That is where we were on our recent adoption trip to China: Veteran third-time travelers who were confident that we could do anything and blend right in. Our trip to the real Chinese restaurant taught us otherwise. It was our second week in China. We were there with our two previously adopted Chinese children, ages ten and eleven, and we’d just added a new family member. She was a new daughter, age twelve, and she spoke not a word of English. Things had been going very well, and our new daughter was really fitting in seamlessly. This being our third trip, we felt pretty cocky.
We snickered good-naturedly as first-time travelers timidly peeked outside the doors of the hotel onto the Chinese thoroughfare. They might make a run for the McDonald’s now and again, or go all the way up the block to KFC, but actually heading out into the big city, sans guide, was not on their bucket list for the time being. That was not for us. We decided that we’d all head out to an authentic local restaurant, the sort frequented by the Chinese rather than by westerners; the type with plastic curtains rather than doors; a restaurant with no western influences beyond the ubiquitous presence of Coca-Cola products.
Three hungry children herded between us, my wife and I set out to find just the right place. We headed out the less-frequently-used rear entrance of Guangzhou’s China Hotel, which spilled out onto the broad Panfu Avenue, a typical busy main thoroughfare. It was filled with small shops and stalls, looking shabby and temporary to Western eyes, though in reality, permanent centers of street commerce. We wound our way through typical robust foot traffic, straining to keep the kids together amidst the crowds.
We passed up several restaurants close to the hotel in an effort to separate ourselves from the tourist-oriented places, but several blocks away we came upon the Liushen Xiguan restaurant, which translates roughly as “Traditions of the Six Gods” restaurant. It was clad in gold paint, trimmed with red cloth, and several large Buddhas smiled at us as they stood sentry on the sidewalk. The wall in the entryway was covered with awards given by the local of chamber of commerce, and as an added benefit, the awards each offered a picture of the winning dish.
Velvet padded bamboo chairs lined the wall in the waiting area. Peeking through the windows, we could see that the dining area was enormous. Such a place was likely to have good food, was clearly worth a stop. It was 4:50 when we asked to be seated, but oddly, the dining room was dark and the hostess desk was empty… as were the tables. No table cloths or place settings were to be seen, and the chairs were upended and sitting atop the tables. A hostess apprehensively approached us to talk. After much arm flapping and hand gesturing, we came to understand that the restaurant would not open until five P.
M, although we could not see how it would do so. Not a soul was to be seen besides the hostess, and nothing was prepared for customers. We began to have second thoughts and we started to wonder if we’d misunderstood the hour that service would start. We decided to wait for a bit, if only to rest. At the stroke of five the lights came on to illuminate a dozen employees rushing from the kitchen, bearing ornate livery for the tables, and tools of the trade for the hungry guests. The dining space went from abandoned warehouse to friendly, well-lit, white linen appareled eatery in a matter of moments.
Once seated, we began to notice differences from what we expected in a restaurant. Soup bowls appeared, as well as a pot of tea, tea cups, and a large empty ceramic bowl. We watched the other tables to see what use our fellow diners would have for the bowl. Some diners were watching us. Perhaps they didn’t know what to make of the empty bowl either? More likely, they were wondering what a couple of Americans were doing here staring at them too. Other diners were taking the cups, bowls, and spoons and washing them in the tea, using a rather practiced method. The used tea was discarded into the empty bowl.
I wasn’t sure if this meant we needed to do our own dishes, or if it was simply a custom. To be on the safe side, we started washing. I noticed curious grins. Was I doing it wrong? Did we appear like children playing in a wading pool? Unblemished by the bemused stares, we toweled ourselves dry, and with confidence in the cleanliness of our place settings, we dug into the menu. There were thirty pages of menu items. Many had pictures and some had English translations, though mostly the translations read “Pork and vegetables in sauce” or “Chicken with vegetables in sauce”.
While I’m certain that was accurate, it was of little value in helping us to choose from amongst the twenty five varieties of “Pork with vegetables in sauce”. We struggled with the pictures and each made the best possible dinner choices we could, with a few appetizers added in. The waitress took our order promptly and returned in a few minutes with my meal, and nothing else. No appetizers. No other orders. Just mine. She placed it in the center of the table and left. My meal was far larger than I expected. In fact, it was large enough to feed us all. Suddenly we grasped what we had missed.
The table top was essentially an enormous lazy Susan. It appeared that we would be eating family style. Other tables were sharing food as well, so we set out to share the barbecued pork I had ordered. A few moments later the next meal appeared, and shortly thereafter, the next, and then the next, each meal large enough to feed a family of five. Even the items we’d been led to believe were appetizers seemed enormous. Before long, we had enough food for forty people. There was so much, that the server was barely able to find room for the last steaming bowl of fried rice.
I’ve been to weddings that served less food than we’d purchased. We were clearly the center of attention now as we made an effort to at least put a dent in the spread we were responsible for. The pictures didn’t do the food justice, nor were they worth the thousands words I’d so often been promised. The fried rice was filled with boldly colored fresh carrots, peas and sprouts, and those turned out to be the only vegetables on the table that we easily recognized. We were served steamed and pan-fried dumplings, bursting with juices and filled with meat stuffing.
There was a whole roasted chicken, the bright yellow color of a school bus. When I say whole, I mean it. Chicken in China often comes with feet, head and beak attached. It appeared that our dinner had walked straight from the barnyard to the oven. A second chicken was served in pieces which had the bright red color of a fire engine. Both birds were juicy and offered bold flavor, the yellow one having been seasoned with a curry and the red one more of a peppery spice. The seafood dish seemed a bit more tentacle-filled than we were used to, and it went largely unloved.
I still have no clue to this day what was in it, though I will admit that the description “fish with vegetables in sauce” seemed unerringly accurate. Our crisp pork on a platter seemed straightforward. No sauce or vegetables, though I could swear that the translation of the dish said they were included. Our meal was rounded out by a course of tea smoked duck. The dark meat had been roasted over a tea leaf fueled fire and had a deep rich flavor. After some of our other mis-translations, I would not have been surprised to have had it served in a pipe for actual smoking, but it wound up being the best part of the meal.
I do hope it was duck though. We left a great deal of food on the table. In very American fashion, we asked for containers to take the remaining food for thirty back to our hotel. That doesn’t seem to be the norm in China, but we packed up our bags and loaded up with more victuals than a United Nations food convoy. I was concerned about the cost, but for all the entertainment that our endeavors provided for the patrons, perhaps they should have paid us. The price was thankfully low; bless you generous exchange rate. One last problem appeared. The tip.
It is insulting to over tip in China. After having the experience of being publicly chastised by a cab driver for over tipping, I was leery. Loaded down as we were, there could be no quick escape should I insult the staff with too many Yuan, or too few. The Six Gods must have been watching out for us though. The older hostess (manager, cook, waitress, cashier… no real idea) took pity on me and selected a bill to leave as a gratuity. It was far less than I would have chosen. I’d have given her double that just for getting me out with my remaining dignity intact.
We wound our way back to the hotel, filled with a good meal, good stories, and a good deal of new knowledge about how things are done in China. I mentioned the experience to our guide, who filled in a few of the blank spots. He was happy to hear that we were treated well by the local people. I was happy for the experience. A few days later, we coaxed some other group members to come out with us to the restaurant. We displayed our dining skills for them without ever mentioning the difficulties with which they were acquired. After all, that is how veterans maintain their mystique.