At least once a week we would walk across town on those dusty Tibetan streets–our two young daughters darting in the lead like hummingbirds buzzing among tulips drawing smiles of attention and gawks from sun-bitten faces. The dark-haired men would pause, look up from their pelts they had carpeted across the uneven tiles of the sidewalk–yak or lambskin shorn in the hour and drying in the sun–and hail our daughters’ backs with a “hallo! hallo!” but without reply or the response they desired. My wife and I would surge past in our daughters’ wake–brows raised, our expressions unspoken apologies and commiseration with these men with their cave-mouthed awe and curiosity.
We know how you feel our white faces counseled, we can barely hold their attention ourselves.
At the Salar restaurant, we would make our way through the long sheets of thick plastic that hung like tentacles from the doorway. Always traveling like the Israelites under the cloud of the exotic, our family would draw the attention of the room with each sighting. Rooster-haired men would glance up from their noodle bowls. Women with brightly colored hair coverings would smile and say “Ni hao” as Anna and Sarah shot by them in a blur. Men with white flat hats atop their scalp would flow past us with large plates of stir-fried vegetables.
We would sit on the patio, in the back, as the sun filtered in from the market. The locals, Han Chinese, Hui Muslims, and Tibetans would watch our every move, gathering in small crowds to see and discuss this newest foreign attraction. The fuyuan, usually a waitress in her twenties would come with thermoses of hot mahogany-colored tea and pour it steaming into thin plastic cups. The laminated menus, so well-worn and smudged, were chock-full of delicacies described in Chinese characters. Some dishes we could surmise, while others remained a mystery. We ordered dishes we knew well–sweet and sour chicken, cucumbers marinated in a vinegar and garlic sauce, deep fried potato thinly sliced, stir-fried broccoli or snow peas depending on the season’s offering. We ordered dishes passed on to us by other foreigners. We ordered dishes we had memorized from a cheat sheet with pin-yin pronunciations.
While we waited and sipped glass after glass of tea, often a cook would emerge from the kitchen, pass us on the way to the outdoor market. Dishes were made fresh, ingredients purchased after the orders had been made. Our daughters, free to roam and free from the modern fears of abduction, would chase each other down the alley behind the restaurant. They would squeal and turn, come back to us when they had been away too many minutes.
One day the plump-faced Salar woman who ran the restaurant showed our girls a litter of kittens–newly born. She offered one fuzzy bundle to us–and though my girls wanted to, we could not accept. We were temporary citizens there. Tourists and teachers for a time. Like those passing moments and our future hopes, we could not stay fixed to that place or that time. But some days I literally lived just for that food–those dishes, that covered patio, and the mythic views of the Tibetan plateau overlooking the Yellow River. I found an otherworldly satisfaction (if centered mainly in my gut) walking back home to our mud-and-brick home, so close to my wife–then chasing my daughters. Fully sated and fed, those all-too-rare moments living in the space of a heart content. And in another land.