Kaifeng — China’s Jewish History

red bean zhou

KAIFENG –31 October 2012 — Kaifeng in the morning is not as scary as it is at night. As soon as I got up, I went out looking for a hot bowl of jo, rice porridge. And this is what I found: A bunch of early birds and their owners hanging out. Next to them was a morning pet market:Next to the pet market was a fruit vendor who wanted to know where I was from:I told him that I was from “meiguo” — America — and that my parents are from Guangdong, hence the strange accent on my Putonghua (Mandarin). He said my Mandarin was “bucuo” (sounds like “buh tzoh”) — not bad — he could understand everything I said. I felt like dancing! It was enough to make me show off and ask his wife the price of their Mandarin oranges. She said it was wu yuan (5 yuan) for a “ke” — kilogram? I had no idea how much a kilogram was, but I understood the five yuan, so I nodded my head and said “hao” — good — to hide my ignorance, and prayed that I wasn’t going to be hauling a potato sack of oranges on my back. Five yuan is about 75 cents, and it bought quite a lot of Mandarin oranges, but not enough that I had to carry them on my back. She even tossed in a few green figs and said I should try them because they’re very good. I bowed many times and thanked her and then asked them where I could get a bowl of zhou, I hadn’t yet eaten my “zhao fan” — morning rice (I was really showing off now!) A man with a dirty apron happened to stop by at that moment and the fruit vendor and his wife told me to follow him, he was a zhou seller. Perfect! So I thank them and followed the zhou seller, but not before photographing the fruit vendor and his wife who were very happy to pose:Here is my bowl of red bean zhou:bowl of red bean zhouand here are the people who sat down to eat their breakfast with me:Their morning rice was a delicious smelling noodle soup with dumplings and mantou (bread) broken into it. I had no idea what it was, so I asked, “Jr shr shemma” — what is it? And they both said, “Meintou” like I was from Mars. She added that she liked hers with “lajiu” chile pepper, but he liked his without. Mmmmm. My zhou was very plain. I wanted to tell the cooks that I wanted to start my morning rice over and order something yummier. But I didn’t. I was afraid that I wouldn’t say it right and end up offending them by not eating my zhou and asking for something else. Then they’ll yell at me — one thing I’ve discovered, the Chinese are not shy about yelling at you when offended. So I ate my bowl of zhou quietly, the whole thing, it was so plain.

Poor me.

After that, I saw food everywhere:And I forgot what I had come to Kaifeng for — to see what I could find of the city’s Jewish history. Kaifeng, the capital of the Sung Dynasty and administrative center for five dynasties, was the world’s largest city in the 11th and 12th Centuries, and also home to China’s oldest Jewish community, which still exists today.

So I went in search of the ruins of the synagogue (destroyed in a flood), and this is what I saw …Unfortunately, I didn’t know the word for Jewish or synagogue, and I didn’t have an address. I was counting on asking for directions at the hostel, but no one there spoke enough English either. When you’re an author, you should get all your addresses and mapquest directions before you leave, or else!

Lucky for me, it was time for lunch!Look at all those different ingredients that you could put into your noodle soup! It smelled SOOO good! I got right in line!

But wait a minute, what TIME was it?


Could I order noodle soup, eat it, and still make it to my 1 p.m. bus???

NO WAY!!!!

I ran all the way back, through the market and down the street to the hostel:I grabbed my bag and hopped a cab to the Kaifeng bus station across town, where I bought my ticket for the 1 p.m. Dengfeng bus at 12:52 from a lady who wasted precious seconds by glancing at the clock before selling me a ticket and saying, “It’s already one.” I told her I still had time to make it. I had to make it. There was only one bus to Dengfeng each day. I dashed past her only to find myself putting my bags through the x-ray machine, which took forever! Then I discovered I didn’t know how to read my ticket! It was my first bus ticket and bus station in China; my ticket was printed with a bunch of numbers, one of them was the gate number and the other was the bus number, and I couldn’t tell the two apart! Lucky for me, I asked a lady who pointed me to the right door, and I hurried out. But unlucky for me, the parking space for bus #22 was — gasp! — empty.

“Where’s the bus to Dengfeng?” I cried, panicking in the middle of the busy parking lot.

No answer.

Buses moved past me like elephants passing a tree stump.

“Are you going to Dengfeng?” I screamed at several drivers through their windows as they drove by. They all shook their heads no.

It was not yet 1 o’clock — there were five minutes left — but I had a bad, sinking feeling I’d missed my bus.

Then someone in a uniform appeared. “Where’s the bus to Dengfeng?” I asked. He looked at my ticket, tore it, took my bag and waved for a bus to stop that was already pulling out of the lot.

I hopped on and took the last empty seat, which was the first seat in front, which gave me this fantastic view:I could see everything from such a great perch!

I could even see all the passengers behind me:I was so lucky!

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