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I’m proud to be a Southerner

By Karen S. Zhang

Whenever I’m asked in the United States where I come from, I say China. This is never the answer I want to give. I always wish the questioner would know immediately the location as soon as I say, “I’m from Guangzhou.”

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is in southern China. The capital city of Guangdong province, about two hours by train from Hong Kong, is famous for its Cantonese food—Dim-Sum, Har Gow, Siew Mai, Wonton Noodle Soup and Sweet and Sour Pork. After I give away all the clues, the person probably will have an epiphany, “Oh, yeah! I know, Canton.” He might add, “I love Cantonese food.”

That’s how I associate my hometown with its renowned cuisine. Before my trip to New Orleans, I didn’t know there was a place in the southern United States with a latitude similar to Guangzhou’s (about a 6-degree difference) as well as an attitude toward food as boastful as we Cantonese have.

My contact with New Orleans is accidental. Our program director, Sheryl St. Germain, happens to be a New Orleanian. The year I came to Pittsburgh and the MFA program at Chatham University, she planned a trip with her students in May to her hometown. How could I miss an opportunity to explore American culture? I’m an international student in the U.S.; but I also feel like a foolhardy tourist in a foreign country. I signed up for the trip to go “down South.”

I read many books and articles about our destination. Finding out where to go, what to see, the local history and weather seemed routine research for a first-time traveler. Having a Cantonese’s nature, I was more concerned about what to eat.

My eyes widened when I came across pages of food reviews, restaurant guides and cuisine recommendations. Even in our eight-page itinerary, half a page was dedicated to “recommendations for eating and drinking”—Filé gumbo, jambalaya, stuffed artichokes, muffaletta, boiled crawfish, crawfish etouffee, raw oysters, fried shrimp Po’boy, pralines, hurricane, red beans and rice and others. I became acquainted with these exotic names even though I had no idea how to say them right. Frankly, I still don’t, despite having sampled the dishes. As a Cantonese saying goes, Let’s eat first, talk later.

Seafood samplings

With Sheryl, we 11 students stayed nearly two weeks in New Orleans and nearby Cajun country. Because I was the only foreign tourist, or because I was crazy about food, the subject about where and what to eat always intrigued me. When food was mentioned, my senses became sharper.

We missed no meals on this trip—three meals a day, including eight mornings with a puffy big croissant and mixed fruits as breakfast. How could my belly grumble? I ate better on the road than at home in Pittsburgh.

Restaurants in Guangzhou outnumber scenic spots, whereas in New Orleans, both seemed in equal abundance. My best time of the day was to savor the local food. I didn’t know if it was the humid May weather or the seafood galore, but I developed an unbelievably good appetite. I tasted three different makings of oysters—raw, fried and baked. I ate crawfish etouffee twice; gumbo, twice; catfish, once; crab, once; and even a sno-ball, twice. At the Acme Oyster House, Sheryl said if we tired of seafood, we could order something else. I immediately disagreed: Never, never. How can a Southerner be tired of seafood?

Even at our last big meal at the Asian Buffet in Kenner, near New Orleans, I made sure to put a couple of raw oysters on my plate. But the best raw oyster I had was in an oyster bar in the French Quarter. I still remember its icy, slippery feel in my mouth, its juices triggering my every taste bud. I wiggled my tongue slightly, the chill quickly spreading. I quivered. Luckily, the oyster remained in my mouth. I didn’t want to swallow it, at least not too fast. Once food falls into your stomach, the savoring pleasure disappears. The oyster in my mouth was like a ping pong ball, rolling between two sides of my tongue while its chill spread to my gum and upper jaw.

Another mutual character of Cantonese and New Orleanians is a tolerance for muggy heat. While my Northeasterner travelmates stayed indoors for a long air-conditioning nap, I went about the French Quarter, taking endless snapshots of the Mississippi River.

I marveled at the similarities of our two cultures. The all-day-long mechanical hums of the air-conditioners, the spinning ceiling fans, the rice paddy fields and evergreen trees that glistened in the scorching sun. I felt the pores in my skin expanding to breathe in the heat; the water I absorbed soon evaporated through my panting pores, joining the humid air that surrounded me from head to toe. Most of the time during my visit to southern Louisiana, my body was as sticky as melting candy.

Roots in rice

Southern China’s long, warm, wet days throughout the year create the perfect environment to cultivate almost everything. As the staple for the Chinese, rice can grow two or three crops a year in the south and only one crop in the north. I believe fertility is similar in southern Louisiana. Waterways weave through the lush landscape. As our van sped along Interstate 10, I saw canals, wetlands and the Mississippi River, much like my hometown Pearl River Delta. It’s one of the most scenic road trips I had in America.

According to the USA Rice Federation, Louisiana is one of the nation’s top three rice-producing states, after Arkansas and California. And rice is Louisiana’s top agricultural export. No wonder various cuisines I savored in New Orleans came with rice — say, crawfish etouffee, seafood gumbo and red beans and rice. While the rice filled up my stomach, the aroma of the dish continued to stimulate my palate.

An aspect of New Orleans that caught me off guard was the array of souvenirs labeled “Made in China.” The varied Mardi Gras beads and masks, landmark magnets, trinkets and key chains, voodoo dolls, not to mention my new camera purchased on Canal Street. My old one broke during the trip. Being without a camera was like walking with one leg or eating without utensils. Among the camera’s instructions was one version in simplified Chinese.

How can I be homesick when connections to China abound in New Orleans? The crepe myrtle tree with its smooth white bark in the Garden District is native to China. The Buddha statue in Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens was stolen from China in the Qing Dynasty. The inexpensive crawfish here is imported from Southeastern Asian countries, as well as from China. I had no idea if the Chinese tallow had anything to do with China, but I did notice the history of the 71-year-old Hansen’s Snow-Bliz has such a description:

“Forty-Five years ago under a China Ball Tree, with nothing more than a table and a stand, the now-famous Hansen’s Sno-Bliz had its first Birth. ‘Using Ernest Hansen’s patented “Sno-Bliz” Machine and his wife Mary’s  personally created delicious flavors, the two-cent paper scoop became a legend.”

China Ball tree—another connection with China. Frankly, I don’t remember seeing so many names with the word “China” in China! Perhaps to distinguish its origin, signs in English tend to attach a country name to any foreign object. Perhaps these names with a word “China” or “Chinese” I see in America truly proves Chinese culture has influenced the West for centuries.

Carnival culture

In New Orleans, you can’t miss Mardi Gras. Unfortunately, the Carnival season had just passed before our visit. I still saw colorful beads dangling on the trees, railings and people’s front doors. In the Mardi Gras Museum, a word, “FiYiYi,” from an American Indian song, meaning “That’s who I am, that’s what I am,” echoed with me. I’m a Southerner, specifically, a Cantonese, and eating is one of my hobbies.

Through Sheryl, we met Greg Guirard, a Cajun fisherman and writer. He told us Cajuns in the past were self-sufficient, eating only what they caught in the Basin or planted in the field. I found his introduction similar to life in the Pearl River Delta where I grew up. Known as “a land of milk and honey,” southeastern China is so fertile that people lead a good life even through tumultuous years. They also have wild-caught fish in the streams or home-grown vegetables. Cantonese even believe the meat texture from free run chicken is superior to that of the farm-raised. My mother used to say the chicken sold at Kentucky Fried Chicken in China tasted like dry napkin. While Americans are fond of the meaty big chicken breasts, Cantonese regard the bony parts of a chicken as a delicacy.

In Greg’s Psycho Therapy for Cajuns, he writes, “It’s a well-known fact Cajuns are great cooks and that we eat just about anything that crawls, swims, flies or walks on four legs.” Isn’t this well-known fact also suitable for Cantonese? I’ve heard it before from foreign visitors in China. It’s said that Cantonese eat everything with four legs except tables, and everything that flies except airplanes. No wonder some foreigners are bug-eyed when seeing snakes or a whole fish’s head and tail or pigeons served on the dining tables in Guangzhou. It’d be wise to ask before eating a strange-looking dish. But if you decide not to, it’s better never to find out. Or you’ll bitterly regret. I felt awful after knowing the crunchy Cajun cracklins, made of almost pure saturated fat, is from the remaining skin of a pig. Yikes! I hate fatty food. I am a foolhardy tourist.

The inborn easygoing and laid-back nature gains New Orleans its nickname, “Big Easy.” I’m told New Orleanians are good at throwing parties. With good food and music, New Orleans is doubtlessly the right place. By comparison, Cantonese specialize in organizing dinners. Restaurants are where you can feel the heartbeat of the local life. People eat and drink, talk and laugh in the restaurants. The boisterous scene is as lively as the bubbling fish tanks and iron cages at the entrance, where live seafood and fowls are ready to be chosen as delicacies.

It’s not uncommon that a normal two-hour dinner in Guangzhou turns into a dining marathon that continues to midnight and beyond. An exaggerated comment about doing business with Cantonese may give you a clue—Nothing cannot be negotiated after a dinner.  Above all, we always work hard, and eat hard.

Nothing wasted

Our journey in New Orleans came to an end as quickly as a raw oyster sampling. The exclamation of joy I frequently heard on Bourbon Street was “I’m wasted!” Ignorant as I was, I felt strange hearing drunkards saying of themselves “I’m useless.” But later, my travelmates corrected me with big laughter—it means “I’m intoxicated.” Oh, got it! I want to say my time in southern Louisiana was definitely not wasted, nor useless.

In fact, the noted food culture, the unique accent of Noo Awlins, and people’s laid-back nature boosted my pride of being, above all, a Southerner. No matter from New Orleans or Guangzhou, Cajun country or the Pearl River Delta, southern culture is distinctive and glittering with its charm. Simply delectable!

Or, to quote my now-favorite speech by Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, “I’ll never be hungry again.”


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