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On Eating (and Not Eating) in China

I love food, Asian cuisines in particular, and in the months before my trip here I was especially excited about eating in China. Most of the food in Guangzhou has been excellent so far, but I’m finding it rather challenging to order vegetarian food when I go out alone to eat in restaurants. It’s not just the language barrier that makes it tough but a cultural customs barrier as well.

The first night that I went out to dinner alone I stopped at corner restaurant in a large, sand-colored modern building with huge posters of food hanging down from the exterior.

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I walked inside and went up the stairs to the second story where the enormous dining room was located. I would estimate that there were over 100 tables stretching out the length of half of a city block. Nearly all of the tables were filled with people busily eating—always a good sign. One of the side walls of the dining room was lined with over 50 labeled and numbered photographs of featured dishes, mostly seafood but also a few promising-looking vegetable plates.

I walked over to what looked to me like a hostess stand and stood waiting for a hostess to come seat me. Servers with large trays of food held high rushed back and forth in front of me, but no one seemed to notice me. I waited for a long time, and then tried walking to an empty table, sitting down, and waiting some more, but still no one paid me any attention. After about 15 more minutes I gave up in frustration and left to go to a different restaurant.

That was a few nights ago. Still hoping to eat there, I went back to the same restaurant at lunchtime today. This time I waited on the sidewalk out front until a woman holding a little girl by the hand walked up and entered building. I followed her inside the restaurant and up the stairs, hoping to see how she managed to get served. She walked over to the exact same place where I had stood near the hostess stand the previous night. Almost immediately the hostess appeared with a menu and led her and her daughter to an empty table.

I waited for the hostess to come back. She grabbed a menu, said something to me, and turned around and started striding rapidly toward the middle of the restaurant. I followed her. The place was again packed, but today, a national holiday, most of the people were eating dim sum, the traditional weekend and holiday lunch here in Guangzhou. People at several of the tables called out to the hostess as we passed by, presumably asking for service, but she waved them off with her arm and kept walking. She seated me at a large, round table and disappeared.

Soon a waitress came over and started talking to me. In response to my visible confusion, she pulled out her phone, typed a few Chinese characters, and hit a button. The English words “lunch or dim sum” appeared on the screen. I pointed to the word “lunch,” and she handed me an enormous laminated menu. I showed her my little slip of paper with “I am a vegetarian—no meat, no pork, no fowl, no fish or seafood” written on it in Chinese. She typed “barbecued eggplant” into her phone. Yuck. I shook my head and paged through the menu until I found a picture of a plate of green beans. She nodded, wrote something on her ticket pad, and rushed away.

She came back a short while later with a large serving plate of what looked and smelled like some kind white fish sautéed in brown garlic sauce, a few scattered green beans, and a couple of little pearl onions. She placed it on table before me, along with the check, and rushed away again before I could figure out a way to tell her that I don’t eat fish.

I pushed the fish pieces to one side of the platter and picked out the vegetables. They were delicious, but few. After eating them I was almost as hungry as before the food came. I crossed my chopsticks over the platter and pushed it to the other side of the table, hoping the waitress would see that I wasn’t eating and come over to my table to offer to bring me another dish.

Meanwhile, I noticed that the Buddha in the restaurant was doing much better than I was. He had been served a variety of fresh cut fruit and two plates of steamed dim sum buns, all of which looked better than the dish I had ordered. I fantasized about snatching an apple or two off of his altar.

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I waited for over 20 minutes for the waitress, but she never came back. I finally gave up and took my check up to the cash register to pay.

Really hungry now, I walked back down the stairs, out onto the street, and down the block until I came to a self-service bakery, self-service being, I have learned, key to ensuring that I’ll end up with food that I can actually eat and enjoy. It was a modern bakery with fancy glassed-in bakery shelves and expensive wood paneling on the walls. About half of the items on the shelves were labeled in both English and Chinese. I was intrigued by the “Meat floss sandwiches,” the “Hemp potatoes,” and the large, football-shaped rolls ominously labeled: “Bomb,” but instead I paid for a large, flaky roll marked “Greamy filling,” which proved to be a delicious cream-filled croissant, and an unlabeled toasted almond bun.

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I continued to stroll down the street, entering a financial district with huge, modern international bank buildings soaring up toward the sky. I noticed an elderly woman carrying an empty blue and red plastic woven shopping bag disappear into a narrow space between two granite bank buildings. Curious, I followed her into a narrow, twisting, cluttered little street.

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It appeared to be a traditional food market street, jam-packed with tiny little businesses specializing in fruits or vegetables or cuts of meat (piled, unwrapped, on tables sitting outside in the afternoon sun) or ginger roots or teas or dried legumes or cheap dry goods, like plastic buckets and cloth shoes. Some of the sellers displayed their wares on shelves inside tiny, dark shops located in the ground floors of the narrow buildings lining the street; others stacked their goods up on folding tables standing on large pieces of cardboard set up in the empty spaces between buildings.

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Unlike the bakery, with its English-language food labels intended to cater to tourists, and where the food was heavily influenced by European cuisines, this little shopping district was uniquely Chinese -- the hidden China where few foreign travelers venture. On the university campus and in the larger commercial districts where I had spent much of my off-campus time up to that point, I didn’t attract much attention; most people just ignored me as I walked by. But here in the narrow little street filled with tiny raw food shops and stalls, tucked into two- and three-story buildings that looked to be much older than the modern high-rises, people stared open-mouthed as I walked by, my backpack and camera (and face!) clearly marking me as a foreign tourist.

I passed a poultry market, a tiny shop filled with wooden crates of squawking chickens and cooing pigeons. The butcher stood out front at a table in the open air, slaughtering live birds with a large cleaver, plucking them clean, and placing them, whole or chopped into pieces, directly into shoppers’ plastic woven bags.

It seemed to me to be, if not the “real” China, more the China that was than the China that is. I didn’t buy any food, worried that the sanitary conditions would not agree with my pampered Western stomach, but I wandered along fascinated by the colors and smells of the market, feeling as if I had slipped back into a previous era, a time before China had become so heavily influenced by Western commercialism.

After walking the length of the little street, I turned back toward the wide main avenue and traced my way back to the fancy modern university campus that is my temporary home. It was a beautiful afternoon, and another engaging adventure, here in the fascinating land of contrasts that is modern China.

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Posted by dagosto 08:54 Archived in China

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