Friday, August 20, 2010

The inoculation - Kunming, China

Making noodles, by Fabio
It's a warm summer night, a light breeze is sweeping the terrace and through the clear sky the vain moon is reflected in the still and dense surface of the lake. 
Some Italian friends of mine have just arrived to Kunming. After having hanged around the city for a few hours it's time to take them to dinner. To mitigate their cultural shock I'm trying to avoid the simple places where I normally go to eat, not because I'm worried by the quality of their food but for the boundary conditions that might upset the newcomers. Finally we've chosen this nice place with tables on the roof of a building facing the Green Lake, right next to my house.
A cute and refined waitress surprises us with a rather good English: among smiles and good manners we order a number of national and local specialties. 
About twenty minutes later - long enough to prepare each of the courses that we've just ordered - a different waiter walks towards our table. The conversation stops but our cheerfulness doesn't. We expect some kind of impeccable move, in accordance with a mood drugged by the atmosphere that is fluttering around us: that he refills our glasses, moves the salt container or a chair, or that he asks whether we would like some more beer or a particular sauce to go with our food.
"I'm sorry, the duck that you ordered is finished."
The news surprised us to such an extent that the disappointment rises without wiping the smiles off our faces, only distorting them into a little idiotic variation. They realized they have run out of duck twenty minutes after we ordered? OK, they screwed up, these things can happen.
"Never mind, we'll have the chicken instead."
"Alright, the chicken is perfect, Sir."
And as the chicken is perfect we resume our conversation, beer propelling our chats and the wind shaking our napkins.
A quarter of an hour later - about forty minutes after they took our orders - the waiter comes back, the inscrutable expression of a gambler, once again strictly without any dish. This time our smiles vanish at once, tension lifting our backs from the chairs.
"I'm sorry, the stir fried vegetables that you ordered are not available."
"How come? And you realize that only now?"
"Yes Sir, and we've run out of chicken too."
"The chicken as well!"
It might just be because China tends to amplify any sort of sensation but I feel like I've never been so disappointed and frustrated in my whole life. The amount of information is too heavy to bear. Every sentence of this brazen-faced guy is like a slap in the face. I don't know whether what irritates me most is that they've run out of vegetables - that we ordered forty minutes ago - or the chicken that was - we remember well - perfect.
What follows is a sequence of comments and questions that we try to clean of the most obvious traces of sarcasm and indignation, approaches that we would have every right to exert in the West but that in China are totally out of place.
Like a turtle the waiter takes shelter into a shell of attitudes that by a sort of genetic-cultural drive the Chinese tend to adopt in cases like this. He nods without answering, obviously waiting for us to recover from this unjustified reaction, stop complaining like pedantic children and finally decide to order something else.
After a few seconds we recover from our unjustified reaction, we quit complaining like pedantic children and we finally ask a question that he thinks acceptable, though a little insolent.
"Well, tell us what's left, then we'll order something!"
Some minutes or a few hours later they finally serve us. We get our dishes by installments, with unconceivable intervals and wrong timing. We don't get any rice - which being the staple that is supposed to go with every course should be served first - and we have to ask for it two or three times.
The food could be delicious or disgusting, nobody cares. We gulp it down quickly, just to fill our stomachs and get out of here. The wind that is lifting the edge of the table cloth is now a pain in the neck and the reflection of the moon in the lake has the only effect of exposing the deposits of mucilage and rubbish that lap the shores of every Chinese pond.
The dose of cultural shock necessary to vaccinate my friends has finally been inoculated. The hell with the elegant restaurants, borrowed from a western world that is not even authentic, distorted by the filter of TV programs for the new rich: tomorrow for lunch I'll take them to that filthy and efficient dive to eat er zi, my favorite noodles.

Kunming, China, August 2006

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