How had I become a lazy traveler? I started sleeping in on my day off and heading out to taste different types of Chinese cuisines on the campus I was staying at, and I began wasting time at the local Megamall. I do love searching the internet for the destination of a cultural heritage site or historical marvel and finding myself in a neighbourhood that is totally unrecognizable to me. I love the high of not knowing if I will find my destination and having to connect with locals to ask for directions in pigeon Chinese.
I love thinking I’ve missed the great cultural site and that I am close to giving up on finding it and suddenly having it present itself to me. I really do. But I had become a little travel weary and so I cheated as an adventurer and began trying the different dishes on campus and sitting in the sun. The campus dining hall was a marvelous revelation to me as I could get a bowl full of rice, beef and gravy for 11 yuan($1.83). I also fell in love with the sweet and sour chicken, chili peppers, potatoes and peanuts dish for 8 yuan($1.33). I also loved the survival game that I would have to play to order these yummy dishes. It was usually lunch time and I approached the cashier and I either said “Ji-ro(Chicken) or Niuro(beef) and I would wait for the outcome of my meat lottery. Sometimes, I would get my favourite dish and other times I was able to taste new meat/rice mixtures.
Soon in my desperate attempts to communicate with the meat counter lady I began waiting for other people’s orders to come up and I would simply point at their delicious meals. And finally I started taking photos of my meals and I would show them to the woman. It was perfect; I would flash the photo on my phone and she would nod. Everything was right with the world and it was like I had spoken fluent Chinese to get my desired dish. Well, not really fluent Chinese, not exactly.
I also became skilled in the art of pointing to pictures, and asking students who spoke English to listen to my order and then ask for it in Chinese. Students helped me to order freshly wrapped homemade dumplings, chicken and onion pies, sizzling iron plates of beef(11 yuan) and fresh mini pork buns. The students had started making jokes about their teacher who seemed very interested in trying the local foods at the dining hall. For 11 yuan you bet I was excited.
On my day off I also began venturing lazily to the nearby megamall – Joy City. Yes, a city of joy it definitely was. Going to this mall was my way to fill the little ache in my chest that seems to exist for me when I am living abroad. It is the ache for something familiar and comfortable. So I would often walk through the sparkling white halls of Joy City looking at clothes that would never fit me as the basic Chinese sizes were super small. I would also marvel at the 9 floor complex complete with entertainment centres, Imax movies, 4 levels of uber food courts and restaurants which elevated my shopping trip to a glitzy eye catching retail experience.
The food courts and restaurants were my favourite as the top 4 levels of the mall housed restaurants that served up cuisine hailing from different areas of China. I was thrilled to see a restaurant for food from Macau that almost looked like a restaurant in Provence, France with cute shutters, windows and brightly coloured walls. I peered into the restaurant and saw my favorite Portuguese tarts sitting there waiting to be eaten. The exotic idea of the Portuguese/Chinese mix seemed quite exciting. Next, I passed by Southern Chinese restaurants that had spicier fare. There were also some fast food places that were so familiar to me in Canada but the meals now seemed like a fancy indulgence that I coveted in China. I craved the once seemingly simple Subway sub sandwiches that were everywhere in Canada but seemed to be novel and special to the Chinese people who ordered them. I also found the New York Fries stand which was a unique discovery in Beijing.
Some of my favourite places in these uber food courts were the fancy dessert places where you can get sweet red bean shaved iced desserts, colourful smoothies in cute glasses, puffed pastries and specially made cheesecakes. I was introduced to a Tibetan dessert place called “Meet Fresh” that was started by an elderly Tibetan couple. My students led me to the place and I trusted them to order a dessert for me. When I saw the massive mountain of ice shavings and red bean sauce that was presented to me I was definitely overwhelmed. It was enough for 2 or 3 people and my students had ordered it just for me. Despite my worries I began to chip away at my ice volcano and found, surprisingly, that it was quite delicious. The sweet red bean was not overpowering and the shaved ice was mixed with a kind of milky liquid that made it taste more like light ice cream. But alas, I could not finish the whole volcano, but I was thrilled to have tried a Tibetan treat. And so my adventures as a lazy traveler had begun.