by Songyi Zhang
Coming from China, a nation of 1.3 billion people, to the United States, which has a vast landscape, I’ve had many cultural shocks. Many are not only from the comparison with my homeland but also with the stark contrasts between the American states.
Speaking of Denver, I immediately think of its NBA team, the Nuggets, because NBA games are the only American professional sport televised nationwide in China. However, my spring visit to Denver for the Associated Writing Programs conference tells me Denver is more than the Nuggets.
Denver is flat and sprawling compared to hilly, winding Pittsburgh, where I’ve been studying the past nine months. As the plane descended, I saw that the white land plastered in snow was as level as an endless bedspread. “Wow, snow in Denver?” I exclaimed. While Pittsburgh was celebrating the sunny weather of Fahrenheit 70s in early April, Denver was still hibernating in late winter.
“Denver’s weather is strange this year. Bring all your layers!” That’s what I was told by our Denver hosts, Kathy and Paddy. Wearing a t-shirt and a big khaki coat, I sat in front of the car on the way from the airport to Thornton, watching mile after mile of grassland. The panorama reminded me of my road trip on the Tibetan Plateau. I was stunned by the big blue sky and the emptiness on both sides of the highway. There were neither livestock nor pedestrians outdoors but there were speeding vehicles, including giant pickup trucks. The size of vehicles in America gives you an inkling of the size of the people as well as the space they crave.
As fascinated as I was when I first saw squirrels and rabbits in Pittsburgh, I was drawn to Denver’s little brown rodents—prairie dogs.
“What? Say that again,” I couldn’t believe what I heard.
“They’re called prairie dogs,” my travel mate Arnold said.
Why dogs? They are too small to be dogs. My bewilderment was cleared up when Paddy told me the animal stood up like a dog, wiggling its tail. Ha! What an imaginative name. Prairie dogs were the first animals I saw in Denver before horses, cows and rabbits.
As a Cantonese, I love food and I love exploring food wherever I go. I’m a seafood buff. So when I first heard Kathy say that the most famous item of Denver cuisine is Rocky Mountain Oysters, I was exhilarated. “Oh yeah, I love oysters!”
“They’re not the real oysters. They’re buffalo testicles,” Arnold explained. His words were like a bucket of cold water quenching my flame of hope.
Instead of having Rocket Mountain Oysters, we had a Mexican dinner with margaritas. The lime green margarita must be the Colorado state drink as I often saw the inverted triangle shaped glass on the dining tables in Denver. One of my unforgettable occasions was having a frozen margarita at Pepsi Center for a live Colorado Avalanche game. My hand was numb from holding the freezing plastic cup. The drink crystallized my veins as I slurped too quickly, resulting in a sudden headache.
My food discovery in Denver ended in the historic steakhouse—the Buckhorn Exchange. Exhibiting dozens of huge buck heads mounted on the walls, the restaurant was uncanny in the dim lighting. Thanks to the crowds in the restaurant, I dined amidst boisterous conversation which distracted my attention from the buck heads’ glaring above me. Our evening wasn’t over until we hopped on the light rail train with the help of the manager of the Buckhorn.
“You can take H, F or D line,” he said, skillfully pressing the buttons on the ticket vending machine. “Just remember—Have Fun Downtown.”
He’s surely right. I enjoyed my train ride to downtown with my full belly.
Denver’s downtown is like an oasis in a concrete forest—skyscrapers competing for height—in a boundless sandy land. From one end of the 16th Street Mall, one can see a range of mountains on the other end. The streets are straight, crisscrossing like a grid. Unlike the zigzagging roads in Pittsburgh, Denver has wider streets and fewer traffic lights. If only I could drive in Denver—a country of Go Straight for miles!
Now whenever I think of Denver, my memory lingers over a picture of the modern city against the backdrop of snow-capped Rocky Mountains. Denver is a jewel of Colorado, which I’d like to associate with the pronunciation of a musical tune, Co-lo-ra-do.