Reading time: 14 minutes
Considering the last few chapters have been pretty negative, well okay, all of them have been pretty negative, you’re most likely thinking, “you need some St. John’s Wort, Lee”. Of course, though, Clueless in Asia is about me having a whinge, sharing my experiences of living in Asia in hopes of helping others, and exposing myself for the bohemian fool that I am… and today is no different.
Chapters one to six of Clueless in Asia, was a collective introduction of how I found myself in China, and how I dealt with the initial stages of settling in. Today’s post is slightly less narrative, as it focuses on the topic of food, or restaurants to be more specific.
“How does this help me, Lee?”, well, it doesn’t, but what it does do, is offer a true and detailed account of what it’s like to eat in China and what to expect.
Continuing on from last week’s post, which saw me assaulted by a herd of unruly children, and having my lesson interrupted by a shirtless, ‘tits out’ maintenance man, and it’s here that I had left the public school out of refusal to go back, and started work in a new environment.
If you can recall from chapter 5, I had slept at the language centre ‘Chigang’ for two weeks, you know, the place where I had been threatened by the bandana-wearing, karate chopping skull scarf, and had been intimate with a cockroach, well, this centre was now my new place of work. I had taken over from Rex Kwon-Do and had become the main and only teacher for this centre.
The manager of this language centre was Ralph, and by this time, our friendship flourished as we had worked together on a daily basis (and lived near one another). My usual teaching schedule was then different from my previous position in the public school, as I would start work later. This meant that I had the pleasure of avoiding the chaotic morning metro commute.
Unfortunately, though, this did also mean that I would finish teaching around 9:00 pm, and not get home until after 10:00 pm. Because of this, lunch and dinner were then eaten at work accompanied by Ralph in the nearby surrounding restaurants.
I recall one evening, in particular, one that was the most intrusive of moments that had happened so far.
Myself and Ralph had just sat down at our favourite of restaurants, and we ordered the usual, “wo yao ga li ji”, I would say, asking for the curry chicken. No matter how perfectly I pronounced this simple phrase, it was always met with absolute shock and bemusement, that I, the alien could speak their dialect (literally, they would open mouth gawk).
Upon sitting at our table and awaiting our ticket number, an older man, who sat across from us, slid off his shoe by using the back of his leg, and like a bag of sand, lifted his barefoot, and dropped it onto the top of the table, knocking over and spilling a cup of hot water. He began picking at the dirt that cemented underneath his big toe with a toothpick, which resulted in lumps of feet scraps ‘debris’, to ping off in various directions.
Quite unbelievably, the man had turned his foot to the side, in an attempt to wash his foot in the water that he had spilt as if he was careening.
His wife, who was also shoeless (not to mention braless), seemed more ‘reserved’, as she only went so far as to put her naked trotters on the chair opposite her. She sat with her chin resting against her chest, as she shovelled the canteen style slob into her mouth, and only stopped to either burp or spit bones from her gob.
This was the Chinese equivalent of Roald Dahls, Mr and Mrs Twit, and I dare you to call me a liar.
My food had arrived, with thanks to the waitress carelessly sliding the food tray across the table, and I had begun eating. Under the sound of soup slurping coming from the table behind me, I heard a grunting noise from across the restaurant, now, if you’re a frequent reader of Clueless in Asia, you’ll know that when someone’s grunting… it’s usually aimed at me.
I had looked up to see that most concernedly, the barefooted couple were walking their way over to our table. The man, foully, was chewing down on his ‘toenail-picking-toothpick’ as he looked at me grinning. I had thought to myself panicking, “did they see me look at them in disgust? No, of course, they didn’t Lee, you bloody clod!”
Realising then that they had instead just noticed me for being a foreigner, I attempted to act as if I hadn’t seen them wanting to communicate with me. I brought my forehead to my right hand and continued to eat with my chopsticks in my left.
“F*ck sake”, I muttered under my breath as I heard the grunting directly above my head as they loomed over me.
As my head was down, I could see that the man’s bare feet had uninvitingly entered the void space under the table, and as it was my table, it was my bloody personal space that he had violated. The man’s big toe stood on top of my bag strap, with his toenail pointing at me sharply as if I was being held up by knifepoint.
Looking up, I was greeted with a soiled index finger pointing at my head, literally inches from my eyes. After a careful double take and leaning ever so slightly backwards, for fear of him poking my eyes out, I couldn’t believe that this man really was marking me with a point, whilst talking and looking at Ralph.
The man did not look at me, he did not acknowledge me, he simply, and unbelievingly, behaved in a way as if I wasn’t a human being, as if I was an inanimate object that he and his wife were enquiring the price of. They began ‘talking’ unnecessarily loud with Ralph, when the woman, whom still had a mouthful of meat, slobbered as she spoke; her husband could have turned her sideways, pumped her neck, and she would have been the best super soaker on sale!
Ralph had then turned to me and asked, “they want to take a picture with you, that okay?”.
“I’m eating!”, I said in surprise that Ralph had even asked me, dropping my chopsticks in a display of anger.
To clarify, no, I am not famous (settle down settle down), the reason they wanted my picture was the same reason everyone asks me, and the same reason everyone will ask you if you venture on over to mainland China. We’re westerners, plain and simple, and in many Chinese people’s eyes, we are also all American, or, if you’re blond like me, then you’re Russian.
Side Note – for those of you who are not, or do not look western, your experience may differ. Racism is openly expressed in China. Terms and conditions apply.
When first arriving in China as a westerner, this attention can seem quite flattering, but very quickly, and I do mean quickly, it becomes one of the most intrusive, bad mannered irritants known to expats.
This attention doesn’t just manifest itself through the taking of pictures, but also in the form of pointing, whispering, shouting and even harassment. You see, they’re entirely fascinated by westerners, maybe fascination is too strong a word, but they’re curious all the same. Displaying ‘curiosity’ this way, because I am different in appearance, is as acceptable as me tipping someone out of their wheelchair because I’m ‘curious’ to see if they can walk, bottom line is, it’s not acceptable.
The following day, I had finished my afternoon lesson and was heading to the usual street of restaurants with Ralph. He was always a secretive man, so much, in fact, he failed to mention that on this particular occasion, we would be meeting with someone along the way.
“What are we doing? I thought we were grabbing lunch?” I had asked as we took a sudden stop by the metro.
He said, “I’m just meeting someone first”
Looking over Ralphs’ shoulder, I saw a male westerner, and in China, that basically makes you brothers.
I had said assumingly, “that him?” nodding in the direction of the westerner.
Ralph turned around, and approached the westerner sitting on the stairs and said, “are you, Wallace?”
Wallace was a new member of staff to join the company, a man of my age who revealed himself to be a very funny, blithe Scotsman. I know what you’re thinking, “Scottish?… Dick?”, but other than living on the set of Braveheart, they shared no connection whatsoever.
Myself and Wallace later became very close friends as we confided in one another about embarrassing and utterly infuriating moments we had experienced. We would go on to see each other every Saturday, the champion day of the week, as we would be teary-eyed at the result of British humour which we would slap in each other’s faces.
‘Mucking about’, as we call it in the U.K, or ‘fooling around’, was something that I didn’t realise I missed so much, the ability to spout utter whimsical nonsense, innuendos, puns, slang and any other form of childishness that we could intertwine into our conversations.
We were like two boys scheming up in a tree house, talking in code as if it were a secret that no one else knew, a mysterious language shrouded in childishness. This came in handy when trying to have a conversation without the Chinese English-speaking staff eavesdropping.
One evening, we went out for a meal, which in China is very cheap to do, meaning you can eat out once or twice a day, ‘errday’ (that’s a positive).
The following meal was particularly memorable, as a series of events, one after another, took place to make one of the most entertaining, disgusting and humorous evenings I ever had when eating out.
We both enjoyed Chinese cuisine, but from time to time, we liked to remind ourselves of our ‘ethnic dishes’, with Chinese interpretations of western food (I use the term ‘interpretations’ loosely… ethnic dishes too).
We walked into a ‘western-themed’ restaurant, and the staff looked as miserable and pissed off as always, greeting us with a monotoned ‘welcome grunt’, peeved as we had interrupted them from socialising with one another.
This etiquette is common throughout Chinese customer service, for example, I was once purchasing office supplies from a nearby convenience store, and I had approached the cash register where a member of staff remained seated and occupied with her phone. After ‘disturbing’ her with a polite “bu hao yi si” (excuse me), she huffed, aggressively snatched the products from my hand to scan them, and then angrily threw my change onto the floor.
(I have many stories like that)
Back at the restaurant, me and Wallace were allocated a waitress, and whilst texting on her phone (yeah, I did say it was common), escorted us to a table that was directly situated next to another customer, in a bid to squeeze in as many people as possible (which is the complete opposite in Japan, where they sit you as far away from one another as possible).
This was a problem for me, as not only do I like my personal space, I know how some Chinese people can behave in restaurants. I didn’t want my meal to have to suffer any kind of molestation, from body fluid being projected into it.
I had requested a “quiet table in the corner please.”
Though, that ‘unreasonable’ request was shot down immediately with a direct and deadpan, “no”.
Upon being seated, the waitress remained poker-faced as she so clearly blamed us for having to make her work, and upon taking our order, she snatched (again, I said it was common) the menus back from our hands, and finished texting before taking our orders to the kitchen.
Whilst sitting there, we, the foreigners, received curious glares from the customers, and futile poor attempts from the staff, as they looked at us from behind menus and the cash register. It was as if we were two Mafioso, and the entire rendezvous was staked out by amateur detectives, literally not fooling anyone that they were staring right at us.
Take this moment to consider the western order in which food is eaten, firstly we have starters/appetizers, secondly, we have main courses, and thirdly, we have our desserts. No matter the number of diners, be it two or five, the food arrives at the same time, as we consider it rude to start eating if someone hasn’t yet received their food. Fair enough?
Well, not China.
You see, in China, meals are usually shared between diners, and the food comes out in no particular order.
For example, if you were to order a set, be it a starter, main and dessert, it’s highly likely that your dessert will be brought out first before your starter and main. Of course, not wanting to eat it first, it sits warm next to your main meal, which arrives twenty minutes later than the dessert. Your starter will arrive before you finish your main, and if you’re lucky, your drink will come before you ask for the bill or halfway through your then melted dessert.
Got your head around that?
That was as confusing as Bilbo Baggins’s, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”
So, that western ideology of ‘common courtesy’ for waiting to eat with one another, cannot apply here then as if two of you eat together, your food will categorically not arrive at the same time… ever. The concept of cooking two meals at the same time is not one that happens in Chinese restaurants, so don’t sit waiting for your friend’s meal to come, because it could be much later than you anticipated.
Now, think to yourself how it is you get the attention of the waiter, or how you call the waitress over? Well, in China, you click your fingers at them, and that isn’t considered rude, that’s just how they communicate. You raise your arm locked out straight in the air, and you click your fingers continually until someone comes. Personally, I hated this, considering the whole, ‘slave complex’, I refused to do it. Unfortunately, getting the bill with me, always took up to an hour as I remained courteous and light-voiced with my, “bu hao yi si”.
Consider this information to be a mere insight and not a criticism. I cannot state that this is wrong nor right, as it is nothing more than a difference in culture. I am sure that there is a great deal of bizarreness with us in the U.K too, such as Numberwang, and why we say, “sorry” when someone is at fault. Come to think of it, what the fu*k was with Mr Blobby, and will EastEnders ever end?!
Back at our table, myself and Wallace were wafting our arms about melodramatically, and on purpose too. Although we were situated in a non-smoking restaurant, a customer across from us had taken a cigarette to his mouth and started puffing away arrogantly after finishing his meal, without any consideration for the people around him.
The smoke bothered me, but not enough to say anything, as I didn’t want the angst of confrontation. Although I tried to ignore him, his arrogance and cockiness as he sat grinning at us in front of a no-smoking sign, did bother me, so much, in fact, I had to say something.
You must understand, the combination of humid weather and sticky pollution is suffocating. So, when you finally sit down to eat, after being exposed to the poisonous air all day, the last thing you want is to have more polluted air blown into your face.
At this stage, our food hadn’t yet arrived, so I told Wallace, “I’d rather settle this before our food comes”. I raised my hand and ushered over a waitress to inform her of the smoking idiot, to which she shrugged her shoulders and said flippantly,
“you can tell him”.
Taken back by this, I had replied frowning, “excuse me? It’s not my bloody job, it’s yours! There are children about too.”
I soon realised after confronting the smoking cock, that the waitress was afraid of him. He escalated his body language and lost his temper quickly, flapping his arms about and shouting through his brown teeth. He blamed me for scaring the children as I was arguing with him, a notion that left me dumbfounded as he intoxicated the closed-off limited air supply with tar and chemicals, that the children were breathing.
After throwing a tantrum (and he really did), he screwed his face up and walked out, as I was probably the first person in his life, to confront him, and say that he was in the wrong.
As I’m sure you are aware, China had a ‘one-child policy’, to deal with the overwhelming population, and you know what they say about an only child, well, that is spot on in China. Even the adults, who grew up in this era, have a strange adolescent, spoilt attitude that presents itself when they don’t get what they want. I really cannot express this enough, and no matter how or what I type, I will not be able to capture this sulky, childish behaviour, only comparable to a nasty case of ‘Peter Pan Syndrome’.
Back at the restaurant, I had ordered a smoothie, and surprisingly before our food arrived, the waitress had brought our drinks to the table. She then turned my earlier comparison of being like two Mafioso, into reality, as she whispered to me, “drink it quickly before it changes colour”, and then walked off.
(I don’t know either)
After waiting a while and pushing my drink to the side, my main was brought out along with Wallace’s starter. We knew enough to accept it and eat anyway, disregarding the consensus of waiting for one another. I had ordered a steak with wedges, and a side that I couldn’t make out from the pixelated food menu. The waitress had given us spoons, and considering that I was eating meat in whole form (not mushy), I would of have course needed more than a spoon.
I asked for a knife, to which the waitress replied promptly, “why?”
I said, “…because I’m eating a steak. I can’t eat steak with a spoon… or can I?”. Puzzled as to why she questioned me and then puzzled as to if I could, in fact, eat a steak with a spoon.
“You don’t need a knife”, she said walking off.
Maybe you’re thinking, “she was mad at you for confronting the smoker”, but no, this is something I heard a lot of when requesting a different form of cutlery from what I was given. I personally believe that this came down to the fact that I, a foreigner, was challenging them, and in essence, saying that they made a mistake, and that doesn’t bode well in China.
As stated previously, Chinese people are told that us westerners are stupid and naïve, so it must have confused them, or at least offended them, that someone so clearly lower on the intelligence ladder was questioning their decision to give me a fu*king spoon to eat a fu*king steak!
Wait for it, here comes the icing on the cake.
After I had finished my main, my starter (which was a soup), was brought to the table. The waitress carelessly placed the bowl down in front of me, spilling it over the sides. Of course, accepting the service for what it was, I began eating, whilst Wallace sat drinking his milk tea.
Seated next to us, was a mother and her young daughter. Wallace gave me a look and a nudge of his head in their direction, and as I looked up, I saw something that, instead of making me angry, made me laugh, the same way someone laughs when something goes horribly badly, because either they’ve gone insane, or they’ve just given up.
The woman had her legs crossed on the chair, and one foot held in her hand, of course, she was shoeless. Unbelievably, the sound of “clip… clip… clip” could be heard, and low and behold, she was cutting her toenails. I put my hand over my soup because I sure as hell didn’t want any added extras, certainly not… ‘keratin-croutons’ anyway! *tipping my hat to the applause*
Thinking it was over as she put her legs down, she reached under the table, lifted her daughter’s foot and began cutting her nails too.
Was it us that was clueless?