By Jeff Mallinson –
Today’s been a blast, friends. It started with a tube float with my family down the Yulong River, near Yengshuo, China. Then riverside breakfast, before we rode down to the town center to re-up on that thing where the little fish eat the dead skin off your feet and rent some more Vespa knock-offs for some of our friends who saw that; so long as you go with the flow, the mad streets around here aren’t as deadly as they appear. Sure, someone got lost near the water lily field, and someone else got a small gash above the eye, but we all made it safe to the cave tour. If you wanted a legit cave, it was touristy and extremely kitsch. But if you imagine it was a mall, then it was the coolest mall in the world. At the end, we got to swim in mud pools and then underground hot springs. But nothing beat dinner.
My wife and two sons broke off from the rest of our group to ride our scoots into a sunset landscape right out of a Daoist painting. This was a day we could pick any eatery we wanted, so we wanted to go deep. We pulled into a couple places only to peel back onto the road, once we discovered it was too tame. We ended up at a place that comprised six tables on the open ground level of a small hotel that went bankrupt before the building was finished. There was a beige dog wandering between the tables. One Chinese family sat at a round table across the way. No one else was there besides mother (maybe 50) and daughter (maybe 25), finishing their meal. Frogs croaked. A couple glowing bugs circled near the river’s bank.
A few weeks in, we’ve become accustomed to pointing at pretty pictures on a menu or wall and getting great results. No such luck at this joint. Fortunately the 25 year old woman, whose English name is Sunny, spoke some English. She came by to help translate my attempt to order for the family:
Sunny: Which items do you want?
Me: I want what you would order for your brother if he were here celebrating a birthday.
Sunny: Maybe pepper carp?
Me: Ok, pepper carp, fried spicy noodles, this chicken dish, beer duck, and … what’s Eel Dog?
Sunny: I don’t know why it says that. It’s just dog meat.
Me: Ok, better try that once. I always said, as long as it’s not monkey or whale, I’ll try it once.
Sunny: [After speaking to the old lady who runs the kitchen.] I’m so sorry, she says they don’t have any dog tonight.
Me: Well, that’s good, I was worried they might kill that dog that was wandering around here just for us. And we aren’t hungry enough for too big a meal.
Sunny: Oh, in that case, perhaps you don’t want the whole chicken. [I forgot that there had been a hen wandering around, too.]
Me: Right, perhaps you can ask if we could go for just half a chicken?
Sunny: Too late, but you can cancel the carp, it’s the whole carp and it’s expensive.
Me: Perfect, I’ve been to a place called Laughlin, where these carp are invasive species, so, I won’t mind avoiding that dish. I really just want the spicy chicken and the beer duck.
Sunny: Hold on. … Ok, she says that they are out of duck.
Me: We are loving these noodles, and this alone might satisfy us, so the noodles and the chicken will do the trick.
We finished the noodles and most of the chopped chicken. Honestly the best flavor we had in a month full of flavor. What I omitted from the dialog above was a half hour of conversation with Sunny, one of the most delightful folks we’ve met in a country full of delightful friends. She told us she was getting ready to spend six months at a Tennessee university, as an exchange faculty member. She asked questions about southern dialect, regional produce, and how to make friends. She had heard that connecting with a church would be helpful. I said that’s usually true, but that America is full of all sorts of churches; so be savvy and bail if any institution, group or person isn’t as kind as she had been to us.
And this leads me to all I’ve got for you kind readers this time. I’m on four days of vacation. It’s beautiful beyond words where I am right now, so you’ll forgive me for not waxing eloquent, and merely recounting my day. All I’ve got for you is a plea. My sons, wife and I had an evening of delight unlike almost any other we’ve ever experienced. We’ve met some of the kindest folks ever, from Hong Kong, to Shenzhen, to Foshan, and now to Yangshuo. (Glad some of you great people are now reading and listening to this week’s podcast, which is about foreign perspectives on America.) Here’s the plea: if you ever have the opportunity, when you meet a foreign stranger lost and confused in your town, please try to be at least half as kind as China has been to us. Folks greet us like old friends whether we are eating, floating down a river, or riding alongside them on a canyon road. I worry that we Americans are unable to exchange the favor. But I beg you, if you can, please be radically hospitable for the sake of humanity.
Auggie, my oldest, suggests that the problem on our end is that we are a whole country of diversity. We can’t just walk up to someone who looks Asian and try out a Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, or Japanese greeting. We may get the nationality wrong. They may only speak English. Moreover, we rarely encounter each other because, outside of a few cities, we are a nation of enclosed cars and few good public transportation networks. We don’t even know our next door neighbors. How could we, in reality, begin to strike up a conversation with visitors from overseas at a shopping mall? So how about this: for those of you who encounter folks from around the world in your home town, ask yourself whether you ever intend to travel overseas, or recall a time when you have. Then, for the love of all things holy, try and spend 15 minutes making a visit to America a bit easier and more enjoyable for wayfaring strangers in your neck of the woods.
—The Wayfaring Stranger
Sipping jasmine tea on a lazy riverside hotel balcony and—fortunately for both animal lovers and me in fact—not digesting cannis familiaris, between chapters of Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw.