After serving my time in China, I feel like I know it on an intimate level. Maybe I can’t name every emperor in the Song Dynasty without the aid of Wikipedia, but it still feels more familiar than America does.
I use familiar not in the common sense of the word, which is to say known, but in its more literal sense. Over the years, China became like family. I loved it unconditionally, but I also started developing a long (ever-growing) list of its tics that drive me up the wall. Who can say when this happened – the thousandth time I was almost run over by a car making an illegal left turn, the five millionth noodle one hears slurped and chewed in an open mouth, the seven billionth picture I posed for – but it happened, as it happens to most people. Long-term expats make good sport of poking fun of China. For me, it didn’t mean I disliked it, any more than I hated my aunts who gave those uncomfortable, ill-fitting, astonishingly ugly sweaters every single Christmas. On the surface we complain, but deep down we know that those idiosyncrasies are a part of the whole that you have come to love on some messed-up masochistic level. And don’t get me started on people who say that China isn’t a bizarre place when it is so painfully obvious that it is. If it weren’t strange, exasperating and wonderful, why would one bother living there in the first place?
A wonderful illustration of what this diversion is dancing around happened last month, while I was visiting my brother and his wife in Brooklyn. We went to eat dinner in Sunset Park’s Chinatown. Although I hadn’t been consciously avoiding Chinese food or other things Chinese, this was my first real contact with Chinese culture since I moved back to my native soil in September. And the odd thing was that Chinatown felt a lot more like home than the rest of America.
Take the restaurant. The internet reviews praised the food but bemoaned the horrendous service. Yet the service wasn’t bad. It was, for lack of a better word, Chinese. Our waitress, fresh of the boat from Fujian, spoke halting English but was friendly and agreeable in Mandarin. Sure, I felt like one of those insufferable goons in a Rosetta Stone commercial, but smug satisfaction is, after all, satisfying. The food arrived at the table so fast my brother suggested they might have had a tank of Minority Report pre-cogs in the kitchen. The waitress was nowhere to be seen during the meal – no cloying fake kindness or small talk – but when we flipped the lid of our teapot, she was there to refill it in an instant. Bad service by local standards, perhaps, but more or less what I was accustomed to.
Then after dinner my brother suggested that I lead him on my first post-China baijiu run. I consented and stopped him after walking a couple of blocks, pointing to a hole-in-the-wall grocery.
“That’s the place,” I said.
“Derek,” he replied, “in New York you can only purchase liquor in a liquor store.”
“Trust me on this one.” I led him into the store, past the same bottles of green tea and assorted pickled randomness you’ll find at any Hao De (or Wowo, for those of you in Chengdu), and straight to the bottles of Red Star Erguotou that I knew would be waiting there alongside a couple of surprises like Xiao Hutu Xian.
Red Star Erguotou, the spirit of Beijing
“But how do they get away with selling 100+ proof alcohol in a convenience store?” He asked.
“This is how,” I said, pointing to a sticker labeled “COOKING WINE” affixed to the side of each bottle.
Note: This product contains no rice wine and is only to be used as a beverage (or industrial solvent).
Look at how the sticker neatly covers the text next to jiujing du 酒精度, alcohol by volume. The fine people of Chinatown, it seems, have rightly assumed that a bogus label would be enough to ward off any alcohol enforcement officials not already scared away by the Chinese characters.
You really have to hand it to the Chinese. When it comes to flouting silly government regulations, no one on the planet more deftly executes a sidestep. If Lao Wang wants his baijiu, why should he have to schlep to the goddamned liquor store? And while we’re on the subject, what is that red stuff on the counter next to the register?
Oh, right, of course. It’s home-brewed mijiu. As seen in the New York Times.
Even on distant shores, those same old endearing eccentricities can’t help but shine through. It made the evening one of the most amusing I have spent since returning to the States. And with it came the first pangs of homesickness.