Homestay: China 2007

An excerpt from my upcoming book “Wanderlust: Extraordinary People, Quirky Places, and Curious Cuisine,” which is out this October.

Our tour itinerary included a homestay in a small farming village ninety minutes outside of Xi’an, the city known for the Terracotta Warriors. While I didn’t know what to expect, I was looking forward to the experience.

It was clear that Xi’an was succumbing to urban sprawl. As we drove out of the city, new homes and commercial spaces surrounded plots of farmland. The rate of building in China was frenetic.

When we entered the town, though, we entered a different, slower-paced world. Ninety families lived there around a central square. It was a pleasant village, each home with a small garden filled with flowers and vegetables. The houses were all similar and surprisingly large. They typically house several generations. The guide divided our group of sixteen between three families, who led us to their homes.

Mrs. Jong, my group’s hostess, gave us a tour then seated us at a round table and served tea. Since we spoke no Chinese and Mrs. Jong knew no English, we showed each other photographs

Our guide had provided us with sheets of phrases in Chinese and English: Useful Phrases Page One and Useful Phrases Page Two.  Each phrase was numbered. On one side of the page, the text was in English, and on the flip side in Chinese.  Both we and Mrs. Jong kept confusing Page One and Page Two though. I’d suggest to another group member that she point to number 23 to tell Mrs. Jong, “Thank you, you’re a very generous host.”  He would look at the page and say, “Now we will make pickled vegetables?” Mrs. Jong, too, would flip back and forth and point to something like “What beautiful children!” while she looked at a photo of one of her guest’s cats. We were all continually in stitches.

Then we moved to the rustic kitchen for our cooking lesson.  On a table constructed by balancing a board on sawhorses, Mrs. Jong’s mother-in-law demonstrated noodle making. With motions that had been practiced for decades, she dropped a baseball-sized ball of kneaded dough onto a wooden board.

In under a minute, using a plain wooden dowel, she’d rolled it paper-thin, loosely folded it over and over, then chopped through the layers of dough to make linguini-thin noodles. Then came my chance to knead, roll out the dough, and chop. She bellowed a room-shattering guffaw as my first attempt produced a bedraggled looking noodle.

The right way to do it

Then she came behind me, put her hands on my mine, and together we slammed the cleaver down onto the cutting board with a resounding thwack. My end product was wider and thicker than those made by the expert Mrs. Jong, but were definitely edible. She gave me a big thumbs-up, then hugged me and posed for a photo…


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