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A Letter from China
October 17, 2000


(Fifth in a series of letters about China by Ernest Pinson--Ch'eng Ping Sun)

"Xiexie fan tai xiong." ("Thank you for the delicious meal.")

Food, food, food. Chinese love to eat often and plentifully, and of course they have learned from early childhood to use those chopsticks for almost everything except soup. I have seen them so skilled that they can cut meat by squeezing it together between two chopsticks. They can scoop up rice grains, pick small bones out of fish, separate meat from chicken bones, eat peanuts, squeeze oranges and lemons, all with just two little straight sticks. After 9 months I've yet to master their skill, but of course I can blame it on being left handed. (Well, not really, for even in this they beat me despite the fact they are universally right handed.)

They especially like to eat with someone else, and a dinner out is much preferred to flowers or candy. I had four families of my senior students to invite me into their homes off campus for a whole day of lunch and dinner meals, some students would take me out for lunch regularly, or bring me a hot meal to my apartment (almost like being catered), and several faculty members, plus the car driver, invited me more than once into their homes. It's not because I'm special in any way; it's just their custom. In addition, the university gave each foreign guest a President's welcome dinner, a Foreign Affairs welcome dinner, a department welcome dinner, a Birthday dinner, a New Years dinner, a Spring Festival dinner, and a Going Away dinner, plus we often were invited to eat special dinners with other visiting guests at the campus restaurant. At such banquets or dinners the usual food consisted of from 15 to 20 courses, plus appetizers, and always beer, wine, tea, colas, and coconut juice. They, of course, use what we sometimes call a lazy Susan, or huge turntable, in the middle of the table with big communal bowls (where 15/16 people sat), rather than passing the food around to each person as we do. Expect a dinner to last about 2 to 3 hours; sometimes gifts are brought as well. And by the way, in China gifts are almost always functional, practical gifts, not flowers, cards, and candy.

Chinese almost always have hot food for every meal (the cold cereal we eat is virtually unheard of). The students used to get worried about me eating so few hot meals that they started bringing me hot food from the cafe for fear I would get sick without hot meals. I, in turn, made so many cold sandwiches for students that had never seen them before that I could easily have opened a moneymaking sandwich shop.

One of the things I miss dearly in China is a salad. Almost no salads of any type are seen, neither congealed salad, chef salad, chicken salad, fruit salad, egg salad, or mixed vegetable salad. I have yet to find a Chinese vegetable I did not like, but they will cook almost all of them rather than eat them raw. I cannot say the same, however, about meats, soups, and drinks, for some of their cooking is a mystery to me. They drink very little of anything with common meals (the soup acts as a drink) except those who drink wine and beer (some of their wine is 50% or 60% proof). Tea is almost always available though not always offered. Chinese will also eat many meats we are not accustomed to eating. For example, they eat everything of the pig -- the hoof, the tongue, the ears, the tail, the blood, the entrails, and the bone is chopped into small 1/2-inch pieces with the meat still attached. The same is true of chickens -- they eat everything, including the feet -- and the chicken, too, has the bone chopped up in 1/2-inch sections with the meat attached. They also eat eels, all kinds of fish, duck (there's a specialty called "Peking" Duck"), snakes, dogs (called vegetable dogs because they feed them no meat), even rats have been know to be on the table. One delicacy they have is small live shrimp placed in a bowl of hot wine, jumping up and down, still alive mind you. The hot wine is cooking the tiny shrimp (hence the jumping), and the Chinese will take a pair of chop sticks, lift out a small shrimp to their mouth, bite the head off thus killing it, and then eat the rest in their mouth. They also serve a nice looking red dish of what appears to be congealed Jello. Do not partake; it is most likely pork blood.

Expect to find a few little quirks not a part of our tradition. For example, one does not find sugar, salt, and pepper on the table. Some restaurants may be able to provide you a knife and folk, but sometimes they are unaccustomed to westerners and have only chopsticks. There are a very few American short order places such at McDonalds (they just love Kentucky Fried Chicken), and some Japanese short order places, but most often if Chinese are in a hurry they will eat on the sidewalk or an alley way outside. In the very center of Nanjing (7 million people) I could find only a McDonalds open for breakfast inside at 8:00 on Saturday mornings. They don't yet have the big supermarket stores like Wal-Mart and K-mart, although I understand Beijing is getting a Wal-Mart, but they do have the French Wal-Mart-look-a-like called "Carrefore." Nor are they yet ready for drive-in eateries since bicycles, buses, and taxis are the main means of transportation. But just give them WTO and 5 years of time and what a difference you will see in China!

Pizza is a rarity; I've seen only two; grocery super markets to us may be a bit small and inefficient (i.e., there are 4 levels of workers; those who help you get it off the shelf, those who weigh it for you if its fruit, meat, vegetables, those who work the check-out counter, and the over-seers who manage or steer people in the right direction or floor. You must understand, however, that what may seem inefficient to us is efficient to them, for they are making good use of their large work force, hence sometimes you may see more workers in the stores than customers because of their huge work population problem.

By and large, Chinese food is a tad spicy; most like their meat a bit hot and spicy. They eat much less fatty foods, fried foods, and sweets than we do. And even though my palate is not oriental, I have no problem adjusting to Chinese food; seldom do I have to turn down a food offered to me at the table of a home, and if they know an American is coming they will even serve French fries, sweet soup, and cokes. And this I know for sure! I lost 10 pounds in 3 months without even trying. "Bon table d'orte" or rather, "Quing na gei wo Zhong can." ("Please bring me Chinese food.").


The next "Letter from China" will be written by a real, live, untutored Chinese with BLACK HAIR, BLACK EYES, TAN SKIN (they all look so alike, although some of the youth are beginning to dye their hair in red streaks -- I think you'll enjoy. Tune in.)


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