Feed Meh—A Story of Food in Shanghai

There are several questions that people have been asking me pretty consistently since I decided I was going to uproot my entire life and move to China. The most common question I get, however, is “what’s the food like?”

I’ve also heard many presumptions, assumptions and other kinds of “umptions” about what the food is like, so I thought today I’d set the record straight and give a little bit of education about what the food is really like here in Shanghai. Disclaimer: I’ve only been here a short while and claiming to know everything about Chinese cuisine would be like visiting New Haven, Connecticut and claiming to know everything about American cuisine (to be fair, the NH does have some pretty amazing food, but I digress…)

It’s A Dog Eat Dog World

Ok, so the big one that I got from many people before leaving was commenting about how the Chinese eat dog…or cat…or any other number of “weird” foods. First of all, assuming that any food people eat is “weird” is a little insensitive—because if we’re being honest, making a pastry in a lab, filled with chemicals, pumped full of preservatives so it can stay on the shelf for years, and then deep-frying it? Uhh…Americans eat some “weird” stuff too, so my mindset is live and let live—and I’ll still eat what I like.

As for meats, I have seen a huge variety—but no dog or cat. I have heard that sometimes there can be “counterfeit meat”, meaning that a restaurant says it’s chicken but it’s really something else. I have not encountered this (that I know of) and honestly, it’s not my biggest concern right now. I DO see a ton of seafood—especially squid, octopus, shrimp (delightfully, British-ly called prawns here), fish—as well as chicken, pork, and steak (or other variations of cow meat). Tofu is also in great supply—which is nice when I don’t feel like being risky with the meat.

If I may address one final “meat in China” issue—there was a big backlash several months ago about the mistreatment of dogs being used for meat in China. I don’t recall what these stories actually said—and again, I’m no expert, nor have I seen dog meat—but for those who are so up in arms about those stories—and still eat hamburgers, steaks, and chicken in the US—I suggest you do a little research about factory farming stateside. You may want to start a little closer to home with your outrage…

Ahh, there I go on a tangent again. Back to food in Shanghai. There are, as well all know, two types of food to experience in any city—local restaurant cuisine, and the grocery store. I begin first with the dining out experience, and then will give you a little walk through some of the supermarkets that I’ve been to.

Most of the restaurants I’ve been to here in Shanghai have been fantastic. Typically, everything is family style and sharing plates, which I think is the best way to eat. It allows for much more variety during meals, and (so far) has lead to many lively conversations about which dish is best. Plus, for those familiar with Friends, I share a similar sentiment to Joey in that “JOEY DOESN’T SHARE FOOD”. I dislike sharing when I’ve ordered my own meal—but when it’s a meal meant to be shared, game on!

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Me when I order my own meal.

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Me when it’s sharesies.

The top meal I’ve had thus far was back at the beginning of my move here. In the trendier, downtown area of Shanghai is a place called Szechuan Citizen. I may have already mentioned this place but it was Just. That. Good. We ate the best ribs I think I’ve ever had in my life, huge (maybe 8-9 inch pieces) with the meat falling off the bone and unbelievable spices. I, being a life-long shrimp fan, also had the best shrimp I’ve ever had. They were marinated in a red tomato-y sauce and were so tender and juicy by the time we ate them, they barely had to be chewed. Plus the entire meal, including many drinks, cost each of us about 300 rmb (~$50).

There are also many excellent Western restaurants—I’ve had several good burgers and gone to a couple of great Mexican places—which makes me grateful to live in such a large city. I am certainly eager to continue to learn about local food, but it’s nice to have something familiar when I want. Additionally, Asian cuisine in general—from Japanese food and sushi, to Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, and all the different cuisines of China—is plentiful here.

Grocery Store Dropout

Going to the grocery store has always required a bit of thinking on my part. I rarely make lists and I never remember what I need, so I frequently wander the aisles, picking items at random (on another note, we may have located the root cause of why I don’t eat healthier meals…). When you couple that experience with living in a foreign country, where products are typically only labeled in Chinese, and you have no idea what some items that you’re looking at ARE, it’s a task and a half.

First, there are a variety of food store locations—large shops like Wal-Mart and Carrefour, smaller markets, and then even smaller places that simply sell meat or fruits and veggies. The “one stop shop” doesn’t exactly exist here and I sometimes have to visit multiple stores to get everything I want—though Carrefour and Wal-Mart get pretty close. Disclaimer: Wal-Mark here is not the Wal-Mart of the U.S. I can’t even entirely explain why, it’s just really different. Basically the only similarity is the logo and a few products.

The setup of these stores is different than in the US as well—due mainly to the difference in products—and it took me forever to find things like paper towels, soy milk, and coffee because they’re just not in the same old places. Plus there are many new items, like the massive displays of snacks and treats throughout the store:

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Western food is actually fairly easy to find but you’ll pay for it. Breakfast has been the biggest type of food I miss—though I have been able to find some cereals and other breakfast-y things. I also find myself at the store, randomly lusting after foods that I wouldn’t even necessarily buy in the US. For example, I saw a jar of pickles the other day and immediately my mind said “PICKLES!!!!! Picklespicklespicklespicklespicklespickles yum pickles!”

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I did not buy the pickles, but my intense desire to do so was intriguing. I suppose it’s because they don’t come with every meal here like they do in the US. Also, small side note, I feel like such a creep taking pictures of ordinary things like the grocery store. You would think I’d feel cool and stealthy, like a spy or something. Nope, just creepy.

The meats and seafood section of the grocery store is also quite different. The seafood section looks more like a pet store in my eyes because everything is alive—fish, crabs, frogs, octopi, etc. None of the meat or seafood is wrapped in anything and the butcher does not wear gloves while cutting it, which also struck me as vastly different from the US—where the meat is honestly not necessarily healthier/less prone to microbes just because it’s in plastic.

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As I said before, there is more tofu than you can possibly fathom, in more shapes than you can possibly dream of. This is a happy thing for those, like me, who fear the meat sometimes. Rice and grains come in massive bags and every variety you can possibly think of. It seems prudent to purchase rice in these mass quantities, especially for the cost, but I hate the idea of having to carry that home…and up 6 flights of stairs…

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Carrefour has a particularly large selection of baked goods and sweets. The thing I’ve noticed about many foods here—both sweets and other snacks—is that they don’t seem to be as saturated with ingredients as in the US. For example, sweets don’t taste as sugary, and savory snacks are not as salty. It’s actually kind of nice and my tongue and stomach are happier not being overloaded with flavors.

There are “familiar” products that come in different and intriguing flavors. For example, these orange mango Oreos—which I bought, and they taste like those chocolate oranges they sell around Christmastime. In fact, Oreos seem to be incredibly popular here. I frequently see huge shelves full of them, as well as other Oreo products (like cookie bars and other variations on the original).

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There are also many intriguing varieties of potato chips, such as chicken and rib flavors, and even these squid chips—which I have not bought and don’t know if I’m brave enough to try yet. My absolute favorite new chip is the BBQ Doritos a coworker introduced me to. Not sure if they exist in the US, but they should.

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I did get my hand on those delicious Laughing Cow cheese cubes (which I haven’t seen since elementary school and came in ham and tomato flavors as well as plain) and some Wisconsin cheddar, as well as some Goldfish. All of these things cost me far more than Chinese products but it was nice to have something familiar.

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Dried fruits are plentiful here and I particularly like these dried kiwi slices. You can also find kiwi berries—which are THE GREATEST THING EVER. They’re like mini skinless kiwis you can just pop in your mouth!

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I also bought cat plates. Because, cat plates.

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Entering and exiting both Carrefour and Wal-Mart requires riding escalator ramps. You can even push your cart onto them and the wheels lock into place on the floor of the ramp. The most amusing part are these Tyson chicken adds, in which this guy is REALLY excited about chicken.

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It’s an adventure every time I go.

It’s a Safety Dance

The last big thing about food here in China is safety. As I’ve mentioned a few times, the safety and cleanliness standards are a bit different here and so you need a healthy level of wariness to stay, well, healthy.

First and foremost, the water is not drinkable. I don’t even use it to brush my teeth (although you can, I’m just super paranoid and also need an excuse to use up the massive amounts of water I had delivered to my apartment). You can shower with it, and cook with it as long as it’s been boiled. But for drinking, you have to use bottled water. So nearly everyone has one of these fancy contraptions at home (not something I ever thought I’d own):

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The bonus with this is that it also gives you instant hot water—which is great for tea in the morning! I have an electric kettle but apparently sometimes I’m just too lazy to wait 2 minutes for the water to boil. Instant gratification for the win!

Because the water isn’t drinkable, however, you have to be careful about vegetables and fruits too. Sometimes these foods have been washed in the tap water and now have harmful bacteria on them. Sometimes they’re just not kept in clean places. Either way, it’s good to be wary—some people suggest not eating anything unless it has a thick skin you can peel off. I haven’t stuck to this suggestion—mostly because my body hated me when I first got here and wasn’t eating enough fruit and veggies—and I just hope for the best.

Everyone who I’ve met here says that street food is amazing and you have to try it. That said, “street food” means food made at a little cart on the side of the road and cleanliness is typically not a huge important factor. I have not yet been brave enough to try it but who knows.

Adjusting to the food here in general has been interesting. There is a large amount of drinkable yogurt that you can find in most grocery and convenience stores, and I find that the yogurt helps stabilize my digestion. I’ve had some upset stomachs—and one particularly queasy experience that I do not care to recall—that my new best friend Pepto Bismol has come to the rescue during. The downside is that there is not a plethora of pharmaceutical drugs here like in the US (what I wouldn’t give to see a local Walgreens or CVS…). I’m not sure what will happen when my friend Pepto finally runs out…but I have my fingers crossed.

So there you have it. That’s my 1.5 months experience with food in China. I am sure I will have many more stories and experiences to share in the coming months (good ones I hope!).

Until next post!

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Comfort in the Uncomfortable

The most difficult thing about updating this blog, besides finding making the time to write, is picking something to focus on. There is so much “new” on a daily basis for me, that I find my brain flitting in ten thousand directions when I sit down to write them down and I find it difficult to remain focused on one theme in my posts. However, I aim to be a somewhat decent writer, therefore I decided to dispose of reorganize my previous post into several new posts, which I’ll put up throughout the week. Today’s post is on being comfortable in the uncomfortable—which I consider the biggest challenge to living in a new, foreign location.

The first major trip I took without my family was during my sophomore year of college, to visit my friend Julie and her family on the Big Island of Hawaii. I still remember very clearly the feeling I had before leaving—that I wasn’t actually going to get to go. I was certain some unforeseen event would occur and I would not ever make it on my big exciting trip (me not having a state ID or driver’s license, and losing my birth certificate nearly did cause this to happen. How’s that for a self-fulfilling prophecy? I still owe my mom for bailing me out of this one. Thanks mom). There was something too fantastical about the idea of Hawaii to me. It just seemed far too good to be true and I couldn’t possibly deserve to actually have that experience.

But, I did indeed go—and I credit that experience with giving me the confidence and guts to try all my other travel experiences. From moving to New Orleans, to Chicago, to traveling Europe and now living in China, I knew I could do each of these things because of my experiences in Hawaii. So thank you to Julie and her wonderful family for that one (I credit her especially with helping me to be a traveler, not a tourist, and to be sensitive to cultural differences—and to try new things, like scrumptious sushi! Thanks Julie). The trip was phenomenal and though there were many times that I was nervous to try something new, I did it anyway and I will forever remember these life-altering experiences.

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Especially eating that raw octopus tentacle.

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How many tickles does it take to make an octopus laugh? Ten tickles.

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Octopus! It was chewy.

As recently as 6 months ago, moving to another country was not something I dreamed I’d be doing any time soon. Even after getting the job, I still had that same familiar feeling I’d had before going to Hawaii—that it just wouldn’t ever happen. I feel like this must be a sort of normal response before a major life event, especially one you’ve never experienced before. And obviously, here I am in Shanghai, clearly living here, so I guess it worked! Incidentally, this same theory is also one I use to think about my dating life—which I talk about back in my first post to this blog (if you haven’t read it, check it out. It’s the one I’m most proud of).

It would certainly be easy to feel this feeling of impossibility and think the worst. After all, how many people have fears that are actually a manifestation of our fear of the unknown—i.e. ending up alone, fear of the dark, etc. Aren’t most fears linked to what we cannot control or know? There seems to be little in life that is as unknowable or controllable as moving to a new country—especially one in which you do not speak the language! Sure, I researched it a fair bit before moving, but that’s a little like reading someone’s OKC profile before going on a date—it’s never exactly the same as you imagined it would be. So it would certainly be easy to not be able to imagine what life in this new country would be like, and turn into a total Fanny Fussbudget, like one unfortunate soul I met recently.

This person has been fussy since arrival—hates the food, hates the cleanliness level of the city, feels mistrustful of taxis and any service people. They have consistently asked questions such as “and you’re sure they’re not trying to cheat you?” when signing up for a phone plan—with our Chinese liaison (no, I’m pretty sure she’s friggin’ good at her job. She’s actually awesome, since you didn’t ask). I’ve had such a hard time understanding why someone would choose to move here with this attitude. In general I have a hard time with people like this—those who are always determined to find the negative. Don’t get me wrong, I was a little freaked about some of those same things when I got here. But the beauty and joy of traveling is breaking out of that which you know and learning something new. If all you’re going to do is whine the whole time, might as well go home (seriously, please go home).

On the flip side, I feel my (inner, mental) world rapidly expanding the longer I’m here. I’m ravenous for more experiences—to learn the language, to find those things which make Shanghai and China unique, to meet locals and hear their stories, to learn about my students’ lives. I find myself wondering more and more how I can build some sort of permanent life this way—traveling and learning from people, teaching, exploring, and advocating. I envision some sort of future in which I am both highly paid and travel the world learning from people and experiencing other cultures. Recently I created my own “Bucket List” to go with my students’ project and decided I’d like to visit all 195 countries in the world. I want to see it all.

In the post formerly known as this one, I mention an episode of This American Life that featured David Sedaris. While I love Sedaris—Me Talk Pretty One Day was one of the first books that ever made me laugh out loud as an adult—I sometimes found him a little prickly (his own version of Debbie Downer) in the episode. That said, he makes some incredibly insightful points about living abroad. The one that continues to come to mind as I build my life here is as follows:

“It’s that thinking that makes me feel alive. And it makes me notice everything around me. When I become complacent like I was in the United States, you just get used to things so you don’t think about them. You think, I’ll get a cab. I’ll go to the airport. I’ll have a patty melt. You don’t think about it. Whereas now with me, the anxiety starts early on. And I’m always afraid that somebody’s going to throw me a curve ball and ask me a question like, what sign are you? Just ask me a question like that out of nowhere. And I’ll appear foolish. So it keeps me on edge. But really, that edginess has always made me feel alive.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this entire excerpt (though less so with other portions of his interview. You can check out the entire thing here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/165/americans-in-paris It’s definitely worth a listen).

Living abroad, in a place that speaks a language you are not entirely fluent in, is an anxiety-filled experience. One of my first nights here, I simply did not eat dinner because I was too anxious to venture out and even ask anyone where to get food—and I am not a typical meal skipper (I’d like to say because it’s unhealthy to skip meals but it’s because I love meals). Looking back now, even just a month later, this seems silly. Of course I know how to get food. But it is stressful and anxiety-ridden to explore and ask and fumble (or more likely for me, pantomime) your way through asking a non-English speaker for help and I remember that feeling well.

But to truly survive, and ultimately thrive (sorry, had to) in a new country—as David mentions (we’re old friends)—you have to embrace that feeling. And it is that feeling that actually reminds you that you’re alive. He has so nicely summarized why I sound so chipper and excited when I call my parents. I am happy and feeling good about being here because I feel alive. Every day is a constant challenge, a chance for something new to happen or to be discovered. While I appreciate some level of routine in my life (like getting up, showering, brushing teeth, etc.), I have never appreciated the mundane routine of monotonous life. It was that reason that lead me to realize I never wanted to work in food service—because to me, every day was too similar (I have the utmost respect for those who do though, after all it’s they who serve me those meals I like. But it’s not for me).

Honestly, I was scared before I left—and when I first arrived—that I wouldn’t be able to hack it here. I honestly had a conversation with my therapist in Chicago about how much I hate to be uncomfortable—both physically and mentally/emotionally. But the longer I’m here, the more I see how beneficial it is to be uncomfortable (mentally/emotionally at least) and how much I can grow from this experience. There are lots of unsavory aspects of life here—the tap water is undrinkable, there are shaky health standards for foods, it can frequently smell less-than-appetizing, people push and shove, and I’ve seen more poop and vomit on the sidewalks than I’d care to. Any of these aspects of life could be reason to give up, fly home, and stay within my comfort zone. But none of these things is impossible to deal with—and honestly you stop thinking about any of them much when you adjust to living here. More importantly, these minor inconveniences (if you can even call them that—minor bothers?) are far outweighed by the magic of being able to have this experience.

Each morning, I wake up in the morning excited to be here and to find out what new things will come from the day. I find the entire experience endlessly fascinating—and while I am sure that this feeling will one day come to an end, as Sedaris says later in his interview (sorry, I mean David, forgot we’re besties), I’ve got it now. When it does go away, then maybe I’ll find another adventure to take on. Everything, no matter how large or small the experience, comes back to how you approach it and your frame of mind. If you choose to narrow your window so that you can only see the poop on the sidewalk or the massive crowds, or whatever other slightly irksome detail, you’re really missing a lot. Like, uh, an entire culture and country. Imagine if people came to the US and just saw one small aspect of our country before judging us…oh the outrage!

So fill a big bowl up with that discomfort and ooze yourself on in! Now if only I can take my own damn advice and apply this to my dating life…Another post for another day 😉