I have been traveling since I left Washington Dulles approximately 37 hours ago, if my math is correct (it probably isn’t), and due to an “oversight” I haven’t really eaten since the Chipotle’s burrito I hurriedly devoured at the terminal a day-and-a-half back.
Lesson One: If you require a vegetarian meal on a plane, you have to remember to request the meal, especially when you’re flying a Japanese airline that serves only sushi.
I meet up with my friends at our hotel in Beijing and explain my plight. We set off in search for food, but it’s late and the stores are closing. I settle on a giant cup-o-noodle-esque product with cartoon vegetables on the label, an image we decide must be code for ‘vegetarian.’
I take it back to the hotel and stare at it for a while. It must be vegetarian. But…
Lesson Two: When going to a country where you only sort of speak the language, be sure to pack a notebook filled with phrases that might be necessary when trying to provide your body with sustenance.
In the end, I don’t eat it, and we set off from the hotel to explore the nightlife. We quickly wind up in one of the alleyways behind the hotel. A restaurant has set up a small grill, some card tables, and a food spread. It’s not quite a café nor a bar, not a food cart nor food stand. But you can sit down and buy food, so we do.
We find a peanut dish to share. I know the Chinese word for beer, and so we call out “píjiǔ” with great delight. We are the only Westerners there, possibly the only Westerners who have ever been there. The other patrons are considering us with curious looks and whispering to themselves about us.
As I am ravenously inhaling the nuts and trying to decipher the completely alien flavors (food in China contains a multitude of wonderful seasonings not often found in the US), a very inebriated man comes to our table. He wants to talk to us but does not speak English. I say hello in Chinese and slowly recite our names as my stomach turns cold. This is the first time I have ever had to speak Mandarin in public, and I know I must sound like I have recently suffered a severe brain injury.
“Mmm hmmm!” he replies.
I don’t know what to do with that, so I slowly repeat my words.
He squints, sways. “Mmm hmmm!”
We are at an impasse.
Eventually, after a few more failed attempts at communication, he wanders away to the public toilets. We nervously start to laugh, and the café staff brings us more beer, giant smiles on their faces. When the man reappears from the toilets, his friends collect him so he cannot return to our table. There is a strange sense of camaraderie now, as though we are now officially allowed to be there. I sit back and sip my beer, and my friends and I share stories. In short time, I am warm and happy again.
Lesson Three: Relaxing with friends and a cool beer on a warm night will eventually solve all your problems.
note: I don’t have a picture of the Beijing outdoor restaurant, so I’ve instead included above a picture of a similar dining experience in Shanghai.