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Funny Bags and Special Beef

I should have known better than to order the special beef

It was special, all right.  

Since arriving in China I (and my children) have consumed more imported, pre-packaged food from the US than we have in our lifetimes. At least the chemicals in Lay’s and Nestle products feature ingredients approved by the FDA, so while they may not be healthy, I know they aren’t going to kill us. At least not immediately.

Ah, the tradeoffs of living in China.

So, yesterday afternoon we ventured out for a meal that I promised Mike would be exciting and delicious, at a different location of a restaurant at which I'd already eaten and had a fantastic experience. I did not realize just how much my prior pleasant experience could be attributed to dining with a seasoned expat friend until I suffered through this next attempt at eating out. I had been lulled into a false sense of knowing what the heck I was doing, since we apparently made every mistake possible in a Chinese restaurant.

First, we came at a bad time. Despite the restaurant being officially open for business, there is an unspoken rule that after lunch is when all the employees fall asleep at the empty tables instead of serving you. I should have guessed this since the entire city shuts down around the same time, and everyone just stops, drops, and naps wherever they happen to be, even if it is under an overpass. I've seen people sleeping reclined whilst balancing on their parked electric bikes. (Legs on the handlebars, back on the seat, head on whatever cargo they are carrying that day.) 

Due to this bizarre even-while-on-the-clock-siesta, half our food never arrived. Perhaps we were warned, but I'll never know. In defense of the place, at one point a bus girl snuck to my side and whispered incomprehensibly in Mandarin, clasping her hands at her chest apologetically. I wonder if she was saying, "Ma'am. We are all about to go to sleep. So. Uh. Enjoy what we have provided of your meal. I suggest you pay now, or just wait until we wake up?"

The chopsticks were impossibly thin, round, and slippery. Speaking of which, the variety of chopsticks I have encountered here is dizzying. One would think all chopsticks are pretty much the same, and if your U.S. chopstick skills sufficed, you'd fare fine in China. Nope! U.S. chopsticks must be what they give infants here, because I have never experienced more frustration trying to grip my food than with the ones they have here.

The food that did come to the table was unrecognizable as niu rou (beef) or ji rou (chicken). This was clearly my fault. Why, oh, why did I order the “special beef” and “special chicken”. Total rookie mistake. Both were smothered in some kind of spicy sauce to mask the fact that underneath it all, there was something very sinister and wholly un-beef-or-chicken-like going on. Chewy. Very chewy. No grain or texture of actual meat. And very pale. Mike’s guess? It was probably 90% chemicals and soy filler and maaaybe a tiny bit of beef and/or chicken something parts. Yes. Tasted like tofu. But not as good.

So. We have learned some valuable lessons. Don’t try to eat a late lunch. Don't order anything "special." Oh, but perhaps a bright point is that when you find a bug crawling on your plate of scallion pancakes, and you complain about the chingwa you found, they take it off your bill even though what you really said was, “There was frog on my plate!!!”

Okay, crazy meiguoren. Whatever you say.

On that note, I haven’t been the Outraged American™ yet. But the longer I'm here the closer I feel to a full on meltdown. I mean, the other day I did literally scream “Stop pushing me!” directly into the ear of an old woman body checking me in the IKEA lunch line so she wouldn't topple my tray of overcooked Scandinavian (crossing my fingers) fare. She was completely unfazed, glanced over her shoulder as if she heard a mosquito faintly buzzing and continued to body check me with all the might her tiny body could muster, which was a lot. How could she look so frail, yet be so vicious?

But hey, at least I didn’t cry! I don’t think I’ve cried since we got here. I don’t know if it’s because I’m 100% numb and so dehydrated I cannot produce tears or emotions, or if I’m just amazing at rolling with every single Chinese punch and jab that is being thrown at me. I’m guessing it’s a combo of the two.

But I might hit the “three month breakdown” I’ve heard all expats experience, a month and a half early. I'll report back later. But at least I have Dove Chocolate, Magnum bars, and Lay's Salt and Vinegar chips to ease the pain.

What’s driving me bonkers

  • The staring. Not just staring, but for example, if the family is sitting down to eat, people will gather and soundlessly observe us like monkeys in a zoo. I will try to spark conversation in Chinese. Zhe shi shenme mingze? What's your name? More staring. No one understands a word I say. Even though I know I am 100% saying things correctly.
  • That the “please do not disturb” sign on the door of our room is always reinterpreted by housekeeping as “come on in and just ask me if now is a good time to clean the room even though I've clearly stated it is not.” I mean, it’s fine to double-check I suppose, but could be veerrrry awkward when they walk in on the wrong room one day…
  • The driving of motorcycles in the parks where my kids are running around and playing.
  • The parking of cars on the sidewalk where I need to pick up my kid from school.
  • The fact that nothing translates the way it should. I have no idea what anyone is trying to say to me, but apparently I signed up my son for a class called Funny Bags. What happens in Funny Bags is anyone’s guess.
  • The way I cannot read anyone’s emotions. Do you like me? Do you hate me?
  • The way I’m laughed at for no discernable reason. They think I’m cute? Stupid? Amazing? Intimidating? Mysterious?

Aaalllthough! The highlight of my life was possibly when our driver told Mike (not me, mind you!) that I was “Virtuous and capable.” Literally the best compliment I have ever received, in particular because our driver is the most virtuous, capable, and affable person I have ever met. I also kind of like how he didn’t tell me, but essentially complimented Mike on his choice of wife, leaving it up to Mike whether to pass on the word to me.

  • The fact I know enough Mandarin to know people are talking about me, but I don’t know what they are saying. LaoweiForeigner. I’m the only one in sight!!! I know you are talking about me right in front of me! I might start doing funny dances or something, just to keep things interesting.
  • The way every expat from every country besides America speaks like 80 bajillion languages. I attended a choir rehearsal for the local Communist Catholic Church (more on that another time I’m sure), and there were people from Indonesia, Ecuador, Mali, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Angola. And they could just speak whatever language the other one chose first so I felt utterly idiotic, and they all just ended up speaking English for my benefit. On the upside – they all thought I was in college! Yay, I look like I’m in my 20s! Or perhaps they couldn’t imagine why a middle aged stay at home mother living in China would want to join the praise band.

Ah. It sounds like I’m having a terrible time. But I’m really not. It’s just that, “Everything is awesome!” makes for uninteresting, self-congratulatory blog posts about how I'm So Good At Living Abroad! Which, maybe I am, but it's all just a bit much from time to time.

I will be posting a “What I Love About China” post at some point. Today is just not that day.


  1. Breathe. Count and Breathe. This too shall pass. Then come again. Then pass. Then come again. The breathing does help. And yes, most asian eateries shut down around 130 to 5. If you aren't seated and ordered before 1...your noon day meal is less than stellar. One of the reasons my idea of lunch time is now 1130-1200 at the latest where as previous to this eating after 1 would not have been uncommon. The afternoon siesta is mainly due to the staff coming on shift early for prep...they work lunch and dinner services. 12-16 hour day. The mid-day break is when the nap and late afternoon they eat as a group before reopening the establishment.

  2. Hi, somehow happened on this blog but I can help with some of the blank stares!

    When you say "zhe shi shenme mingze", you're referring to a non-human object; i.e. you pointing at an unknown fruit and saying "zhe shi shenme mingze", like "what's the name of this thing"."Zheshi" translates to "this", so they might be confused that you're asking them "what's the name of this?" when you're meaning to ask them their names!

    If you want to ask "what's your name", you should say "ni de mingzi shi shenme", because the "ni" is how you say "you".

    1. Lol, that explains a lot! I could have sworn I learned to say that phrase for "What's your name" from a language app or something...maybe I got the phrases mixed up. Thanks for the tip!


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