As a Chinese, travelling in foreign countries can be quite harrowing. Not that there are lots of racist people running around—it’s just that Chinese tourists, or more accurately, Chinese-looking tourists (sorry to the Japanese and the Koreans) have built up a stereotype for themselves which can sometimes be quite unflattering. The standard ‘Chinese kung-fu posture’ for photo-taking— one leg in front of the other, both knees slightly bent and just enough tension in both leg and facial muscles to suggest that one is trying to move something heavy and smelly. The ubiquitous checkered shirt tucked into trousers two sizes too large, or, God forbid, in hot countries, the diabolic combination of socks and sandals.
As if this wasn’t enough, we have the added bonus of having immigrated to pretty much everywhere. Once in the middle of Transylvania I was able to go into a Chinese restaurant to ask for soy sauce. The more countries I go to, the more often I’m struck by the question ‘How on earth did these people get the idea to come here and open Chinese restaurants in the first place?’ When, and what, compels one to turn to one’s dual hair bun sporting wife tending to your only child (because you foreigners all think we have one child) and say ‘You know what is good idea? We go to Sarajevo and make meal I always complain about’
As such, I always make it a point to go visit the local Chinese take-out place and strike up a friendly conversation. There is a certain technique to this, as I’ve learnt from experience– most people would start reaching for the phone if you go from ‘how much is the chicken fried rice’ to ‘why did your family come to this country?’
Being a romantic who sees a tear-worthy story behind the empty wine bottle on the side of the road, I’m usually disappointed. Family business, tough financial times, and sometimes just plain old common sense were the main reasons. No war refugees, no tragic family goodbyes, no Wanderlust induced migration. The tragic romance so needed by the avant-garde generation can only be found, ironically, in the mainstream sensationalist criteria by which ‘events’ are created. Like the guy who is tricked by his friends into thinking the friendly brunette sitting in the next table is ‘easy’, he is rewarded with emptiness and a stinging slap when he investigates further.
I was trying to find such a restaurant in my first night in Prague around New Years’ time when I was approached by a South Asian gentleman. I was walking down the street trying to look for the tell-tale sign of badly translated Chinese (‘Greatness Faith’ and ‘Wang Kee’ comes to mind). He was middle aged, with slightly greying hair and spoke English with a South Asian smoothness in the vowels and a mesh-up of ‘b’s and ‘p’s.
‘Hello, do you live around here?’ He said with a serene smile.
‘So we can be mistaken for locals everywhere now’ I don’t know what came over me, but I said with a broad smile, ‘Yes actually!’
‘I was wondering if you knew of any good Chinese restaurants around here’
‘As it happens I know of one just down this street! I’m going there right now, do you want to come?’
Shit what did I just do.
As we walked down the street I was desperately hoping for the stereotypes to be true, (Please let there be a Chinese restaurant on every street) while trying to keep up a normal conversation with the gentleman, whom I will call James.
‘So what brings you here to Prague?’
‘Oh just a family vacation. Have you lived here your whole life?’
‘My family moved here when I was a kid. We’re originally from Beijing. We’re refugees.’ Just dig the hole, Raymond. Dig the hole.
‘Oh I’ve been to Beijing! Great city! Stayed there for three months for work!’
Well then you’ve been there longer than me. ‘Ah three months is not enough for Beijing! And where do you live?’
As a student of international politics Switzerland was a by-word for important international organizations. My ears perked up.
‘And… what exactly do you do?’
‘I work in Geneva. I’m an administrator for the UN.’
FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK WHY DID I LIE WHY DID I LIE
‘Is something wrong?’
I’m leading a potential contact for my dream summer job on a wild goose chase for a Chinese restaurant right now and he thinks I’m an immigrant.
As luck would have it a Chinese restaurant, let’s call it Ling Kee, did appear on the horizon. Well that was lucky. Now ask him more about his job.
‘Ah! Was this the one you were talking about!’
‘Yes, I know the owners well.’ WHY RAYMOND WHY
‘So… what exactly do you do in the UN?’
‘Oh just administration things. I used to be more involved in the field. Was involved in Kosovo and Sierra Leone.’
Oh god oh god oh god WHY DID I LIE
‘Oh wow that’s interesting! What did you think of Milosevic dying during the trial?’
He looked slightly taken aback. ‘Are you a student here?’
‘Yes I study in Prague’ mmmmfffffff
‘Let me guess, do you study politics, or something related to it?’
‘Yes I study international relations actually.’ First truth of the day. See if you can keep this up.
At this point we arrived at the restaurant.
James went up to the waiter, a young Chinese woman who was slightly surprised at our late intrusion, and said ‘Do you have any stir-fried beef?’
‘Do you have any stir-fried beef? With onions, preferably?’
It was probably his accent because the woman looked at me and said in Chinese, ‘Is he speaking English?’
Sensing an opportunity, I stepped in and translated his request into Chinese. She nodded and shouted the order to a man working in the kitchen, probably her husband. I then ordered a chicken fried rice for myself. For some reason the woman called out my order in English, and it came out as ‘FLIED LICE!’
James laughed. Catching my glance he said ‘Oh it’s just the way she said it. It’s useful when you speak the language though isn’t it?’
You have an accent too you know. ‘Yes it does’ I said with a forced smile.
‘Take out or here?’
‘Here’ I said, hoping James would follow suit.
‘Take out please’
Damn. You’re losing him. Ask him more about his work. Ask him for his contact details, ANYTHING ‘So you like Chinese food?’
‘Yes! I must say it’s much more agreeable to my palate than most European cuisine. Food back in Sri Lanka is much stronger in flavor and I find Chinese food quite vibrant.’
Why are you two talking about food he works for the UN get his contact!!
‘That is true! I think both food cultures present and treat spices and marinades with equal attention compared to European cuisines. When you get a roast chicken the chicken takes centre stage, but in a chicken stir-fry, everybody gets their moment in the spotlight, so to speak. I guess in a way it’s more egalitarian.’
You’re an idiot.
‘I never looked at it that way! That’s an interesting take on food!’
I heard the sounds of pans from the kitchen. Oh no that’s his order. Drastic measures Raymond.
‘You know, I’ve always wanted to work for the UN’
Slightly bemused, he replied ‘Well yes it’s a very rewarding career.’
‘I was just wondering… how do you start a career there?’
He laughed. ‘I started working there before you were born! You should try applying for their summer internship, that’s how everybody gets started. Once you’re in you can make connections. Connections are important. You need to know the right people.’
Well that’s a bit ironic. ‘I’m a pretty capable student, don’t you think…’
‘Here you are sir’
‘Well it’s been a great meeting you!’ He took my hand and shook it briefly. As he left, the Chinese woman set my plate of flied lice down. The misty steam carried the familiar scent of home with it and momentarily I could ignore the self-reprimanding chant of ‘you idiot’ inside my head.
‘He was a strange fellow wasn’t he? Couldn’t understand his accent.’ The woman said in Chinese.
‘Yes…’ I said as I started eating— it was the real thing, the chicken was tender and properly marinated. The flavours weren’t watered down for the European palate and packed the full punch.
‘This is very good! It’s like I’m back at home!’
The woman smiled ‘We try to remain faithful to our own tastes. Whether the foreigners like it or not. So what brings you here to Prague?’
‘Just travelling. I study in Scotland and we’re on break. What about you?’
‘Oh, how I wish I could travel! It just seemed like a good idea to come abroad, didn’t really matter where, I guess. It’s quite nice, it’s just my husband and I and he works the kitchens while I take care of things out here. Poor thing it’s been a long day for him and the late-night takeout orders are flooding in. We actually have two children but they’re not here at the…’
The man called for her from the kitchen, and she left apologetically.
Sitting alone in the small restaurant with its fluorescent pale-blue light, I took in the plate of flied lice in front of me. I thought of James and the charade I fabricated for no reason. His laugh at the woman’s accent, and his seemingly friendly goodbye. I thought of my desperation, and a surge of guilt hit me. Flushed with a romantic urge for the genuine, I stood up and called out ‘Do you need some help in the kitchen?’