Sunday, March 06, 2005

Food Folks and Fun

As a certified foodie, I was excited and yet frightened by the prospect of eating in Beijing. As a germophobe, I was terror stricken at the prospect of using public toilets in China. As a Westerner, I am still feeling my way around human interactions so as not to create offense. So how have things gone so far?

Two things stand out in my mind:
1) When the outdoor market food vendors see the caucasian walking by, they yell out to you the only 5 English words they know: "Come here! No meat! Good! No Meat!" Apparently, our fear of getting shigella precedes us...
2) Yes, those ARE huge grasshoppers roasting on a stick..and no, I have no intention of eating them. And, to be honest, there ain't many Chinese people taking them up on them either. But if you are a pork fan, Beijing is your city. No joke. It has to be the pork capital of the entire Asian continent. Remember those 6 dishes I inadvertently ordered yesterday? Every single one of them pork. NOT a city for vegetarians, kosher-keepers or halal-keepers. Even the veggies are cooked in pork fat. Fuggedaboudit.

Where to start? Public toilets on the street you should not use. I seriously considered wetting myself rather than go into a public loo on the street. Trust me. They are the holes with the feet locators--or toilets without seats. Either way, it's an uncomfortable squat from which you may physically but not psychologically recover. My recommendation? Bring Depends. I sure wish I had. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

I used a public loo in a chi-chi mall, hoping for something better. It was actually okay, except for the one, giant communal roll of toilet paper hanging on the wall. First, the hygiene of that I can't even discuss. Second, who knows how much TP you are going to need before heading to the stall? I couldn't even begin to estimate it. Luckily, I brought my very own trial size charmin roll that fits right in my backpack! Sweeeet! I also brought a pocket-sized pack of toilet seat covers that has served me well. Although, truth be told, I will seriously rent a cab to bring me back to the hotel to go to the bathroom and then cab back to where I was, rather than use a public toilet. It's just good, clean sense.

Well, my Spreading Inadvertent Ill Will tour continues unabated. A nice man stopped and asked for advice on what lunch costs in London because he is being sent there for work and has no idea how much money to request from his bosses. I told him to request high, since London prices are straight-up robbery. (I didn't say that exactly, of course). He then wanted to chat about the US and how I like China, and was just the nicest man in the entire world except---except---that he was spitting big white saliva globules with every single word he said and I was about to start gagging because they were landing all over me. I am gagging even writing this. So I sort of maneuvered myself out of his firing line, and tried to avert my eyes from the saliva rocket launcher that was his mouth. I was DYING! He asked if I had had Beijing Duck yet, and I said no, so he invited me to a place across the street for a beer and some duck. Now, I have read and been told that Chinese people are incredibly hospitable and will invite you to their houses or out for tea or whatnot, and there is no danger in going with them; they are simply being what they consider to be good hosts. The only problem with this situation was, quite simply, that I was not going for "a beer and a duck" with any man I've met on a street, however well-intentioned he may seem. Nor was I going to be able to sit for another hour and a half getting pelted by his spit. I just did not have it in me to do it; I knew that eating would be out of the question since it would no doubt start landing on my plate. But recognizing the delicate balance between saying no and being mindful of the need for him to save face, I was racking my brain trying to think of anything to say that didn't sound like "Hell no!" So I said, "actually, I am here with a tour group, and I'm late for meeting up with them, but you are so kind to have offered. I am so sorry to not be able to join you." To that he began apologizing profusely for having kept me, for taking up my time, many apologies for taking up my time, followed by a swift exit down the street. And all I could think was, "nice one, E. Another Chinese person's day ruined!" Evil Empress Badaling strikes again.

On a good note, I learned a ton of stuff from my friend's friend who lives here in Beijing. She said that you should always leave some food on your plate because a clean plate tells your host that they did not feed you enough in the first place (ie, you had to lick your plate to get enough food). I also learned that rice is not eaten with the meal (unless its actually in the dish you are eating). It comes after the meal in little bowls, and eating it then signifies that you didn't enjoy the dinner you had. So--no clean plate club and no rice in China. I didn't see that one coming, either.

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