Liv­ing abroad gave a Yun­nan na­tive a chance to see her birth­place with new eyes. In a new book, ZhangMei re­con­nects with the places and peo­ple she loves through a hunk of pork she once took for granted, she tell­sMike Peters.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - Con­tact the writer at michaelpeters@chi­nadaily.com.cn

ike au­thor ZhangMei, I am fas­ci­nated by Chief Li, the eth­nic Bai leader of the Stone Dragon Vil­lage. It’s a tiny place, with about a thou­sand folks tucked into the moun­tains near Dali in Yun­nan prov­ince.

Chief Li’s po­si­tion sug­gests he’s a small-town bu­reau­crat, but as I read Zhang’s new book, Trav­els Through Dali With a Leg of Ham, a dif­fer­ent pic­ture emerges. Chief Li sees him­self in charge not of a place or its peo­ple, but its mu­sic. He tell­sZhang, and clearly any­one else who asks, that he is known as the “FolkMu­sic King”.

Zhang is on a tour as lit­eral as the ti­tle of her book: In the first chap­ter, she pro­cures a leg of the tra­di­tion­ally hand-cured ham that she re­mem­bers from her child­hood in Dali. Fifty page­sanda fewrecipes later, she­and three col­leagues ar­rive in Jianchuan county ea­ger to share the ham with lo­cal cheese mak­ers, the “pickle lady” ofWeis­han, a Span­ish chef at a Dali farm restau­rant, and re­gion­ally known folksingers like Chief Li.

First, Chief Li yields the stage — the con­crete yard of the gov­ern­ment of­fice — to en­er­getic young singers and dancers of the vil­lage. But soon he fetches a color­ful waist­coat and his gui­tar, and sings a song about love. “His vo­cal chords let loose,” Zhang writes, “re­veal­ing a rich, grav­elly voice im­bued with sad­ness, wis­dom and ro­mance. The façade of gov­ern­ment for­mal­ity dis­ap­pears.”

Next comes a song called TheMud Fish. The words are those of a fish that is about to be eaten, but the song is metaphor­i­cal, a lament about the plight of a hum­ble farmer.

As Zhang re­counts from this song­burst: “He might be a lit­tle fish, Chief Li sings, but at least his bones will scratch the throats of his mas­ters on the way down.”

I thought this was a book about ham, you are prob­a­bly think­ing — and you are right. But for Zhang, ham is some­thing of a metaphor too, a sym­bol of or­di­nary life in her birth­place and the or­di­nary peo­ple who shape the cul­ture in sleepy vil­lages not far from tourist hot spots like Dali Old Town.

As a teenager, Zhang was bored by the “per­fect” cli­mate and the slow pace of Yun­nan, and couldn’t wait to es­cape to the en­ergy and bright lights of the world be­yond. Her es­cape be­gan in the United States with her ac­cep­tance at Har­vard Busi­ness School and then a job as a con­sul­tant forMcKin­sey.

At a re­cent talk, Zhang got a laugh from a book­store crowd when she de­scribed her first en­counter with a bland ham-and-cheese sand­wich in the US.

“This ask­ing.

One day, her Amer­i­can fa­ther-in­law­shipped a whole smoked ham to her, and she was stunned as she nib­bled at slices of the rich, salty meat. It was a Vir­ginia ham, a fa­mous prod­uct of that US state, and quite like the ham she knewfrom home.

Since then she has trav­eled the world, dis­cov­er­ing Iberico ham in Spain and Parma ham in Italy and many more. But what she re­mem­bers most was shar­ing those foods with lo­cals and hear­ing their sto­ries — the sort of ex­pe­ri­ence she has tried to cap­ture in the travel com­pany she later founded, Wild China.

“When peo­ple first be­gin to travel,” she says, “they tend to col­lect des­ti­na­tions— to­go­toas­man­y­places as­they can. Sortof like col­lect­ing stamps. But even­tu­ally travel be­comes more than get­ting a selfie at the GreatWall or the Eif­fel Tower: Peo­ple want to ex­pe­ri­ence lo­cal life­styles that are very dif­fer­ent from their own.”

While trav­el­ers may en­counter lan­guage and cul­ture bar­ri­ers, she says, they have one thing in com­mon with peo­ple any­where in the world. “They eat,” she says, grin­ning. That gave her the start­ing point for a book she had long wanted to write about her na­tive Yun­nan.

She shakes her head quick­ly­when I ask if she had been on a mis­sion to re­live her child­hood.

“When you go back to a place, whether it’s home or an­other place that you have loved, it’s a chance to look at it with new eyes. Visu­ally, Yun­nan has changed so much that it looked very dif­fer­ent.

“But the smells and tastes — the cook­ing, the herb har­vest­ing, those were straight out ofmy child­hood.”

Each time she re­turns to Yun­nan, she says, she re­mem­bers a Chi­nese say­ing: “When you are ac­tu­ally liv­ing in the moun­tain, you can’t re­ally see the beauty of the moun­tain, but when you step away you see the grand­ness.” is ham?” she re­mem­bers


Top: Tra­di­tion­ally hand-cured ham hung out­side a wooden house in Jianchuan county, Dali pre­fec­ture. Above: A street in Dali re­tains its orig­i­nal looks.

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