fusion food-scapes

This weekend a group of Swiss writers visited as part of the food-scape / 食事风景 project. Representing the four Swiss languages, the writers were: Vanni Bianconi (Italian), Arno Camenisch (Romanch), Odile Cornuz (French), Peter Weber (German), and Martin Zeller (German). Margrit Manz organized the project. Three film-makers also came: Xia Tian from Tianjin by way of Basel, Janos Tedeschi, and Milo.

The importance of food in creating and nourishing human relationships is a truism in both anthropological theory and Chinese culture. We don’t just eat with intimates, we also create intimacy by sharing food. Moreover, when a group lacks common topics of conversation, talking about food easily segues into childhood memories, strangest food I ever tasted bravado, journeys through cultural landscapes, and perils of world domination by American fast food chains.

Saturday afternoon, day one, started awkwardly but ended with the sensual pleasures of a Hunan restaurant,where I was most struck by how good food facilitated conversations that had previously been stilted and dry. Pre-food, we approached conversation intellectually, each of us rehearsing arguments and theses we had clearly developed in other contexts. However, the flavors, the baijiu, the chewing, the swallowing, and the communal digesting of Hunan food gave us a world in common. We talked about tastes, what was special about Hunan food, the different types of chili peppers in China. We enjoyed Peter and Vanni’s enthusiasm for new dishes and suddenly the distance between people dissolved into laughter, stories, and arranging another workshop, which would be held after visiting Dongmen and City Hall the next day.

Sunday morning, day two, Winnie Wong joined us for morning tea at the revolving restaurant at the top of the National Commerce Building (国贸). This building is a particular favorite of mine because the inexpensive morning tea (48 per person on weekdays, 58 on weekends) is not only tasty, but also an easy opening to talk about Shenzhen history (the National Commerce Building was the first skyscraper built in reform China) and view Shenzhen (at 49 stories the building is tall enough for great views but low enough to be able to see and identify other buildings). Again, food, its presentation, and the dim sum fun of selecting baskets of dumplings, braised chicken claws, and cow stomach created commonality, so that presence in the present could anchor conversations that might otherwise have drifted into the tenuous connections of abstract thoughts.

We then visited the street markets of the remains of old Hubei Village (湖贝村), an urban village that occupies downtown land as yet to expensive to appropriated. Rows of and two-story traditional houses create narrow lanes, which are wide enough for a person to walk through open onto wider main lanes, which are wide enough to accommodate small carts, bicycles, motor scooters, and tables of fresh meat, vegetables, seafood, fried breads, imported fruits, tofu products, and displays of preserved eggs. Most of Shenzhen’s migrant workers live with their families in inner city villages like Hubei Village and these street markets both reproduce the feel of local markets elsewhere and provide convenient access to food. More importantly, the street markets create food-scapes, where migrants can inhabit Shenzhen by making neighborhoods out of grocery shopping, haggling over prices, sharing recipes, or simply walking around and noticing what’s available.

These three very different food-scapes provided the backdrop to our short visit to experience the monumentality of the central axis, where Martin bought pastries for our afternoon workshop, which itself was a food-scape of another kind. Martin arranged the pastries in the center of the table, I added the box of Swiss chocolates that Xia Tian had given me as a meeting gift, and the hostel workers served cups of hot coffee and tea. The group was now ready to talk about art. And we did. The conversation touched upon individualism, Chinese familialism, the materiality of language, and the performance of written works. Odile and Janos provided an impromtu reading of my translation of Yang Qian’s “Neither Type Nor Category”, and then Peter read his poems in German and Yang Qian their Chinese translations.

I left the table thinking about the importance of shared intimacy through eating to nourishing mutual understanding. Indeed, eating together made spaces in which conversation was meaningful and viscerally pleasurable, allowing real cultural differences to explored, rather than skipped over. During the food-scape exchange, for example, two of the most obvious moments of cultural ignorance appeared as lack of knowledge about Shenzhen (among Western artists) and indifference to Dada (among Chinese students).

On the one hand, over the past thirty years, Shenzhen has touched the lives of every single Mainland person. To have lived through Reform and Opening is to have seen its possibilities tried out, tinkered with, and transformed in Shenzhen. Indeed, migrating to Shenzhen, especially before 1997, defined a particular kind of courage and ambition that all Chinese people recognize. Thus, in the context of the contemporary PRC, ignorance about Shenzhen is unimaginable because it would mean having missed an entire historical era.

On the other hand, modern art movements like Dada have impacted and made possible all kinds of Western lives, ranging from aesthetic experimentation to philosophical interrogation of the limits to objective truth. Many of us, including myself, have created lives out of these possibilities. Thus, in the context of Western individualism, indifference to Dada is puzzling because to learn about Dada is to deepen one’s understanding of the self.

Definite food for thought.

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