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Chinese Food

Chinese Food: An experiment in travel fictionIt was my first time in China and I was already nervous about eating the food. Before leaving home, my mother warned me not to eat the vegetables because they are grown in human manure, which could give me hepatitis, my father made jokes about how Chinese cows “meow” [...]

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Chinese Food: An experiment in travel fiction

It was my first time in China and I was already nervous about eating the food. Before leaving home, my mother warned me not to eat the vegetables because they are grown in human manure, which could give me hepatitis, my father made jokes about how Chinese cows “meow” instead of “moo,” and my little brother added additional “meow” sounds to emphasize the fact that I could possible eat someone’s family pet. But I cast their warnings aside and set out for China with high hopes that, if the food there did not seem edible, I could survive for the first week on my hearty provision of Cliff Bars that my mother packed away for me (and I held onto that care package for dear life for the entirety of the ten hour flight to Shanghai).

For the entire flight I could not contain my excitement. I had finally commenced upon my journey to travel the world! “Jannie Schipper, world traveler,” I thought to myself with glee.

Once my plane landed in Shanghai, I obediently followed the signs and arrows that took me through the sinister grey corridors of the immigration, baggage claim, and customs formalities, and then rudely spit me out into the great unknown of China. I was now beyond the directional coddling of the arrival terminal- past the point of no return- and at the beginning of my study abroad adventure. In this moment of exposure, I stopped for a second to try to take bearings on my new environment. I saw before me a brooding gauntlet of Chinese men in slick black uniforms who were holding white signboards that had names written on them like Mr. Dong, Wang Fujing, and Ms. Shuntu Yujing, with funny characters drawn beneath them that look to me like robots (and I was suppose to learn how to read these? ?). In this moment of inter-cultural hesitation I was nearly pummeled from behind by a pushy Chinese woman with a cartload of luggage and shoved quickly through the gauntlet of sign holding Chinese men.

Now safely on the other side of this chasm, I knew that I was either going to have to sink or swim, it was make it to my school in Hangzhou or bust. I was told by my study abroad advisor at my home university in New York City that I just had to go to the bus station outside of the airport, pay 40 Yuan for a ticket, and take the bus to the stadium in Hangzhou, where I would be met by a representative from the host University. So I took some money out of an ATM, followed the airport signs to the bus terminal, and took my place in a line of hurried Chinese travelers who were also buying bus tickets. I was very nervous and did not know what I would say when I got up to the intimidating women behind the window, who was grumpily doling out tickets like they were moldy hot-cakes. But before long, I was up to the window and staring blankly into the face of the women behind the glass partition, who was staring blankly right back at me. After a moment of hesitation, as I struggled to find my voice, I managed a weak “Hangzhou,” while trying my best to pronounce it like my study abroad counselor. Without further ado the women behind the counter promptly shoved a piece of paper into my hand while simotaneous ly snatching away the small bundle of bills that I was clutching. She then quickly divided out her share of the money, tossed back the rest, and sent me away with a point in the direction of my bus. I felt ecstatic- it worked My first interaction in China produced a satisfactory result. I was now looking brightly forward to all of the new challenges that I would face while studying abroad

Newly restored with confidence I strode up into my bus and took a seat behind the driver. I was completely taken aback by how nice and new the bus was, it had soft cushiony seats that were completely clean, television sets liberally placed in many locations, and the engine even started up with a clear gentle hum. It was a far cry from the noisy and dirty Grey Hound busses that I was accustomed to riding in the United States- and I though China was suppose to be a developing country ? So well provided for, I enjoyed my comfortable ride to Hangzhou, trying hard not to doze off for fear that I would miss the first impressions of my new home. I soon arrived at the stadium in Hangzhou, which was easy to determine because it was the last stop on the line, and excitedly hopped off of the bus into my new city But before I even had time to look around, I was quickly met by the representative of my host university. She warmly greeted me and said that her name was Zhouyi.

“Pronounced like your American name, Jo-ey,” she said with a smile.

I liked her immediately and all my fears about China quickly vanished. Zhouyi and I walked for a couple of blocks and then hailed a taxi. The green painted cab quickly stopped and we got in. The cab driver then began chattering excitedly in Chinese to Zhouyi, who was sitting next to him in the front seat while I was seated in the back. After a few moments Zhouyi turned to me and translated for me what the cab driver was saying:

“He wanted to know where you are from,” Zhouyi told me. “When I say that you were from USA, he did not believe me. He say that you are too skinny to be from USA, he say that all of the fat people in USA must have eaten all of your food. That is why you had to come to China.”

We all laughed at this and I knew then that I was going to like this country.

Our cab driving comedian soon let us off at our stop and Zhouyi pointed up (high up) to my new home. It was a blank off-white colored high-rise that stood inconspicuously in a sea of identical off- white high-rises. I gulped a little at the surrealness of my new living quarters and had to wonder how anybody was able to find their home in such a uniform landscape. But I came to China to have adventures, so I strode with Zhouyi past the smiling door guard and into the elevator that took me high, high up to my room.

We soon walked in through the door of apartment # 802 and, before I even had a chance to look around, I was quickly seized upon my new roommates. One was a girl who looked to be around twenty years old and was wearing a colorful free-flowing skirt that had pictures of Indian gods and goddesses sewed all over it. She told me that her name was Nicky and welcomed me to my new home in China. My other suite mate was a guy who seemed to be a little older, he had a long black beard and colorful tattoos ( ) that ran down his arms to his fingers. He told me that his name was Ishmail, but I had a hard time believing him- it seemed a little too “Moby Dick” for my liking.

After I was acquainted with my new suite mates, Zhouyi quickly left me in a cloud of smiles and waves. I was in my new home in China and everything seemed to be looking up. After walking around my new place and looking out at the city through the large widows that almost completely covered the walls, I became conscious of an empty feeling in my stomach. “Oh no,” I solemnly said to myself, “I am hungry.” I then quickly made way for the Cliff Bars that my mother packed for me, and quickly tore one open.

I was quickly assailed by Ishmail, who exclaimed with a gesture of exasperation, “What are you doing ? I hope you didn’t come all the way to China just to eat Cliff Bars ”

“Come on ” Nicky added. “We’re going out to get some food It is not far.”

What was I going to do? I did not want to seem like a party pooper my first day with the people that I would be living with for the next three months and, anyway, they were right, if I wanted to eat Cliff Bars I could do so at my mom’s house in New York. I came to China for the adventure

So we all strode out of the room, down the elevator, waved good-bye to the smiling door guard, and walked down the street a few blocks to a little modest restaurant on a corner. Upon stepping inside, I was immediately repulsed by the chipping pink paint on the walls and the yells of drunken men from an adjacent room. But I figured that since I was already there, I may as well eat something. So I picked up the menu that was laid on the table in front of me by the quickly moving waitress and, to my absolute horror, it was all in Chinese Those little robot like characters covered the whole page and did not leave room for a single Roman letter among them. I was obviously looking troubled, because Ishmail soon cut in and offered to order my food for me.

I thanked him with a sigh and leaned back to take in my first glimpses of the real China. The old wooded table was a little lopsided and rocked a little whenever anybody leaned on it, the walls were covered with photographs of mountains with little rivers pouring down them, and there was an odd looking plastic gold cat on a mantle piece that was busily moving one paw up and down. “That’s funny,” I thought to myself. I then heard the drunken men in the next room let out wails of uproarious laughter as the waitress passed through the door and into our section of the restaurant. She quickly took our order and Ishmail spoke for all of us. I could not make out anything that he ordered, but when he pointed to me he said something that sounded like, “go-ro.” This was an odd word I thought, as I tried to match it with the food names that I have read on the menus of Chinese Restaurants in New York City. I could not recollect reading anything that was even close to “go-ro,” but I was not really too concerned. “I came to China for the adventure,” I reassured myself.

The three of us then sat around the table making small talk. Ishmail really had a thing for bad jokes and puns. He was cranking them out left and right and really kept us in stitches. Finally our food came on steaming hot white porcelain platters. There were plates full of luscious greens, heaping piles of rice, delicious soups, and a portion of meat that I could not really identify.

This meat was chopped into many portions and was still connected to small bones that ran through the center of it. It sort of looked like a kind of chicken that I had once eaten in Chinatown that was really delicious. So, putting all of my fears away, I reached over with my chopsticks, closed in a piece, picked it up, and stuffed it straight into my mouth. I chewed away at if for some time and realized that it wasn’t chicken, though it did not have a particularly offensive taste. It actually tasted rather good. I then went to grab another piece when I was stopped short by the stares of Ishmail and Nicky.

“What?,” I stammered rather unsteadily. I was becaming a little nervous at this point.

“What did I just eat,” I asked hesitantly.

Ishmail and Nicky looked at each other as if they were about to burst for a moment and then exploded with uncontainable laughter:


Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Sometime in September of 2007

Song of the Open Road Travel Blog * Traveler Photographs.com * Vagabond Fieldnotes

Filed under: China, Humor, Travel Writing

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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