The contents of this post are subject to a public health warning – please do not read around your meal-time.
So the restaurant I went to with my friend Bill on Saturday night is known as a relatively upscale local Peking Duck house up in the far-north section of Chaoyang off the Third Ring Road. It’s got a beautiful painted sign outside and is well appointed and classy.
As soon as we sat down my eye was drawn to the table to my right. There were four well-dressed young people, three guys and a girl, sitting there enjoying their kaoya, and, judging by the number of tall empty beer bottles on the table, it was evident they were having a good time. Three were eating; it was the fourth who caught my eye because of his unusual pose: his arms were folded on the edge of the table and his forehead was sitting on his forearms. His legs were spread wide apart, and he appeared to be out cold. The three friends were totally ignoring him, as if he weren’t even there.
This isn’t really that unusual; you see people sleeping just about everywhere in China, whether it’s in an Internet bar or at their desk or on the sidewalk. This phenomenon triggered a conversation between Bill and me about how you never know what you might see at any given moment in China. In Singapore and Taipei, we both agreed, there are few surprises; you are rarely amazed or taken aback by what you see on the street or in a restaurant. Or anywhere else. (I love Taipei, but it does tend to be a predictable environment.) Well, Bill and I had no idea that the show was only just starting. We had yet to learn the meaning of “unpredictable.”
As we started eating our excellently prepared duck, I became aware of a sound like a waterfall, of liquid crashing down on a hard surface; I felt for a moment like I was at Tiger Leaping Gorge. I looked around trying to discern the source of such an out-of-place roar, when I saw the floor a few feet away: a reservoir of brown liquid was rapidly taking shape around our sleeping friend at the next table. I looked up from the floor and the whole thing took me a couple of seconds to process, because I couldn’t possibly be seeing what my brain was telling me. The young man’s head was in the exact same position and his body was totally immobile, just as before. Only now, his mouth was wide open, and a geyser of mainly liquid puke was cascading down from his mouth and splashing onto the floor between his feet.
This was no ordinary case of someone losing his dinner. This was like a barrel spigot that was open all the way, the liquid just pouring out in volume. It seemed like it would never stop. Soon he was completely surrounded by the lake of his own making, and like the scenic Halong Bay in Vietnam, the “waters” were dotted with little islands of undigested kaoya.
I said to Bill, “Oh my god, look – that guy is throwing up!” Bill turned, and we both watched in stunned fascination, wondering how one human body can possibly contain so much disposable liquid. But most amazing of all, the other three friends at the table never flinched or even looked. Two of them kept eating and chatting, looking into one another’s eyes, and the third continued a conversation on his mobile phone as if the guy wasn’t even there.
All things are finite, however, and eventually the gushing sounds ceased. The staff, as unfazed as the diners at the table (and at the other surrounding tables), walked over with a big bucket of ash from the wood-burning duck oven and methodically spread its content on the floor around the table. They then spread newspaper over the soaking-wet ash, deftly working around the still-unconscious man’s feet. Okay, I thought, that’s that. But no. A few minutes later, the scene repeated itself. The exact same thing: his mouth opened, and the remaining chunks of his meal splashed onto the newspaper, creating a multi-sense kaleidoscope of color and texture and aroma. And it just kept coming and coming, just like before. This time, the friend sitting next to him patted him a few times on the back, but never lost eye contact with the young lady sitting opposite him; both of them kept eating.
In the US, we’re used to the waitress coming up to the table to offer more butter or water. Here, the waitress came back to offer more ash, which was gratefully accepted. At this point, every time the front door opened on the breezy December night, we were treated to a whiff of the pungent mess. And yet we kept eating, and tried not to look, kind of like when you’re at the scene of a bloody accident and you try to look away, but your eyes can’t help but grab another glimpse.
We survived the ordeal, and by the time we left, the provider of the night’s entertainment was sitting upright and chatting on his phone, while the other friend opposite him had his head on the table and appeared to be asleep. We didn’t wait to see if any encores would follow.
While this was certainly one of the grossest, most nauseating moments of my life abroad – in fact, of my entire life – Bill and I agreed that it was all part of the “China experience,” part of what makes living here so, um, unique. I am trying to visualize a similar scene taking place in Singapore or Taipei or Tokyo, with the buckets of ash and the rising reservoir and no one paying any attention, and I just can’t do it. “Only in China” took on a whole new dimension on Saturday night. Most tragically, I can never again look at a Peking duck dinner without at least a brief flashback to that night’s pyrotechnics.