When in China

National emblem of the People's Republic of China

Image via Wikipedia

I have a holiday booked for China next year, a trip I’ve been quietly anticipating up until I read a David Sedaris article on his trip there.

Now David Sedaris is a humourist, and a very funny one at that, so you have to factor in some artistic exaggeration. It’s not going to be as bad as all that you figure, besides, I’m the intrepid traveller right, the robust Aussie go-anywhere kind of dude, not an aging, albeit funny, American east-coaster? So it goes. And yet amid the quiet chuckles evinced as I read his piece the thought crossed my mind that exaggerated or not there must be some skerrick of truth in this.

One of the main reasons I travel is to experience different things. To find places and situations different to what I know, to whit, to travel outside the upholstered familiarity of my comfort zone. By and large this is a very positive experience. More often than not what you find is pretty good to great in terms of food. culture, people, geography, and so on. There’s no guarantee of that though. There’s no small print that that claims that everything outside of your comfort zone is going to be positive. Hell, you’d have to be a dolt to believe that. That’s why you have a comfort zone, you put all the things you like inside it and leave everything don’t out of it. Sometimes you’ll go on your excursions from it to see what you can learn and what you can bring back with you, but no amount of broadmindedness is going to convince me that I want to try dog face say, or book a vacation in downtown Kabul. They’re outside of my comfort zone, and they can stay there.

Now China doesn’t fall into that category, not at first glance anyway. I’ve travelled to many more rugged places than that and had a hoot. I don’t mind roughing it within limits, I love to try different things generally, and my ambition almost always is to immerse myself in the other culture. That’s why I’m there after all, not to take happy snaps and send postcards, but to to experience, learn, feel and enjoy.

China, you would think, would fall well inside that criteria: a fascinating culture with a long history; an emerging, still slightly mysterious economy; some great destinations, from the Great Wall to Shanghai; even, theoretically, a classic cuisine – though we’ll come to that later. All that is true perhaps, but David Sedaris also described something different which, in my slightly squeamish way, I share an aversion to.

Slag and turds. Slag everywhere as the locals hawk in unison and deposit the contents of their lungs and their nostrils upon every available surface like, as Sedaris puts it, freshly shucked oysters. A cacophony of slagging is how me makes it sound, as if it where the universal pastime of the billions of native Chinese. Then there’s the turds. Not just animal turds as we may inadvertently discover in any pet loving country (though surprisingly rare), but also human turds, deposited as convenience demands.

Truth to be told I’ve come across both these situations previously, and neither have featured as a highlight – though they do occasionally make for an interesting story. I recall particularly when I travelled in Egypt the girls utter disgust at the holes in the ground that acted as toilets, and the generally erring aim of previous visitors. Fortunately my bladder is famously capacious, and my bowels well regimented, so my visits to these dark chutes leading directly to an abject hell where few and far between. Many of the girls, however, were deeply scarred by the experience.

That was the same throughout much of the region, where the occasional slag would also occur. In Asia also, in the backblocks you’ll often find things best left unfound. Still, you turn away and give thanks to armitage shanks, modern technology and being born an Aussie to enjoy them. Through it all you also gain an unlikely perspective, reinforced as you travel. You recall how lucky you are to have what you do and promise never to take it for granted; and you appreciate the difference, the hardship if that is what it is, that other cultures must deal with. The surprise at first is how well they seem to thrive without the comforts you crave, and how cheerful and generous they are. Somewhere in all of that is a lesson, but a lesson I’m happy to forgo if it means I live without my porcelain.

Food is different. For someone like me food is one of the great delights of travel. It remains a cultural as well as culinary experience though. God knows how many times I’ve had a meal purchased from roadside vendor. Unsurprisingly I once copped a dose of giardia travelling in India and ignoring the advice of the locals. I don’t regret it. Otherwise I’ve had no problems despite the rudimentary to primitive cooking and … standards. I’ve had bowls of wonderful Thai food while around the corner there’s a stinking canal with dead dog in it. I’ve eaten amongst the entrails and left over bits of the beast I’m now consuming. I’ve eaten with my fingers more times than I can count, had familiar dishes served up in unfamiliar ways in almost every place I’ve been too.

The point I’m making I guess, is that though the food is generally great you have to leave behind your western expectations. We’re lucky, everything is easy, everything is nicely packaged, regulated and presented. We’d be shocked if it wasn’t, because that’s our world. It’s different when we venture into the world of others where the rules, when they exist, are different, just as the expectations are. It’s great to learn and experience that, and to go with it – which is why I had my roadside snack in Delhi when common sense told me I shouldn’t. I’m here, do it.

Which brings us to Chinese food. Sedaris admits from the start that he’s never had a great love of Chinese food, and I’m the same. Much of the reason for that would be the bland representation we get stuck with in our western societies, an average standard pegged somewhere around the lowest common denominator. For me Chinese food is an occasional pleasure, and, by my experience, just about the least of the Asian cuisines – but I’m happy to learn different. I do like spicy Szechuan stuff though.

A few years back I was in Hong Kong, where I had a very mixed culinary experience. Now I’m allergic to seafood so I’m behind the eight ball right from the start. I missed on a lot that looked utterly delicious as a result of that, and what I had was either great or somehow disappointing. I anticipate finding a much greater range of food on the mainland, but Sedaris comments on his eating experiences don’t do much for my confidence.

Fact is that China is a vast country with myriad cuisines, many of which never see the light of day in western society. I’m certain there will be much to make me blanch and shake my head. I’ll try much too, even some of the things I might be warned against. No point going to China and eating Maccas and beef with black bean sauce.

Wait a few months folks and I’ll give you my first hand reports from the food to the incidents of slags and turds. I’ll take on board Sedaris wry warnings, but in the end I’ve got to live it myself.

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