I'd been here all but two nights: Well, really two nights and one full day. So far, I'd had no idea what the heck I've swallowed, digested or let out. It all pretty much was a mystery. Allow me to go further.
After leaving one of the many pre-paid squatter bathrooms—housed in communal facilities—I headed out for an early dinner. Early in China being seven rather than nine or ten.
Did I feel like mystery soup? "No."
Perhaps I'd like to try mystery dumplings or noodles? "No. Not again."
Then, what about trying a big plate of rice and mystery meat? Well, I couldn't say "No" any more. Mystery seemed to be about the only edible in this old district of Beijing.
With not too many lights, virtually no cars on the constricted streets, and millions of bikes with riders swerving like crows that could darken a summer sky, there's nothing either different or not an epicurean mystery.
I walked into one featureless building that stood at the same height, width and length as all the others. Something out of a soviet architect's darkest dream: locked concrete chests held in families, dreams and promises. In a sort of melancholy, I wondered how very similar these buildings—or the idea of them—are to our Western suburbia hiding so much behind freshly baked, cookie-cutter designs.
I found a restaurant. It didn't really have a name that I knew of. There was a husband and presumably wife working side by side behind a small counter. There was a range and all sorts of strips, bits, chunks, hunks, nuggets and dollops of victuals lying on the counter. Not so tidy but cleaner than others I'd seen in such a short time.
"I'd like to order some food," I said in perfectly slow English that anyone should understand. Really, though, no one spoke much of my mother tongue.
I mimicked the motion of f-o-o-d i-n-t-o m-o-u-t-h that would win any drunken charades night. The small-framed lady pointed to a table with two chairs next to the door. There were maybe one or two more tables to choose from.
"Ok," I said, nodding.
She must have served foreigners before—or one too many times—because she didn't bring out a menu, per se. What she brought was a cheaply laminated, double-sided carte du jour with pictures; there were no words or prices. She stood there waiting in anticipation. Now point to the food you want like a good monkey.
I pointed to a plate of something and a bowl of something else.
How in the world will they create that from this? I thought to myself as I peered back over the counter. What a mystery this culture is.
In less than ten minutes, I had the paste-brown bowl of cloudy soup in front of me. Looked like a vat of Dr. Evil's serum, but smelled like grandma's best minestrone. I took a slurp and sipped the steaming brew. Not bad. I thought. A mystery but still pretty tasty.
As I polished off the last spoonful, the venerable lady brought me a plate of obscurity mixed with sauce and brown pith that had to be meat. Looking a bit puzzled, I took a bite of the steam encroached salver. Salty and a bit sweet and, again, not bad. I said to myself.
I looked over to her and smiled. She was wrapping up a hunk of meat, what looked like a leg. There were hairs still near the hoof. The upper quarter looked as if it had just been freshly ripped—not cut mind you—from the animal as it slept.
I think I'm eating pieces of that with my rice, I thought as I chewed slower and slower.
The mystery was solved at least. I finished the dish, paid, said thanks and darted. This all felt so unreal that I was scared I wasn't going to wake up. I never did.
Culture shock in China is, in reality, an entire body electrocution. You sitting there at the mercy of some torturers' fingertips, blindfolded but fully aware. A sentiment but not reality.
The mysteries of China will always hold a bitter yet absolvable taste in my palate. Especially the mysteriousness of its food and where in the world it comes from.