Smell Bad Tofu

I am going to include an entry from a journal I kept in Wuhan in 2006 about eating Smell Bad Tofu for the first time. This entry was one of the first on my blog when I began it in 2010 though it only stayed in draft form. I’ve been editing the blog, cleaning up, making better categories, trying to make it easier to see and maneuver. I’d forgotten the draft was here and debated whether to trash it, but published it instead after a little tweaking. I expected it to appear way back at the beginning in 2010, but here it is today in July of 2017. Time is a funny thing.


from China Journal 2006

Sunday, July 23

This morning, two of my students, Sky and Kevin, took me to Breakfast Street, a long winding alley congested with steam baskets, hissing woks, pots of boiling oil, strange and fragrant smells, and lines of customers waiting in front of their favorite shops. We sat down at one establishment on little benches about six inches off the ground, squatting more than sitting. As Sky went to get our noodles, I smelled what seemed to be a nearby latrine. Darn it, I thought, I’m going to have to eat while smelling a toilet, but I didn’t want to say anything to spoil my students’ time with me. Sky set two bowls of noodles down for us to eat. One bowl had a dark cold sauce and its noodles were slender, long and transparent as glass. They came out of the bowl not unlike resisting earthworms, clenched between my chopsticks. They were so long, one end of Kevin’s noodles rested on the table before he sucked them all up, spattering his shirt. In China everybody eats out of the same bowl, sticking the chopsticks in. Americans would think the Chinese were sloppy because they make a lot of noise and eat voraciously. I wasn’t crazy about the long cold noodles, or the other ones, which were flatter and shorter in a hot sauce, but Sky and Kevin were enjoying them so I pretended to enjoy them too.

Seeing how much I liked the noodles, Sky went to get something else, and came back, triumphantly plopping a little bowl down on the table to announce, “Smell Bad Tofu. Smells bad, tastes good.” He waited for me to stick my chopsticks in. The tofu was hot in a red chili sauce and I really liked it. “This is good,” I earnestly said, relieved and happy to nibble on the Smell Bad Tofu while Sky and Kevin sucked up the noodles. I also enjoyed a delicious rice cake and some crayfish, chopped up before our eyes, steamed, and then brought to our small table in back of the shop populated by two scrawny cats, a dog and rolled out dough on tables. The crayfish were delicious, cooked with black peppercorns. Sky and Kevin spit the shells out on the table, but I ate the shells and all.

As we ate, the boys talked about the problems of dating. Good grades are the goal and parents don’t want their children to date until after graduation. Of course, telling young people not to meet and cuddle and kiss is like telling the ocean to stop coming in. Some students do date secretly and if a girl gets pregnant, she gets an abortion. In China boys are prized over girls. In the country, baby girls are sometimes killed at birth. Though it’s illegal, many parents-to-be have sonograms, and if it’s a girl, she’s aborted. What’s happened is there are fewer women than men and they are beginning to be able to pick and choose husbands. Brides don’t have to supply dowries anymore. Sky’s worried about his future prospects, telling me that in a decade it’s going to be six boys to one girl. In China men can’t get married until the age of twenty-two and girls twenty-one. This marriage law is a form of birth control the boys tell me, and married couples can only have one child. I didn’t ask about contraceptives, I realize as I write this. The Chinese are reluctant to discuss sex and politics. When I asked Sky if the Russians and Chinese are friends, he replied, “That is a sophisticated question.” Sophisticated was a word I’d taught him in the context of a George and Ira Gershwin song, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, but it worked in the political context as well. As we got up to leave, I noticed I’d been sitting with my back to a crate of Smell Bad Tofu, black moldy little cakes crawling with black flies settling and unsettling on them. That’s what I’d smelled. What can I tell you? Smell Bad Tofu does smell bad, but it tastes good.

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