I want to share this section of my fieldnotes. Rather than description, it is my analysis. It is very much a thought in progress, so I would love any feedback!
A description of mushrooms and mushroom sellers at a Kunming market
There are two important variables concerning mushroom sellers in Kunming’s farmers market. The first variable: Is the seller also the picker, or did the seller buy from a distributor? The second variable: whether the mushrooms are wild or not. While the word ‘wild’ seems to translate into English quite nicely, and without confusion, describing ‘not wild’ is more open to interpretation. Andree, my Chinese counterpart, prefers the term ‘artificial’. Indeed, after spending a good week chatting with Kunminese about mushrooms, it seems that ‘artificial’ is the most commonly used English word. Other translations would include, ‘cultivated’, ‘industrial’, ‘farmed’, ‘mass-produced’, etc.
In my opinion ‘cultivated’ is the most accurate term. Afterall, cultivation is exactly what is being done. As opposed to mushrooms growing without the aid of humans, in the wild (interestingly, most wild mushrooms still cannot be cultivated), this other category of mushrooms ARE grown by humans, they are cultivated.
But, that point aside, the fact that these Kunminese prefer the translation ‘artificial’, is very telling. ‘Artificial’– to describe not-wild– is by far the most polarizing term to use. To say ‘artificial’ implies that something is not real, it is not genuine, and thus inferior if not critically flawed. It goes far beyond terms such as ‘cultivated’, ‘industrial’, or ‘farmed’. And indeed, when discussing this choice of translation with various Kunminese, I have questioned whether or not they mean ‘industrial’ or ‘farmed’. They tell me that they also mean these other, nearby terms. But still they insist that ‘artificial’ better expresses what they are trying to say when describing those mushrooms that sell at a cheaper price and are lacking in robust flavor and aroma.
Additionally, this view of wild vs ‘artificial’ mushrooms applies to other produce. At one point, when walking around the market, we found ourselves in an area that strangely lacked the hustle and bustle occurring everywhere else. I wasn’t the one to bring it up. Rather, Andree pointed it out by asking Shiladitya and I why we thought this section was so quiet. We gave many guesses but couldn’t figure it out. Finally, she said that unlike the rest of the market, where the farmers themselves sell food, this section was comprised only of distributors. Andree explained that these distributors get their food from industrial farms (of course she said ‘artificial’). She said it wasn’t as fresh, or natural. And evidently everyone knew it. (Now I have to also admit that on average the price is slightly lower, and it is easier to bargain with the farmers. But still Andree stressed that the quality of the food was of higher consideration to the scurrying consumers.)
In other words, what Im trying to say, is that Kunming doesn’t need Alice Waters to come and lecture on the importance of naturally grown, locally sourced food. Such values run deep in Kunminese culture.
And to really take this thought too far… I will say that this story is very interesting in relation to the macro picture of an industrializing, urbanizing China. If there is such concern over naturally-grown, fresh foods, how do people swallow such obscene industrialization? Throughout my interviews, I am surprised to find so much acceptance over industrialization (and its consequences on food quality, including pollution in general). Obviously people aren’t happy about it, nor am I inferring any sort of apathy. But still, there seems to be a sense of trust, or calm, maybe understanding that this is part of a process, a cycle, and that resolution will be found. It is hard for me to express. And it is hard for me to say how I feel about it, but it is what I observe.