Right across Nanjing Road from my hotel is “Shanghai First Foodhall,” a modern multi-floor building filled with food shopping. From various traditional snacks and sweets to noodle soup and dumplings, the building tries to pull the whole local food experience together for tourists perhaps too nervous to step off the pedestrian mall.
I went inside to have a look and shoppers – mostly Chinese – looked like shoppers at any mall in the world, picking up boxes wrapped in cellophane and stuffing them into their bags like it was a close-out sale. I went to one of the food courts thinking that I might sort out some dumplings, my favorite. Nothing was in English and though I stood like a creep staring over the counters at food servers, no one looked at me nor made any attempt to steer me to the cashier where I believe the process starts. In Bangkok, food courts require you to go put money on a card and the vendor uses a scanner to deduct the value. It eliminates the need for each vendor to handle money. This is partly for the inconvenience of it in a busy cafeteria and partly for matters of security – no noodle maker is skimming off the top. Here it seemed you ordered at the counter, took a receipt, paid, and returned.
I don’t expect everything to always be in English, and often part of the fun is going Charlie Chaplin with a local and getting your desired meal. It’s a great feeling when you succeed or a funny story when you fail miserably. But there was no traction here, just a rush of joyless diners.
I left the food court area, came down an escalator and found myself right in front of a McDonald’s. Really, Shanghai Foodhall?
But I didn’t need to go hunting high and lo mien for some old-school dining. Back in the street, I turned a corner and within half a block of the high-rent Nanjing Road and its glitzy shop windows, I found those open storefronts with steam drifting out and a steady stream of customers drifting in. And you better believe there’s nothing in English here.
This is that moment of trying to choose. First rule like anywhere: if a place is busy, it must be good. What if all the places are busy? A couple waiters called after me in Chinese; I just smiled and kept walking, still not feeling some kind of draw from anything I’d seen so far, even a place that was clearly dumpling-centric. Just didn’t give me the vibe. Until I saw this place…
The servers were young and working hard but pausing in between servings to tease each other. A couple looked at me with welcoming smiles and gestured to enter but without coming out on the walk like a hawker. Something happy was going on here and I bet it translated to the food. I stepped in and a couple questions made it clear to them I didn’t speak the language.
The menu on the wall had no photos to point at, so I scanned table tops. Everyone had noodles. I peered into the open kitchen and pointed. They followed the line of my finger to the man in back making dumplings. “Jiaozi?” (饺子) Yes, I nodded like a child asked if he wanted ice cream.
I took a place at a metal table next to an older couple who smiled at me. We tried to talk and over time a few English words came out. I was limited to Thank you and Nice to meet you, which they nevertheless appreciated.
The old man touched the tip of his nose and I struggled to understand what he was trying to say. (Later I remembered a friend in Korea telling me this is how people point to themselves rather than to the chest like a lot of Westerners.) I think he was trying to ask me where I was from by first saying his own origins. Or perhaps his name. I didn’t know and so just gave my pained apologetic smile. (Or what I hope is interpreted as such.)
They were from Beijing, I understood. “Ah, tourists,” I said, and they laughed. The old man indicated his soup and noodles and made a thumbs up. My dumplings came along with a bowl of the same broth sans noodles.
The couple called a waiter over and made a request that wasn’t readily understood. He thought a moment and brought out a full head of fresh garlic which the two split apart and began eating raw. The man held up a clove. He made gestures of strength. They ate the whole thing in minutes and ordered another.
“How old are you?” I asked. I wrote down my birthday date and then my age. The woman wrote down two numbers. She was 72, he was 80. They seemed quite fit and full of vigor, and hell, they were traveling. He offered me some garlic. I ate it.
I left with a few photos, causing amusement and horseplay in the kitchen, said goodbye to my lunchmates, and set off into the cold wondering how that garlic was going to go over during my next appointment.
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