College graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, no matter what level degree is being accomplished. It is what every senior pines for at the end of four (or five) years and in May, I had the graduation green light. My name was printed in the graduation program. The cap and gown had been purchased and my friends and family were in the crowd. But, I was also sitting in the crowd watching my fellow Class of 2008 classmates walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. However, sitting in the crowd didn’t make me bitter because I had delayed my graduation for another once in a lifetime experience.
When my best friend, Nikki, asked me what I was doing summer of 2008, I replied, “Enjoying the beach and relishing in my graduatory status.” However, she had a different idea. Instead, she suggested studying abroad. The program had so many countries to pick from so I told her just to pick a unique place. Both of us are regulars of Europe, so she suggested Japan or China as alternatives. Without hesitation, I picked the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Beijing China.
China. This communist state is populated with 1,330,044,605 people who speak a dozen plus languages with a land mass of 9,596,960 sq. km. and so many stereotypes. Known for many years as “Red China,” the country is also known for their intricate architecture, the Great Wall, panda bears, cheap exports and, most recently the Olympics and the Sichuan earthquake. The history and sites are intensely overwhelming, so a professor of mine advised me to “be prepared to be unprepared.” I realized what an understatement that was when I arrived with eight of my classmates at Beijing International Airport after 18 hours of travel. Through my seatmate’s 2 x 1 airplane window, I got snapshots of Beijing through heavy clouds of smog. It looked like every other sprawling Midwest city, complete with fields and industrial architecture. That was until we landed.
Beijing, a sprawling metropolis, resembles any U.S. Chinatown. The people speak Chinese. The signs are in Chinese. The taxi drivers only speak Chinese. But, this isn’t America and I only knew how to say “Hi” and “What is your name.” After a week, I have mastered a few more phrases, learned to use the public transportation, seen one of the Wonders of the World, and visited many other famous sites. However, the most challenging part thus far has been eating. I nearly have a panic attack when someone suggests getting dinner. In fact, I would rather listen to my stomach rumble than have to explain to the waitress that I do not want anything spicy or still moving. I have had many culinary disasters, misunderstandings and eaten some unconventional food. So for my first entry, I decided to introduce the reader to China through the sense of taste.
I set out for China wanting to try the bizarre foods and brag that I could keep them down unlike contestants on Fear Factor. But, things are always easier from the Laz-Y-Boy.
After a disastrous introduction to Chinese food our first night, which left me on the bathroom floor at 3 a.m., Nikki and I decided to venture off to another Chinese restaurant that looked more sanitary. The first restaurant only had the menu in Chinese characters so we looked for a sit down restaurant with a picture menu. Ironically, we found a restaurant located next to the previous culinary disaster spot. We were seated by the hostess who proceeded to hover over our table, eyeing our food decisions. Nikki chose a dish which resembled chicken and vegetables. Somehow, through sign language and pointing to words in our handy travel guide, the waitress told us we had a side dish option. I picked rice. She pointed to four listings under the rice, all with different prices and different Chinese characters. I picked the cheapest, but she kept muttering something in Chinese. Finally, frustrated and hungry, I pointed to the dumplings which had nothing written underneath them. That was sufficient and they brought out the meal. Neither Nikki nor I had really used chopsticks in America sans a few times at a sushi bar. Eating the very spicy mystery meat and toxically spicy vegetables proved difficult. While Nikki and I laughed it off, our very patient waitress brought over two forks. We all giggled and exchanged laughter, only to be joined by the remainder of the 10 + occupied restaurant. Ever get that feeling that everyone is talking about you. Yeah, welcome to China!
These Feet are Only Meant for Walking
Our next culinary escapade occurred after a class field trip to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. Our group stopped at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant after the tour and my culinary ambitions kicked in. I hadn’t really fulfilled my desire to eat a “weird” food, so I asked the professor to help me pick out a selection. The menu, luckily in English, had a wide array of chicken’s feet, cow tripe, tongue and various other traditional offal, or animal byproducts. I settled on the chicken feet based on my professor’s suggestion. The feet arrived intact with nails, claws and bones still attached. Unsure where to begin, the waitress told me to chew on the feet. “Chew on the feet,” I said, starting to regret my decision. One bite and I knew this poor bird had died in vain. The foot, cooked in a hot pepper sauce, was clammy and off-white. It was slick and difficult to pry off the bone. You had to use your molars to pry off the little bit of meat, so it continuously threatened to claw its way back from my throat to my mouth. After seeing my reaction, my classmates also tried, but they had similar strange facial contortions. I hoped karma would forgive me for my transgressions against the bird, for it was not going to be eaten.
Before I left, a friend gave me advice about eating at a street vendor. “Eat at the one with the most people in line,” she said. But, what do you do if you and your classmates make the entire line? Every night since our arrival, the guys have been frequenting a local vendor located right outside of the Beihang University gates. After a long day touring the Summer Palace, Nikki and I followed the guys to the corner. Every night, the vendor, with a large smile and dimpled grin, displays his eats on a makeshift bicycle/trailer/display case. He wasn’t quite set up yet when we arrived at 8 p.m., so we grabbed a few drinks at the local newspaper stand and settled in next to his hibachi grill. Soon after we sat, five or six people began taking the meats from the display case and placing them on the grill. Most of the meats were unrecognizable and the smell of stale fish filled the smoggy Chinese air. The boys had their favorites ranging from the recognizable lamb and chicken patties to the seemingly inedible chicken heart and squid tentacles. Under peer pressure, I ate chicken heart, squid tentacles, egg patties and sweet buns. The chicken heart was slightly squishy, but well cooked. The squid tasted like fresher calamari from the States. The egg patties were a mix of egg, minced onions and chives and a bread crumb outer shell. They were very spicy, but closely related to hash browns and scrambled eggs. As I tried each concoction, I made sure to keep a straight face even if I didn’t like selected pieces. After all, this vendor spent time and plenty of effort to catch and prepare the meats and he was proud of his final product. I didn’t want to cause him concern or upset by rejecting his meal. However, after paying 1-3 yuan (roughly 50 cents) for each of my six kebabs, I wondered what profit he actually made. In China you can’t tip, but the group all wished we could show how appreciative we were of his work.
The following day, the same group went to visit Tiananmen Square, site of the infamous 1989 massacre. Among the sites visited were Monument to the People’s Heroes, the Forbidden City and Premier Mao Zedong’s body. Mao, the creator of the People’s Republic of China, has been lying in state since 1976. Vendors crowded the 100 acre square hocking Mao paraphernalia. Cheap watches, Chinese flags and Mao’s famous Little Red Book lined the plaza that had seen two massacres, numerous famous speeches and now a major tourist attraction. After enticing my appetite with talk of massacres, propaganda, and the Great Helmsman, we headed into downtown Beijing for street vendor food.
After walking past McDonald’s and a Westernized shopping mall, we stumbled upon an alleyway crammed with street vendors. Most were selling caramelized fruits, lamb and pork skewers and Coca-Cola. But, one vendor caught my eye. Originally, I had walked past, eyeing a vendor selling donut-like pastries. But, upon doing a double take, I noticed this aforementioned vendor’s food was still moving. There in the storefront were live scorpions, grasshoppers, cicadas and starfish pushed onto wooden sticks. The line was long so I decided to jump in for my turn. I chose the scorpions that were not moving based on the broken English advice of a local bystander. I watched the moving scorpions as they were dipped into the frying pan and handed quickly to me. Still steaming, I took a breath and crunched down. Much to my surprise, the scorpions tasted good. Ironically, it tasted like over-fried chicken.
However, my next two dishes were not so fortunate. I am an avid viewer of No Reservations: Anthony Bourdain and I used clips from the China show to plan my culinary adventures. Anthony had tried cow’s stomach while in China and raved about the texture and taste, even praising the chef for his attention to cooking by keeping it basic and lightly seasoned. So, while in Beijing, I did as Anthony did and ordered a heaping plate of white and black-grey cow’s tummy. My stomach and the unlucky cow’s stomach were both quickly in my mouth, attempting another jail break. I held it in, but not without the disgust of my fellow classmates sitting directly in the line of fire. I guess I just can’t stomach stomach.
I thought my misadventures were over until another classmate decided to purchase the starfish. Being from Florida, I have never had the desire to eat such a cute specimen. After much peer pressure again, I bit down on the tough skin. Much to my dismay, it tasted like I was eating a piece of fried sand. I figured my digestive tract needed a break, so I settled for a caramelized crab apple and went shopping.
After a half a bottle of Tums and a few nights of digestive distress, my other sorority sister, Emily, along with Nikki and I, decided to find the local Beihang Café that served American-style food. We all craved different things like pancakes, lettuce, mayonnaise and pizza and the café served them all, though not together obviously. While eating, a Chinese man approached us. He was out of breath and we just thought maybe he worked at the café. He said, “I have important information for you…At a 14:28 we are going have a memorial for earthquake victims.” He rushed us from our meal, as everyone in the three story café crowded around the big screen television. Although we couldn’t understand the announcer, the images of people being pulled out of buildings, of workers hauling material and of people crying spoke our language. The screen went black and displayed white Chinese characters. Everyone got quiet as the air sirens began to wail. After a minute, car horns joined in and a minute following that, boat horns completed the ceremony. The only sounds sans those from the television were sniffles and the occasional sigh. The three minute ceremony concluded and those crying quickly hid their faces and bolted for the door. The gentleman thanked us for our cooperation and disappeared with the rest of the patrons. We paid our bill and left in near silence.
On the walk home, we realized what had just occurred and we were thankful that we were a part of this country’s mourning. Though the gentleman thanked us, we are human beings and feel their pain. Although our recent country disasters differed, one intentional and one natural, we still can understand the pain of losing fellow countrymen.
With 50,000 dead and expected to climb, we leave Beijing next week for Xi An, a city located close to the Chinese Ground Zero. The distance between the two is like the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles. A Chinese student studying English was paired up with me to practice conversational Chinese and English. He is from Sichuan, the province affected most, and said he has yet to hear if anyone he knows has perished. As we walked by the television, he just shook his head and said, “You are lucky you don’t have that in America”. Although that is not completely accurate, we are lucky. China is great, but it is hard to visit a country and know what you leave behind. So, enjoy those hamburgers and fries I am missing so much and I will fill you in when we get to Xi An.