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On Lessons from a Foreign Traveler

Lesson #1: Cultural assumptions can leave you without much for lunch.

I’ve been in China for four days now. My university hosts have been taking me the around city each day, with campus tours, daytime walks, lavish dinners out, evening strolls along the Pearl River, and surprisingly tasty lunches in the school cafeteria. (The school food here definitely beats the Marriott catering of my undergraduate days.) Yesterday was the first day I ventured out of the hotel on my own. It was also the first day I managed not to sleep through the hotel’s breakfast buffet, which featured several interesting looking dim sum buns. I didn’t take any, assuming most of them were filled with meat. Instead I chose a bowl of thin noodles with vegetables and several slices of ripe watermelon. I then went back upstairs to my room to spend the morning working on my notes for my first lecture at the university the next day. It was only 8:30, so I figured I had plenty of time to finish my lecture before lunch.

At about 11:30 one of my graduate student hosts texted me to ask if I’d made my way over to the student cafeteria yet for lunch. “Not yet, but soon,” I typed back, and then got so caught up in work that I forgot all about lunch for a while.

I finally stopped working at about 12:40. I felt a rush of excitement as I walked out of the hotel alone. It somehow seems more real to be in a foreign country alone without a guide.

I bought some stamps at the campus post office and mailed a handful of postcards. It was 12:55 by the time I made it to the main student cafeteria. The day before, my student hosts Lynn and Apple had taken me there and bought me a prepaid cafeteria debit card to last the length of my visit. Inside the large, crowded cafeteria building were several food sales zones: bakery cases for dim sum buns, breads, cookies and cakes; a fruit juice and soda area; a long glassed-in cafeteria steam table with rice, noodles, soups, and main dishes, like meat with vegetables, grilled and fried fish, and thick stews.

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Lynn and Apple led me over to the lines in front of a separate, smaller steam table where there was an array of vegetarian dishes for sale—sautéed greens, lumps of cooked pumpkin, cooked corn kernels, and more. I selected the garlic green beans, noodles with vegetables, and plain steamed rice.

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We pushed our way through the crowds of hungry students rushing around gathering food and carried our metal army-style cafeteria trays down half a flight of stairs to the dining area, where literally hundreds of students sat at long tables wolfing down their lunches.

When I arrived at the cafeteria alone yesterday, the hungry student crowds from the day before had vanished. So had the food from the vegetarian steam table, which was cleared out and wiped clean, so I walked over to the main dish line looking for something vegetarian to eat. The long rows of Cantonese meat and seafood dishes from the day before were mostly gone; just a few lonely-looking little mounds of food were left. The only dish that looked vegetarian was a sad little pile of stir-fried carrots. I pointed to the leftover carrots and received a small bowlful in return.

As I was wondering where all the starving students from the day before had gone, the cafeteria suddenly went dark and the ceiling fans clicked off. I realized that lunch service must end at 1:00. I took my rice, carrots, and a plastic cup of chilled coconut milk down to the eating area and sat down to eat in the darkened hall. It had never even occurred to me to check the serving hours, assuming that, like the student cafeterias on U.S. college campuses, food service would run from early morning to late at night. Now I understood the pandemonium of the day before. With more than 82,000 students on four campuses, literally thousands of students were trying to eat and rush off to class in the slim 120-minute lunch window.

Lesson #2: A shared language doesn't always bring people together.

I was still hungry, so on the way back to my hotel room I stopped at a little campus coffee shop and bakery that also takes the university debit card. I bought an egg custard pastry and a bottle of cold water and sat down at one of about eight tables inside the bakery. I pulled my laptop out of my backpack and continued working on my lecture, which I had yet to finish.

After while I looked up to see a middle-aged Caucasian man in business a suit standing in front of me holding a cup of coffee. “May I share your table?” he asked in a strong British accent. Since all of the other tables in the shop were empty, I figured he had seen me, pegged me for a fellow English speaker, and wanted to chat. I hadn’t spoken to anyone all day, and I brightened at the prospect of conversation. It would be just like an Agatha Christie novel: two strangers far from home brought together by a common language.

Instead, after I invited him to sit he slammed his briefcase down onto the table, sat down next to me with a huff, finished off the whole cup of coffee in one huge gulp, picked his briefcase back up, and rushed away without another word. So much for friendly conversation.

Lesson #3: Just because you can fake your way through a conversation in another language doesn’t mean you should.

Luckily most of the Chinese people I’ve met so far have been friendlier than the grumpy British guy. I ventured out alone again the next night for dinner while it was still light out. This time I walked much further, across the campus grounds, out the campus gates, and into the crowded little alleyway where Lynn and Apple had taken me the first night I arrived.

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I exited the alley and walked up and down a main street looking for a restaurant, but all I could find on the busy commercial avenue were banks, grocery stores, wine shops, tea shops, and hair salons. I walked to a smaller side street where I remembered seeing a restaurant that had caught my attention a few days ago, a little place called simply, according to the English words on the neon storefront sign: “Muslim Restaurant.” It was packed, so I figured the food must be good. The menu listed the food in English as well as Chinese. I ordered “Noodles with Peppers and Onions,” which turned out to be spaghetti with sautéed garlic and peppers and tasted more Italian to me than Chinese, but very good.

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I traced my steps back through the streets toward campus. I had no trouble finding the half-hidden alleyway that led to the university gates, but once I stepped onto the university campus I realized how dark it had gotten outside. Although the city is lit up at night with neon signs and bright interior lights that pour out from the open-fronted businesses occupying the street levels of most buildings, the campus is very dark—almost pitch black in some of the less populated areas. I have lousy vision even in the daylight and could barely see the path at my feet as I wandered around campus looking for the university hotel. I finally gave up when I came upon a brightly-lit tennis court and walked up to a man who was watching the game. “Ni hao” (hello), I said and handed him a card printed with the sentence “Please take me to Wing Kwong Hall Hotel” in Chinese characters, which I had gotten when I checked into my hotel.

The man beamed at me, pointed in one direction, and then waved his arm around in all directions pointing and talking. He paused expectantly, apparently waiting for an answer to a question. I figured he had most likely either asked me if I understood his directions or if I understood his Chinese. Either way the answer was most definitely no, so I responded with one of about four Chinese words or phrases I know: “búshì” (“no”). He beamed, mistakenly thinking I spoke Chinese, and launched into a long, complicated story. He talked on and on, laughing and his own jokes and gesticulating wildly as he spoke. When his story finally ended, I said: “xièxie nǐ” (“thank you”), thereby having exhausted nearly my entire Chinese vocabulary, and marched off in the general direction he had been pointing.

It was the wrong way, of course.

I got even more lost. I walked along in the dark until I came to a street light. I waited for another student to happen by. I handed him my little card. He started speaking in Chinese and pointing all over, but this time when he stopped speaking and looked at me for signs of comprehension I said nothing, shaking my head silently and trying to look lost. He switched to English and led me back to the main road along campus, pointing the way to my hotel and reassuring me that campus was very dark at night making it easy to get lost. I finally made it back to my room, vowing to take Chinese lessons if I ever decide to return to this country.

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Each day in China promises a new adventure. Tomorrow is the first day of the three-day Dragon Boat Festival, a major national holiday. I hope to watch the dragon boat races along the Pearl River, if I can just figure out when and where they’ll take place and manage not to get lost on my way there. Regardless, it will be another enjoyable adventure for sure.

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Posted by dagosto 14:05 Archived in China

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