Why Chaozhou? Some of our students haven’t even heard of this place when we mention it to them. It’s a very small, very old city in the Northeastern part of Guangdong province, and also happens to be the ancestral hometown of Sarah’s family on her Dad’s side. Unfortunately, no actual ancestral home exists; like most of China, it’s been demolished and replaced by apartments. But what does remain of the old city is worth looking at.
We arrived in Chaozhou and immediately found ourselves in the role of soothing some worried Australians: Mindy, whose handbags are made in a Chaozhou factory, and her friend Lucy, had crossed the border from cosmopolitan Hong Kong with all its conveniences to the raucous developing chaos that is mainland China. Needless to say, they weren’t prepared for the change. On top of this alienation, their ride didn’t show up at the bus station, so they came with us to our hotel while waiting to make contact. (Eventually he showed up and everything was fine.)
This incident coincided with hitting the half-year mark since our move to China, and having just returned from HK and Malaysia, we were in a reflective mood.
“Everything about not being in China is easier,” Sarah said as we ate the first of several delicious Chaozhou meals (this one on the street by our hotel: fried tofu with chili, squid with leeky greens, tripe with carrots and other veggies). “But I’m glad we’re back.” I had to agree. We’d just spent two weeks in places that felt easier to navigate and more similar to the lives we’ve known in the US. But eating a great, cheap meal on the street at 10 pm, drinking Qingdao, enjoying the easy, language-free camaraderie between street-restaurateur and customer just felt right. We were so far away from that first nervous night when we arrived in Shaoxing, and meeting those Australians drove home the point that we are finally feeling at home here.
The next day we visited West Lake, not to be confused with the “real” or at least verifiably better West Lake in Hangzhou. This is Chaozhou’s main downtown park/lake/recreation area, where we walked around looking at trees, calligraphy, and a cheesy dance spectacle. (We left when there was some kind of trivia contest and the guy with the microphone pointed me out, so everyone turned to stare. I get a little tired of that kind of thing.)
Next, a sumptuous lunch at the Ciyuan Juijia ( 瓷苑酒家), a restaurant recommended by our trusty Lonely Planet, where we were served what seemed like the “tourist special” — 100 RMB worth of food not chosen by us, since we couldn’t read the menu. Although it was probably a routine meal for the restaurant, we enjoyed everything: food in Chaozhou is really, really tasty. Somehow the food seems unadulterated and in its purer form – perhaps since we were in Southern China, food is not preserved as much as Northern food, so the ingredients are fresher. Since Joel is allergic to shrimp, Sarah had the skewers to herself. There was also a cold dish of preserved duck, amazingly tasty fried squid, the prerequisite qincai (green vegetables), and fried rice.
Since what we mostly do is eat, the next morning we had breakfast at the cafe next door to the hotel, where Sarah ordered a “ham and egg sandwich,” which consisted of ham and eggs but no sandwich, and I got a “chocolate muffin,” which was a waffle drizzled with chocolate syrup and garnished, oddly enough, with cherry tomatoes.
Then we checked out the old city wall, which is in the more “historical” and also touristy part of the city. The funny thing is that to get there you have to go through blocks and blocks of nothing but renovations. It’s like the entire downtown is under construction. (You could say this about the entire country, of course.) We met a nice shopkeeper at a tea shop and drank some gongfu cha with him. (Gongfu cha is the style of tea people drink in Chaozhou. It’s oolong tea brewed in a really tiny pot and drunk from really tiny cups. The ceremony is just as important as the actual liquid.)
Sarah’s Dad happened to call her, and she passed the phone to the shopkeeper. I’m not sure what they talked about, but I’ll bet it was a surprise for the guy to get into a conversation with another Teochiu speaker thousands of miles a way. We didn’t end up buying the teapot Sarah had her eye on, which is perhaps our one great regret of this trip. We were haggling hard — and being the sensitive non-confrontational guy I am, I’m horrible at haggling, because I feel like I’m being mean — but they didn’t budge. We just got some oolong tea and picked up a cheaper Chaozhou-themed teaset from another shop on our way back.