in disbelief, as urban adults who could coax no more than a few dozen tomatoes and chili peppers out of our city garden each August. That’s so cool! Who grows their own rice?
Well, almost everyone in China’s rice regions used to, and many in southern China still do, it turns out—though that number drops precipitously each year as local governments grab rural land to sell for private development and an estimated 4 million farmers and large-scale gardeners are forcibly urbanized and taken out of the food production system overnight.
In the early days of her American life FC missed her foster family very much, so the stories about them were mostly—exaggeratedly—flattering. But as the months and years ticked by, her stories turned darker. Still we were fascinated by this family, who had not only cared for our daughter but had grown and cooked three meals a day of Cantonese comfort food that she experienced as pure love.
So finally the day came, after three years with her, that we decided to visit the family who had played such a formative part in our funny, fun-loving, complicated and yet deeply fearful daughter’s life.
We were nervous. FC had spoken and Skyped with them periodically, but we never had done more than wave at them on the computer screen, since we don’t share a common language. All along, FC and I had talked about getting Popo or Ayi (“auntie,” which is what she called her foster mom) to teach us a few of FC’s favorite dishes, like steamed fish or stir-fried river snails (I’d seen fresh periwinkles at large Chinese markets in the U.S. but had no idea what to do with them).
It’s hard to convey how obsessed FC is with food, or more precisely, Chinese food. So obsessed, that after about a year as an American, she relayed to me with obvious wistfulness a dream she had about food. “I miss food more than anything,” she said. “More than your foster family, friends, language or culture?” I asked. “More than anything.”
This even though we ate real Chinese food more than half the time in our family. Chinese cooking was a hobby I had long devoted myself to and which had become my main family job since her arrival. She was thrilled when I did but didn’t yet realize how unusual this was for an American family; she just knew she didn’t get Chinese at every meal anymore.
Conghua is an outlying district of Guangzhou, and the least densely populated part of the city. Its claims to fame are being “Guangzhou’s rear garden,” home of the lychee as well as dozens of other fruits, sugarcane and rice sold throughout China. The Tropic of Cancer runs right through it, as do rivers, mountain streams and famous hot springs. This fertile land had fed untold generations of Cantonese, even as the surrounding Pearl River Delta region had mushroomed into one of the largest industrial centers in the world.
The three of us arrived after three marathon flights into Guangzhou’s huge modern airport and recouped for a day in an inner city hotel before Shushu and Gege (“uncle” and “older brother”) came to pick us and our interpreter up in their shiny new SUV. In the hour drive northeast from downtown Guangzhou to their village in Conghua, we passed through many miles of undeveloped land and farmland, which explains how Fongchong could be at once from China’s third-largest city and from the countryside.
Finally we reached their town and pulled into a narrow concrete lane, lined with concrete and tiled homes, some weathered, some new. All the doorways were outlined in red Chinese New Year’s greetings. As we pulled up to the house, Ayi arrived on a scooter. She and Fongchong were clearly thrilled to see each other, but no hugs were exchanged. (One of the first things FC told us when we first met her was that “Chinese people don’t hug.”) Regardless, over the next few days the family would treat her like their long-lost daughter, showering her with attention and gifts.
The whole family was there—Ayi and Shushu, their three twenty-something (single) biological kids and Popo. The first thing we did, of course, was eat, at a table right inside the doorway. The lunch was simple and satisfying. Other than one stewed pork dish (with the broth served as a soup) and stir-fried eggs with scallions, the other dishes were vegetables—bokchoy, snow peas, white cabbage—all from their garden. Included, of course, was fresh, fragrant rice. “Do you really grow your own rice?” I asked Shushu. “Yes, we grow enough for the family for the whole year. We never have to buy it.” They don’t sell any of the food they grow, he added, although they used to sell their lychees, until the lychee market tanked.
We gave our compliments to the chef, assuming it was Popo, when in actuality it turned out to be Gege. “The men are the best cooks in the family,” they all agreed, “and Shushu is the best.” This was truly a surprise, since FC had hardly ever spoken about Shushu and seemed not to know he even cooked. Her heart belonged to Ayi and Popo.
Though Fongchong basked in the family’s attention, it didn’t make her forget that she was never actually treated like one of the family when she lived there. She ate every meal at a separate table with a disabled foster sister who couldn’t speak. And no one ever asked about her day or included her in mealtime conversation. Popo was the only one she could go to for comfort in the middle of the night, when she was scared or had a tummy ache. The brothers and sister had pretty much ignored her.
Her real family was outside on the streets, where she had spent all her time with the other orphans in the village. It was here we saw with our own eyes that China has a remarkable foster-care system. Some 30 orphans lived with about 10 families in this village within walking distance of each other and a community center built by the orphanage. They’d had what FC considered an idyllic childhood, playing together night and day with little adult attention or oversight, no homework ever required.
Although most of her friends—the healthy, photogenic ones—had already been adopted by families in America or Europe by the time of our visit, a few of her old pals were still there. They quickly gathered to welcome her home with squeals and, yes, hugs. Many of her friends would soon age out of the foster system, having graduated from high school, and would head back to the orphanage and to an unknown future. But for the next few days they would be together again, which made FC incredibly happy.
After lunch, Ayi slipped away to her job at a school cafeteria and Shushu and Fongchong gave us a tour of the village. Finally, I would get to see the garden! First, though, came a tour of their new house, which was across the street from their old house, where we’d had lunch. Shushu had come up significantly in the world since FC left, his waste-recycling business turning into a sudden success. With the profits, the family had built a brand new three-story concrete home with all the modern amenities—including a small kitchen with a gas cooktop instead of the giant wood-burning brick wok “range” in the old house. They spread their lives between the two houses, parents and daughter living in the new one, Popo and the two new foster sons in the old one.
About two blocks off this main street, we entered another village, or rather this village’s previous incarnation, where rows of abandoned mud-brick houses sat in various states of disintegration, weeds growing up here and there. Large swaths of Conghua’s (and China’s) population still lived in this type of primitive housing, so FC’s village had apparently been more prosperous. The only building in the old village still in use, it seemed, was a big hall dedicated to ancestor worship. Shushu showed us that his family name was on the sign; his forebears had built the hall to honor the dead and host the living’s celebrations more than 100 years before. This was his village.
Leaving the old village, we were suddenly in open country, flat land nestling up against green hills. A narrow concrete path running alongside an irrigation trough led through farmland that stretched off on both sides with lychee and longan orchards and rows of winter vegetables including lettuces, snow peas and soybeans. Village families worked allotments of around an acre, which they leased from the government, since there is no rural private land ownership in China. There were no fences, but a lone scarecrow signaled that we had finally reached Shushu’s land after strolling for about a kilometer. I was disappointed that we were in between rice seasons, but we saw the covered area where the seedlings were growing in preparation for transfer to the fields in a few weeks.
“Do you remember all the work you did in this field?” Shushu asked Fongchong. She remembered, neither wistfully nor angrily. It was just a fact of her life there. Her best memory was shinnying up the neighbors’ trees to steal their lychee-like longans (“dragon eyes”).
Passing through the farmland, we came out on the other side to a road that ran up the mountain. We followed Shushu up it, passing houses and, incongruously, a large, modern, abandoned English-language primary school. Who was that for, we wondered? Fongchong picked some giant fiddlehead ferns, for old-times’ sake. Near the top of the hill, menacing black dogs guarded Shushu’s recycling yard, but we were headed instead for the concrete perch-with-a-view on the top of the hill. There, to our surprise, we found Shushu’s older brother and his wife and, to our even greater surprise, their distillery. The lovely courtyard was for drinking and socializing, but the small house held a professional-looking stainless-steel still that drip-dropped pure rice liquor.
We watched Shushu’s brother cook some rice in a giant wok that was boiling away on top of a wood fire. After cooking, it would ferment for a while before it went into the still. Black earthenware crocks of fermenting rice mash and others filled with the finished product lined the walls. We were in awe. They offered us some, and although I’m not usually fond of Chinese rice liquor, this was smooth and pleasant. We ate some sour fruit I’d never seen before (and haven’t been able to identify since) and sesame cookies, toasting with tiny cups, while we talked about the differences in making rice liquor and bourbon (a subject near and dear to my Tennessee transplant’s heart), though we never did learn if making rice moonshine in your home, for your own consumption, is legal. Perhaps it didn’t matter, since older brother was a Party member retired from a government job.
We were starting to like it here in Conghua, a place that treated orphans well, grew its own food and made its own liquor. It was also a place our daughter truly loved. And we were beginning to see why.
But then we ambled back down the mountain and saw it: The large poster we’d somehow missed before, right outside Shushu and Ayi’s new house, with colorful architectural renderings and plans for the village’s modernization. Guangzhou’s development was moving east, and their village—like thousands before it, all across China—was slated to be replaced by a slew of 30-story highrises arranged around a concrete plaza.
Shushu said the government wanted to build it on top of his two homes, and the homes of his brother and the neighbors, and their ancestral hall, and their farmland. “We’ve been negotiating with the government,” he said. “And so far they aren’t offering enough.”
He didn’t seem too worried. But I was. Did he know how these land-grab deals normally went down? I didn’t say anything out loud, but I’d read enough to know that if things went as usual, the government would give him $10,000 for his property (if he was lucky), take his land, and turn around and sell it to a private developer that afternoon for 40 times what they’d given him. The family might end up with an apartment in one of the highrises, but would it compare to their two houses and garden?
Our heads were still spinning when we returned the next day and Shushu took us on a tour of the larger area’s main attraction, a few miles away: A lovely river walk (with zero walkers) was flanked by, literally, more than a hundred Spanish-colonial-style McMansions. All but a couple of them empty. For more than 10 years. Some government officials and developers had thought that if they built it, rich people would come from overcrowded inner Guangzhou. But they didn’t. And the houses—much too pricey for the locals—just sat there rotting in this surreal European ghost town.
From there we went to a real place, a country restaurant owned by Shushu’s friends, a family enterprise. Apparently no one was going to teach me any Cantonese cooking, but, as honored guests, they were going to treat us to a banquet. All of Shushu’s extended family came, and our round table in a private little detached building was crowded with kids and adults representing both of Fongchong’s families. We had a beautiful banquet, with vegetables grown on the owners’ farm across the street—even though the chef had never heard of the “farm to table” movement. That’s just how it’s done in rural China. Chefs don’t get lauded for much of anything, much less growing their own food.
Ayi finally got off work and joined us, and I anxiously prepared all my questions for the precious little time we got with her. We ate gorgeous, lacquered roast chicken, crispy, fatty pork belly, steamed whole fish, spicy home-style doufu, jade-green greens with tiny shrimp, stir-fried celery and woodear fungus, and more. We toasted each other over beer and the fancy Western brandy that often appears at such occasions. We took family pictures in every possible configuration, Fongchong front and center and smiling in almost every one.
After most of the family went back to the house for a neighborhood party in FC’s honor, we asked Ayi if she knew anything about Fongchong’s life before she was found on the street by police and taken to the orphanage at age 6. She said it was a mystery to her too, and we were a little crushed. Since Fongchong can remember very little about it now, that means her birth family and early life will probably remain a mystery to us all forever.
Ayi did say: “Fongchong told me she loves you.” And she assured us that even though she and her family loved FC, she was much better off with us in America than there in China as an orphan. I knew all this was true, and yet I always carried a nagging guilt about taking my daughter from her country and culture. The visit had been so emotionally intense, with Fongchong so sad about it ending, that the load had grown even heavier in China. But the weight on my soul was instantly lighter after that reassurance from Ayi.
I was fighting back happy tears as this long-dreamed-of heart-to-heart came to an end. And then Ayi pointed to her college-educated older son and said, “Can you take him too?” Now I knew where FC got her sense of humor.
Later, at the party that spilled out of Ayi’s old house and into the street with neighbors and orphan girls, I had to pinch myself to believe it was happening. Here we were in my daughter’s village in China, the only home there she could remember, one big family from two sides of the world, brought together by one brave, beautiful, resilient girl who at one point in her life had had no family at all. I was elated in the way you are very few moments in your life, grateful for the gift of that moment. And even more so now that I knew that the village itself might not be there the next time we came back to Guangzhou.