By Zach Montas
Before I departed for China on the Model United Nations trip in March, many people told me many times that I would get sick from the food. I never got sick. In fact, the food became one of my favorite parts of the trip. These mundane stories often go untold compared to those about sightseeing or shopping, but they often make for the best memories. Here are stories of three meals from the other side of the planet.
The first meal we had (not counting the gross plane food) was in a food court on the top floor of the mall across from our hotel. Just getting there was an adventure, from being exhausted after waking up at 3 a.m. the day before and sleeping only on a plane to weaving our way through the nonstop torrent of cars on the street to searching floor by floor until we found somewhere to eat. On the fifth floor, our 6,000-mile jaunt to authentic Chinese restaurants was complete.
I wandered around until I found a noodle shop that smelled good. Armed with my limited knowledge of Chinese, (that “hello” is “nǐ hǎo”, “thank you” is “xièxiè”, and “Běijīng” means “Northern Capital) I attempted to order.
Those next five minutes were a mess. I pointed to a prepared dish sitting on the counter. The cashier pointed to the menu, indicating the meal was 19 yuan (Chinese currency; 1 USD = 6.65 yuan.) So far, so good. I pulled out 100 yuan, and the guy gave me a look and shook his head. I was confused. Maybe he thought the money was counterfeit, so I pulled out a different bill. Now he was laughing, shaking his head and pointing towards the exit. His coworker came over and made a rectangle shape with his hands.
I was about to leave but Jeongyoon, keen observer that she is, walked by and said they wanted me to pay through my phone. I thought, “Of course! Apple Pay. The future is here, in China.” I handed him my phone; they laughed to each other and gave it back. Eventually, after much fruitless gesturing back and forth, he took my money and walked away. I was worried I had been robbed, but he returned with change, and I got my food.
Ultimately, the food was just OK, but ordering it was unforgettable. I later learned that upon entering the food court I was supposed to purchase a card to use to pay at each shop. Since the signs were in Chinese, I overlooked this. It was the first experience to really make me feel like we were out of our natural environment. At least that cashier was kind enough to help out an ignorant American.
This second meal is one I had again and again once I found it. It was our fifth day, and we were getting lunch at a different mall food court across the street from a fancy hotel. I was running low on money, so I wanted the cheapest thing I could find. This mall, however, was expensive. Gucci, Chanel, SLP, and other high-end fashion stores filled the first floor.
In the food court I saw was a shop where staff were quickly churning out wraps. The cook stood behind glass, cracking eggs onto a spinner that fried them into a crêpe-like flatbread, then filling them with chicken, vegetables and sauces and rolling them into wraps. At the same time, a bunch of other employees ran around behind him doing stuff I could never figure out. The menu showed something called the “Basic Design” that cost only 12 yuan, but I wanted to look for something cheaper.
As I walked away the cook shouted something, and the rest of the workers shouted something back. I thought they were mad at me for stopping but not buying anything, so I hurried away.
I looked all over, even at American fast food places like Subway, but as it turned out, the Basic Design was the cheapest thing there. I went back and got it, and it was delicious! The shouting thing was just something they did after completing an order; it was always the same phrase.I went back to get the Basic Design twice a day every day for the rest of the trip. I wish there was a dish like that in America. I’ve tried googling various wordings of “chicken egg crepe thing” to find out what it’s called but have had no results. The anticipation that came from watching the cooks create the wrap lingers in my memory.
The final story comes from our day of departure. We went to a bakery in the mall for breakfast. As soon as the aroma of the bread hit, I was transported to a world of freshly baked goods straight out of a Studio Ghibli film. Loaves of bread, each different than the last, sat inside glass containers—purple, yellow, and orange breads with fruit fillings and ambrosial sprinklings. I chose a coffee-flavored loaf with pineapple inside and a green loaf with passionfruit jelly.
The staff warmed the bread, sliced it, and bagged it; then we were on our way. Our next stop was a grocery store in the mall. It was a lot like an American grocery store, except slightly off. Fruits were individually packaged in bubble wrap. The cereals had the same names as ours, but looked like off-brand versions, with different mascots on the boxes. For example, the Frosted Flakes box featured a seal in a top hat instead of Tony the Tiger.
I was going to buy tea to bring back for my family, but I figured it’d be getting warm in Syracuse soon, so I opted for cookies. (The cookies were finished within days, and there was snow on the ground for weeks after we got back.)
We left the store, and I ate some bread. The Food and Drug Administration has pretty strict regulations regarding fruit crossing the border, but my pineapple and passionfruit breads made it over without a problem. I ate them over the next few days and thought back to all of our adventures in China.