Chinese people spend years honing their food expertise and evolving it into science, sociology, and politics. When a foreigner steps off the plane with an empty stomach, eager to grab the chopsticks and order their first serving of adventure, they have no idea what a complex world they are stepping into. In China, what you order is not just your own business, but a symbol of status, a signal to strangers, and a statement of your identity. People around you are watching you, judging you, and observing what you order – and who doesn’t love stereotypes?
LEVEL 1: THE AMATEUR
If a foreigner specifically orders Kung Pao Chicken at a Chinese restaurant, chances are pretty high that he or she has clocked less than six months of China experience. The same rule of thumb applies to foreigners who order roast duck and dim sum – their cognition of Chinese food likely only comes from their experience in the Chinatown of the city they grew up in. What makes it more interesting is that these people often think of themselves as Chinese food lovers, though they can rarely cite other Chinese food choices except these three. I wouldn’t say they are naive, but I do agree it is sad – it’s kind of like going to the UK and exclusively eating fish and chips (except that now as I think about it that may actually be the only thing that British people eat).
LEVEL 2: THE GETTING THERE
After the first 6 months with Kung Pao Chicken, foreigners divide into one of two camps. One decides to go local, exploring all of the kinds of jianbing around and bragging around with their tastes of the sauce and the fillings. You can often expect them to enjoy testing out the Chinese swear words they just learned in an old fashioned Beijing accent. The other camp stays fancy and plans all of their dates, parties, and birthday dinners at well-decorated Yunnan restaurants. These two camps of “getting there” foreigners mirror their food choices – a jianbing diet is the Beijing hipster’s cover for being poor, and fancy Yunnan food lovers are just as pretentious as the elaborate wood cups they use to drink their rice wine.
LEVEL 3: THE PROFESSIONAL
If you have heard the term 驻京办 and know what it means, then congratulations–you’ve earned a spot in the pro league. If you have been to more than five 驻京办 then you can claim to be at least at the average food appreciation level of local Chinese people. It may also indicate that you have so much free time to wait in line (don’t you have a life?), and so much spare money to spend around (what are you doing Friday night?). Most of the hardcore foreigners stay at this level forever, as the requirements for graduation is so high, and requires years of field practice. Here are 2 simple questions for you to test your level: How many kinds of dippings are there for hot pot? What’s the difference between Hunan Spicy and Sichuan Spicy? Can you tell real mutton from rat meat at a street shaokao stand? (Don’t be sad. You are already very brave to try.)
LEVEL 4: THE DEVOUT BELIEVER
Foreigners always tend to think that Chinese people are not that religious, but that’s only because they are not aware of this invisible religion – the cult of food. Within this sect, the belief is diverse, the debate is furious, the hate is deep, and the love is all-consuming. People in the sect never stop questioning a new comer, trying to figure out whether they are on the same side, and sometimes just one wrong answer can turn friends into enemies, isolate the closest couples, and tear families apart. Take a deep breath, ponder the ultimate puzzles below, make up your mind and stay strong:
– Do you eat your 豆花 sweet or salty?
– Do you eat your 西红柿炒鸡蛋 sweet or salty?
– Do you get your 粽子 filled with date, or meat?
– Should mooncakes be filled with five-nut filling or with egg yolk?
– Is lychee with soy sauce delicious, or disgusting?