Travel Writing Awards Entry
It’s 8:20 pm when I step into my selected hole-in-the-wall for the night’s meal. Not much by way of decor separates this diner from many of the others I have turned my nose up at. Its’ 12 tables, lined in two neat rows against each wall, are white plastic with blue trim matching the once-white, heavily marked walls and the blue plastic chairs fixed to the ground. Baskets of chopsticks and rolls of toilet paper (a napkin substitute) are the only table decorations whilst the whirring of overhead fans provide atmosphere. It is my fellow diners, rather than stylish furnishings, who have given me reason to stop at this particular locale. Over half of the twelve tables are occupied by locals hunched over their dishes furtively shoveling food with their chopsticks. I take this popularity as a sure sign that the food is cheap, tasty and most importantly in a place where both the food and the language are a mystery to me, fresh.
I glance around at the meals being consumed, hoping to find something appetizing to order and notice everyone slurping bowls of noodle soup – brilliant, an authentic meal guaranteed to be sustaining yet affordable. A tall, overweight, unshaven man emerges from the kitchen, assesses me through narrow, squinting eyes and grunts a “How” at me. I expect little more. “Ni How” I reply and, pointing to the medium sized bowl of soup, I ask for “yi ge” (one of). He gestures for me to sit and yells back into the kitchen. “Rou?” is his next word and it takes me a moment to realize this question was addressed to me. Ah…..chicken? I reply, flapping my elbows like a fool. He nods showing no sign of amusement and yells my order into the kitchen once again. As I wait he shuffles over to the end table across the room from me and begins fiddling with white dough, stretching it flat, tearing off strips and tossing them into a large stainless steel bowl. After regarding him for a few moments I realize he’s making noodles and I smile, knowing why the locals come here – knowing this night’s meal will be of the finest quality. I’m not kept in suspense for long as a few minutes later a bowl of spring onions, dried peas, a scattering of mushrooms, a dozen chunks of chicken (not premium quality but not innards either – for which I’m grateful) and large folds of soft, fresh white noodles in a seasoned oily broth is placed before me. “Xiexie”, I thank my waitress, a middle-aged woman whose greasy hair and tired eyes show signs of long days in the kitchen.
I snap apart a pair of cheap wooden chopsticks from the basket at the end of the table and sharpen off any splinters. My soup is delicious, while it lacks any of the spice this regions is renowned for, the hearty quality and saltiness soothes the hunger in my tummy.
An adolescent boy sits across from me and watches me eat intently. I glance up from my bowl and flash him a smile. As expected, this does little to deter his inquisitiveness, he merely grins back. I have never felt so close to being famous as having total strangers take a deep interest in what I now eat. His attention is finally diverted by the arrival of his own soup which he manages to shovel and slurp his way through while I am hardly halfway finished – picking out each lump with great care.
My waitress shifts the phlegm in her adenoids loudly as she clears my dinner companion’s bowl and she spits unashamedly into the bin at the end of the next table. Not long after, her husband, still pulling apart strips of noodles, does the same. I wonder, how everyone in this country can have so much phlegm? Is it cyclical? Are the airborne germs released with each spit propagating more and more colds? Or is it an addictive habit – the more you spit, the more you feel the need to? The answer to this cultural phenomenon continues to allude me.
The restaurant is almost empty now except for a table diagonally opposite me occupied by five elderly men and copious empty beer bottles. The man nearest me leans over the back of his chair occasionally and speaks to me. I smile and laugh and tell him I have no idea what he is saying which, of course, he in turn doesn’t understand. There is no point in ignoring him, the din from the fans is not loud enough to pretend not to hear him and I don’t have any reason to be rude. There doesn’t seem to be any malice in his intentions and our mismatched conversations are amusing to me and to his mates.
The waitress passes, delivering more beers and shifts more phlegm. She is wearing a white apron with a smiling picture of Jiminy Cricket on the pocket and “Tasty & Delicious” written across the front. “Poor lil fella”, I think to myself. “Bet he never saw it coming. I wonder if he tried to whistle for help?”
Finally with a few more slurps of broth, straight from the bowl, my dinner is finished. I sip the last of my tea, my belly is now full of liquid, and find 5 yen in my wallet. From watching others, I’ve deduced that I’m due a quai in change – not too shabby a meal for a little over 50 cents. When my change arrives it’s only half that- 5 mao; the rest, from what I can gather, is an extra charge for sitting under the fan…..or something. My host eyes me with a grin on his face and I’m pretty sure I’m being ripped off but for 5 mao it’s not worth a fuss.
As I return to the warm, humid night I too break into a large grin. Immersion in this beautiful, dizzyingly overwhelming, charmingly unique world intoxicates me.
This is China.