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2021-12-22 10:11:45  + video 

On Dec. 9, 2021, Sixth Tone invited food writer Fuchsia Dunlop and nonfiction author Qian Jianan to take part in a wide-ranging conversation on food, family, and “generations.” The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Fuchsia Dunlop: I’ve been asked to talk a bit about generations and changes in China. I first went to China in 1992, and I went to live in Chengdu in 1994. One thing I found quite surprising and touching with the response to my book, “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper,” is that I was writing about a Chengdu that I knew very well in the 1990s, and for younger Chinese people, even those in Chengdu, they seem to think that when I’m writing about the old lanes and the old street trades, that it’s almost about a lost world.

With food, the most prominent and dramatic change in the last 30 years is, obviously, from scarcity to plenty. And it could even go to terrible waste, the kind of diseases of excess that we’ve had in Western countries for much longer: type 2 diabetes and other diet-related problems. Just the kind of extravagance that many people in China are now uneasy about. You’ve had official campaigns against waste. And I remember particularly in a restaurant in Beijing, finding a small piece of card on the table, which had a picture of a rice bowl superimposed with a picture of a farmer working in the fields as a reference to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) poem “Every Grain of Rice” by Li Shen, which actually became the title of one of my books.

There’s a real change too in the kitchen. I remember visiting friends, like my teacher at university. Her kitchen was not decorated. It was a purely functional space just for preparing her daily meal. Now some of my friends have new apartments with fitted kitchens that look very attractive. It has become a space where you might have friends over. And also, they didn’t have ovens in the past. Now some of them do have ovens, with people cooking more internationally and doing Western baking. I correspond quite frequently with my friend and translator, He Yujia, on WeChat, and we have this sort of joke between us, sending pictures of what we’re cooking. She would send me pictures of Western cakes and biscuits that she was making in her oven in Chengdu. So the whole role and status and character of cooking at home has completely changed.

Highlights from the first Sixth Tone Writing Contest webinar. By Xie Anran/Sixth Tone

Also, now you have migrant parents living in cities, often with the children left behind in the villages. And this completely changes the context of food and traditional food culture because you have the grandparents cooking for the children, but not teaching, not passing on their skills and knowledge to the middle generation.

And in the cities too, you have this setup, often where grandparents cook for the small children, so the middle generation isn’t learning how to cook. And that’s the same with a lot of my friends, that they have not really learned cooking skills and the food traditions from their parents. I find one thing that makes me really sad about this, too, is that young Chinese people, children, are under such incredible pressure to study all the time. They don’t really have time for leisure, for fun, for play, and also for learning about food and cooking.

You have the grandparents cooking for the children, but not teaching, not passing on their skills and knowledge to the middle generation.

I think this is partly influenced by a kind of strange snobbery about cooking in China. So one question that I’ve been asked so often in interviews since my books were published in Chinese is, how did my parents cope with my decision as a Cambridge graduate to not pursue an academic career, but instead, to write about food.

One journalist actually asked me how I personally coped with the loss in status as a result. And I found this question strange.

And another generational change, which is related to what I’ve already talked about, is just in diets. I was very struck when I was first in Chengdu by how fresh and healthy the food was, and particularly how people ate so much less meat than they do typically in Britain and America. The habit was often to take a piece of meat that would have fed one American, and cut it into small pieces and stir-fry it with vegetables to feed several people. So meat was used as a flavoring, not as the main deal. And people add a lot of healthy grains and vegetables. Now what’s happened is that Chinese people are eating more and more meat and fish and seafood, which of course is delicious, but it’s also very environmentally destructive; as we know in the West, the American and British way of life of eating so much meat is very unsustainable.

It seems ironic that now, when people in the West are asking, “How can we eat less meat? How can we eat healthily and deliciously without putting such pressure on the environment?” in China, you have all the answers in that you have a food tradition which is so healthy and so sustainable. And yet, the younger generation is perhaps forgetting this and losing touch with it.

I’ll just make one final point, about Sichuanese food specifically — and again, going back to the health food angle — I was so impressed by the healthy deliciousness of Sichuanese food. I know the stereotype is that it’s all terribly hot and spicy, but actually, Chengdu’s food in the 1990s, traditional Sichuanese food, especially home cooking, was all about balance. If you have mapo tofu, you will also have a light soup and some gently stir-fried vegetables. So, a very healthy way of eating.

Qian Jianan: I have to confess, growing up, my mom kept me strictly out of kitchen, probably because, as you mentioned, she wanted me to focus on my studies. There was also an extreme feminist element in her decision: My mom feared that if I learned how to cook, I might want to fulfill social expectations and become a housewife.

I wrote my very first stories after my beloved paternal grandpa, yeye, passed away. Back then, the Chinese funeral baffled me. I was a college student, but still.

Someone I had never seen before dashed to the open casket and whined so loud, as if he were a close family member. I didn’t understand the performative quality. I tried to figure things out, and those stories, actually, fortunately enough, brought me a fiction prize at my alma mater. That was the moment I knew I could write.

One day I just woke up with this idea that I wanted to describe the snoring sound everyone in my extended family made.

But nonfiction started way earlier for me, and it was even more fun. My first nonfiction piece was entitled “Snoring.” Yeah, you didn’t get it wrong, “Snoring.” I was 10, and it is unpublished — it was just for fun. That summer, I went to stay with my maternal grandma, waipo, and one day I just woke up with this idea that I wanted to describe the snoring sound everyone in my extended family made.

Stories make us laugh and cry. Then in laughter and tears, we bond as a family or friends. And stories also help me appreciate others so much better and more deeply. My mom washed my hair until well into my 20s. She didn’t spoil me, but she did that. I didn’t appreciate how unusual it was, because in my old one-bedroom apartment in Shanghai, we didn’t have a shower. So hair washing amounted to craning my head into the kitchen sink. And then our water heater was quite old and grumpy, so the temperature of the water was unpredictable, and it was safer for my mom to help with it and feel the temperature. But had I not known that my late maternal grandpa, waigong, washed my mom’s hair until his last years, I would have never known that hair washing was my mom’s love language. So, I got to appreciate it better. And then also I found that stories could give eternal life to my late family members.

After I started to publish fiction in my 20s, I’ve always treated nonfiction as a way to expand and explore the scope of life. I’ve spent years on and off interviewing about the massive state sector layoffs in the ’90s because my parents were intimately affected.

Displacement has been a focus of mine since then. I’m an outsider to both China and the United States. I wouldn’t have had different reference points about my hometown without living in America. And then in the U.S., something that looks completely mundane to the locals may strike me as unusual, as something worth exploring.

I always find myself in awe of the world and of humanity because there are just so many surprises every day. And just by wandering around the streets and talking to people, I feel the world is just full of wonder, and then I also can’t help but share my joy of discoveries with readers.

Sixth Tone: Which three words do you associate most with the theme “generations”? Why?

Fuchsia Dunlop: Cooking, inheritance, restaurants.

A lot of people in the West think that the restaurant first appeared in 18th-century Paris, but actually you had them in the Song Dynasty (960-1270), in Hangzhou and Kaifeng, so it’s a very Chinese form of culture.

And inheritance, not only in terms of the recipes and cooking skills being passed down, but also like laozihao, the “old names.” For example, Chen Mapo Tofu, which was established in late-Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) Chengdu and somehow came through the ages, being nationalized, being privatized again.

Qian Jianan: My three key words are home, bonding, and dream.

On special occasions, my mom makes sure that dishes convey positive messages. In Shanghai, there’s a very famous dish that I miss a lot, sixi kaofu. It’s like “four blessings gluten” or something. Mom always made sure that she had it on some holidays and also before each of my big exams. But no yellow fish, because there’s a saying in Chinese, huangyu naodai, like “a yellow fish’s head,” meaning they don’t have a good brain, so you cannot have that.

Dream is a very important keyword also, especially in recent decades. For my grandfather’s generation, because they lived through wars, they just wanted everyone to be safe and sound. That’s their biggest dream, because it was hard enough already back then.

For my parents’ generation, they wanted to go to college. Neither of my parents did, and they wanted me to continue pursuing that dream. I think that speaks to a lot of people in both our generations.

Sixth Tone: Can you share with us a bit more about your cross-cultural writing experiences?

Fuchsia Dunlop: Jianan talked about the outsider view, which resonates well with me, obviously, in that I originally intended to write for a Western audience, but now many Chinese readers tell me that my writing makes them notice things about Chinese food and culture that escaped them.

The challenge for me has been trying to write from a place of love and affection.

For more than 20 years, I’ve been putting myself in situations where I’m usually the only foreigner. Speaking in a language that is not my own. It’s still very difficult. Also, often I’m the only woman because I spend a lot of time with chefs, of course, who are mostly men. So I’d say it’s always interesting, sometimes challenging.

For instance, in China, you have a whole lot of words related to food and cooking, which are untranslatable. We don’t have equivalent words for cooking methods. We don’t. One of the things that I had most fun writing about is texture, kougan, “mouth feel.” In “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper,” there’s a chapter called “The Rubber Factor.” In China, people love textual experiences, which Westerners on the whole find really disgusting. So the words in English are things like slimy, grisly, slippery, which sound really unattractive.

The challenge for me has been trying to write from a place of love and affection, to write playfully and amusingly, making a joke of the disgustingness in Westerners’ minds. But at the same time saying, look, you can have a new perspective. Try to appreciate it.

Qian Jianan: Six years ago, I got tired of writing in Chinese. I lived quite a narrow life with a stable job, teaching in an international high school. I just thought I had started to repeat myself in terms of writing, and nothing really interested me. I made a lot of effort to explore different neighborhoods in Shanghai, but it didn’t really help the way I wanted.

If I don’t explain the cultural context, you will never get the punchline.

That’s why I decided to experiment, and moved to America, writing in English. I just wanted to see how far it would take me.

Sometimes my classmates in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop would say, “Why should we care about all the background history in your work. I don’t want to be forced to learn so much history.” But if I don’t explain the cultural context, you will never get the punchline, right? I’m still learning how to do it in an interesting way and focus more on the story part and focus more on characters.

I also want to share something from an amazing friend in Iowa City. She once said to me, “Write to the extent that you will make me care, like, make me care because I want to care.”

After that, it served as a kind of mantra. I want to write to make people care.

To learn more about the China Writing Contest, please click here.

Transcription: Li Yijuan; editor: Zhi Yu and Kilian O’Donnell.