My life in China is increasingly normal, which means odd little things that used to inspire me to write are now engrained in my day-to-day life. I'm accustomed to the language barrier, I no longer cringe when I hear someone coughing up a lung, and I find it perfectly appropriate to push and shove my way to the front of a line.
Though I'm used to it all, I know that all of you are not... so I'll tell you about my perfectly average Chinese dinner experience last night. Had I experienced this six months ago, it would have been extraordinarily strange, but a lot of life has happened in the last six months to make me think the dinner was a little less than extra from the ordinary.
Alex and I ate with two of our new friends at one of our favorite restaurants on a narrow street kiddy corner from our apartment. We don't know the restaurant's name and we can't read anything on the menu. Thanks to lists of popular local dishes from the back of a guidebook and the help of the friendly teenage waitress, we have found our favorite things to order. They make a mean eggplant in a garlicky terryaki-ish sauce. We also like their "homestyle tofu," fried tofu drenched in a spicy soy-ish sauce (I wish I could get the recipes for the sauces they use here -- they're fantastic, but the flavors are tricky to figure out).
We ordered two dishes of eggplant, steamed greens with mushrooms, homestyle tofu, and pork -- we didn't know how to say what kind of pork, so we let the waitress choose for us. Everything soon arrived except the pork. We all picked at the family-style dishes with our chopsticks and chatted. After 15 minutes, our meat still wasn't there.
"Fuwuyuan! Waitress!" I said. "Chukou zai nali??"
"Shenme?! What?!" she replied.
I repeated myself, then Alex and our friend joined in making hog noises.
"Ah! Churou! Pork!" the waitress said.
Oops. My mistake. I had been asking her where the doorway was and kept repeating that we really wanted a doorway. Chukou, Churou... Potato, potato, right?
Our pork finally came. It looked like cat food, small pellets of meat smothered in the same glossy brown sauce that Friskies has. The sauce was great, but in hindsight the pork probably wasn't worth it.
After dinner, our friend asked us if we had checked out the Grand Canal north of our apartment. We said we had only been to the canal east of our apartment. She led us out of the restaurant and within five minutes we were in a lit up plaza with the canal as the centerpiece. Small restaurants and shops lined the canal and small foot bridges criss-crossed it, much like the canals in Venice. We had no idea that something like that was lurking so close to our apartment.
The canal walk was mostly picturesque. Of course, there was random chunks of destroyed sidewalk (construction warning signs aren't necessary here, as long as the cement isn't wet you can walk at your own risk). Also, it was late enough that some of the restaurants had dumped out their soapy dirty dish water onto the sidewalk so there were random milky puddles. That's how China is though, one must continually anticipate the unexpected and just roll with it.
We continued walking and reached another wide open public space where we stopped to watch two different techno jazzercise groups each made up of fifty middle-aged folks grooving to annoying Chinese club hits. There was a tap dancing troupe that was actually worth watching for a few minutes, the six women had their backs towards us and giggled embarrassed as they got a boisterous round of applause from us foreigners.
After bidding our neighbors farewell at the corner, Alex and I headed back to our apartment and decided to stop by the DVD shop next door before heading up to floor 15. We snatched up the entire series of 30 Rock for a price that you couldn't buy lunch for in the US.
There we were, I on the foot of my bed, Alex sitting on the couch four feet away, full and sleepy after another oddly normal night in Hangzhou.