In June 2010, I began a six-month journey through Asia, and my first day saw me crashing into Chinese culture.
I arrived in the hutongs of Beijing (traditional closely grouped houses) where I was met with the foreign smell of uncovered meats being cooked on narrow streets, the noisy chatting of families sat on the brick steps of their homes and the overpowering forty degree heat and ninety percent humidity. It is needless to say China was a cultural shock but the exact one I was looking for.
My first venture onto Beijing’s streets was with a French roommate and we were in search of a real Chinese meal. As I wandered down the cobbled streets, only now slightly cooling as the sun set behind the skyscrapers of Beijing’s far away business district, we picked a restaurant that seemed to be thronged with locals and came with an almost essential picture menu. Having a weighty twenty hours of basic Mandarin lessons under my belt I was able to get a table for two, order a beer, and some water for the table. I felt newly alive as we sat chatting in the busy restaurant, watching locals devour their various feasts. The smell of the Mongolian lamb I had ordered, a specialty I had been told about before my trip, was enticing and the sight of it was even better. I remembered all I had learned about Chinese table manners and customs; that turning over a fish was bad luck, to always leave food at the end of your meal to avoid offending the generosity of your host and to never leave chopsticks stuck in the food as this symbolises death! After a twelve-hour flight I was ravenously hungry and as the food was laid upon the table I attempted to dive in. It was then I realised that there were only chopsticks on the table… an item I had somehow never really learned how to use… In a feeble attempt I tried to pincer pieces of succulent lamb and flick them toward my mouth. Alas this was in vain, and it was only after fifteen minutes, perhaps three mouthfuls of food and with the sound of my rumbling stomach distracting other diners, that the waitress quietly slid a fork on to my table with a beaming smile. This experience not only demonstrated the kindness shown towards me by the vast majority of locals that I would meet throughout China, but also showed me that as much as you can practise a language and learn about a culture, sometimes you just have to go somewhere to get a true idea of a country and its people. Needless to say the food disappeared in seconds and that Mongolian lamb is still perhaps the best tasting meal I have ever eaten!
If anyone else has had an experience as embarrassing, or has been touched by another culture, feel free to tell us about your experience wherever you have been in the world.