To start, I’ve been craving Mexican food for the past few weeks.
I’d like to have a taco, or a burrito, or a quesadilla, or an enchilada, but unfortunately these things don’t exist in Fuzhou. I got my hopes up at one point when I found a restaurant called Califresh, which supposedly offered all of the above on their menu. Unfortunately though, it was reported as closed online, so I don’t think I will ever know if they do a good job at making Californian Mexican food.
Ling Min—also a fan of Mexican food—was interested in trying what Fuzhou has to offer, so we took to the subways in search of a small “Mexican” restaurant near the city center.
It was a small establishment that could seat a maximum of eight guests at a time. Their menu, which was slightly more expensive than the Indian restaurant, featured a variety of burritos, spaghetti, and fried rice. Vegetarian options were sparse, but I made by with a vegetable and beef fried rice since Ling Min ate the beef.
While I definitely prefer the Indian restaurant, it wasn’t terrible (albeit slightly overpriced for unsatisfying portions), and it was a nice break from the monotonous flavors at FNU’s dining hall.
Upon returning to the dorms, I was met with a message from my other friends.
“Is there tea tonight?” one friend asked.
“Sure, what tea would you like?” I asked.
I began to boil some water when there was a knock on the door and four classmates came in.
“Do you still have Exploding Kittens?” one asked, referring to one of our favorite card games.
I grabbed the set from my desk and handed it to them. They began to set up the game as I prepared the tea.
It’s always fun to have good company, and I really enjoy having friends over for tea and games. While I typically appreciate tea alone as I work, having tea with others is a completely different experience.
Last week, I met up with a fellow Fulbrighter in Fuzhou to buy some tea. And so, we went to my usual tea mall and explored a few shops, looking specifically for qingxiang tie guanyin 清香鐵觀音, a lightly-oxidized oolong, and zhengshan xiaozhong 正山小種, which is what we’d consider in the US “black tea” (although in China it’s considered “red tea” hongcha 紅茶).
Upon arriving at the tea mall, we walked into a place staffed by an older couple with TIE GUANYIN in bold letters on the shop sign.
“Do you have any tie guanyin?” I asked innocently.
“No,” the shopkeeper replied. “We don’t sell tie guanyin.”
What a lie. But oh well, I’ve been hit with the “you look too young to actually spend money on tea, so I’m just gonna wave you away” treatment enough times now, so we went next door to another place that had a bold TIE GUANYIN sign on the door.
One middle-aged lady sat at the table and invited us to sit.
“What are you looking for?” she prompted.
“Qingxiang tie guanyin, and our budget is about 200 rmb per jin (500 grams),” I replied.
She brought out two varieties for us to sample.
Upon trying it, my heart sank. I had gotten ripped off on my previous trip. Last time I came here to purchase tie guanyin, I had sampled three varieties and ended up spending almost double the price for something that was comparable to what this shop was selling for merely 230 rmb.
While the flavor was mediocre, it was a very smooth tea. Rather than leaving my throat dry and course, it was very refreshing, although I would have preferred it a little bit heavier. It was something I felt like I could just gulp down rather than something I would sip and savor.
As she talked on and on about her tea-selling experience, I turned to my Fulbright friend and asked in English, “Thoughts?”
We had a brief exchange. Neither of us were particularly impressed, and so we decided we’d go elsewhere.
“Wow,” the shopkeeper said. “You’re foreigners!”
We nodded sheepishly.
I wasn’t sure what to think. I guess we both look Asian enough to pass the initial appearance test, and we were fluent enough to get by without raising any alarms. It wasn’t until we spoke in English that our friend the shopkeeper realized we weren’t from the local area.
In any case, we bid her farewell and walked in search of another tie guanyin shop. Being in Fujian, there are plenty of places that sell them.
My Fulbright friend was not particularly impressed, so we went to a second shop.
As soon as we walked in, our host remarked, “You’re not from around these parts, are you?”
We were taken aback. Our previous host didn’t realize we weren’t locals, but this shopkeeper was astute enough to catch that point before we even sat down.
“No, we’re from the US,” I replied.
“Ah, that explains it,” she continued. “I used to live in Spain. You Americans carry yourselves differently from those of us who grew up in China.”
While I can typically notice the subtle traits that distinguish an Asian American from someone who grew up in Asia, I hadn’t thought that it would be visible to the older generation. But I suppose her exposure to a variety of cultures helped her identify that we were not locals, despite our phenotypic expression.
After explaining what we wanted and what our budget would be, she brewed two types. Although I specifically requested qingxiang, she decided to give us a sample of nongxiang as well. Just in case.
While it was more fragrant than the other shop, the tea left a sense of dryness in my throat.
After drinking a few rounds and using the restroom two or three times, we decided this would be a good purchase (it was a bit cheaper than the other place), and that going to another shop might not be worth it.
To seal the deal, the kind shopkeeper gifted us a few samples of their Wuyi Rock Tea. She made it clear that these were very cheap, but that they weren’t too terrible nonetheless.
After making a small purchase of 250 grams, we ventured to Sanfang qixiang, Fuzhou’s most touristy place, looked around at some bookstores, and then met up with another classmate for Indian food.
It wasn’t bad, but I was really disappointed in the fact that the food here isn’t spicy.
We also ordered way too much. After three curries, two types of naan, rice, shawarmas, and a rice pudding dessert, my stomach felt like it was about to explode. But wow, that naan was really, really good.
While I haven’t been able to find a Mexican restaurant in Fuzhou yet, I’m glad to know that there are options for non-Chinese food here. While I don’t mind Chinese food, eating at the same dining hall every single day gets a bit tough.
A bunch of other things have happened over the past few weeks, but I won’t be sharing every detail about my adventures here.
I think my next post will be a reflection on the decade ahead.
In the US, I’m used to hearing Christmas music blasting everywhere, charming lights and decorations adorning every shop, but unfortunately there is no sign of celebration here.
So, feeling a bit in need for some holiday cheer, I went out to find some. As it turns out, if you want to experience Christmas in Fuzhou, there’s only one place: a lavish shopping center named Art Mall.
Being a relatively short walk from the subway station, it featured a welcoming reindeer and outdoor Christmas display. Note—there are no nativity scenes or anything too Jesus-y, probably because there are barely any Christians or Catholics in China.
Anyways, Saint Nick was there, and so were his reindeer. And as I entered the mall, the familiar tune of Jingle Bells serenaded me.
Ah, Christmas, I’ve found you at last.
After a round of browsing the way-too-expensive shops, Ling Min and I went to the library.
Now, I had been to the library before for the sado demo, but I hadn’t really explored the place. Apparently, there was an entire wing for tea books on the eighth floor, and then adjacent to that was a wing for calligraphy books.
Well, I think I’ve found my new home.
I’ll be returning with my laptop and a thermos full of tea to do research. There are way more books on tea in the city library than there are at Fujian Normal.
To wrap up the night, we went to another fancy mall across the street from the library. While not quite as fancy as Art Mall, it was still pretty lavish. Since we were both hungry by then, we decided to get dinner at an American restaurant called Smile. Weird name, but sure, whatever. I hadn’t had American food since coming here, and it seemed like this place was fancy enough to not disappoint.
It didn’t disappoint in taste, that’s for sure.
I got a vegetarian entree, which was essentially just roasted vegetables, but they were prepared really well. I also got a mushroom soup in a bread bowl, which was pretty good too (although the soup could have been a bit warmer).
While they got the flavor and menu pricing right, the portions they served were definitely not US-sized. I felt kinda ripped off because if I’m paying US prices, I think I should get the quantity I’d typically have in the US. They were definitely serving Chinese-sized portions.
But oh well, it tasted great.
And also, by the end of the meal, I actually wasn’t left hungry. I had expected that it wouldn’t be enough, but the bread + the entree actually filled me up.
In any case, we went home to prepare for Yongqi’s birthday party, which went well. There were many balloons, a beautiful birthday cake, three bowls of noodles, and two rounds of Uno. We had wanted to play Exploding Kittens instead, but… we had far too many people.
The noodles were good though. Noms.
On our way back, we passed by a small shop that sold soy milk and Teochew cuisine! I’ll be back to see what they have. If I’m lucky, maybe they’ll have cha kueh. Fingers crossed!
I had the opportunity to meet up with one of my Chinese professors from Pomona last week. He had spent the first few months of his sabbatical in China teaching various courses, and now he had come to Fuzhou to visit friends.
Our day began at the West Lake Hotel where he was staying, and after two of his acquaintances arrived, we went to visit Pingshan to stroll through the garden there. It was a beautiful modern Chinese garden with some Suzhou influences, but also meant to be a general public space. It was newly renovated and featured a variety of trails that led up to Zhenhai lou (literally, the Tower which Suppresses the Sea).
The building was originally built on Pingshan, the northern tip of Fuzhou’s three mountains, as a geomantic site to divert calamities from the ocean (in other words, typhoons). Whether or not that was successful, the tower was demolished during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been recently restored. According to Prof. Lin, one of our guides, Fuzhou hasn’t had a major typhoon since the restoration, and there are a variety of internet theories on why the tower actually works.
Prof. Chen, our other friend, shook his head at the claim, saying that there hadn’t been major typhoons since he was born—and he had been born decades before the tower was rebuilt.
Nonetheless, it was a grand tower with a spectacular view. The basement of the tower was a rather well-designed exhibit on Fuzhou history. It was much more interesting than the provincial museum, and featured a Qing-dynasty map of the city.
While I hadn’t noticed this on any modern map, the old map revealed that Fuzhou was built with some serious geomancy in mind. Pingshan, where we currently were, marked the northernmost corner of the city and protected it from evil winds. Situated at the foot of the mountain was the temple to the city’s protector. Then, towards the southeast and southwest were two mountains with pagodas on top of each of them as well—almost reminiscent of Toji and Saiji in Kyoto.
Currently, the provincial government offices are headquarted adjacent to Pingshan, and the city’s administration is located near the two southern mountains, with the city center nestled within the triangle formed by the three mountains.
According to Prof. Lin, the city expanded over time, and it wasn’t until the Qing that places like Cangshan (where Fujian Normal University’s old campus is) got incorporated into the city.
As we look around the main tower, we had a conversation that I think would only happen when three Chinese literature professors come together.
“That calligraphy on the building is terrible,” Prof. Chen said.
“Right?” Prof. Lin chimed in. “It looks like it’s going to fly away.”
“Mhm,” Prof. Chen nodded. “Semi-cursive isn’t the right script here. A building of this size needs Yan Zhenliu’s style of standard script.”
“Yup,” said Prof. Lin. “The current calligraphy can’t hold the building down.”
Now, while I could tell that the calligraphy on the building was a bit off, I didn’t have any suggestions on how to improve it. I had thought that perhaps something a bit more formal like clerical script would be a good match. But then again, like Prof. Chen said, standard script—especially a bold one like Yan Zhenliu’s—would be best.
From there, we went off to lunch. Prof. Chen had some errands to run, so he bid us farewell at the restaurant. Lunch was a buffet, and while my Pomona professor and Prof. Lin argued over who’d pay, I was stunned by the selection—especially the desserts.
Now, I know I had a close encounter with pre-diabetes from Pomona’s delicious raspberry-chocolate cake, but I hadn’t indulged myself since graduation, so my body would surely be able to take the hit.
After a few rounds of hot pot and main dishes, I came back with an egg tart, two kinds of cake, and a mango drink. Ah, much better than Oldenborg.
Prof. Lin had a meeting to attend, and so it was me and my former professor for the afternoon. We went to the provincial museum, which was even more disappointing than the first time I went, if that was even possible. Only one exhibit was open, and it was a regular Friday afternoon.
After the disappointing exhibit, we set off to Sanfang Qixiang, Fuzhou’s premiere tourist destination. I enjoy walking around, even if it just means browsing through the same shops over and over again.
This time though, we stumbled across a museum—the former residence of a local official from the Qing. At first, I thought we had been ripped off. It wasn’t particularly interesting at all. In fact, most of the free spaces in the neighborhood looked much nicer than whatever we had paid admission to see.
Then we saw it. A mini Suzhou-style garden built within the walls of the residence. All of my memories from working at the Huntington flooded me as I recalled the points in the Craft of Gardens. It proved to be an interesting space, although, that was before I knew I’d come back the next day and find an even grander space. But I’ll save that for another post.
After spending twilight among the gardens, we browsed around the shops a bit more and found a rather peculiar bookstore and overpriced cafe. The books included a variety of languages, as well as translated books. These ranged from fiction in English (Harry Potter and Penguin classics) to translated editions of scholarly works (I found a few books by Timothy Brook, Patricia Ebrey, and other esteemed authors). There was also a really robust section on European art history, philosophy, and my personal favorite: Classical Chinese literature.
But nothing was priced and judging from the coffee prices, it was probably more than whatever I was willing to pay. But they had good wifi, and it was really aesthetic, so hey, I’d come back to browse.
Before dinner, we made two more stops: one at Minjiang University’s lacquer shop, where I eyed a particularly fine plum blossom natsume and a round tray with pine trees painted in gold leaf. (Spoiler: I ended up coming back for the natsume. I do like the tray, but my wallet is still in tears from the natsume…)
After admiring the wonderful handiwork, we eneded up eating dinner at a Japanese restaurant, which provided perhaps the fanciest hisashi soba I’ve ever had. Rather than on a an austere bamboo tray, it was presented to us in a bowl of solid ice.
Overall, dinner was quite good, but a bit too high-end for me.
To wrap up the night, we met up with Prof. Lin again, who now took us to the private room of a tea shop in Sanfang Qixiang. While the shop seemed like a cramped little space from the outside, the staircase led to a second floor that was fully furnished with at least five tables for tea. Meanwhile, Prof. Lin was on the phone with the CEO to let him know we were crashing the place.
The store manager came out to brew tea for us personally, and as she brewed the jasmine tea (which came out wonderfully), Prof. Lin prompted me to ask any questions I had. Except, curiously, Prof. Lin was the one who answered my questions rather than the store manager. Either way, I got quite a bit of insight from it, mostly on how jasmine tea has been rebranding itself as a more “elegant” tea by improving the quality of both the leaves and the buds used.
While tea connoisseurs since the Song have praised unadulterated tea for its purity, jasmine tea is Fuzhou’s local specialty, and there’s definitely a push to make it seem like it’s for the upper class by using stories and connections to imperial and political figures, such as continuously mentioning that it’s Empress Dowager Cixi’s favorite tea, and that it was served to Henry Kissinger when he visited China.
Ultimately, when we ended the night, I was absolutely exhausted. Having walked over 25,000 steps and nearly 20 km, I dreaded waking up at 7 am for guqin class the next morning. But I was happy I could meet up with my former professor, drink some delightful jasmine tea, and even bring some samples home with me for another day!