“China slips through my fingers,” I wrote in my journal my first full morning in Shanghai. I had just wakened to the clatter of bulldozers outside my window, something that would become familiar in my subsequent trips to this city, which is ever undergoing almost constant growth and change. My workmates and I were staying at the Howard Johnson’s in Pudong, the high-tech district of Shanghai cluttered with dull grey office buildings built for work and business, far away from the bright lights and glamour of downtown and the Bund.
As odd as it seemed then to be staying at a Howard Johnson’s in China, it seems quite fitting in retrospect. After all, the American chain – which began as a soda fountain in a drugstore, then morphed into a large chain of restaurants before expanding into a constellation of roadside motels– is synonymous with 60’s-era travel and hospitality in the US. The iconic orange roofs, cupolas, and weather vanes a reminder of the promise of the open highway and the road. Finding myself now flung some 7,500 miles from home, I appreciated the comfort and familiarity of the place, and its nostalgia for a different time.
Over subsequent trips, I would grow more comfortable in Shanghai, it would become my sister city of some 25 million souls. I would discover its many treasures and come to feel tentatively at home in a place so utterly foreign to me. Much of this comfort came from the hospitality of our work colleagues there – strangers, really, who welcomed us as family, sparing no effort in sharing their city with us, most often over meals enjoyed around a lazy Susan that built the bridges between our diverse cultures.
After many a work day, we’d take a cab to a nearby family restaurant and grab a seat at one of the big round tables scattered around the room. I’d wait as my Chinese colleagues ordered, and then watch as the elevated disc in the middle of the table was filled with exotic-sounding dishes such as Da Zha Xie (steamed crab), Beggar’s Chicken, Mapo Doufu (spicy stewed tofu), Jiya Xuetang (chicken and duck blood soup) and Xiaolongbao (delectable soup dumplings). “Try it!,” my work friends would say, rotating the tray around, encouraging me to sample a favorite dish. I loved the communal informality of dipping my chopsticks into any of the dishes that caught my eye, and placing bits of food into the little bowl in front of me to eat from.
At these meals, I’d try to sample all the dishes -- though some, admittedly, were beyond the limits of my experimentation. My favorite dish was the slippery wood ear salad, a popular dish served all over China, and one which my colleagues called simply, “fungus.” I couldn’t get enough of the refreshing mix of slightly chewy black mushrooms, glistening in a light dressing of chili pepper, oil, soy sauce and inky black Chinkiang vinegar. My hosts would watch with happy satisfaction as I munched away, eating bowl after bowl, sharing a love of a dish that formed a bond between us.
Chinese hospitality is legendary, the welcome of foreigners with food and drink a necessary element of any travel there. These meals we shared at table in Shanghai helped make China feel a bit more solid to me, a little less overwhelming. But I never really lost that slippery feeling. No matter how familiar I might become, I would always be a foreigner there, a stranger. But through this hospitality, extended and received, we could lessen the strangeness just a bit. And in its place enjoy a bond of contradiction and connection, a welcome both warm and wary.