No. 3 Kung Pao! Welcome to China
China is an ancient and beautiful country. My higher self wants to emphasize the similarities I found between cultures.
And maybe I will.
For now, my lower self is hopping up and down with arm raised to recite the differences that were an electric bolt up our familiar, western lifestyle.
The difficulty of visiting China began before we even left home. As US citizens, we had to obtain visas in advance of the trip. The visa application process was exhaustive and expensive. I made my daughter, Faith, lay down alongside the application when it was nearly(!) complete.
Thereafter began a series of cultural growing pains which will be the topics of the next couple of newsletters. First up, food.
Our seventeen-day itinerary began in Beijing, and we did not put our best foot forward to assimilate. To my everlasting shame, the first thing my family does upon entry to a new country is eat McDonalds.
“We’re here to experience something new,” I used to complain. “We can get this at home.” I gave up fighting about it twenty countries ago. I figure it’s a way the family eases into the unknown. Invariably, we’ve just gone a night without sleeping, negotiated traffic and airports and new languages, and it makes them feel better to have something familiar, like a child soothing themselves with a beloved blanket. Except our blanket is a Quarter pounder with cheese.
When we landed in Beijing around 11 pm, hungry, with no other prospects for dinner, Tim asked our Chinese guide, Jin, if we could pick up some McDonalds before we left the airport. I only winced a little, on the inside. It was one thing to do the McDonalds deed on the down low by ourselves. It was another thing to embody a fat-American stereotype thirty seconds after we met our Chinese guide.
We piled into the van for the hotel transfer and unwrapped our burgers beside the prominent “No eating” sign taped to the window. Stereotype, shmereotype. I was hungry.
Our first authentic Chinese meal arrived at lunchtime the next day (the hotel served a buffet with Asian and western foods. Guess which ones we opted for) The restaurant resembled a greenhouse, the multi-faceted glass walls covered in condensation. A banquet-sized table, fitted with a central lazy Susan, was laden with a cornucopia of foods. It overflowed with bright red steamed crawfish, vegetables in sauce, rice, chicken, bowls of mixed meat and vegetable, and even sliced watermelon.
My plate was soon filled with new dishes to try. Except for the crawfish. As impressive as they were all steamed and stacked, I couldn’t bring myself to eat something that was still staring at me. Generally though, I have the same philosophy about food as I do about life. Try a little bit of everything.
Our family differed significantly along the spectrum of this philosophy. Here’s an unnecessarily complicated metaphor to illustrate:
Picture an analog clock. The later the time, the greater the sense of food adventure. For instance, I’d put the hands of my food adventure-tolerance clock about three-quarters of the way around, at 9 o’clock. I’m pretty easy to please and have a wide range of foods that I enjoy.
The rest of the family eats at earlier times, so to speak. I’d call them 8 o’clock all the way down to 12:04 kinds of eaters. What’s the sense of trying something new when you might not like it and ruin the joy you were going to get out of that meal?
Of the sixteen or so different foods circling the lazy Susan, a chopped chicken dish looked like a safe bet for everyone. Tim took a bite. His mouth flat-lined, and then he discreetly spit something into his napkin. A second bite yielded the same result. “This is full of bones. It’s like they put a whole chicken down on the table and took a meat cleaver to it.”
I forked through my own portion and found several vertebrae with meat clinging to them. And maybe an ankle joint—my chicken anatomy isn’t great. If I hadn’t grown up on a hobby farm, I would believe that chickens were breaded rectangular creatures that magically congregated in bags at my supermarket. And I would have been happy never to be disabused of that notion. Given the presence of so many unrecognizable parts and tiny bone fragments though, I suspected Tim was correct about the way the chicken had been prepared.
Our hosts cast an uneasy glance at the heaping pile of leftover food. The woman who had served us asked if something was wrong. “No, it was very good,” I said. I had enjoyed the non-chicken dishes. “We’re just full.”
“You not eat much,” she said in broken English. “You skinny family. Not like most Americans.”
In fact, the only other American family we saw in China was gigantic by comparison to the locals. They had four children to the typical Chinese family’s one. They had red hair to otherwise ubiquitous black hair. The American man was over six feet and the woman had to be 5’11” where everyone else seemed to top out around 5’8” or so. The two American adults each weighed well over two hundred pounds, or roughly four Chinese people. If we had been in a Cracker Barrel in the US, I wouldn’t have looked at the family twice. But in China, they stuck out. Length, width, girth, numbers, decibels—they took up a lot of space. It pleased me more than it should have not to be lumped in with them.
That night after Jin dropped us off at the hotel, we were on our own for dinner. We went to the noodle bar next door because noodles didn’t sound too threatening, despite the compulsory chopsticks.
The next day, there was only one choice for lunch: Kung Pao chicken. Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t have considered eating Kung Pao. It had suspiciously small peppers that rendered said peppers untrustworthy. That would have been enough to disqualify the entire dish.
These were not normal circumstances, however. We each took a scoopful and liked it. At dinnertime, we were nonetheless pleased to have discovered a Pizza Hut nearby.
At the end of the first week, we flew to Chengdu to see the Giant pandas and to visit the Museum of Sichuan Cuisine, the only museum in the world to focus exclusively on cooking. We learned how to make the most adorable panda dessert dumplings…and Kung Pao chicken.
The following week, we flew to Xian to see the terracotta warriors. Our new tour guide, Robbie, had lanky arms and legs and a jiggly tummy. For days, he talked about his favorite dumpling restaurant, where we were scheduled to eat on our last night in Xian. He sounded genuinely excited to show it off to us foreigners. That first night in Xian, however, Robbie brought us to a different famous restaurant where we enjoyed some smooth sounds:
I don’t know what it meant, but it played on continuous loop for forty-five minutes before we were seated. Our menu for the evening was chosen for us—a surprise delicacy. A must-try dish.
A short time later, a waiter placed a heaping platter of chicken feet in the center of the table.
Probably they were neatly stacked like little tree branches, but in my mind’s eye, they curled into a desperate clutching tower. It surpassed even my limit. That is for the 11:59 o’clock kind of adventure eater.
“We’ll all have the Kung Pao chicken please,” Tim said, speaking aloud what the whole family had silently agreed, to the bewilderment of the waiter.
We ate Kung Pao chicken every lunch, and some dinners, for fifteen days straight. By the fifth day, it had wreaked havoc on our digestive systems, but no matter. Six years later, enough time has still not passed to induce any of us to eat it again.
On our last night in Xian, Robbie was mortally wounded when we refused his beloved dumplings for dinner. I felt bad disappointing him, and maybe they would have been terrific but our systems just couldn’t handle another new food, no matter how cute or authentic. Robbie was still shaking his head like we had missed the opportunity of several lifetimes.
That night we ate ice cream for dinner at a hole-in-the-wall storefront. We smiled at each other with relief, the joy of rediscovering the familiar. And I didn’t even care that it was a stereotypically American thing to do.
For more serious information about how to visit China, read my blog post about tourist visa requirements for China.
And now for something completely different.
Put a little Gilded Age mystery into your life! Check out this FREE 1920's Cowboy Mystery on the Atlantic by my very talented friend, S. C. Durbois.