On one particularly hot day in Urumqi, I decided to head to a small, hole-in-the-wall dumpling house near the center of the city for lunch. I ordered noodle soup and baozi stuffed with pork and veggies. As my food came, an old, half-drunk Han Chinese man sitting at the table next to me struck up a conversation. As he peered out from over his soup, he began recounting his struggles during the Great Leap Forward.
“When I was young, we didn’t have any meat to eat. People would literally take the bone out of my bowl as I tried to eat it. It was a struggle to survive.” As he was talking, he noticed that two young Chinese nearby were snickering at him. They seemed more interested in the most recent fashion craze than learning from their elders—both had crazy, only-in-China dos, as well as jeans with all sorts of bling on them. “You see these kids,” he said, “they don’t give a damn about the past. They don’t understand what Mao did, nor do they really care. They are only focused on the making money.”
My reaction? Yawn. Although some might object to the crass manner in which Mr. Sedaris points out certain facts about China, none of them are blatantly untrue. He has cherry-picked some of the more disgusting facts about China, but many of them are the very things that the Chinese deplore about their own society. I can’t recall off-hand any Chinese person who explicitly encourages blowing snot on the street—however widely it might be accepted.
Before I went to China, I made sure to know nothing about it. No books, no movies, not even the lottery numbers inside fortune cookies. The only thing I knew about China was that my rosewood end table and Zen-chic Roman shades were manufactured there. It was a conscious decision, because I wanted to hate the country and the people as much as possible, and I was afraid that if I weren’t completely ignorant going in, I might accidentally gain perspective and unwittingly feel empathy, which, let me tell you, isn’t very funny. So it was for humor that I endeavored to be as prejudiced and anal retentive as possible during my trip, to see how much of a spoiled dandy I could be if I really worked hard at it.
At first, I was tempted to rise above this all-too-obvious jibe at one of the world’s great cuisines, borne of one of the world’s once-great cultures. More than anything, I was bemused that anyone would be interested in David Sedaris’ views on food. It’s kind of like asking for Hemingway’s views on leather galoshes. Interesting? Maybe. Irrelevant? Most definitely.
Idly flicking through BBC Online videos, I chanced across a video instructing British tour operators how to “tap the Chinese market.” Amongst the anticipated yawn about “improving visa access” and “facilitating non-English speaking visitors,” the BBC journalist, cheery lite-bite Rajan Dasar, interviews a cluster of less-than-articulate Chinese students about the problems they face integrating in the UK. One girl, who suffered from that all-too-common defect of cultural overconfidence, described British food as the cultural trope she found hardest to adapt to, saying that “of course, in China, there’s a lot of delicious food, but here it’s only fish and chips.”