“Traveling tends to magnify all human emotions.”-Peter Hoeg
It’s official. China is a food lovers’ paradise.
Chinese cuisine stretches back for thousands of years. What makes it so unique and mouthwatering is that each region developed its own style based on climate, imperial identity and local ingredients. Over time, techniques and cooking styles from cuisines of other cultures were integrated into the way the Chinese cook so each dish is an explosion of flavors.
Now, I’m not much of a foodie and I don’t really care about what I eat, but in my opinion only Italy is ahead of China in terms of culinary delight and my waistband has grown a few inches because of it. I’ve eaten pork belly atop jade tables, and garlic prawns mixed with shallots over a mountain of chili and spices that made my taste buds and temples sweat. I’ve plucked dim sum the size of bear paws out of steaming bamboo baskets on busy street corners. I’ve eaten chicken, all kinds of chicken. I’ve indulged in braised chicken, stewed chicken, deep-fried chicken, stir-fried chicken, and chicken that dripping with molasses like barbeque sauce.
But not tonight.
Tonight I am giving a ceramic statue of Ronald McDonald a high five while sarcastically uttering, “Merry Christmas Ronald, Merry Christmas.”
I shake my head in disgust as I walk under the Golden Arch’s and into China’s best attempt at Americana. I keep my eyes down in an effort to make myself as small as possible and I quickly make my way over to the register. I want to get this over with as soon as possible for two reasons. First, everyone in China awkwardly stares at me every time I step out in public. Second, I’m embarrassed to be eating my Christmas dinner alone at McDonalds.
Despite my embarrassment, I immediately dive into the process of trying to order. Key word, trying.
“I’ll have the number two value meal, hold the onions and then two double cheeseburgers, also without onions.”
Chung looks as though he’s seen a ghost; he has no idea what I just said. I can’t blame him; I’m the one in a foreign land, not him. Imagine the look someone would get trying to order a Big Mac in Chinese in Oklahoma or Atlanta. I should be the one speaking his language or at least trying to speak his language, but I don’t have the energy or desire to learn a single word in Chinese. Based on my time here so far, I can’t imagine that I’d ever want to come back.
As I try to think of another way to place my order I can’t help but to get that here we go again feeling. Every single thing I’ve done since I stepped foot in this country has been about as fun as a Monday morning commute.
I point at the blazing red and yellow McDonalds menu behind Chung’s head and I hold up two fingers.
He smiles politely as he punches in my order.
“I’m not done.”
I want to order two more double burgers, but here’s where we start to run into problems. The number two value meal is actually the double burger meal and I don’t know how to explain with body language and hand signs that I want two additional double burgers instead of two more number two value meals.
Essentially, there are too many two’s involved. Between the burgers themselves being comprised of 2 patties, the double burger meal being value meal number 2 and the fact that I want 2 more burgers it’s a lot for anyone to handle even if we did speak the same language.
I decide to hold up two fingers and as expected Chung thinks I wants two additional number two meals, which as we now know, is not what I want.
I point to a picture of fries on the menu and I wave no, no, no with my arms like I’m Carlton Fisk trying to wave his line drive fair in the 1975 World Series.
Chung gets the message behind my madness and types in the two extra burgers.
“Okay, good. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
I think he’s got my order right so far, and I admire his patience, because mine was left for dead a few weeks back, but before either of us can celebrate there’s still one big hurdle left.
I cannot eat onions. Well, what I should say is that I refuse to eat onions. I’m not allergic to them or anything, but they are without a doubt the worst food on the planet and I hate everything about them from their smell to their texture to their taste. If my food even brushes up against an onion inadvertently the food is forever tainted and I simply won’t eat it.
I pull my phone out of my pocket and open an app that translates English words into Chinese phrases. It’s an archaic app, but the only translator that’s free and works offline. So I type in the word onions and the only thing that comes up in Chinese is the sentence, “I can eat anything other than onions.”
Its not exactly what I’m trying to say, but I show Chung the Chinese characters on my screen hoping that he will put two and two together and remove the onions from the three burgers I’m painstakingly trying to order.
In my old life, before I set sail around the world, I would have never come to McDonalds. Back in America, I was a relatively healthy eater that only allowed for cheat meals like this after a raucous night of drinking with friends. One of my most famous lines was when I hopped in a taxi at 2 AM and I insisted that the driver to take us to, “12th and Pizza.” Which as my friends quickly reminded me, wasn’t a real street.
So with all that said, why of all days would I choose to come and eat my Christmas dinner here?
I’m staying at a really fancy five star Hilton hotel in Haikou this week. Haikou is an island in the South of China Sea and my last stop before Vietnam. The Hilton hotel is set in a sprawling building with Romanesque pillars at every turn. My room is the definition of modern luxury and it offers a balcony that’s bigger than my old apartment. The view from my room looks out over the hotel’s never ending maze of infinity pools, which run right up to a white sandy beach. It’s probably the nicest place I’ve ever stayed and I obviously couldn’t afford it on my own, not even for a night.
When I emailed the Hilton’s marketing team a few weeks back they didn’t have any interest in letting me stay for free in exchange for my photography and film work, but my parents stepped in and helped me out. They own a timeshare in the United States that was going to expire by the end of the year. So they exchanged their unused week and gifted it to me so I could use it in China, which would also serve as my Christmas present.
I think they could sense that I’ve been hanging on by a thread lately and that I needed some sort of break.
Crossing Russia and China during the winter has been far harder than I ever expected. When I arrived at the Hilton after a grueling and overcrowded two-day train ride that never wanted to end I have to say that the marble lobby and champagne spritzer that greeted me was the most welcomed site of my life, so much so that I think I nearly cried.
My goal since arriving here has been simple, it’s been to literally do nothing, to switch off, no writing, no filming, and especially no thinking. I’ve been staying up late watching the kind of mindless shows on Netflix that I normally avoid and lounging by the pool during the long and lazy afternoons like it’s actually my job.
Even though the hotel is really prim and proper, I’m still up to all my old tricks because none of my meals are included. Which means that at the breakfast buffet every morning I have to sneak food away so that I don’t have to pay for lunch or dinner because the prices at this hotel are borderline illegal. The day I arrived I paid something like $18 for two fried eggs when I ordered them without looking at the menu.
Now, as I’ve said before I’m normally pretty sly when I take food from the buffet. I usually make up a plate of food and then once I get back to my seat I slide it into my Tupperware that’s hidden underneath the table when no one is looking. Then I put the Tupperware in my backpack and after waiting a few minutes I get up and walk out like nothing happened. But after nearly two months in China this country has worn me down so much so that I just don’t care about anything anymore including my manners.
I’m so sick and tired of the language barrier and having people run up to my face and stare at me or laugh at me for no other reason than the fact that I’m really tall. I just can’t take it anymore.
And so I didn’t try to hide anything yesterday when I was at the buffet. I simply walked up to a tray of fried eggs with my trusty Tupperware and I started filling it up like I was in my own Mother’s kitchen. Then, just as I was about to go in for scoop of fried rice a waitress came over to me and whispered, “Sir, this is not a take away restaurant.”
I was almost offended by the confrontation so I lost my cool for the two hundredth time in China and said, “Does it look like I care? Please leave me alone; it’s the day before Christmas for God’s sake. Maybe if you didn’t charge $18 for two eggs I wouldn’t have to do this kind of thing! ”
And with that I snapped the plastic lid shut and marched back to my room.
The repercussion of my short temper reared its head at breakfast this morning when the staff watched me like a hawk and I wasn’t able to get away with my normal buffet shenanigans. So, I was forced to take the hotel’s free shuttle into town this afternoon to find someplace cheap to eat and I decided to hop off when I saw Ronald’s smiling face.
Chung slides my order over and I duck into a dirty corner booth in the back of the McDonald’s. Before I dive into my burgers I scan the restaurant and as expected I see that everyone’s watching me. And not just watching me, but looking at me like I’m going to do something crazy like take off all my clothes and eat with my feet kind of crazy. I don’t know what it is with these people, but they just won’t leave me alone. I don’t how the Kardashian’s do it, how do they handle all the attention they get every time they step out of their house because its driving me crazy and this is only one one-hundredth of what they have to deal with.
I look down at my burger and I unwrap it with the utmost care, like I want to save the wrapping paper so I can use it again next year. Then I lean in for a bite. Since everyone is still staring at me I close my eyes as I begin to chew. The salty burger is a welcomed shock to my system and it takes me far away from this tiny island in the South China Sea. After two months of fried rice and noodles slipping through my chopsticks the burger tastes like America and it immediately takes me back there.
I’m gathered around the Christmas tree with my family, my Dad’s blasting the Andy Williams song, It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, which in my family means that it’s time for the first present to get opened. My mother is rolling her eyes and telling him to calm down and to turn the music down while secretly enjoying his enthusiasm. I’m reaching under the tree hoping for the latest Sega genesis game or WWF action figure. Our dog Niko somehow knows its Christmas too and is caught up in the excitement. He’s running laps around the tree like all of the presents are for him.
I go in for a second bite still thinking about Christmas’s gone by. As I begin to chew I’m thrust right back into reality, “No, it can’t be!”
I swish the burger around my mouth just to be sure.
“Oh no, it is!”
I open my eyes and peal the bun back. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am.
Onions are everywhere.
I set the burger down, I want to keep eating and reminiscing, but I can’t. The reality is that this sucks, that traveling the world alone isn’t always what its cracked up to be. Some days are really hard and Christmas in China is certainly one of them.