Recently, a new friend entered my life. He's a great person to chat to about all sorts of things from travel to religious beliefs. He also passionately advocates for animal rights and some of his Facebook posts, as well as the conversations he has, reflect his outrage about the abuse and cruelty animals receive across the world. Now, I love a good steak and up until recently, I hadn't thought much about where the food I'm eating has come from, what sort of life it's had before ending up on my plate or who was responsible for getting it there. We buy our food in fancy wrapping and I don't think any more of it.
In the past few months, through both reading my friend's posts and having experiences which mean I am so much closer to the food I am eating, I have become acutely aware of how little I ask or care about the food I eat.
And boy have we seen it all - fish getting there heads slammed against street curbs, ducks being dipped in black sticky wax and having their feathers stripped off and fluffy rabbits being weighed by their ears. Warning to all animal lovers and the faint hearted, you will see all of the above and more in pretty much every local Chinese market. The selling of livestock is as common as fruit and veg stalls. It is some spectacle though and, if you can handle it, it is well worth it to experience the hustle and bustle. One thing you know for sure, if you are buying your fish and meat from a Chinese market, it doesn't come much fresher!
I try not to talk too much or contort my face excessively at the things I am seeing at local markets. Until I see puppies. If you've been following the blog, you'll know that I can't help cooing over and having hugs with any pup that is willing to let me. In Menghun village in Xishuangbanna, South China there was a large crowd around a basket of puppies. When I asked why they were being sold (even though I knew already), I couldn't stop myself and swiftly told the man that these animals were not for eating and that in England we take good care of dogs and that some people even prefer them to their own children. At that point the seller with his brown stained teeth and a cigarette flopping from his mouth, just laughed and said 'hao chi [it's delicious]'.
And, after all, who am I to say anything anyway?! It's only what you are used to. Mike eats pretty much everything but refuses to suck on a juicy chicken's foot or try squished pigs face, however much I encourage him. I eat most meat but hate the idea of shellfish and seafood because of how I've been brought up.
In China, everyone eats everything and the idea that we would not eat animals, let alone care about their living conditions and 'rights' is totally ludicrous to many Chinese people. If there are mouths to feed then everything including cows, horses, dogs, toads and scorpions will be eaten. To give you an idea... a delicacy here is sharks fin soup (this is technically illegal I think) and pig trotters broth and, when babies are born, their mother's placentas are sometimes fried up and plated out to family members as this is said to have medicinal properties and help ailments such as eczema.
There is an old saying which says, 'Chinese eat anything with four legs except a table, and anything that flies except an airplane'. Having spent seven weeks here, I can safely say this is true. Vegetarianism is not a thing here and in country where you have 1.3 billion mouths to feed, it is not surprising. However, as Western styles and tastes become more popular in China, you can already find a few vegetarian or vegan restaurants in the major cities. This will only increase with time.
I could talk a lot about all the animals and fish we've seen in markets but the main thing I've become aware of is how close people are to the food that they eat. Most people handpick their dinners from the market and many take the animals back home alive and kill them themselves. Although the animals we've seen have been in cages, I am sure that the hours before they were killed were spent roaming freely in the local villages. Yes, Chinese people eat everything and no, they don't think about animal rights yet I still think these animals live better and are healthier than the farmed meat, poultry and fish I probably eat at home. I even wonder if my friend back home would consider eating from one of these local market.
It is most definitely the buying and selling of livestock that is most interesting and different from a trip to Asda on Southgate high street. However, what brings the vibrant colours to all the markets we've visited is the amazing array of fruits and vegetables. Unlike at home, Chinese people will only eat what is in season. Everything in the markets looks so fresh and inviting. My mum always mentions how much she loved eating all the fresh vegetables lightly fried in garlic in China and one of my favourite things when I lived in China was picking up my groceries. I had the lady I went to for avocados and the man I bought broccoli from. It was always fun learning the names of new produce and conversing with the locals who seemed to think that me buying vegetables was the funniest thing they had ever seen.
After cycling and walking through many fields in China and admiring all the crops growing, I love looking at the finished produce being sold at the markets. We have seen everything from seeds being sown, root vegetables being uprooted and stacked, corn and chillies being dried in the sun, crops being watered and water buffalo ploughing the ground. It is so interesting watching everyone at work and Mike and I have been left in awe as we see men and women, 70 years plus working out in the sun and lugging huge baskets of soil or crops back and forth on their backs. Agriculture makes up 3 million of China's workforce and you can see it in every province and every district across the country.
After the horrors of the famine during the Great Leap Forward when millions died, food and eating here is celebrated. It is from this time in the 1960s, that the phrase 'Ni chi fan le ma? [have you eaten yet?]' comes from. Chinese people use it nowadays to mean 'how are you?' because when food was scarce, to be well meant you had eaten.
Eating with friends and family is a big social event which can go on long into the night, drinking down food with some local baijiu, the 50% rice wine. Weddings and festivals are marked with huge feasts and for us, pulling up a bench and joining in a meal, cooked up from all the produce in the market which I've learned to really appreciate, is a highlight of any trip.