“I want to live somewhere that has flavor,” I was used to telling my Chinese friends.
I suspect that my Chinese friends don’t quite understand this sentiment, mostly because I choose the word ‘flavor,’ since there may not be a true equivalent in Chinese for ‘character.’ I’ve settled on the slightly confusing term of ‘wèidào’ (味道）or ‘flavor.’
My discontent with living in the flavorless car park that was the Tianhe district of my school in Guangzhou simmered for long enough that when I came to Beijing with the freedom to choose where to live, I resolved to find a place with character.
After staying with my cousin Nikki for almost a month, I’ve finally settled down in a home in a hutong with some of Beijing’s poorest residents, must of whom have lived here their entire lives.
In my quest for flavor, I ended up in an ancient courtyard in a side room next to the south-facing room where the momma and poppa would live if we were a traditional Beijing family. Instead of walking past a guard and exercise room to go up the twenty-plus floors of my apartment complex, I walk up and over the threshold of the hutong past the traditional red doors, down a dark alley passing cabbage-lined roofs and underwear hung out to dry to get home.
I may just have found too much flavor, since it is entirely possible that a blind person with a heightened sense of smell could find my place quicker than someone capable of vision.
A pair of eyes don’t go very far in finding the dark, recessed entrance to my hutong home. It is so hidden that I couldn’t even find it the second time I tried to visit.
With that in mind, here are instructions on finding my home by nose.
Starting at the drum tower, walk south, passing the smells of noodles, kebabs, and málàtāng until you reach the smell of sewage. Prepare to turn left.
At the smell of stinky tofu turn left. Be careful not to confuse the stinky feet funk of stinky tofu with the food-and-human-waste-funk of sewage.
Continue forward past the baked sweet potato stand. Do not be lured in by the heat emanating from inside.
At the spice-till-your-nose-runs smell of the má (麻, ‘numb’) là (辣, ‘spicy’) tāng (汤, ‘soup’) stand, turn left. Take care when crossing the raised threshold to the hutong—the elderly residents prone to getting stranded on the threshold for lack of mobility are an added obstacle.
Take a left down the alley toward the direction with the greater concentration of the smells of Chinese cooking. The alley is small and the hovels on either side are smaller, meaning that what’s cooking in the kitchens is within hand’s grasp. At the end of this alley is the courtyard where my home is located.
Finding my home involves flavors that are both nose-pleasing and nose-turning, from my neighbor’s home cooking to the old invalid Mr. Qin whose inability to walk to the nearby public toilet adds to the scents of the neighborhood.
My life in a traditional hutong is not always easy, nor is my presence expected—everytime I emerge from the hutong carrying a bag of household garbage for the trash collector I elicit double takes worthy of Yao Ming. But my hutong is alive with my life and the lives of my neighbors on in a full display unheard of in the anonymity of modern apartment complexes. The rhthyms of life still beat here, most recently with huge collections of cabbage appearing in the small alley and on rooftops in a collective effort to stock up on vegetables for the winter.
In the end, I may even be adding to the wèidào of the neighborhood (if not its gentrification) assuming I’m living up to the stereotype of westerners smelling like dairy products. Come to think of it, that’s one flavor I could live without.