Food plays a big part in our lives here.
Everything about it is so foreign – buying it, preparing it and eating it, both at home and in restaurants.
I have started to call our lives in Lanzhou – FULL IMMERSION – as life here is so totally different, so very intensely Chinese.
An English teacher friend just returned from a long weekend in Shanghai. She said she loved it. There is a lot of English there – she said. She also mentioned the beauty of the city, the buildings and the architecture. She mentioned hearing the English language being spoken everywhere. She even mentioned that she had found a bookshop that sold a wide variety of English books!
L and I are glad to be in Lanzhou. We like the fact that life is very unplugged from the West here. As a result, we are being driven to learn to speak a little more Chinese, and we are learning a lot, both about China and about ourselves.
But we have pencilled Shanghai in on our calendars…
Last Friday night a couple of the other foreign teachers cooked for us. We lapped up South African curry and rice (with tomato and onion, banana and cucumber sambals on the side.)
A young Indian teacher also contributed to the meal, making us delicious Basmati rice with spices. He also made us ‘Chicken 65’, which, we found out, is a type of spicy chicken nugget dish, served with a coriander dip. A wonderful multi-cultural meal!
Meals like that one do a lot to assist with the reality of FULL IMMERSION!
The other thing to do, we discussed, with our friends, who have been here a lot longer than us, is to find a way to lift your face up from under the water every now and then – so as to breathe a little familiar air occasionally.
With this idea in mind, we travelled out with them on Sunday morning. Firstly, we met some friends of theirs, gathered at a meeting in downtown Lanzhou.
Lanzhou, I am told, contains about 7 universities. This means that a large percentage of the population here are students and lecturers. And it is within these communities that one encounters more foreigners.
We have already met a couple of foreign students. I think that they are impressive, because, although most are postgraduate, in order to study here, they have all spent a year studying to read and write Chinese, before they launched into their further studies! As a result, there are a bunch of Americans, Romanians, Indians and Africans who I have now met, who can speak, and write pretty good Chinese!
Meeting with them to make friends and to chat about life in Lanzhou ( a couple of American doctors have been here for over 11 years already!) was like a breath of fresh air.
After the meeting we ventured further into Lanzhou, catching a No 118 bus, which we had never done before.
Our destination was ‘Charlie’s Burgers’.
The exterior gave a hint of what awaited us inside. It was bright and fun! The interior downstairs was cluttered with huge lollipops which hung from the ceiling (and a Christmas tree with lights on – still in the corner – the Christmas decorations are kept up for months…)
We were warmly greeted by a young Chinese waitress, in a checked red shirt and Stetson, who spoke to us in rapid Chinese.
We followed her up the yellow pumpkin lantern lit stairs (décor left over from the Halloween festival…)
We were shown to a table and given four very large, very English menus. I felt a strange sense of relief begin to flow over me. All was so familiar, there was even American music playing!
Held within the large menu were large glossy pictures of an assortment of burgers. Most of the hamburgers were quite normal, some had a distinctly Chinese flavour, but all came with fries, and we even ordered cokes!
We were issued silver knives and forks to eat with! Our orders were taken by a waitress who continued to speak to us in fluent Chinese, even when it became very apparent that we could not understand a word. Never mind – pointing to the pictures made our orders clear enough!
As I waited I glanced around the room and was entertained by some of the signs around the room.
‘Charlie’s burger join us for happy’
‘We want you smiling’
As we waited we were incessantly served hot water from a waitress, who circled around all the tables with a jug.
In China cups of hot water are given to you everywhere – even in the queue at the bank!
The meal arrived and it was as yummy a burger as I have ever had. The cokes were good too, only recognisable by their distinctive red and white colours.
We moved on from there to a very posh mall – think Sandton or Cavendish – filled with designer shops spread over 4 or more floors. We were in search of coffee!
We found Caffé Bene and walked into its dim interior. The tables and chairs were filled with Chinese people, who were just about all on cell phones. Not much conversation was happening, and in many ways, it all felt very familiar as well. Apart, that is, from the menu blackboards, which were covered in pretty and intricate chalky Chinese letters.
There were a variety of cheesecakes behind the glass in neon-lit counters. There were perfect cappuccinos, with delicate hearts drawn in the foam. We sat on comfy chairs covered in Union Jacks. There were design references to steampunk here and there. There was a picture of the New York skyline on one wall. There was a repetitive Calvin Klein advert being shown on a large flat screen. The models were Western and sulky and far too skinny. Perhaps I could have been anywhere.
But then I would have had to drown out the loud voice behind the microphone outside – directing operations and activities that were taking place in the very large children’s play area, down on the ground floor of the mall. I would have had to ignore all the people stopping in their tracks to look at our strange group of tall South Africans…
Later, at home, I lay down to rest and shut my eyes. Scenes from the day played themselves out behind my eyelids, to a very loud Chinese soundtrack.
It’s a con really, I decided, to think that one can find any place within China that is anything but Chinese.
China is everywhere.
It is strange and other, and I doubt very much whether anything about it (pretend American or not), will ever be anything even remotely near familiar.