Eating with Strangers

Jesse and I have been in China less than a week now, but already it feels a month has gone by. We have seen so much, absorbed so much. We have walked so much. We have eaten beautiful food, and we have had lovely conversations with both friends and strangers. And we have both landed ourselves in hospitals in two different Chinese cities (for what seems like the same nasty respiratory infection). We have only now just arrived in Nanjing, where we will call home for the next four weeks, and because of our illnesses we have not had a chance to settle in. 

And so for a while longer, we live in the space between here and there, between home and away. 

Once the illnesses subside, we should be able to get our bearings, to unpack our suitcases, to discover our favorite brand of Chinese candy at the supermarket. Soon. Soon. 

The best meal I have had so far has been in Beijing, in a tiny little restaurant we found after hiking the Great Wall. Our guidebook directed us to the place, which had no English sign, just a wooden sign outside the door. Inside, the restaurant was small, packed with only locals–and, to our great surprise, one other foreign couple, who had also found the place using the same guidebook. We ate with them–Karen and Declan, we learned their names were–and the food was beyond delicious: long, thin dumplings stuffed with pork and chives, pork and coriander, pork and onions. Fried pork balls. Canned soda. We feasted. Everything, our whole meal, was less than $10 USD.

The four of us sat in a back room with two other tables of Chinese diners. Someone at one of the other tables was smoking, and the air in the room was close and hazy. The walls were yellow, the lights fluorescent. There was no draw here except the food–the place was not near a single tourist trap, it had no special vibe or atmosphere, you wouldn’t post a selfie while eating there. You just came for the dumplings. And the dumplings were to die for. 

Karen and Declan are from Ireland but have been working abroad in Australia for the past two years. We caught them in the midst of their long, roundabout way home through Asia. What a life! Our conversation was lively and delightful, and at the end of our meal we parted ways, wishing each other good luck and safe travels, and Jesse and I walked off into the dark night, toward our subway stop, and I thought how wonderful to be in China, how wonderful to be here, to be eating this food, to be standing in places where people have stood for so long, to be eating with strangers. 

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