A Journey Through the Sandwiches—Roujiamo

I’m showing you a black and white photo of a Chinese boy in a fitted tuxedo. The boy is squat, slightly pudgy and unsmiling. This is Zhang. Zhang is a musical prodigy in every intended sense of the term, an utter genius, unmatched in ability by most people alive. Even in the ranks of the child prodigies, the high echelon of savants, he gets his numbers up there.  He was conducting orchestras by age 9. At 11, he was, through an interpreter, speaking in halls around the world that routinely seated ten thousand, delivering outstandingly insightful lectures on masters-level music theory. They say there’s not an instrument in this world, string, brass, woodwind or drum, that he couldn’t create a performance-quality composition for, and it would only take him, like, five minutes. Most of that was just the time it took to write it down.

This all came about through massively criminal child abuse, by the way. It’s well known. His parents are in the government, and they’re complete taskmasters who never taught him the Chinese word for “I’m tired.” By the time he got emancipated, he was twelve years old, performing routinely and making six figures each time. His parents still get a cut of the money, is the messed up thing. They show up to his performances without saying a word, and on the nights they’re there, Zhang plays the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard.

Zhang was fifteen now, and so was I, and years had past since I last saw him. His musical skills had developed astronomically. He was always amazing, but now, watching him, it was enough to give a committed atheist the sort of flutters in the heart and mind that can only ever be described as “a religious ecstasy”. The fuckin’ sounds this kid could make on those keys. Something about his touch, how he made each song or movement sound the way your mother’s voice did as she sang to you a lullaby, made all the more impressive due to that being a formative experience that Zhang most definitely never had.

I made myself leave the concert hall where I’d been looming in the back about two-thirds of the way through his performance. When I saw him, after the show, I wanted to talk to him like a man, not laud him. I needed a minute to shake off how impressive that was. Trust me, he’d appreciate it.

I wasn’t planning on meeting Zhang outside the concert hall—the demands on his attention would fence him in for a little while well before I could get a word in. So I figured instead I would meet him down at our old stomping grounds in the Jing’an District, where I grew up and, for a time and in a sort of way, we grew up together.

It wasn’t called the Jing’an District then, when I was here. It was Zhabei. Poor people lived here, poor people like my family. It was hard. Two fathers, seemingly trading jobs, and me, their adopted daughter, not even particularly wanting to work, preferring, at that most imaginative age of seven, the life of the scoundrel.

Zhang, like I said, had government parents. They lived farther east in Shanghai, in the Haungpu District , closer to his parents’ work, and the brutal schools that helped train Zhang to become the musical superhero that he is today. We met when we were both seven years old, when by coincidence our parents sent us both to the same swim camp for the summer. Neither Zhang nor I had had much interest in it, so we spent our weeks in the verdant country scheming, stealing, getting in trouble, and in our bunks at night we would talk about our lives, share openly those precious childhood thoughts about your feelings in the world and life that adulthood finds you, more often than not, never talking about, whittling them down instead into an impenetrable walnut of secrecy. We bonded over his overbearing parents, and I fretted over the economic hardships on my dads. They were starting to get mad at each other. Zhang and I agreed that they should probably spare their anger for the state, standing together in solidarity against the forces that were pushing them down. Oh, we were naive then. To think that just wanting the world to be a way meant that there must be a way for you, specifically you, to get it done in an afternoon.

Following those days at swim camp, I would remain in Zhabei-now-Jing’an, and my friend would take the bus from Haungpu during his precious spare time so we could meet, and talk, and compliment each others’ big dreams. He was as good a friend to me then as I’ll ever have, and when our friendship was cut short by my fleeing the country—which is an entirely different story, that we simply don’t have time for—I knew that he would be there for me on the occasion of my return.

Anyway. I was back in my stomping grounds in the Jing’an District—funny how fast you get used to these things—waiting at a picnic table between a mechanic’s shop and a street food vendor. One-man operations, both of them, their workplaces made up of patchwork buildings, caulk and sheet metal, calico staging areas for them to ply their trades, hone their craft. The aroma of the slow-cooking pork to the right of me was making me salivate in a most major way, and I ordered a Tsingtao from the man just to have something other than the flavor of anticipation wafting down my sinuses and throat.

“How long until the roujiamo?” I asked the vendor, whose name was Skeeter Li.

“How long til your friend get here?” responded Skeeter. “You know I’ve got a bunch of different pots cooking up something good in here. You say the word. When your boy Zhang gets here, I’ll set you up. You feast.” He plinked the top of another bottle of Tsingtao off and cheersed to me, clinking bottles.

“Been awhile since you’ve been around here,” he said, switching the subject to my homecoming. “You and Zhang haven’t seen each other in some time, I’d imagine.”

I nod in affirmation.

“You think anything’s changed between you two?”

I shrug. I legitimately don’t know. Maybe it’s the jet lag, maybe it’s the Xanax, or actually, maybe it’s the combination of the Xanax and the Tsingtao, slowly potentiating my airborne anti-anxiety medications to the point that they were adopting slightly dissociative, out-of-body properties. Perhaps it was the fifty-one hours without sleep on the series of boats and pond-jumpers that got me here.

“But no,” I say, “To answer your question, it’s really hard to say right now if it’s going to feel the same to talk to him. You know how that happens with friends. You go through fewer experiences together. You start to lose that bond, that time investment that lets you open up to someone, knowing they care about you.”

Skeeter was stirring an assortment of spices into a large black cauldron of lamb stew that looked as though it must have weighed fifteen hundred pounds, at least. His forearms had become huge from years of stirring long spoons the circumference of that thing. But man, if it wasn’t worth it. The smells were only getting better, and I was so excited.

Hell, by the time Zhang finally arrived, my lusty animal mind had gotten itself to the point where his presence felt more like a little bonus to the meal, and not the main event. Not that I treated him this way directly. We embraced, and spun around like girls, so be it. I loved the man. He was my friend, and he was so, so, so good at piano. Like, Jesus Christ I’m not even kidding. He was so good, and did so much good for me with his music, that I’d never fully admit how much I loved the way he played, lest he be then burdened with some sort of sense of responsibility for my well-being.

“Good show,” I told him, glibly.

“Thanks,” he said. His bowtie was undone; pieces of his tuxedo started coming off until he started to look like a relatively dressed-down dude. He even mussed up his hair. And now I really noticed he was taller, a little leaner than he used to be—relative to that old black and white picture, I was regarding one grown-up, sexy man.

“You don’t get people following you?” I ask him, casting my eyes back and forth down the street he just arrived by. “Paparazzos, and all that?”

“Oh, in some places. Really, really, specific places, and only for like an hour each time. But come on, man. Who would recognize me when I’m not on stage, in context? Plus, millions of people live here. I’m impressive at doing one thing. Lots of other people in Shanghai doing exciting work.”

“There you go again,” I say, a smile spreading across my face. “Going in on your futility of accomplishment tip again.” I started a quote he was fond of. “Because it all ends—”

“—in the heat death of the universe,” we finished together. Somewhere in the laughter that followed, I turned to Skeeter and ordered two sandwiches, and more beers.

The roujiamo is a type of sandwich that tastes like your face is getting its ass kicked by a gang of rowdy spices wielding a gatling gun of slow-cooked meat. The shit is absolutely delicious, and if it ever gets to America, it’s going into Taco Bell. They won’t even care about the ethnic lack of accuracy, here. When America gets these, they’re going in the Bell. Look, just trust me.

A roujiamo is a Chinese food item, the name of which translates roughly to “meat sandwich”, which should make all of us Anglicans feel a lot more comfortable about the ground we’re standing on. It consists of slow-cooked meat, most often pork, cooking low and slow for hours in its own juices, and in most cases, in the company of over twenty different distinct spices and seasonings. When ready, the meat is minced or chopped up and served with coriander and sliced peppers in a soft wheat flour flatbread called a “mo”.

Some people say that this concoction is basically the Chinese analogue for the hamburger, but I’ve got some problems with that kind of easy tit-for-tat categorization technique. Point number one: the bread for making roujiamo dates back not to the day they broke ground on the first McDonald’s, but to the fucking Qin Dynasty. That’s a difference of millennia. That’s millennial heritage. I’m not looking the specifics of this up for you, but let’s just put it this way—suck it, Ray Kroc. Get on this pork bun. Fuck it, lay on beef or lamb.

The heat from the clay oven inside Skeeter’s place radiated out over one side of me, not uncomfortably, as Zhang and I sat at our picnic table, catching up, and shooting the shit. I asked about his parents, and he deferred. He asked about my parents, and so did I. We were dealing with some deeper things, things we hadn’t sorted out well enough on our own to bring to a friend while breaking bread with them.

We didn’t talk about piano, we didn’t talk about work, and if we talked about music at all, it was The Offspring. I mean, I don’t know what to tell you, friends. Maybe this story peters out. We didn’t do much after this. What we talked about was funny only to us, and nothing that was said could change the world one bit. It was simply pleasant to see my friend again, after all these years.

Because that’s the way it works, you know. Friendships are lasting things, like family, if you forge them right. And there are family members you don’t see for years, never speak to—but yet you remain connected. Years pass and you chance upon each other again, prepared or unprepared. And no one dwells on the reasons why we’ve been apart—it’s obvious—it’s life. The fact that we’ve separated should not bring us sadness. We should find happiness in those moments of reconnection, when we realize that for all that’s different, nothing important has changed.

I could not stay too long that night in Shanghai. Our meal completed, Zhang offered to hook me up with what he could—first class airfare, a private plane if I’d prefer it. A generous offer, but I demurred. I didn’t want any trace of Zhang where I was headed next. It was for his own good, and when I said so, he understood it. He understood a lot about me, really.

Clapping me on the shoulder as we were preparing to depart, Zhang looked me in the eyes and said, “Anything you ever need, you call.”

And we both nodded, knowing it was true both ways. As I began my journey out of the city, and subsequently Mainland China, the essence of the roujiamo went with me, warming my stomach, its spices still stinging the corners of my tongue. just like Zhang’s words of kindness blanketed my heart, making me feel more of a person, for having once had the good fortune to meet such a true and lifelong friend as he.

Photo Credit: Delish Home Cook