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May 18, 2006

Filed under: culture»asia»china»travel

Once Upon a Time in China, Part 3

500 words down so far on the China article for the Escapist, and I feel pretty good about it. So here's one last annoying anecdote from my trip to the Middle Kingdom three years ago. If only I had a slide projector and a monotone, I could do this properly.

I spent most of my trip hanging out with a couple of students with family in Guangzhou. They were American-born Cantonese speakers, so they made good intermediaries between the three languages and cultures. And since it didn't make any sense to me to travel halfway around the world just to hang out in a dorm room, we spent a pretty fair amount of time wandering the city. That's how I ended up playing DDR for the first time--although that's not the story I want to tell today.

This story is about going to dinner. Keep in mind that when I went to China, I had been at one of the most diverse universities in the country for a couple years--but I didn't own a car, so I didn't eat out much. I'd missed out on many of the great cultural foods located around the Northern Virginia area, a deficiency that was only exaggerated by differences between American Chinese food and actual Chinese food.

So here I was in Xi'an, a Kentucky Yankee in Qin Shi Huang's court, and we decided to go out for food and karaoke (read: drinking) with some local students. They knew a great place, they said, and led us through back alleys away from the university. It was starting to look a little shady, but the restaurant was well-lit, and the food--meat strips with a spicy rub, grilled on skewers--was tasty. I had about four before I saw that my Cantonese friend was watching me closely and smiling a bit too widely. She asked if I knew what kind of meat was on those skewers. Horror stories of rodents and pets flickered through my mind. Beef? I asked.

Kind of, she said. Beef stomach. Which, looking back on it after many bowls of questionable pho meats, seems pretty tame. But at the time, it was a big step. I had two more.

Nowadays, the beef stomach incident also serves not just as an amusing cultural incident, but also a reminder of China's diversity. The skewered meats are a snack native to Xi'an's local Muslim population, called the Hui. The Hui Mingjie, or "Muslim Street," may be a tourist trap within the walls of the old city, but it's also home to the Great Mosque, where the Hui still worship as one of the nation's non-Han minorities. Arabic and Chinese mix in the carvings there.

Which is not to say that China is filled with well-integrated but conveniently-costumed cultural groups--to an outsider it still looks pretty homogenous. But it's such a big country, and communications were so slow for so long, that visitors eventually see the fierce regionalism that exists within it. It emerges with the mutually unintelligible local dialects. It manifests in the inequality between rural and urban areas. And you can taste it in the wildly different cuisines between the North and South. While for policy purposes it may be possible to imagine a simplified "China," those who don't realize that the PRC encompasses differences even wider than our own local subcultures will find the reality (pardon the pun) hard to stomach.

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