Today’s trip began with a promising start when I realized that I had forgotten my wallet and umbrella in my room. It only got better from there, including the hour when my camera’s memory card stopped working and then the point in late afternoon when the batteries totally died.
But despite that, we had a good trip. First, a bit of background: Our destination was the 土楼 (literally, ‘dirt buildings’), or Hakka roundhouses, which just happen to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They’re huge circular buildings made out of rammed earth that house whole families and even whole villages. The Hakka people are [kind-of] a minority people in China, who came to this area of Fujian about 1000 years ago. They built their residences this way – self-containing and self-sustaining – because of the threat of attack from pirates. I know, right?
Anyway, the school organized this trip and even had the courtesy to pay for it for us scholarship students. We met at 8 o’clock – about 100 of us – and boarded buses for the three-hour ride to the site. Each bus had a tour guide, which was theoretically a nice touch. Ours was a tourism major, but I think she needs to work a little bit on getting to know her audience, as she started off by asking us if this was our “first time to Xiamen.”
Our first stop was for lunch. The food was “all-organic”, we were told, which marked the first time since coming to China that I had heard those words. It was pretty normal Chinese fare with a highlight of 盐水鸭 (duck roasted in salt water). Also, I ate another fish eye. Actually two. And they were connected to the rest of the fish, which I also ate. It was a little guy, slightly battered and fried, and I ate the whole thing – tail, head, and everything in between. It was actually pretty good, which is encouraging to me on my quest to conquer my dislike of fish, but the whole fish bones thing is really bringing me down.
My parents don’t like fish, and so we never had fish in my house when I was growing up. I just always knew that “I didn’t like fish” – not based on personal experience, but based on the preferences my parents tacitly passed on to me (thanks, Mom and Dad). In the past few years of my adventurous eating (which I believe can be traced to the night of May 24th, when I ate a fish eye under peer pressure), I’ve come to believe that most food aversions are more mental than anything related to taste. For me, the taste, smell, and texture of fish are associated with something I do not like, and that’s something I’m trying to fix. I think I’m slowly succeeding (see my post on the miracle at Sheshan), but in China there’s an additional hurdle to get over. Here, they eat the fish whole – as in, it looks like it swam out of the water, through some oil, and onto your plate. I don’t mind looking at it like that, but I strongly mind the skeletal structure that intact vertebrates tend to have; it is such a cramp on my eating style. The Chinese chew for a few seconds then open their mouths and all the undesirable parts of the fish magically fall out, but my tongue is not nearly that talented yet. I think I ended up swallowing more bones than is advisable, just because I got bored with chewing and rooting around in my mouth with my fingers. (It’s okay, I just say a quick prayer to St. Blaise.)
The rest of the afternoon was fairly typical for Chinese tourism – an hour on a bus, followed by 20 minutes for picture-taking. We first saw a small village, then the oldest roundhouse (700 years!), and then the cluster of 5.
The inside of the roundhouses were beautiful,
but that was sometimes overpowered by the sense of a market. There were local people selling things everywhere, and I bought a few beautiful wood-carvings with the character for “blessing” on them.
Before we headed home I went to use the bathroom, which ended up being kind of an experience. In China, bathroom culture is filled with relativism and going to the bathroom is a slippery slope in which your standards are continually degrading. I remember when I first saw a squatty potty in Beijing and thought all it was good for was a picture. And there was the first time I decided I could hold it for a few hours when it was a squatty potty without toilet paper. But then it wasn’t too long before I was squatting on a moving train or in an outhouse made of dirt. The absence of toilet paper, soap, and even water no longer shocks me; in fact I was almost startled to note their presence this evening in a restaurant.
Cleanliness is one thing, but privacy is another. Thus, the Ningde bus stop where I used a squatty potty in a small, door-less “cubicle” was a turning point for me, and today was another step (or slide) down the slippery slope. The bathroom consisted of about 5 squatty potties divided by low walls – maybe 3 feet tall; definitely well below butt-level. There was absolutely no barrier in front of each potty, so you were a sitting (squatting?) duck for anyone walking by to use another stall. I was horrified and repulsed, but also realistic about the prospect of a 3+ hour bus ride on bumpy rural roads. Necessity is the mother of adaptation and adjustment . . .
Is it weird that I can remember so many pivotal Chinese bathroom experiences, including location and often date?