Today’s guest post is by C.J. Sweetwood. Follow him on Twitter at @fearsteveswrath and/or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In December of 2014, I found myself staring into the abject and disparaging face of culture shock. I had taken two weeks off of my job teaching in Korea to go on a journey through Vietnam, but my tendency to be a complete and utter miser while traveling had landed me a bad flight with a worse airline out of Shanghai. I had decided to take my seven-hour layover there as a blessing in disguise, not a major pain in my ass, since I had never been to China and could try something unusual. My problem was focus: Shanghai is the largest city proper in the world, with a population of more than twenty-four million. What do you see in such an unimaginably large place with only a few hours to spare? I needed a goal, an objective for a bite-sized adventure, and when it hit me, it seemed perfectly and moronically stupid.
This is the story of how I ate Chinese food in China.
First, an aside about Shanghai: Tokyo stretches to the horizon when you fly into Narita, but Shanghai is another beast entirely. The city is constantly shrouded in a stunning grey cloud of wreathing and writhing smoke and haze, a man with eyes agleam in a puff of cigar ash. When you pass through the veil of choking smog and brackish clouds, the city emerges as a dim and dingy metropolis that seems to claw its way to the edges of the earth. The air is tinged with the taste of tar and the scent of cigarettes, and that sense of choking, cloying atmospheric claustrophobia is entirely normal.
I tracked down a map as soon as I passed through customs, and got a better sense of what the city was by staring at the sprawling, chaotic, ad-infested map of Shanghai. Korean city maps are concisely written, with clean lines and spotless images. The map of Shanghai is the total polar opposite. After puzzling over it, I made out that I had to take the maglev to get downtown the quickest. So I stored my bags at an airport kiosk, paid my yuan for a broken train ticket from a lady who looked borderline suicidal, and climbed onto the fastest train on Earth.
Interesting note about the fastest trains in the world: They’re surprisingly barebones. I’m not sure if it’s because they need to store more people or cut down on weight, but the seats on the maglev (and even the Korean KTX) make airport benches look cozy. I took a window seat, expecting to see some grandiose view of the countryside, but instead I was treated to views of a brackish harbor and acid rain-soaked buildings, replete with dripping stains and tattered clotheslines. It was a surprisingly bleak and dreary trip, but it took all of seven minutes. I spent most of that trying to focus on singular buildings and failing, eventually just giving up because my eyes hurt right as the train slowed to my stop.
I wandered out into Shanghai, and an apt comparison came to mind: It was the Star Wars universe. It was dirty, grimy, and lived in, but that feels far more alive and wondrous than our own reality. The city was run-down, jumbled and worn; yet it emitted this pulse of life, of breathing and burning humanity that the wide roads and subdivisions of my home could never hope to emulate. I marveled at it all, even the battered subway entrance as I slithered through the impossibly large crowds into the metro.
I walked into a subway car and immediately hit my head. The handrail was right at forehead level for me, and I drew a combination of sharp glances and comical chuckles from the locals as I rubbed my head and muttered obscenities under my breath. I rode out to Nanjing road, one of the central downtown shopping districts in Shanghai, and started out of the metro to locate an old colonial district called The Bund.
I didn’t get very far. Nanjing road is one of the busiest shopping streets in the world for a reason, and the amount of people relentlessly flowing through the thoroughfares stopped me cold. As an American from the west, used to wide places and personal spaces, this was insane. I stood there slack-jawed, staring at the teeming masses of Chinese shoppers stepping over dead rats to visit the Gucci store, at the foreigners in man buns and elephant pants taking pictures of historically significant pavement, and the touts and louts peddling prostitutes and pink roller skates. In all the travel I have done since, in all the trials and tribulation I have ever faced on the road around the world, be it waking up stranded in rural Huailen in the dead of night, getting lost in Sumida in a typhoon, or even nearly being robbed in Vientaine, nothing ever stopped me in my tracks but this one moment in Shanghai. It’s a challenge every traveler must face, the initial assault on your senses when you travel alone, the sheer realization that you are a single human in a mass of billions, a true stranger in a strange land.
Of course life never lets you rest on your laurels, and it doesn’t always allow for contemplation of the magnanimity of human existence either. I was shook out of my stupor by a man offering me prostitutes (“Long time love only twenty dollar”). I politely declined, and quickly learned that politely declining usually doesn’t work that well in Asia. The best way to be left alone? Keep walking, no talking. Unfortunately, I hadn’t absorbed this yet, and couldn’t get the touts to leave me be. To get away from a man trying to sell me drugs, I dipped into a nearby yellow building and walked smack into one of the strangest scenes I have ever seen.
Without realizing it, I had walked into an M&M’s world, during a live dance performance of M&M’s in terracotta warrior costumes, set to “Disco Inferno”. I marveled at the surreal nature of human existence and bought a magnet before I realized the drug dealer had followed me inside and I had to lose him. I lost him in the street, and remembered what I came for. I decided to turn down a nearby alley and find something to eat.
A ways down the street I noticed a small house with fish tanks out front. As I walked past it, staring at the pictures of food on the windows, a man a picnic table out front called out in broken English: “Hey! You food?”
I nodded, and he invited me inside. The restaurant was a converted house run by him and his family. His son was the cook, chain-smoking as he slaved over a wok in the back, black soot and grease stains lining the walls. The first floor was just the kitchen and some picnic tables, and I wondered if they lived upstairs as I sat down. The man produced a menu, all in Chinese, and smiled a gap-filled grin. I perused the menu, disregarding the words and looking only at the pictures until I saw an image of something any self-respecting American has had delivered a hundred times: Bell peppers and beef. I pointed to it, and the man exclaimed “Ahh…Beef Peppah.”
He gave me a thumbs up, dragging on a cigarette all the while. “Tsingtao?”
I nodded, and he produced a massive bottle of beer from a nearby cooler while his wife produced a plastic wrapped batch of dinnerware. He plopped down with a couple friends at a nearby table, and chatted in Chinese as his wife peeled open the containers and filled one with rice from a cooker on a grimy table.
I sipped my beer and watched the family: the husband gesturing at the paper and talking with his friends, pausing often to shout random things about my size-sixteen feet. The mother, smiling slightly as she showed the oblivious foreigner how to take cling wrap off serving dishes. The son, who put back four cigarettes as he whipped red chunks of beef and crisp bell pepper in a wok with sauce from a stained bottle. Finally, he produced my meal and handed it to the mother, who set it in front of me and stepped back to watch. The husband took a long drag on his cigarette as I took a bite.
I can describe that meal, definitively, as the best Chinese food I have ever eaten in my life. Nothing has ever come close. I have eaten at five-star restaurants in luxury hotels that paled compared to this meal cooked up by a chain-smoking teenager in a rundown basement family restaurant in Shanghai.
It was life changing, and I tried to convey that as best I could. The husband smiled knowingly and gave me a thumbs up while his wife relayed it to their son, who calmly popped another cigarette in his mouth and nodded with grim satisfaction. I paid my grand total of six American dollars and thanked them profusely as I wandered back into the street, still dazed and overwhelmed by the food.
I looked at my watch. It was time to head back to the airport, to my impending red-eye flight to Saigon and to the next stage of another life-shaping adventure.