I was in Tuopu with Suyi, a couple of other graduating seniors and Professor Hu. We were sitting outside along a little street packed with shops and restaurants, eating hot pot and enjoying the end of the semester. We'd finished and were sitting back contentedly, when Suyi suggested I try some kushui. I had no idea what it was.
“It's a drink that's very good for your health," she said, and laughed. She was one of the brightest students I'd taught thus far, after a year in China. Her mind was always moving, on to the next slightly ironic observation; she struck me as rare among Chinese students in that way. I concurred to trying the kushui, and took a big swig of the teak-brown liquid the waitress brought. I nodded and looked at Suyi who was looking at me with a broadening grin as the drink went down.
Nothing special at first. A mildly unpleasant tea-ish taste. But after the drink went down, it really hit. Gradually, not fast but at a rate that startled, your entire mouth and throat were overcome with an incredible dryness. Then the poisonous taste worked its way in, as if you had just chugged the Grim Reaper's regurgitated mouthwash. I gagged and choked; tears appeared in my eyes. I tried to speak but I couldn't. Suyi and the rest burst into laughter. Thus began my introduction to the word, ku, 苦，bitter, and my interest in that unseemly fruit, the bitter melon.
The Chinese kugua, 苦瓜，bitter melon seems unique to China, but it's not: light research on bitter melon turns up its other monikers (balsam pear, balsam apple, bitter gourd) and the fact that it's used widely in tropical places. Brazil, India, Thailand, and many other nations where the Equator runs, have a long history using bitter melon. Its medicinal properties have been widely researched and investigated; Raintree Nutrition, a company dedicated to sustainable imports from the Amazon, has exhaustive explanations and research on a wide variety of plants, bitter melon among them. Traditionally in Amazon regions, according to Raintree, the gourd has been used for everything from a natural insulin-like effect on diabetes, to a topical treatment for leprosy. More recently, a chemical analog of bitter melon proteins, MAP-30, was shown to have some possibility of inhibiting HIV. Despite these positive attributes, bitter melon and its relatives, such as kushui, bitter water, still taste like death on your plate, or in your glass.
The Chinese character ku seems to reflect this in its uses in the language. Besides kugua, there are a variety of words that utilize the character ku. None of them is very positive. A common one is kunan 苦难，which I'd translate as “great difficulty” and which my dictionary defines as “suffering; misery; distress.” Then there are the rarer and somewhat more poetic combinations; kuzhong, 苦衷,“difficulties which one is reluctant to bring to the notice of others,” kuchai, 苦差,“a hard and unprofitable job,” and my favorite, kuhai, 苦海, "a sea of distress; abyss of misery.”
Still, there is something funny about bitter melon itself; it's a funny-looking thing at the least, long, pale-green, wrinkled and bumpy. And cooked the right way, with the right combination of flavors and spices, it can be pretty good. It's not logical, but somehow the word “bittersweet” occurs to me when I think of bitter melon. This journal aspires to capturing that bittersweet nature of things, the humor, the sorrow, the absurdity, and the outrage, and the strangeness of living in a place as foreign as China still remains to me.
For I am still a fan of the fruit itself, despite it's awful taste; I think it's the underdog of the melon world. If all the fruits, vegetables, and gourds got together and had a big kickball game, bitter melon would be the kid standing there at the end, looking at his shoes, picked last; but then when he got up to the plate, he'd boot the ball over the outfielders' heads, and round the bases toward home, perhaps with a kuxiao, 苦笑, “a wry smile,” on his face.