I’m an American who’s been in China for quite awhile. I first came to China in 2003 and I lived in Southern China, in Yunnan province. I haven’t been back to Yunnan since probably 2007 and I’m sure so much has changed since then. I lived in the capital, Kunming and at that time, Kunming did not have a subway system, there was no Starbucks and certainly no luxury brand shopping. I’ve heard that Kunming now has all of that and more.
Yesterday I was following a conversation in a WeChat group about how much people spend on food each month in China and the sums were pretty staggering. To be fair, the people involved are foreigners who miss food from home and will often eat out or buy the expensive imported ingredients to cook western food themselves. I only cook basic stuff at home – baked chicken and veggies. This is partly because I’m a terrible cook and partly because I am super lazy and cheap. I don’t want to make elaborate meals or spend a lot of money on it. Once, I got this wild hair up my butt to make a lasagna while living here in Shanghai. It took me forever to round up the ingredients and by the time I did, I’d spent over 300 rmb (almost $50), mostly because cheese is crazy expensive here. In the end, the lasagna tasted like crap and I didn’t even eat it.
Why do I bring this up? Because it all made me think about what it was like in Yunnan in 2003. This is my China expat version of “When I was a kid, I had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to get to school!” In Yunnan in 2003, western food was largely a distant memory from the past – something you weren’t likely to see again aside from the occasional KFC and McDonald’s. There were a few imported food stores, but they were mostly full of boxed cereal, candy bars, spaghetti noodles, etc…it was hard to actually get all the ingredients you’d need to make a full meal. Sometimes cheese (Kraft singles, yuck!) would randomly make an appearance at the grocery store, and whichever foreigner saw it first would buy all of it and bring it back to distribute amongst their friends. The prices were also scandalous compared to the salaries most of us were making at the time. One year at Thanksgiving, my friends and I celebrated with a box of Mac n cheese that someone had brought back from a recent trip home. Needless to say, getting a turkey simply wasn’t an option.
My foreign friends and I got good at substituting Chinese ingredients for western ingredients. One of our favorite things to make was chips and salsa. Salsa, isn’t too hard to make using ingredients that were pretty easy to find. What about the chips? None of us were inclined to spend 60 rmb (probably equivalent to about 100 rmb now, just a guess) on a bag of chips that was actually mostly just air so we made our own chips by deep frying wonton wrappers in a wok. It was time consuming and messy work, but after a couple hours, you’d have a big pile of crunchy wonton wrapper chips to go with your fresh, homemade salsa and part of the fun was making everything with your friends.
Now, living in Shanghai in 2020 – the world’s brunch capital, we are certainly spoiled with choices for almost any cuisine you can imagine. Furthermore, you can get it delivered to your doorstop almost 24 hours a day. You kids have no idea how good you have it! Although if I’m being fair, I don’t think I’d go back to the 2003 Yunnan days if I could…I really like being able to easily get a hamburger without having to make my own ketchup.