Back in China

I’m back in Hangzhou for the first time in almost two years. In some ways, this city feels completely different; in others, it feels like it’s only been a few weeks since I left.

Back when I worked here, I lived in the far south end of the city; my wife, a local, lived at the far north end. Our courtship revolved largely around routines, and so my life did for the more than four years I spent here.

We’d meet on Saturday mornings at the Starbucks that marked the mid point of our houses (or the shop where I sit right now, actually), wander around and kill time, eat lunch and spend the afternoon back at my house, go out for dinner. Wednesdays were usually the days we spent during the week, when we’d hang out for a bit in my apartment, maybe have some wine, then go out for dinner and maybe a walk around West Lake.

One the days I didn’t see her outside of work, my life was still pretty regular. I’d wake up every morning, grab 2rmb (then 2.5rmb, then 3rmb – inflation is pretty insane here), and stop at 复兴路北口 for an egg pancake from my favorite egg pancake lady. Daisy and I called her 老人蛋饼师傅, the old pancake lady, to distibguish her from the younger milktea girls nearby who also made egg pancake and had been part of my after-work routine. I did this, my commute, every day for quite a few years. Every day, the old pancake lady would see me coming, make sure no one cut me in line, and would start making my egg pancake. She and I would chat, and occassionally the guy who made youtiao (the long skinny fried stuff, the crux of the egg pancake, and what makes hers so amazing) would chime in. They aren’t from Hangzhou, and neither am I, so sometimes our accents or my generally weak Mandarin would keep our chats simple.

The one thing I never needed to say, though, was how I wanted my pancake. My entire order would be her asking if I wanted one egg pancake today or two.

(A short side note: Those of you who are from or have been to China probably (hopefully) know what these egg pancakes are. They became a staple of my time in China, and I made it a requirement to try at least one in every city I went to (which, due to my work and Daisy’s and my love for travel, was a lot). The most common way I found to call them were simply 蛋饼, or egg pancake, but sometimes they were called 煎饼 (which, if you ask me, are a different food entirely). They’re made from a floury crepe with an egg cracked on top and smooshed around, with some green onions and some spices, flipped around to cook the egg, some sweet or spicy sauce laid on, then a fresh, crispy, 油条 (youtiao) is put on top. Wrap the whole thing up, throw it into a plastic bag (think the kind you get with a greeting card). And kazaam. The best food you’ll ever eat in your whole life. Bonus points if you find a street vendor, because, as with any street food, it’s always a bit better when it’s not so clean. This is necessarily changing, as the country is changing and 城管 (a special police, kind of) are going around busting street vendors without licenses (which means all of them). Cities like Shanghai are largely immune to this problem because street food has, for a long time, been served out of windows, more akin to a food truck in Austin than a hot dog cart in Chicago.)

Anyway, my wife and I came back last year for Chinese New Years, a time when everyone in China goes back home to see family. This is an inherently strange time to be in China: train and bus stations are full of people with huge bags sleeping anywhere they can because of some unforeseen delay, people in the city are unusually distributed because the proportion of tourists, business people, and locals is all out of wack, lots of (most?) shops are closed. And, perhaps most importantly, the street food vendors, almost entirely from out of town (外地人), are all gone. This is not good news for yours truly.

My father in law, also known as one of the greatest guys ever, knows how important these egg pancakes, and particularly those made by the old pancake lady, are to me. So a few days before Daisy and I returned for New Years, he took his motorbike the nine or so miles, from the far north end of the city to the far south, to see when the old pancake lady and her team were going home. Daisy and I arrived on the 23rd, and they reported they were leaving on the 24th. For a two week trip, which I dreamt would be full of egg pancakes, a single day wasn’t a lot, but I’ll take whatever I can get. I woke up the morning after we arrived, jet lagged and tired as hell, around 6am to take a public bike those same miles all the way down to 复兴路北口. And my heart stopped when the shop was all closed up.

I don’t remember exactly how long it took me to get out of my funk that week. A day? Two? The whole week? I ate so many strange egg pancakes that week in a desperate attempt to find one as delcious as the old pancake lady’s, but to little avail. (I did, very fortunately, find a 烧饼 place near Daisy’s parents’ house, which the 城管 forced to close but were friendly enough to let me eat.)

That was February of last year, 2013. It’s now November of 2014. I woke up early this morning and immediately jumped on a bike and headed south. It’s foggy and humid here, but the air has been remarkably clean compared to our last few trips back here. After about 40 minutes, I pulled up at 复兴路北口. The youtiao guy saw me approaching, and shouted “hey!” as both of our faces lit up.

“好久没来! [it’s been a long time!]”

“是好久没来! [yeah no shit!]”

Let me slow down a bit, and emphasize exactly how happy I was at this point. I was very happy. Not only was I back in Hangzhou, my second home, but I was back in the south, my old stomping grounds. Not only was I about to eat an egg pancake, my favorite anything, but I was about to eat old pancake lady’s pancakes. And not only did they recognize me, but they were as excited to see me as I was. It gets better.

The youtiao guy kept saying something I didn’t quite understand about the 24th. Like I said, they both have pretty thick accents, so even Daisy sometimes has a hard time understanding what they say. I asked once or twice “what about the 24th? what day is today? I dunno…” And then old pancake lady said “no no, your wife’s dad came here last year to see when we were going home. We meant we’d already be home the 24th! So we didn’t see you.”

(What’s the emoji for such a huge fucking smile even a capital D doesn’t cut it?)

Let me tell you. That egg pancake was easily the best I’ve ever eaten. It’s really good to be back home.

#china #travel

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