2012 Asia Date Food Geography Interest

A Day in the Park – Spider Kebabs and Other Oddities, Beijing, China

I may have mentioned this once or twice before, but China can sometimes seem like a seriously weird place.

I go there frequently, and often I find myself getting drawn into a sense of comfortable familiarity. Flashy shopping malls filled with international brand-name stores; neon lights and four-lane highways; herds of ipad toting teenagers squeezed into fashionable denim jeans – you can easily be forgiven for thinking that thing in China nowadays are the same as anywhere else in the global village. After a few uneventful visits I start thinking to myself: “hey, it is not so different here, after all”.

Then, every now and again, I find myself colliding head-on with what I might call, for want of a better description, “the real China”, a place that for a foreigner is entirely unknown, and incredibly strange indeed. At times like this it feels like a bucket of ice-cold reality water being poured over me, specifically designed to remind me just how unfamiliar China can be at times. At which point I start thinking to myself: “hey, what the fuck, why am I actually here at all?

Take as an example a Sunday I spent in Beijing, not so long ago.

I had meetings on a Friday and more meetings scheduled for early the following week, and I didn’t feel like flying back to Singapore on Friday evening only to turn around and fly back on Sunday night. So I decided to stay in Beijing over the weekend. This would not only cut down on flying, but would also give me some time to go exploring and hopefully see something of the city outside of the usual cycle of meetings, business banquets and traffic jams.

On this particular Sunday, it was cold, the sun was shining and the sky was cloudless. The air was hazy, as the air always is in Beijing, but my eyes were not red and stinging which meant that the haze was in fact haze, as opposed to the usual air pollution. That’s as good as the weather gets for outdoor activities in Beijing, so I decided to kick off my morning with a stroll around a large public park.

In the park, local Beijingers were out in force, taking full advantage of their Sunday. There were families on excursion, parents fawning and fussing endlessly over their “little emperors” – an army of overindulged (and often worryingly overweight) single children that exist as a consequence of China’s one-child policy. There were students and young people enjoying their one day off from school and work; joggers and walkers criss-crossed the park in all directions; in various spots groups of people were gathered dancing, or performing what looked to be incredibly complex tai chi routines. Of course, the pods of Chinese exercise machines scattered strategically around the place were all being well used (see my previous blog Dullsville, Australia – on Paul Keating and Chinese Exercise Machines).

As I was sauntering along, something caught my eye: a wrinkled old man, almost bent over double with age, holding a small ornamental bamboo bird-cage. As he shuffled along, the little bird inside the cage was chirping away, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine. It seems that this old geezer, barely able to walk, was nonetheless out on this sunny Sunday morning walking his bird, in much the same way someone in Central Park in New York, or in Hyde Park in London, might walk their dog.

Once I noticed this one bird-walker, I noticed another, and then another, and pretty soon it seemed that everywhere I looked, there was some elderly citizen holding a birdcage and walking a bird. Every bird-walker seemed to be at least 60 years old, dressed in something approximating a Mao suit and slippers.

Bird walkers are a signature feature of public parks all over China, where it is believed that walking a bird in the sunshine, gently swinging its cage back and forth as you walk, promotes in the bird an enhanced will to sing. This hobby has supposedly been popular since at least the time of the Qing dynasty in the 1600s, and is an activity so well-known in China that it has its own Chinese name: “liu niao”, literally meaning “to take his bird”. Which, incidentally, hints at another interesting factoid about bird-walking: you are most unlikely to see any birds being walked by women. In China, the task of taking the family bird out for a walk is exclusively the job of a man.

As if folks walking their birds were not strange enough, I then became aware of a fair number of people doing their morning walk, only backwards. Yes, you heard me – people decked out in sneakers and track-suits, walking around the park just like I was, except that they were doing so backwards.

Some schools of Chinese medicine believe that walking backwards is good for health: it stimulates circulation and metabolism, and activates parts of the brain that don’t normally get used. This is enough to inspire a good number of otherwise normal people to take up the rather strange morning activity of backwards-walking.

I do not wish to belittle the supposed health benefits of backwards-walking. However, walking backwards does have one fairly major deficiency over more conventional forms of ambulation like, say, walking forwards in the way God designed us to walk. That is, unless you’re Batman, you can’t see shit ahead of you if you’re walking backwards.

This inconvenience didn’t seem to especially bother the backward-walkers out in the park that morning, but it certainly bothered me: every few minutes, while hot on the trail of an elderly bird walker, I had to make a tactical sidestep to avoid a collision with someone power-walking along vigorously and purposefully, but backwardly.

So the first Chinese weirdness of the day: Sunday morning park-goers, walking their birds or walking backwards.

Around mid-morning, I was resting for a short while on a park bench in the shade of a tree, sipping a strong black coffee. At the next bench along sat an old lady. She was dressed in a matching top-and-bottom set that looked like floral-print pyjamas, an outfit that old ladies in China seem to love so much. She had a deeply creased face, wispy white hair, and she looked wise and serene and contented with life. She smiled at me in a grandmotherly way, her bright white teeth gleaming in the sunshine, and I smiled back. It was a lovely moment.

And then, without warning, she suddenly began making a demonic, violent snorting noise, as she sucked up into the back of her throat every last bit of mucous to be found lurking in her aged sinuses, and probably also a few small insects that were unlikely enough to be flying past just then. This was followed by a raspy, jet-plane loud hoiking sound, liberating a massive wad of phlegm from the deepest recess of her throat. Her face twisted grotesquely as she then spat it onto the pavement with great vigour. Then she turned her head and, evidently satisfied, smiled sweetly at me again.

I didn’t smile back this time. I was in shock: before my very eyes a sweet old grandma had been temporarily possessed by the devil.

Second Chinese weirdness of the day: in the Middle Kingdom, it is perfectly acceptable for everyone – even little old ladies – to snort, hoik and spit.

I continued my stroll in the park, and a short while later I noticed ahead of me a humming, animated throng of people. As I approached it turned out to be a much larger crowd than had seemed in the distance, with the pulsating liveliness and noise of a market. I always like the local colour of markets, and I thought perhaps I could find something to snack on, and maybe buy a few interesting trinkets.

It was not that kind of market.

After a few minutes of wandering around I noticed that at this “market” the only “stallholders” were mainly elderly Chinese, alone or in couples, all of whom had set up similar “stalls”. Some were professional productions, some were simple wooden easels, but all the stalls had a common overall appearance: a photograph of a fresh-faced young man or woman, pasted onto a board, surrounded by bits of paper covered in Chinese symbols and numbers.

I had stumbled onto a uniquely Chinese phenomenon known as a “marriage market”. The “little emperors” I mentioned before are, due to the one-child policy that creates them, often the central focus of attention for up to six doting adults: mum, dad, and two sets of besotted grandparents.  Seeing their sole heir secure a suitable marriage partner becomes one of the primary concerns (some may say an obsession) in the life of these six adults.

The heir in question, however, is usually so busy cramming through their university studies, or so enslaved to their job six or seven days a week, that they barely have time to sleep, much less get out on the dating scene in order to find Mr or Mrs Right.

So anxious parents and grandparents, relying on the age-old Chinese tradition of arranged marriages, might decide take matters into their own hands. After all, why on earth would you leave something as important as the selection of a life-partner to an overworked hormonally driven twenty-something?

Hence the “marriage markets”, which spring up on weekends in the corners of public parks around China, where parents or grandparents of eligible singles will set up shop, and “sell” their children to anyone who happens to be passing by.

The photos are like a typical advertisement – designed to lure in potential customers. The accompanying numbers and squiggles follow through with the sales pitch, listing all the salient information that any potential suitor would need to know: sex, age, height, place of education, qualification, home village, job, income level, hukou (residential status – being a property owner as opposed to a mere renter is a big deal in China), Communist party membership, zodiac sign, smoking habits, drinking habits, gambling habits, and so on.

Some parents, eager to get to the point and not wanting to be accused of misrepresentation if things progress, will go so far as to provide quite brutally honest assessments of their own offspring: “handsome, shy, likes video games, has bad acne”; or “plain, fat and short, cooks well, good hips”.

Prospective in-laws will mill about studying the displays, and if anything on offer catches their eye, they might commence discussions / negotiations with the other side. It is unbridled free-market economics at play, and I kept thinking to myself: “wow, this certainly gives a whole new meaning to the concept of a meat market”.

Third Chinese weirdness of the day (and now I felt like I was really moving up a notch in the weirdness stakes): spouse-shopping at the marriage market.

As I was leaving the park, I crossed a large, open grassy area, where many families had laid out picnic blankets or canvasses, and were enjoying a restful lunch in the sunshine. As a result there were also a fair number of toddlers and young children running about. And as I walked across the grassy area, I noticed that most of these toddlers and young children were all diaper-free, and they seemed to be peeing and crapping constantly.

You may ask, quite understandably, how exactly did I notice this? Well, it wasn’t hard. Most of the toddlers in question were wearing these cute little infant jump-suits that looked just like any other cute little infant jumpsuit, except for one distinct feature that seems to be peculiar to China: a slit up the back, from crotch to bum. When the kiddies need to go, all they do is squat down, the split is pulled apart, and their delicate little pee-pees and derriers are now hanging free. Hey presto! – the world is their toilet.

So I could quite literally see little people all around me doing that which ordinarily I’d expect to be kept within the privacy of their diapers.

Perhaps because of the greater freedom that a jumpsuit pooh-hole offers, it also seemed to me like these Chinese toddlers had a super-developed capacity to go, all the time. For their part the parents seemed to be quite happy to let their little ones go with abandon, anywhere and everywhere, and unlike with dogs, there appeared to be no requirement for parents to clean up after their child. Nobody seemed the least bit perturbed when a three-year old squatted down and pooped three feet away from where their picnic lunch was laid out. It was all very odd, to say the least, and I found myself stepping gingerly through the grass, lest I step in a fresh-laid human turd.

All of which becomes the fourth Chinese weirdness that rounded out my morning: the amazing open-arsed diaper-free infant pants.

That evening, as night fell, I went for a walk along Wangfujing, the main pedestrian mall at the centre of Beijing. I followed the road from Wangfujing towards the Forbidden City, and along the roadside the darkness had brought out a long line of street-food carts, smoky and all lit up in neon.

The first thing I noticed was that everything on offer from these street food vendors was in some form or another on a stick: kind of like an endless array of Chinese shish-kebabs. This type of street food is famous in Beijing, and is known as chuan’r, or rather unimaginatively, “food on a stick”. You simply point to the stick you want, and the stallholder will cook it while you wait and then hand it to you so you can munch on it as you continue your stroll.  

My food-on-a-stick adventure began innocently enough – I ordered a couple of grilled chicken and beef skewers, and some vegetables, fruits and shiny toffee apples, all somehow elegantly presented on skewers.

Before long, however, the stick-food displays became increasingly exotic, and one of my personal golden rules of life in China became abundantly evident: if you can eat it without it killing you, the Chinese will.

The next few stalls consisted of animal bits – hearts, livers, spinal cords, all neatly skewered and ready for grilling. Then came the seafoods – squirmy eels, slimy squids and long pulsating octopus tentacles. At one stall a bit further along, the owner was offering up what looked like entire baby birds on a stick. Actually, they were tiny Chinese sparrows, to be deep-fried and eaten whole. Apparently, the soft bones add a little bit of added texture and crunch…..

At the next stall, I was offered fresh snake meat, according to the stallholder guaranteed to give my masculine libido a super-charge. From there, it just became downright weird: deep-fried scorpion, with or without stinger intact?  Starfish, whole or by the arm? Larvae a-la plancha? Grasshopper, crickets, caterpillar, silkworm, or even little brown silkworm cocoons, mounted five to a stick (actually, I must confess, I tried the grilled silkworm cocoon, which was not so bad: a bit mushy, but oddly sweet).

Everywhere I looked, there were steamers and woks and sputtering vats of hot oil. The assorted creepy-crawlies on offer were impaled on skewers and neatly laid out on trays. I just needed to point to one, and the vendor would pick up the skewer and without ceremony steam it, boil it, or fry it for my dining pleasure.

Somehow, swept up in the mood of the moment, I found myself pointing to a stick on which was mounted one furry, exceedingly large and ugly spider. What on earth was I doing? Even the street food vendor looked slightly shocked at the prospect of a gwai-loh ordering up the tarantula treat. A quick dip of the stick into hot oil, and I was munching on the crispy fried leg of a spider. Crunchy and tasteless; I have nothing more to say.

At one stall, I came across live sea-horses, already impaled on a skewer but still alive. As they writhed around on the stick they looked at me with these big, brown sea-horsey eyes, as if to say “please, don’t eat us”. No such luck –  someone standing next to me pointed to the very stick I was looking at and, wham, still wriggling they were plunged into a bubbling cauldron of oil for a few seconds – just long enough to cook and nicely crisp the cute little critters.

The guy standing next to me now grabbed his stick of recently (like two seconds ago) deceased sea-horses, happily biting into one with great gusto. It crunched loudly, kind of like a cracker. The lightly fried sea-horse next in line on the stick was still looking at me, the same mournful look on its little sea-horse face now set in place permanently by the hot oil during its fiery death. It was all just too horrible, and I hung about for a good ten minutes, but I just could not bring myself to order a stick.

A bit disappointing, given that I have an adventurous stomach and I pride myself on being willing to try most things, at least once. Still, I am happy to know that I found my personal gastronomic limit, which is that I don’t eat flash-fried live sea-horse. It is always good to have boundaries.

And thus my day of Chinese weirdness in Beijing ended in style: Arachnid kebab (which I ate) and sea-horse skewers (which I just couldn’t).

Need I say more? As I said at the start, the China that may feel familiar to a foreigner can sometimes prove to be a very thin veneer indeed. It doesn’t take much to find so many things that can seem really weird about the country. I had encountered bird-walkers and backward walkers, marriage markets, spitting grandmas, free-shitting toddlers, and the joys of snacking on deep-fried spider. All in just one short, average Sunday in Beijing.

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