Standing in the middle of a bustling night market in downtown Qindao, a group of gaunt American college students with empty stomachs stumble against the push and pull of the immense Chinese crowd, feeling a bit discouraged. We had set out with a very clear mission: to find food of a different variation than Chinese. Five days spent bringing meat of every assortment – cow, chicken, pig, turtle, goat, cat, dog, duck – to our mouths via chopsticks had simply been one day too many. We wanted, nay we craved, American food, wonderful, glorious, scrumptious American food. And specifically, we wanted pizza. On a fork.An hour before the five of us had been optimistic, beaming, bursting with the kind of energy that the truly naïve possess. We pulled out an English map of Qindao, scoured the longitudinal and latitudinal lines until we found the location in grid C3 of one “W-Mart,” and our hearts danced a merry jig for right next to the “W-Mart” we found the happy words “Pizza Hut.” Visions of pepperoni slices and ice cold colas danced in our heads. I found myself fantasizing about taking that perfect bite of a slice of gooey, cheesy pizza, pulling it away from my mouth in slow motion, a greasy string of hot melting cheese marking the trail to my lips. Perhaps a symphony would be playing in the background; I don’t know.
No symphony plays when our taxi dropped us off in the middle of a night market somewhere in downtown Qindao. Our driver points fervently at the crowds of people gathered around the stands. We only protest for half of a second, but he has no idea what we are saying to him, so we give up, pay him, and walk into the cool night, our heads bobbing in every direction looking for any sign of the English language.
Thwarted only for a couple of minutes by the prospects of cheap market shopping (which turns out to be tables full of hair brushes, nail clippers, and cheaply constructed Puma sneaker knock-offs), we all stand, huddled on the corner of one street and another, underneath a highway underpass, having no idea whatsoever what to do. We cross the road and enter a department store and travel up to the very top floor, the children’s toy section. It is nearing 10:00pm; the is store empty, except for a few employees looking bored at their registers. Unfortunately none of them speak English, so when we ask them if they know where the Pizza Hut is, they smile and shake their heads apologetically. It is during this surreal scene: at the top of the escalator on the top floor of a random department store in a random city in China that I feel the most dejected.
Hunger leaves us mesmerized by the rhythmic motion of the escalator’s steps, whooshing out and moving downward, when out of the white bleak nothing appears a man who asks us (in English!) if we need help. “Yes!” we scream at him, five voices strong.
“We need to find the Pizza Hut.”
“I am sorry,” he replies. “You need the pizza? P-I-Z-Z-A?”
“YES!” we exclaim at him once more, urgency and excitement building.
“You do not like the food in China?” he asks, eyeing our pale skin and correctly deducing from our features and our request that we are foreigners.
Our explanations, which sound more like excuses, seem weak when they come out of our mouths. “We’ve had Chinese food for the past 4 days straight – breakfast, lunch, and dinner!” “Our bodies need a break!” “I left my Pepto Bismol in my cabin!” “We need an English translator at the restaurant with us and we haven’t found any yet!” And finally: “I miss home.”
“Okay, okay, okay,” our new friend assures us. “I will take you to the best pizza restaurant in the entire city.”
We exit the department store and are back on the street; for what seems like endless miles, I drag my feet past the entire block of the night market and down the side street where men sit on stools frying meat of an unknown nature on their little grills, throwing their scraps on the ground. The truth is, after almost four months of nonstop travel, I do miss home.
I cannot recall where I first heard it, but for as long as I can remember, people had been telling me that Chinese food tastes so much different in China than it does in the United States. As I planned my trip to China, I bragged to everyone I left at home about the two wonderful things that I would get to experience – the famed and fabled Great Wall of China, and Chinese food. As a Chinese food connoisseur, journeying to the buffet place on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh almost weekly, I had prepared for this trip by practicing eating my lo mein and sweet and sour chicken with the wooden chopsticks the restaurant always offered. I planned on blowing the Chinese people away with my mad skills.
Imagine my surprise when my first ever Chinese meal in China did not even come with white rice. I felt a little aristocratic, sitting straight up in my seat staring at the mystery meat that came my way, conjuring the audacity to ask, “But where is the rice?” My first bite was half bone, as if they had simply grilled the poor critter and served him, leaving us with the perilous task of separating his body from his skeleton. When the waitress came over with a course of (what looked like) a plate of green beans, I exclaimed, “Now that’s what I’m talking about! Sautaed Chinese green beans are the best vegetable on earth!” I had not even completed my sentence before I stuffed my face with these deceptive little green demons, for they were not green beans but in fact some kind of peppers, which attacked my tongue with the flaming inferno of the devil’s den. Five days of this, and my stomach could only send messages to my brain that all I really wanted was a hug from my mother, or a trip to the Pizza Hut.
We clear the dark alley way and almost miraculously reach a city street of bright lights. “There it is,” our friend says, pointing ahead, “the best pizza restaurant in whole city.” In what seems like a movie-effect slow motion, my gaze follows the direction of his finger all the way across the street to the glowing, heavenly lights of the Pizza Hut. I stop myself before falling to my hands and knees to kiss his feet. We beg him to stay and eat a slice of pizza with us, but he politely refuses. He explains to us that he must go walk back to the department store to finish his work shift. Never in my life did I imagine that I would meet someone who would walk a mile out of his way to take me to Pizza Hut, but vow never to forget this sort of kindness. Mark my words: I will happily deliver any Chinese adolescent tourists to the Chinese Buffet on Forbes upon my return to Pittsburgh.
Whereas the Chinese man or woman traveling in America might find that the American version of Chinese food string beans to be a little bland, the Chinese version of Pizza Hut defies my expectations. We walk in, and it is a five-star restaurant. Greeted by a hostess who takes us to a very plush corner table fit for the world’s kings, we read the menus which do not only include the revered and desired pizza, but shrimp linguini and steak and potatoes.
We waste no time in ordering every appetizer on the menu, and they come out in a five-course meal style. First come the waffle fries, then chicken kabobs. Next come fried shrimp, then the second round of waffle fries. Finally the pizza, oh glorious pizza. Ten greedy hands and fifty greedy fingers grab the wonderful, glorious, scrumptious Pizza Hut pizza. We barely finish our first slice when we collectively decide that we need another pizza, so we order that, and a desert for everyone too. Chocolate sundaes, hot chocolates (which would arrive in the ever-fashionable Pizza Hut logo mugs), and a couple of tiramasus are added to our bill as we continue to eat, elatedly.
At the end of the night we drag our drunken, bloated bodies to the nearest taxi-cab, vow never to eat fast food again, and laugh the whole way home.
And the next day we are back to fiery green peppers and turtle meat, without an eggroll in sight. Somehow, it is all okay.
This post is dedicated to one of my very best friends, Jennifer Ryder (in the above picture, seated in the middle), who has since moved to China (Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang to be exact) with her boyfriend. They both teach English, and eat Chinese food daily. Follow their adventures at www.theadventuresofjevo.blogspot.com.