Multi-Grains of Truth

My hotel in Beijing is located in what seems to be a shopping district, just a few-minute stroll from the intersection of two wide avenues lined with high-end shops offering mostly Western luxury brands. From my window, I can only see a couple: Chanel and something called BlancPain, which is French for WhiteBread. Little wonder the latter hasn’t caught on in the States, nor that it has in China, where even the most generic cultural detritus of “Western individualism” is processed, packaged, commoditized and sold at low margins to a huge-and-getting-huger middle class starved for identity.

My combined travel time today was over 20 hours, of which I slept only two, but I decided to venture out into the city for dinner, anyway. A few blocks down the road, I stumbled into the Dong’anmen Night Food Market, where for a small handful of yuan one can feast on such delicacies as fried scorpion, silkworm cocoons and sheep’s penis. Having sampled a variety of insects and animal parts on my last trip to China (and having lived to regret it), I kept moving until I found essentially the opposite end of the gustatory spectrum: a vegetarian restaurant.

Fuhuiciyuan is tucked away inside a deceptively large, multipurpose Buddhist compound, which itself is hidden down the sort of dark alley where the red lights above its door might be mistaken for something more salacious. Virtually no English is spoken, and while the menu — which gives off the impression of a catalog — is printed in both Mandarin and English, the descriptions largely eschew ingredients in favor of dubiously specific health benefits. I ordered the hypertension relief.

To be more honest, I have no idea what I ordered. I merely pointed to a nice looking picture and then the nice girl who had waited patiently next to my table while I thumbed through the entire 30-or-so-page menu smiled and typed something into a weird, yellow device that looked exactly like how you’d imagine a PlaySkool cell phone. Not half a minute later, another nice girl brought the menu back and handed it to me again.

Had they run out of the thing in the picture I’d pointed at? There seemed to be no way to know. “Order again?” I tried. She made a hand gesture that I can only assume was intended to be helpful. After a moment, she said, “You … noodles?”

Me … noodles. Hmm.

“Yes?” I answered.

And five minutes later I had noodles — a whole mess of them, Sichuan-style in a spicy pepper sauce that made my nose run and still makes my mouth water thinking about it now. But that’s not all. I also had the first dish I’d pointed to, a colorful medley of … well, of largely unidentifiable vegetables. I spotted some lotus root in there, and surely one of those other things was a mushroom. To be sure, they were all delicious, but they were no match for the noodles.

Me noodles. Me definitely noodles.

After I paid (47 RMB, or roughly $8 for two large servings of delicious and probably healthy if not hypertension-fighting food) and got one of the nice girls to show me how to operate the exit (‘twas neither push nor pull), I headed back for the hotel, still tired from the day’s travel and now from the full belly.

Making my way past Dong’anmen, I was stopped by a homeless woman, probably a migrant farmer from the country living illegally in the city, one of millions willing to give up PRC government entitlements for a chance at Western-style free-market opportunity — which probably tells us as much about communism as it does about the human spirit.

“I’m very hungry,” she said in surprisingly good English. But it was too late. Before I’d even processed the words that came out of her mouth, I’d responded purely out of habit (“Sorry”) and continued pushing through the crowd. See, I come from San Francisco, where dodging the homeless is practically a sport. But in retrospect, I’m honestly not sure which is more shocking: the fact that a woman begged me to buy her a sheep’s penis, or the fact that I turned her down.

I yawned, stuffed my hands in my pockets and charged across the street before the light changed, hurrying past WhiteBread on the way back to my room.

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