- Country of Origin
Posted by Rusty James on December 18, 2015
Observations abound. Lunch and beyond.
Waitress brings warm cloth hand towels before the meal. I keep it and use it as a napkin for the meal. Half way through the meal, one of my hosts turns to me and says, don't wipe your mouth with the cloth. It might be dirty. I ask, "why? Isn't it clean?" He says, "you really can't be sure." OKAAAAAAY, I think to myself. Two minutes later, my other host is wiping his mouth with the cloth. This guy eats anything, and can't stop eating. He asserts this at the table. My previous meal with him in June, at the same restaurant, he ordered G-d knows what on the menu, and I pretended to peck at it with chopsticks and eat bits and pieces of mushroom(?), avoiding the obvious questionables.
Tea is served like air. If you are not breathing tea, there's something wrong. A 5 gallon jug of water sits under the table, and has a pump that goes up through to a small table dedicated to tea, where the water comes out directly into the tea boiler. "Kung Fu" Tea is poured about 25 times in 30 minutes. I can't put my cup down without it being filled. I attempt to put myself into their perspective from my outside perspective. "The foreigner is about to die. Prepare the IV of Kung Fu tea so he can eat the shit out of some shark fin, and heal his Dan Tien." Since I can't understand a word of conversation, I am left to writing my own story of what is happening. I'm sure it is quite far from what I imagine. An occasional word is derived from the translator app, bringing me back from my illusions.
Plastic soup spoons, bowls, and chopsticks are all washed in boiling tea, as once again, you cannot trust whether the utensils have been washed properly or not. This is one of the fanciest restaurants in a city of 14 million. I loathe going to the toilet. Must I cascade the seat with boiling tea before sitting?
I could not imagine being a vegetarian in China! Or Gluten Free! Or anything free!! Shark fin and chewy-thing wrapped in animal stomach, or something to that effect, dominates the menu. Tofu is a safe bet. I order it. Somehow they slip a chunk of meat inside the top of the tofu skin, but the mystery meat doesn't have a skin. Good thing I am not a vegetarian. Last I checked eating tofu and meat together is the second leading contributor to global warming. The amount of methane, carbon, and/or gaseous explosion far exceeds any Cowschwitz factory I have ever smelt in USA.
Other dishes arrive. There's something green, with garlic. WIN! I eat half the plate. My host asks the waitress for a recommendation, and they point out something that they call chicken. The picture is suspect. I am asked if we should order it. I shrug my shoulders. It arrives. Looks like chicken. Has some complimentary "other meat" flanking each chicken piece on both sides. I select a juicy portion, chop stick the whole piece with adjacent other-meat in one lump and begin to chew. Breast meat masticates as expected. Simultaneously, other-meat chews at first like Halloumi. You know, that squeaky fried Greek cheese that is awesome until it gets cold and then it's like changing a serpentine belt with your teeth. OtherMeat abruptly transitions from salty Halloumi-squeek to .... what the?! This isn't breaking up at all. Soon my masseter checks in and says, "Hello!!! Now is the time to expel that from your mouth before I lock your face." OtherMeat promptly says hello to sweat-towel of which I am again, not supposed to wipe my lips with. At least I got the chicken down. I think it was chicken.
Eating rooms are common. My hosts ask me if in America we eat in private rooms, or in a big hall. I say we eat together. They say, "We like to talk, isn't it too loud in eating hall?" One host gets up to go to the bathroom and pushes his chair back just out of reach of the periphery of our table, and into the next. Guest at the other table promptly props his elbow on the back of the chair, insinuating possession. When my host returns, he simply grabs another chair, and the previous one floats into the other conversation like a surfer who grabs a wave while another backs off in fear of the board nose slashing his face. I lean in to hear the female host in the party, partly because her english is pubescent and difficult to discern, but mostly because the chatter from the wave snatcher exceeds that of the entire room. She makes a half-sentence, pauses, looks away and laughs, smartphones a quick translation of the word that hung her up. "Loud Breath," she turns the screen for me to see. I chuckle. "Yes, I hear the smell too," I reply. I am met with a blank stare and silence.
The meal ends without anything worthy to note. Once outside I impulsively begin to spit-pucker, as if to rid my tongue of the memory of possible residue from an unwashed cloth, carefully heated and folded only for the enjoyment of my hands. No napkins were provided. I start to feel like tea is the Chinese replacement for Purell, the cure-all tonic used for centuries as stimulant, cleaner, antiseptic, and possibly even enema.
The weather throughout the day progresses from Overcast to Smovergast, to Smoggy, to Where the F*ck did the Skyscrapers go? As the sun goes down, the scrapers illuminate, giving depth of field to any airborne craft below 300 meters. I can't help but think about the drastic difference in air quality from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. It's only a few hours by train, but the PPM contrast and visibility is measured by exponent.
My hosts ask what we should do next. I had informed them that I would love to see some old buildings and tourist sites. To which I receive the reply, "Old buildings are not far from here. Would you like to walk 20 minutes, or take a taxi, which takes 20 minutes?" I prefer to walk. The female host, in typical regalia, is wearing 4" heels. We walk through Liwan, perhaps the stone capital of the world if volume is considered primary. Today happens to be the day where tree trimming is scheduled. Sunday, where there are "less" cars. We hit one of the main drags, supposedly the jewelry capital of China. Jade adverts litter the sides of all the buildings. There is a flat bed truck with giant stones strapped to it, a group of guys perusing, hardly waiting for an offload to inspect and extrapolate a bargain. I think they are brown jade. Not super attractive, probably not super valuable, but still worth everyone's time to gather around and cause a scene. We dodge a car that barrels down the pedestrian walkway, impervious to any flat-bed dealings.
Every shop has a theme, or multiple themes. Jade, agarwood, bead, bangle, statue and carvings, fakes, and the whole gamut of opaque colored stones dominate the field. There are the major stand-alone shops, whose rent is likely upwards of $15-25k a month juxtaposed by a street market with a few hundred vendors . I didn't see them last time. Perhaps it is a Sunday consolation. The stones were of lesser quality than what was found inside. I discover quickly that it is the flea market of liwan. The rent inside is absurd, and the market outside is to give chance to the hopefuls who have the thirds and fourths. In a declining market, the feeling of hope is tangible. But I do not witness much desperation. A market that was once one of the most powerful in the world does not easily fall to despair. Activity is higher in December than in June when I was last here, though the general vibe of employees is one of boredom and indifference. Most do not expect a sale, though they do jump at the chance to serve me with a price with even the slightest lean-in by me to express interest in their wares. My price-check motive is a disappointment, and they promptly return to their apps and smartphone distractions.