I moved to a district in Shanghai called Changning, which means “long peace.” After losing my job and even overstaying my visa in Hangzhou, living in Changning was like finding peace in my life. I had a promising new job as a copywriter in a multinational company named one of the Forbes’ 200 best small companies in the world. I resided in a quiet community, with evergreens, bushes, manicured lawns, weathered four-story, concrete apartment buildings and plenty of sunshine. Every morning, a fleet of modern — and mostly empty — air-conditioned buses could taxi me all the way to my new downtown office.
Most of all, I had John, my Chinese boyfriend, with me, everyday. And perhaps that was the most important difference between Hangzhou and Shanghai — now John was no longer an occasional weekend visitor, but, by unspoken agreement, my live-in partner. He turned Shanghai into something deceptively familiar, as if my new home was simply a Shanghai version of the Hangzhou neighborhood I once knew.
But this was a new neighborhood and a new city — with a new culinary landscape we didn’t understand. After only a few days — and a few meals out — that I finally felt the truth. We’re not in Hangzhou anymore.
John and I, like most young Chinese, ate most of our meals outside, in restaurants and small cafes. In Hangzhou, we had the choice of many fine restaurants just around the corner from my old community — from a Changde Hunan place that dished out fiery and fragrant dishes to several local Hangzhou restaurants, including our favorite, the “Original Flavor House,” where the staff didn’t mind cooking for a vegan, and always kept our teapot full.
But “Original Flavor House” wasn’t what we found this evening in Shanghai. “This food is terrible,” I groaned. John and I were dining in a grotty mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant that had about five tables, several stacked aquariums with live fish, a cash register and television, all crowded together in a space across the street from our community. The greens were overcooked; the fried pumpkin tasteless; and the tofu bland. The management was as unsavory as the food — slow to cook, and even slower to serve us. We left full plates on the table, and left with empty stomachs.
That night, still starving and smarting from the first encounter, we ducked into another establishment, just around the corner from our community. More mediocre dishes piled up before us, and we ate only enough to quell the hunger within. “How is it the food is still awful, even though we changed restaurants?” I lamented.
As the days passed, we realized this was not the Hangzhou I knew. Here in this Changning neighborhood, we’d be lucky to find even one good restaurant within our budget.
As John and I deliberated over yet another lackluster lunch at a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant, we became nostalgic for the restaurants from our old Hangzhou neighborhood.
“Remember the Original Flavor House?” I nudged John, nursing a small cup of lukewarm old tea. “That food was heavenly.” I closed my eyes in ecstasy as I imagined the restaurant, just around the corner from the apartment where I once lived. John and I had spent so many weekend afternoons and evenings there, in love with each other, and the restaurant’s tantalizing, Hangzhou-style dishes.
“They made great fish-fragrant eggplant,” mused John.
“Pumpkin, too,” I recalled, imagining those sweet, golden medallions on a plate.
John took a deep breath, as if he was inhaling an imaginary aroma. “What about tofu-skin baby bok choy?” We both nodded, acknowledging our shared, unspoken thought — to us, the Hangzhou restaurants really were better.
I wonder if this is the disappointment my father knew, years later, when coming to attend our wedding in China. When we started our our journey through Hangzhou, we just randomly choose a restaurant for breakfast — that turned out to make the most delectable beef noodles he had ever tasted.
“Is there any way we can find those noodles again?” he asked again and again, as we visited Suzhou and later Shanghai.
I turned to him with apologetic eyes. “I’m sorry Dad, but we’re not in Hangzhou anymore. Every new city has its own local flavor. It would be almost impossible to find the same noodles on the road.”
A new city, new flavor, new restaurants. My culinary discontent in Shanghai wasn’t just the cook’s fault — perhaps I simply missed the food I loved in Hangzhou, a food that was even closer to me because I loved Hangzhou native.
I could never return to that Hangzhou I once knew. John and I were just beginning to build a life together in Shanghai — day by day, and, yes, even dinner by dinner. After all, there’s nothing like the flavor of being with the one you love, no matter where you are.
Did you ever miss something when you moved to a new place in China (or elsewhere)?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.