Among my numerous conversations with Chinese friends during my first months in America in 2005, one has lingered with me. “I realised today,” said a high school friend who was just starting his freshman year at Duke University, “that the word ‘cheese’ is essentially useless. Here, people call each kind of cheese by its name, and I don’t know any of them.”
At the time, the complaint felt like an apt encapsulation of my own struggles as a Chinese newcomer in a New England private school, where everything from the fast-paced seminar discussions to the ritualistic Sunday dinners seemed to entail an unfamiliar set of languages and manners. Back in China, my friend and I had learned to solve tricky algebra questions and memorised esoteric English vocabulary. But here, we couldn’t call cheese by its name.
Neither did the taste of cheese, with its tangy flavour and muttony punch, agree with my palate. Cheese is not part of the Chinese culinary tradition, except among ethnic minorities like the Mongols and Tibetans, who live near the country’s borders. (A high proportion of Chinese are lactose intolerant, but this does not prevent them from eating cheese, as the fermentation process removes most of the lactose.)
By the time I came back to China in 2012 after graduating from Yale, my tastes had changed. My college town, New Haven, serves what many regard as America’s best thin-crust pizza, which instilled in me a frequent craving for fresh and steaming mozzarella. During my year-long post-graduation internship at a Washington DC-based magazine, a colleague, a New Yorker with a penchant for Woody Allen movies and fine cheese, took me to an organic food market and pointed out brie, parmesan and gorgonzola. The names alone enlivened my taste buds.
In my final months in America, I was bracing myself for my return to Beijing, which, despite its familiar comforts, lacked the alluring pungency I had become accustomed to on western dinner tables.
I was thrilled to find…