Although I’m back from my mainland and Hong Kong adventures, I didn’t get a chance to write more China Impressions. Ignore the fact that these next few are written from Chicago.
Chinese people love to eat. I guess you could say that about almost any people, but dining out is a big deal in China. It’s a group activity–you’ll rarely see any tables of two. The waiter comes and brings a giant menu. Typically the most senior or eldest person at the table will pick a variety of dishes which are shared on a spinning tabletop. This can be both good and bad–good in that you never have to make any soup-salad decisions, you just sit there and try whatever is spun in front of you. It can be bad when what’s in front of you is raw fish or cow intestines.
I accompanied Stephen on many fancy dinner meetings during our trip. Since I couldn’t communicate verbally with our dinner companions, we had to do it through food. They would ask Stephen what I liked and try to order around my tastes. Then when the food arrived, they would spin the table top in my direction and point eagerly at the food. I then picked up my chopsticks and put whatever was in front of me in my mouth. I don’t know how to say this without sounding like I’m bragging, but I’m a chopsticks pro. Real live Chinese people have told me I’m better than they are. So every time I’m eating with a new crowd there’s always a collective “Oooo” when they see I can actually pick things up. Once in awhile the waiter will not see my skills and automatically bring me a fork. That’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to racial profiling.
One by one the wait staff will bring in dish after dish. From what I’ve noticed, Chinese people are never in a hurry to eat. Perhaps it’s because I’m usually at dinner meetings and everyone is too busy discussing business. I’m used to the American “OMG where is my food? I’m gonna die! FOOOOD!” mentality. For the first half of the dinner, everyone is too busy talking that they barely eat. But since I can’t talk, I eat. So by the time everyone is done talking and ready to start shoveling food, I’m already full. Someone will notice I’m not eating and will ask Stephen if everything is okay. They feel bad that their dish choices were not to my liking. What they don’t realize is that I was stuffing my face while they were talking. So I end up having to eat more as everyone watches. It’s a problem I encountered at almost every meal. I tried to slow down my intake, but it’s hard not to eat food when it’s sitting in front of you, staring you in the face–sometimes literally.
Which brings me to my next story. On a day trip to Nantong, we went to a fancy seafood restaurant for dinner. “Do you like seafood?” asked Maggie, my companion for the day, an English-speaking Cornell student and niece of one of Stephen’s business associates. I told her yes because I was thinking about battered clams, de-veined shrimp and steamed crab legs drenched in butter. Not raw fish, squid or live shrimp. We ate hot pot, meaning we each had a small pot of boiling broth to drop raw food into. One by one the table filled with elaborately displayed dishes. Then the waiter brought out a vase of live shrimp and placed it right in front of me. The shrimp were climbing all over each other trying to escape. I made the mistake of making eye contact with them. We bonded.
“I can’t eat them!” I told Stephen, which he interpreted as “I can’t be the one to drop it in the pot.” So he grabbed a shrimp with the tongs and plopped it in my pot. The poor little guy kicked a little before turning pink. “Don’t worry, he’s drunk,” Maggie told me, as if somehow knowing the shrimp was soaked in alcohol would make me feel better about killing it. I’m no vegetarian, but I don’t like to see my food die in front of me. I managed to scoop the shrimp out and decapitated it. But I couldn’t eat it–not just for moral reasons, but because I have no idea how to eat a shrimp in it’s natural form. Which is a problem since head-tail-and-legs-intact seems to be the favored shrimp preparation in China. I’ve seen some pros put the entire shrimp in their mouth and spit out the tail. I tried to unwrap a Starburst in my mouth once. It did not end well. I was not about to try it with a shrimp. So poor Mr. Prawn sat on my plate, tail on one end, head on the other for the remainder of the meal. Meanwhile, one of his friends was actually successful in his escape attempt. He lied there on the table, twitching every so often as someone bumped him with a dish. Hopefully Maggie was right and the shrimp was too plastered to know what was going on.
In the book I’m reading, a man says in China they eat everything with four legs except the table, and everything with two legs except people. I wouldn’t doubt it, I’ve seen some pretty crazy things on the menu. Most of our meals were pretty tame, although Stephen did trick me into eating duck tongue soup one night in Beijing. So now when people ask me what crazy stuff I ate in China, I can say duck tongue and raw sea urchin (though not together). I’ll have to try the snake soup next time.