While most of the annual Spring Festival migration is from big cities to the small cities and the countryside as workers, students, and whoever else was able to find a plane or train ticket leaves their jobs for a week to spend the holiday with the family back home, I have noticed over the last few years that there is also a little reverse migration, mostly the parents and older relatives of younger city dwellers coming to check out the metropolis in which their son or daughter lives. In Shanghai it’s rather easy to find these people because, quite simply, they stick out like sore thumbs, their raw Chinese-ness in contrast with an increasingly international metropolitan city.

Yesterday I ate at McDonalds near the Hongkou Football Stadium, and I was seated next to a pair of older women who, while waiting for their food, engaged in watching my every move as I ate my lunch. A few uncomfortable minutes later, a young man came over with three chicken sandwiches and three cups of Sprite, sat down with them, and they all started to eat.

About two bites into her sandwich, one woman turned to the younger man with wide eyes. “What flavor is this?”

“It’s chicken, mom.”

“It doesn’t taste like chicken. What flavor is it?”

“It’s the sauce, mom. I don’t know.”

“Well, I don’t like it.” She then proceeded to take the bun off, and scrape all of the sauce off both the bread and the meat. A few minutes later…

“What vegetable is this?”

“Lettuce, mom.”

“It’s raw. I don’t like raw vegetables.” Off went the lettuce, leaving chicken, bread, and cheese. A couple bites later…

“What’s this yellow stuff?”

Aiya, cheese, mom!”

“What?! Chinese don’t eat cheese.”

“Yes they do mom.”

“Well… I don’t.” She stripped off the cheese, leaving just a naked piece of meat and some bread. She finished that, and grabbed her drink, and took one sip…

“Ah, this drink is cold!”

I’ll bet that guy won’t shed a tear when she gets back on the train home.

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About JohnB

John wishes he was one of those hardcore laowai, living in the villages and lacing his speech with naughty Hunanese swear words, but he likes delivery pizza too much to leave Shanghai. He originally hails from Orlando, Florida, and is brought to you by the color orange and the number seven.

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  1. Well,pretty interesting post.
    Even I’ve had similiar experiences and I understand that it does feel awkward.However,we should give these people some time to get acquainted to the new metropolitan way of life.They’ll surely start recognising the flavours and vegetables in due course.

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  2. Funny piece. Chinese are rightly proud of their food, because it is the best in the world. However, it does prevent them from eating new things. My grandmother (Chinese) never liked to go to foriegn (non-Chinese) restaurants because she felt cheated that you had to order tea, and it wasnt free with the meal.

    I am organizing a tour this summer/fall to Sichuan and would love for any readers of this site to give their opinions to me about what they would love to see in such a tour.


  3. I loved that, it’s so funny and yet so true. I live in a smaller Chinese city so I get stared at a lot, but I still never get used to it.
    I always laugh when Chinese people ask me how much I love Chinese food (it’s not really a question, so much as a statement you’re expected to agree with) then when I tell them one or two dishes I don’t like they are shocked. How can you not like “insert-dish-here”!

  4. speaking of china and cheese, i’ve heard many times that are lactose intolerant and thus don’t like milk products, including cheese. last year, i interviewed sharon ruwart, co-founder of the beijing cheese society, for a magazine and she said there were some misconceptions about this. here’s the relevant paragraph:

    “We are also seeing more interest in our events from Chinese [in try cheese at the Beijing Cheese Society events]. There’s a perception that Chinese are lactose intolerant and will react badly to cheese, but cheese is actually lactose-free since the bacteria consume the lactose as part of the ripening process and leave only lactic acid. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how eager our Chinese guests are to taste the cheeses. Blue cheeses are among the most popular kinds. My own theory is that it reminds Chinese of chou dofu (stinky tofu)!”

    cheers, bb

  5. John, hilarious post – and having just returned from my ‘holidays’ part of which involved relocating my mother-in-law from the north east to the tropical island of Hainan… I know first hand how true this is.

    @boyce: great add in – as I’ve heard that rumor too. Nice to know the truth behind it.

  6. My mum does that! Yet despite her disdain for raw vegetables and dairy products, she love thousand island dressing. And we thought the Russians were a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mystery . . .

  7. Chinese is not the best in the world what a bold claim, everything is stir fried and nasty…how is that the best? Mediterranean food is the best…so much fresh vegetables and meats that are healthy….shit even Italian is better, Chinese is far from the best, if i were to eat Asian Japanese is the most superior of all Asian nations in terms of food, granted Chinese food here isn’t exactly authentic but authentic Chinese food is gross, why would i want to eat frogs and cats…..and yes you want to to call me ignorant i dont give a rats poop, but hey Chinese people might eat the rat before it poops..

    • Yes, I want to call you ignorant. Italian food, by its very geography, is Mediterranean.

      I eat “authentic” Chinese food virtually every day, and have eaten frogs only twice in almost six years (that’s twice out of 2190 authentic Chinese dinners) and only because it was a specialty at a restaurant. I’ve never even seen cat or rat on a menu.

  8. Interesting post! I don’t think that the reaction of the older women is unwarranted… For traditional people from the countryside, eating burgers and fries really is completely alien to them. Even younger, cosmopolitan people are only slowly adapting to foreign tastes. I’ve been living in China for three years now and I’ve had a lot of hit-and-misses cooking for my Chinese friends – Italian pasta with red sauce is deemed too “sour” (acidic) or too bland. I watched in horror as my Chinese friends grabbed a jar of “laoganma” (a popular sauce made with dried chili pepper and fermented soy beans) and spooned it on the pasta. I’ve found that I have to modify a lot of food I cook to make it spicier or saltier in order to get my Chinese friends to enjoy it.

    Westerners were the same way before, and many still are. I can’t imagine trying to get my Irish-American grandparents to eat half of the stuff I eat here in China on a daily basis. My picky younger brother similarly lives on a diet of mashed potatoes, green peas, and either roasted chicken or pan-fried steak, all smothered in gravy or A1 sauce, for every dinner that isn’t fast food or take-out from a pizza place. We all have our own tastes. At least the older ladies tried the chicken sandwhich – Are they so much to blame as the young man for not knowing his mother’s tastes in the first place?

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