China is a difficult country to decipher. It’s such a vast place – geographically and culturally - and I’ve seen only the tiniest slice. A slice made up mostly of Starwood hotels and polite general managers. Primly dressed staff usher me into modern banquet halls and a translator is always ready to assist. It’s an easy way to travel through a foreign country – from Western hotel to Western restaurant and back again - but it doesn’t give me any sense of the country, it’s people.
After four days of this routine, I decide it’s time to leave the comfort and security behind. A few of my braver colleagues and I venture into the city unaccompanied, on a mission to discover authentic Chinese food. Best dim sum right here, the hotel concierge says, easy to find, just across the road. We leave confidently, with the name of a place listed on my iPhone (in English and Mandarin to cover our bases). We are confident as we step out of the air-conditioning and into the teeming streets of Shanghai.
It’s anything but easy.
Turns out across the road is actually not a road at all. This restaurant is on the other side of a courtyard, tucked into a corner and hidden from view in a local food market. We feel triumphant and sweaty when we finally arrive – having traveled no more than 20 feet from the hotel, despite the 25-minute journey.
Inside the market is a froth of locals, yelling and haggling over exotic spices, tobacco products and neon-colored candy. We stumble across a stall selling vacuum packed pig faces and dehydrated duck carcasses. A tiny woman in a white cap grabs my arm and gestures at them eagerly. I know she wants me to buy one but I back away and hope I haven’t offended her.
Despite the grisly merchandise within, we forge ahead and up the stairs. The restaurant is crowded and thick with steaming spices. We mull around the entryway in confusion, until a server takes pity and dumps us at a Formica table with a bundle of menus – all in Mandarin. We pick food from pictures and mime our drink orders. The waitress finally brings us four giant Singhas and steaming bowls of noodles. I can’t say it’s delicious, but it’s certainly authentic. And we earned it.
The surprises of this city aren’t confined to its packaged farm animals and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Each time we step away from our hosts, something inexplicable happens. A woman walks the street with a pantless baby (apparently this is common practice in rural China – it saves on diapers; you just hold said baby over a gutter at the right moment). Random strangers take our photo without asking. Lone men expose themselves on street corners.
Without a modicum of Mandarin, I remain confused by all of this and a little worried about my safety. Hailing a cab is fraught with complexity. We stand on a busy intersection for 20 minutes showing a string of drivers our hotel identity card only for them to throw their hands in the air and screech away as if mortally offended. When language is no longer an option, exhaustion sets in quickly. We pile into the first car willing to take us back no matter the price.
Despite the frustration of these situations, there’s a certain satisfaction I feel each time I navigate my way through Shanghai’s winding streets. I guess it’s one of the reasons I travel to distant countries and throw myself into unfamiliar situations. It’s all part of admitting I know so little. I won’t understand a country as vast as China by eating a single meal or by walking along the Bund with a throng of tourists. I do know this though; I’ll pass on restaurants selling pig heads every time.