Yiwan Eats Leshan
Trip Start Aug 29, 2012
25Trip End Ongoing
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"Smoke faster!" I pleaded with Huang Qian as she slowly inhaled, savoring her last cigarette for five days. We stood outside of Shanghai's Maglev train station on the way to the airport, laughing hysterically as she tried to teach me, her absurdly uncoordinated friend, how I should bow to her elder family members.
We arrived in Leshan after midnight and I met her aunt, uncle, and mom. Huang Qian quickly decided that she wasn't going to translate for me because it was funnier that way. Everyone in her family speaks Leshan dialect, which I understand about 5% of the time.
So I should keep the door open, right?
Before I went to shower, Huang Qian's mom asked if I brought pajamas. Delighted that I finally understood something, I eagerly answered "yes!" and changed into my PJs: a t-shirt and yoga pants. As I emerged from the bedroom, she burst into laughter. "What kind of pajamas are those?!" My clothes are much funnier than I thought. Later that night, she walked into the kitchen muttering and Huang Qian finally gave me somewhat of a translation. I asked, "What's so funny about my pajamas?" to which she replied, "I don't know, but she's still talking about them."
After I showered, Huang Qian's mom walked into the bedroom with me to tell me to close the curtains and door to keep the mosquitos out. As she walked out of the room to go to bed, she asked, "Okay, so are you going to close the door?" Not understanding what she was getting at, I replied "No, don't worry, I'll leave it open." Thinking I was just being difficult, she went back into the room and repeated her instructions, pointing at the curtains and door. We repeated this cycle a couple times, getting increasingly hysterical. I peeked my head out of the door at Huang Qian.
"So should I close the door or leave it open?" I asked Huang Qian dozens of times and each time, all three of us giggled harder and harder. "She still doesn't know!" she reported to her mom. As the clock struck 3am, she finally said, "JUST CLOSE THE DOOR!"
The Great and Powerful Yiwan
On the first night, Huang Qian introduced me to her mom as "Sarah", so her mom called me "Shiwan" (十万), or one hundred thousand, which sounds kind of like Sarah in Leshan Dialect. The next morning, I woke up to, "Yiwan, how have you not gotten up yet?! Wake up!" Yiwan (一万) means ten thousand. I'd been demoted.
"So does that mean tomorrow I'll be one thousand, then one hundred, and by the time we leave I'll be reduced to one?" I asked Huang Qian. She didn't know, but somehow I maintained my rank as Yiwan for the rest of the trip!
As I was then introduced to Huang Qian's whole family as "Yiwan", I now actually answer to that name. Later in the week, when her mom relentlessly attempted to set me up with her cousin (see pictured below), Huang Qian suggested that I move to Leshan and be Yiwan forever. She was especially happy about two things that happened on the trip: 1. I got a new name and 2. I almost became her cousin-in-law.
To bow or not to bow?
Day two of our trip was Mid-Autumn Festival. Before going to see the Leshan's famous giant Buddha, we went downstairs to Huang Qian's grandma's place to feast with the family. I successfully bowed to her grandma, still unsure whether or not Huang Qian was just playing an elaborate prank on me. Everybody in the room laughed, but as the laughter was somewhat approving, I'm just going to call that one a win.
I went with Huang Qian, her aunt, uncle, and mom to see the giant Buddha, the Da Fo (大佛). The mountains around the Da Fo are dotted with temples and pagodas. Huang Qian's aunt encouraged me to join her in feverishly running around taking pictures as she and her mom lit candles.
After exploring the mountain, we met back up with Huang Qian's family in the traditional tourist town by the river where they were drinking tea and playing 2-7-10.
2-7-10 is a gambling card game that is only played in Leshan. Her uncle gave me a deck of 2-7-10 cards and tried to explain the game to me, but putting them in order from 1 to 10 is the best I can do.
We relaxed by the river snacking on grapefruit and sunflower seeds listening to her relatives play cards until dusk.
Ten Thousand, or Yiwan, Mooncakes
On the night of Mid-Autumn Festival, we headed home to eat mooncakes and watch the Mid-Autumn Gala on TV. I thought I was pretty clever bringing Huang Qian's mom mooncakes from the Jade Buddha Temple that's by my apartment in Shanghai. It was only when we sat down to eat that I realized I'd brought the wrong gift.
She came out of the kitchen and laid a giant load of various kinds of mooncakes on the table. Then she did it again, then again. We must've had hundreds of mooncakes in front of us: traditional mooncakes with red bean paste, fish mooncakes, lotus seed paste mooncakes, and even bacon mooncakes! As she insisted we lug some back to Shanghai with us on the plane, I now officially consider myself a China-wide mooncake delivery person!
The Mystery Fruit of Emei Mountain
Everyone in China had a week off this year because National Day happened to fall on the day after Mid-Autumn Festival. We spent National Day climbing Emei Mountain, the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China.
Like most Chinese cuisines, eating Sichuan food involves a lot of spitting things out (bones, seeds, and more bones). These can be embarrassingly difficult for an inexperienced foreigner, such as myself, to eat. At the bottom of the mountain, Huang Qian's mom handed me a fruit (name unknown...if you know it, please comment). Much to their amusement, when we reached the top, I had still not finished eating said fruit. I also failed to finish duck feet, much to her mom's disappointment. Trying to make up for my wastefulness, I victoriously choked down an egg that had been buried in dirt and you know what? It wasn't half bad!
I was born here!
The highest point we reached was the sole temple for women (nunnery) on Emei Mountain. This is the famous site where Huang Qian first muttered the phrase "I was born here!" that would be repeated as much as possible for the rest of the trip. These recitations were mostly prefaced by "Just follow me" or "Of course I know where we're going".
The first time she said it, we stood overlooking the nunnery rooftops on Emei Mountain. She explained that the architect had taken the way the wind blows over the space into consideration when building the temple so all the dirt would be swept away, which is why the rooftops are so clean. I now regret my surprise at her uncharacteristic knowledge-dropping, as she exclaimed, "I was born here!" in reply.
Eating Like Hobbits
One of the things that comes with the territory when you have a language barrier is that you never really know where you're going or what you're doing. Luckily, that problem was quickly solved for me when I discovered that 95% of the time, we were going to eat.
For example, one night as we sat around a bubbling pot of malatang, Sichuan's specialty hot and spicy soup, Huang Qian's relatives were making plans for what we would eat after the soup. I thought they were kidding when they said we were going to another restaurant after stuffing ourselves with malatang. Of course, they weren't.
Leshan is full of streetside restaurants. Huang Qian says they eat outside even in the winter, they just sit closer together. After eating malatang at a special outdoor table, we went to the other side of town to snack on tangyuan, balls of glutinous rice flower filled with either sesame or meat.
To paraphrase Sublime, we ate two meals before we ate two meals, and then we ate two more.
As we walked through security at the Chengdu Airport yesterday, I felt extremely grateful to Huang Qian's family. I'm grateful to her mom for taking me in, stuffing me full of delicious food, and yes, even trying to help me find the love of my life. I especially want to thank Huang Qian for inviting me to come home with her and for not translating; turns out, it was funnier after all!
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