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My new campus home is lovely, but I’ve been feeling more and more adventurous.

Yesterday, my new friends, Caitlyn and Mark, took me on an excursion. (Actually, can I say it’s adventurous if I’m accompanied by such gracious hosts? I don’t think I could have done this alone — yet.)

A little drive off campus brought us to Old Town, Nanguangxian. We parked underground and emerged from an upscale hotel into a rustic village with shops for clothes and souvenirs and tea.

My friends wanted to take me to a vegetarian restaurant. It was a tiny place and crowded.

Going in, you pay at the counter and receive exactly one plate, one bowl and one napkin. With hot food warming in crockpots or chafing dishes and cold plates on trays, it reminded me of a Midwestern potluck.

I loaded up my plate with noodles, vegetables and tofu dishes and scooped a pungent squash soup (butternut?) into my bowl.

Then the woman at the end of the room handed me a spoon and let me take chopsticks from a UV light sterilizer.

Caitlyn and I followed Mark through a narrow dining room full of people casually eating and chatting. It is all you can eat, and after cleaning my plate, I loaded up on the crispy cucumbers marinated in garlic sauce that Caitlin told me about. Delicious.

I am a convert to this restaurant and to this dish. I also took some white steamed buns with sweet centers. I liked best the rabbit-shaped one with a tiny painted face. These look like dough, but they are cooked. The rabbit bun had a fruity filling, maybe pineapple and something else?

Caitlyn told me that the proceeds of the restaurant go to charity and it’s run by volunteers. I couldn’t find a webpage for the restaurant, but I found a description on the Haining Jireh Knitting Company page: “Nanguanxiang vegetarian restaurant advocates the public welfare concept of ‘eating is also public welfare,’ and actively expects the green life attitude of healthy diet.”

I love their mission of supplying healthy food, but this “green life attitude” also extends to the attitude about waste. Caitlyn told me that if we eat all our food and show our clean plates at the end, we will receive a card good for a discount on our next visit. (I can hear echoes of my childhood, my dad’s query: “Who belongs to the clean plate club?”)

And sure enough, after I have cleaned my plate for the second time, I go to the kitchen window with my clean plate. The woman shows me where to put my chopsticks, my spoon, my napkin and the orange rind — the only thing I didn’t eat (all in separate holes in the counter — just like in our canteen). Then she hands me a card.

Our canteen doesn’t have a clean-plate club, but it does have banners encouraging conservation. Of course, I can’t read the Chinese, but the English translation is “Cherish grain, start from me!” Another says, “Cherish the grain away from waste.”

And once when I couldn’t clean my plate, I asked my lunch companion if anyone would be offended if I put my leftovers in the container I had tucked in my purse, so I could eat it later. He said, “Oh yes, I think Chinese and Americans have similar attitudes about food. We don’t like to waste it.”

After our lunch, we wandered into the sheltered garden. It had a stone grotto, a peaceful pond and a giant brass bell. Colorful lanterns were suspended above, swinging in the breeze. A man stood with his back to us on the other side of the pond, playing saxophone. Cobblestones were arranged in various mosaic patterns.

We crossed the courtyard to visit a temple. Inside sat a large golden figure on an ornate chair. He looked stern. There was a dragon boat decorated with flowers and gold and dangling ribbons and tassels and fringe. Small figures set into tiny alcoves in the side, like dioramas. Gods and goddesses?

We wandered out again and crossed the bridge where two unattended fish poles were propped against the pillars. We got tea from a shop and went to sit in the pagoda overlooking the river. We chatted about this and that, and suddenly a woman came right up and started taking a video of us with her phone.

We smiled and continued our talk. She finished her filming and went to join her companions on the other side of the pagoda. Next, another woman was back extending a jar of peanuts to share. I looked over and they had a picnic spread out on the bench. Both Mark and Caitlyn tried to say no thanks, but she insisted they take a few peanuts, and they did.

When it was my turn, I didn’t even try to say no. But then she was back again, pulling our hands so she could shake a handful of nuts into our open palms. She came back one more time with a peeled orange, giving us each a few segments. We sat for a while, basking in the sun and generosity. Then we got back in the car and went home.

Explore in Beauty; Share in Peace; Blessed Be

Mary Lucille Hays is visiting China. If you’re missing your weekly dose of Birdland Letters in The News-Gazette, you can still read them every week in the Piatt County Journal-Republican. Consider subscribing to support your small-town newspaper. You can see pictures about this week’s post on Instagram @BirdlandLetters. Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of the Journal-Republican, 118 E. Washington St., Monticello, IL 61856. She wants to thank her friends for writing and will answer you all soon.

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