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Looking for China

by: Judy Schultz

Edmonton, Alberta Canada: Red Deer college Press 1995, Paperback

Reviewed by: Jo Marie Powers
Fall Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(3) page(s): 17 and 18

The real China or the China of myths, this was Judy Schultz's quest in Looking for China. From Childhood, this author’s fascination began with this country and it did not cease. When she became the food and travel editor of the Edmonton Journal (Alberta, Canada), she went to China again and again searching for what she remembered from pictures seen in her childhood. The real China was not that picture memory nor was it moon gates and temples shrouded in mist. Instead, it was a troubled country struggling through a painful industrialization and reorganization of live. While her view might be quite different if she was Chinese, it does have the strength of telling stories the Chinese might think too mundane, or those they might be afraid to tell Westerners in this non-travel non-food book that portrays everyday Chinese life. Because of her passion for food, she vividly pictures the food markets and restaurants.

Sketches of ordinary people provide an understanding of the daily life in China, and in particular, agrarian life. Around Hong Kong are several hundred islands where a few Hakka still practice market gardening. Auntie Fong is one. At an old age she grows vegetables such as garlic chives, cabbages, onions, and sweet potatoes to sell at the 'wet' market and catches a few fish for her dinner. Judy visited Auntie Fong's isolated cottage, walked the beach and shared tea with her. Together they went to the temple where Auntie Fong prayed for a son with bad joss (luck).

In China, religion and food are intertwined: 'Comfortably settled, the old woman fishes her feast from the ever-present shopping bag: nice boiled chicken and some oranges, which she'll eat later. She lights her incense sticks and then, palms together, eyes on the altar, she shuts out the hubble-bubble around her and is lost in prayer.'

One of her greatest desires is to visit a family farm and when she arrives in the countryside, she finds bundles of rice drying on thatched roofs while black pigs and chickens forage around the farmhouses. Her visit as a journalist prompted a family feast--platter after platter of vegetables, chicken, fish and rice. It turns out that the farmer was previously a chef, who has prepared a very special dish, Imperial Quilted Turtle. 'It is a bigger turtle than any I've seen in the markets, and it's all there--head, legs and shell." After the turtle is suitably displayed, the shell is removed, revealing cubes of burned mutton fat "arranged with alternating cubes of turtle meat in an intricate pink and black checked pattern that is oddly beautiful.'

Unfortunately, mutton fat is Judy's 'worst gastronomic nightmare,' but she is able to unobtrusively unload the fat to a chicken looking for tidbits underfoot. The farm visit is one memory she especially prizes because the uncle is a northern Muslim who had been caught up in the Revolution and one way the Red Guard dealt with politically incorrect thinking was to put Muslims to work cleaning pigsties (farming).

Western food taboos cannot help but get into her way as she explores China, even though she is curious about what Chinese people eat and makes an effort to try the unusual. Schultz looks for the China of her childhood memories, and as a friend told her: "It's the looking that matters, not the finding... The journey is everything. Once one arrives, the mystery is solved, isn't it? An then where's the fun? Much better to seek than to find."

Note: This review, in the hard copy, appeared in the column titled: Book Reviews.

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