13: Travel, Food, & Sustainability w/ Clarissa Wei

Today I interview the adventurous spirit that is Clarissa Wei, a freelance journalist currently backpacking through Asia. Clarissa and I met years ago when she was writing about Chinese food in LA and I was working at the largest Asian food festival in the US. We collaborated on some fun videos like ‘How to Eat Xiao Long Bao‘ and ‘Dim Sum 101.'

It's inspiring to see how far she's come since then, from appearing on The Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern to speaking on panels with food critic Jonathan Gold to now living her dream life in Asia, hanging out with Tibetan monks and aboriginal tribes. Simply amazing. (Can you tell I'm a huge fan?)

Take a peek inside the current life of Clarissa Wei. She's a brilliant example of what it looks like to be a true artist of life.

Clarissa Wei

Hey guys! Welcome to the Lavendaire Lifestyle, the podcast on lifestyle design for millennials. My name is Aileen and I’m here to guide you to become a master artist of life. You can create the life that you’ve always imagined. Life is an art. Make it your masterpiece.

Today I have a real treat for you guys. I’m bringing on another guest and in my mind, I wanna bring people who inspire me. I wanna bring on people who are real artists of life. People who are out there creating the life that they want to live, the lifestyle that they want to live. Today I’m really happy to bring on my friend Clarissa Wei. Clarissa is a freelance journalist, backpacking to all the provinces in China. She writes for Vice and Eater, and that’s just the start of it. She has so many credentials under her belt. She’s just an awesome person in general, someone who’s just daring to be able to travel the world on her own and find those interesting stories. What’s up, Clarissa?

Clarissa: Hi, thanks for having me on. Things are good. I’m in Lanzhou right now which is in the Gansu province of China.

Aileen: I actually don’t know where that is. Is that in north, south, east, or west? Where is that?

Clarissa: It’s northwest. I was here when I was nineteen in college, and I went into a town called Dunhuang where I rode camels and hung out in the desert. But now I’m in the capital of the province. It’s a city that’s built alongside the Yellow River.

Aileen: That’s so awesome. How big is that city? What does it physically look like? Is it modern, or is it more like a town?

Clarissa: It’s very modern and that’s something I didn’t really realize about China until I got here: that in every single province, there are huge cities. Here it kind of reminds of me of Los Angeles, in that there’s traffic all day, every day. It’s a city that’s kind of built around the Yellow River and that’s a historical thing, obviously, because of the water source.

Aileen: I have so many questions to ask you but I think we have to give an introduction of who you are. You started out as a food writer. Let’s talk about the beginnings of your career. Why did you decide to be a writer?

Clarissa: I knew I always wanted to be in media. I just didn’t know which medium I wanted to work with. Originally I thought it was video, but then I just started to do writing because I really like working with words and having time to process things. I think, naturally, I’m more of an introvert. I kind of got into food writing, actually, when I was at NYU and I was studying abroad in ___. Food, I realized, was a way to show people the Chinese culture without being overbearing or too inaccessible to the layman. Food is something that everyone–I know this is oversaid and overstated–but food is something everyone should get behind. That’s kind of how I got into food writing.

Aileen: Was it the Chinese culture side of it that interested you more? And then food was the easy way to share that? Is that what you’re saying?

Clarissa: I think I got into the whole Chinese culture part out of frustration. I had twelve internships in college and working in all these media organizations, it was seeing how badly represented Chinese culture and Chinese people were in mainstream media. I definitely kind of came into this by accident, just as a reflex, out of frustration to what was being pushed out in mainstream media. It wasn’t on purpose. It was mostly just because I was angry with what was out there.

Aileen: What exactly frustrated you? Was it, while working at this internship, you started to realize how little representation there was? What was it exactly that frustrated you the most?

Clarissa: The same thing is happening today. If you Google “China”, the news that’s out there, it’s focused on the economy and politics. If it’s on food, it’s very, very basic. It’s knowledge people knew twenty years ago. People are just obsessed how China’s taking over. China’s painted as this hostile organism from across the world, this foreign alien-thing that’s going to take over the economy and take over our jobs. Granted, a lot of this rhetoric was when I was interning at Fox News, so it was kind of heightened to an extent. But again, even in all the publications it’s the same, and it’s because a lot of these journalists, they’re not of Chinese descent. They don’t speak Chinese, they’ve never been to this country.

Aileen: They just don’t get the stories.

Clarissa: No, not at all. And if they do get the stories, it’s on an attack-y way and they don’t interview the people here.

Aileen: I think it’s awesome, what you’re doing. Honestly, since you’ve started writing about Chinese food in general, you’ve put so much more information out there. You guys listening, do a quick Google search of “Clarissa Wei”. There are so many articles. She goes in-depth on so many different aspects of Chinese food and the culture and history behind food which I love.

Clarissa: I think that’s the beauty of China: that it’s so big and there’s so much culture and history, and I’m learning new things every single day here.

Aileen: Let’s talk about your journey. Why did you decide to go to China in the first place? What was your purpose and what was your goal?

Clarissa: I had been writing about Chinese food in Los Angeles for three to four years already, and it was to the point where I feel like I exhausted everything that I could do. I’ve basically been to most of the notable Chinese restaurants in Los Angeles. I even did, at one point, a regional guide for KCET where I broke down every single province and the restaurants that were represented at each province in Los Angeles in this map. After that, it was like, “What is next? I’ve exhausted Chinese food in Los Angeles. I know the community. How do I take it up a notch further?” I just remember, one day, lying in my bed at a crossroads: not exactly happy with the full-time job I had at the time, and deciding, if I really want to understand this topic I’ve been writing about for the last three to four years, I really just need to go to where I’ve been talking about. That just spurred it, and it took me a while to actually press the ‘Go’ button. I talked about it a lot to friends. After a while, after talking about it so much it just became a reality and I found myself on an airplane.

Aileen: That’s so awesome. I remember when you were talking about it early on and I thought it was such a great idea. Logistically, did you produce everything? Did you organize everything? Did you have help putting this together?

Clarissa: I did a crowd-funding thing. You know, it’s hard in the beginning because you want to tell people exactly what you’re spending things on and I knew this, that I wouldn’t be able to predict everything and know what I would be spending things on. So I did a very basic crowd-funding round and I got around $4,000 which was enough to get me here. But then after that, it’s just been relying on freelance gigs and savings.

Aileen: So you’re still writing freelance articles while you’re out there?

Clarissa: Yes, I write about two to three articles every week.

Aileen: How’s that been, balancing work with travel and doing your work in China?

Clarissa: It’s really hard, because it’s a balance between being present and being aware of where you are and really being inside the community versus when you’re writing and doing work all the time, sometimes I find myself in a hotel room for three days and not really interacting with anyone. It’s like, “What am I doing? Am I wasting my time?”

Aileen: It seems like you’re going from modern cities to really rural areas and villages. Tell me, do you have a plan for your traveling and how does it work?

Clarissa: I do it by region, so over the winter I was in the east. It was really weird, I thought I would go to ___ and be in the cities because if you think of cities, you think of a place that’s really really connected, right? But the longer I was there, I realized in cities it’s really hard to find a story because the same stories happen all over the world. It’s development and people are in pursuit of modern luxuries, and the stories that I’m looking for, I’m personally interested in tradition and culture that exist in the city but it’s really hard to find. So after going to a lot of cities, I’ve just realized that the best stories are in the countryside. Now I just go into the countryside and try to hang out with people for as long as possible and find stories that way because every single city, it’s just a lot harder to find stories.

Aileen: And how does it work? Do you have someone who knows that countryside bring you in and then introduce you to people? Or do you just go and meet people?

Clarissa: Oh, not at all. I just go. Sometimes I find stories, sometimes I don’t. Yesterday I was in Mingxia which is a province also in the north and I didn’t know what was there except for a desert, like sand dunes. So I was there, I came to the sand dunes and then I went to the hostel. In the back of the hostel, in the lobby, I saw a bunch of goji berries. I was like, “Oh, goji berries. Where are these produced?” And they were like, “It’s a town called ___.” I always ask, “How far is ___ from here?” They’re like, “It’s an hour away.” Then sure enough, my friend and I would always take a bus and go there. We ask to be taken to the warehouse factory and from there, it’s the biggest goji factory in all of China, possibly the world. And there’s the story in itself. It’s just talking to people.

Aileen: So what interests you is food, and then you try to get to the source of the food? Is that how it works? Like, “Where is this made?”

Clarissa: I’m a food journalist by trade, but I’m not so much interested in how tasty things are. But I’m more interested in origins. Especially, I’ve realized, that in Chinese tradition a lot of nifty things are used in food that people in the West don’t even think about. For example: when we think about noodles, we just think about flour, water, maybe some egg, right? That’s pasta at its core. But people here in the north, for example, when they make lai mien, lai mien which is their specialty noodle here, it’s a pulled noodle, they’ll add a powder that’s actually made from a desert plant called penghuicao. Excuse my pronunciation, it could be totally wrong. This powder makes it long and stretchy. In Ningxia, they have a desert plant, they take the seed and they grind it. It’s called ___. They put the ___ into the noodles and it makes it more chewy. And then over here today, I just ate a noodle that’s made completely from a desert plant. They take these natural plants that are occurring within the landscape and integrate it into their food. A lot of things that are considered invasive species in the West are actually delicacies here in the East.

Aileen: Like what?

Clarissa: Fish mint, for example, is considered an invasive species all over the West. It grows in really swampy areas. And because it grows via rhizomes, it grows everywhere and it’s hard to get rid of. If you look up gardening forums in America, people are like, “How do I get rid of this?”

Aileen: So it’s a weed and people don’t like it.

Clarissa: It’s a weed, but in China, it tastes like cilantro and it’s really good for you and people love it. It helps with congestion. People will go foraging for it during the weekends.

Aileen: Do you think it’s because people in the West don’t realize the benefits of all these plants, and Chinese people have recognized that? What’s the difference?

Clarissa: Well I think it’s because China has been such a continuously long civilization so a lot of this knowledge is just continuously passed down, right? Whereas in the West, there’s so many divisions. I’m talking about Europe too. Divisions, war. Of course, America is a nation of immigrants, so with each generation when you uproot yourself from your native land, you don’t know what’s in that land.

Aileen: You lose a lot of that history.

Clarissa: Yeah, a lot of lost knowledge, and China has this. What’s kind of terrifying to me is that this knowledge is slowly being lost here.

Aileen: Yeah, because they’re developing. Young kids may not care about learning these little details, right?

Clarissa: Yeah, so that’s really interesting to me too, that I find these things that native people don’t necessarily know about either. It’s a lot of, you gotta go to the countryside and talk to the old people to find out these things.

Aileen: That’s so interesting. Does it break your heart to see what’s happening? What do you feel about it?

Clarissa: It’s sad, but at the same time it’s empowering to have this knowledge because as people are looking for new ways to do food, even live differently and think outside of the box, because you know sustainability is such a huge topic right now, how can we live sustainably. But I’ve learned that a lot of these secrets, a lot of these solutions are actually embedded in ancient cultures or aboriginal or ethnic minority cultures, civilizations that have been around for a very long time and still very primitive. You can learn from them and apply it into modern life and make things a little less waste-heavy. So for example, when I was–I’m trying to think, I have so many examples.

Aileen: The big ones. The ones that shocked or surprised you?

Clarissa: Very very basic: bamboo you can make boats with it, you can make cooking utensils with it. I hung out with the ocean tribe in Taiwan: Amis. They’re located on the east coast of Taiwan in ___. Little kids, they were teaching them how to make cups with them. We’re always like, “We shouldn’t use styrofoam but plastic’s not good for you too.” It’s this circular debate going on about which utensils we should use. You can just make it out of bamboo and bamboo’s one of the most sustainable materials there is.

Aileen: I don’t know why we don’t use it more often.

Clarissa: It’s just not in our manual for how to build because during the Industrial Revolution or during development, everyone wants efficiency and quickness. But now we have time to look back to our past and take these efficient things and apply it. Also, another big thing is solving hunger. People are like, “There’s not enough food. We can’t feed people.” What about all these weeds?

Aileen: There’s enough food. We just have to distribute that food.

Clarissa: What about all these things that we think are weeds, that we label weeds in the West but are actually very very edible? We just don’t know how to use them at all.

Aileen: So interesting. I want to ask you: What has been the biggest challenge so far in this trip?

Clarissa: For me, it’s about finding community and a sense of permanence, because I’m always everywhere. I have friends with me at all times, which as been really really cool. I’ve rarely been alone. But again, people are with me for a couple months or they’re with me for a couple weeks.

Aileen: How long have you been there so far?

Clarissa: I’ve been in Asia six months now, going on seven.

Aileen: Wow.

Clarissa: It’s hard to find community. When I was in Los Angeles, it was the same people I would see over and again. It was that stability. But when you’re traveling, you don’t have that stability at all and sometimes you feel like, “Am I the only one doing this? I feel completely crazy.”

Aileen: Yeah, I can imagine it does get lonely. But that’s part of the experience of traveling. You’re moving from place to place. I’m just curious: when you go home, do you think you’ll feel weird there? Do you think your life will be different?

Clarissa: Yeah, I think after traveling so much, I don’t see myself ever settling down in the United States. I know that sounds totally weird. I really like…

And I’m so so sorry guys. That is the point where Clarissa’s interview got cut off, and it sucks because I loved what she talked about for the last ten minutes of our interview. What happened was, the program that I use to record interviews, after you finish the interview it takes some time to upload those audio files to Dropbox and I think we probably had internet issues where Clarissa’s audio didn’t finish uploading. It’s such a shame. I was honestly debating whether I should redo this interview with her completely, but I don’t like the idea of redoing it. I really like this interview, and I like to keep things fresh and natural. I’m just going to give you guys what we have, what it is. This is real, but I’ll just talk about what she was going to say. Clarissa was talking about how she can’t imagine settling down in the US in the future which I thought was a pretty wild idea but it makes a lot of sense for her. You know how she’s so passionate about sustainable communities. She’s passionate about living off the land, all of that stuff. She was talking about how her ideal future, where she wants to settle down might be something like an eco-village probably in Latin America. I just think that was so amazing. It’s such a beautiful thing because I’ve watched her grow and blossom into this person that she is today. She’s experienced so much out there in the world that now she has a better grasp of what she wants. So she came from LA, she grew up in LA, went to school in New York City and thought she was going to live that corporate city broadcast journalism life. But her life took a different turn and now she loves traveling to rural areas and hanging out in villages. It’s really cool to see her be able to choose her lifestyle that she wants. And that’s what being an artist of life is all about. It’s about being empowered to choose the kind of life that you want. You can design every aspect of it. So that was really really awesome. I’m so sad you guys couldn’t hear that from her for yourself.

So now I’m going to read an excerpt from Clarissa’s website. It’s on her About Me page. She says: “I’m mostly interested in sustainability and stories of marginalized communities that live off the land. I prefer farms to cities. Home-cooked meals to restaurant spreads. I believe in minimalism, eating locally, and being conscious of consumption: living my dream life. Eventually I hope to end up in a farm or jungle or small village with plenty of stars and wonderful people, preferably by the beach. Until then, I travel.”

I love that so so much. She’s really found herself and come into her own. She’s found her place in the world. She’s found where she wants to be. You guys have to check out Clarissa Wei at ClarissaWei.com. That’s spelled C-L-A-R-I-S-S-A-W-E-I dot com. Check out her Facebook page as well; it’s Clarissa P. Wei. And check her out on Instagram and Twitter at @dearclarissa. Honestly, guys, you have to at least go to her Facebook page and read her latest post. She’s always posting stories, photos, and videos of where she is, and it’s always so fascinating. If you really scroll down, you’ll see her post about everything that she talked about today from those desert plants that they use in the noodles, to videos of her at the goji berry farm. I hope this episode opened you guys up to the possibilities of what is out there in the world, what is possible for you and your life. Honestly, Clarissa was talking about how when she was a student at NYU, interning for all these major broadcasting companies, she never would’ve imagined that she would want to live a life that’s a total opposite of that. But life happens, the journey takes you there and you end up somewhere you never would’ve expected which I think is such a beautiful thing. So you guys have to let life happen, just follow your heart to what feels right and you’ll end up where you belong.

This episode was brought to you by Audible.com. You guys can all sign up for a free Audible trial at audibletrial.com/lavendaire, again audibletrial.com/lavendaire. And with that free trial you can choose a free audiobook to listen to. The one I’m currently listening to is You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero and I’ve really been loving it.

If you have any feedback on this podcast, you can leave a comment on my blog lavendaire.com. Don’t forget to follow me on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. Everything is “lavendaire”. Thank you so much for tuning in guys, I love you so much. My name is Aileen and this was The Lavendaire Lifestyle, the podcast on lifestyle design for millennials. Bye!

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