On Friday night, Fang Deng and I decided to go out to eat at a little Thai restaurant in Beijing for dinner. It was six o’clock in the evening and I was starving as though I’d just gone through months of famine. I fear this is my body getting older and thus craving dinner at earlier and earlier times, until I eventually transform into my grandparents and start eating at four in the afternoon. I guess that’s part of the aging curve. In another decade, I’ll probably have to accept pre-sunset dinner times just as I’ll have to accept balding and impotence.
Flipping through the menu, I knew immediately that I was going to order an appetizer. I really only order appetizers when I’m starving, as it’s my understanding that ordering an appetizer means food will come quicker. Wasting as little time as possible, I looked up at the waitress and placed our order.
“We’ll start with the fried squid,” I said, and then I ordered some red curry with chicken and a spicy beef and pepper dish. Fang Deng and I then drank water and she talked about something while I thought about food.
About ten minutes went by and suddenly there was the red curry with chicken sitting in front of us with two big plates of rice. Next came the spicy beef. And then, after we’d eaten everything, our appetizer arrived.
Which wasn’t exactly surprising. It’s just another one of those things that you have to adapt to, living abroad. It seems to me that in western culture, we apply logic to a lot of stuff, including how we eat. We have drinks and appetizers and entrees and deserts. Here, things aren’t so orderly. Here, it’s anarchy.
Like, for instance, if I order a drink at a restaurant back home, it will likely come first, before the food. Not so much in China. In China, the drink sometimes comes well after the food has been served. Because there’s not the same thought process going on. No one thinks, “Hmm, the food will probably make the person thirsty, so we should give them something to drink first! It’s brilliant!” Nope. Here, it’s more like, “Well, I wrote this thing down first, so we’ll serve that. And then we’ll serve the next thing I wrote down. Unless something else cooks faster. In that case, we will serve that. Unless I forget it. Yes, I will likely serve the thing I forgot last.” Sometimes one dish comes out and then an eternity passes before the next one shows up, unlike the synchronicity in which the dishes arrive back home. Sometimes one dish will be a real stragler and arrive like an hour after everything else; sometimes you will be tempted to cancel something because it’s taking so long, and then, as soon as you complain like an impatient foreigner, it magically appears.
Food timing. Yet another cultural division between the east and the west. Fang Deng held her stomach and said she was full, our freshly delivered appetizer now sitting on our table. I was stuffed as well. In the past, I’ve heard people say that there’s always room for desert.
I’ve never heard anyone say that there’s always room for fried squid.