Corruption is rife in China and with police salaries supplemented by up to 80% by bribes or tourists led in to traps, it’s clearly something that the government has had little luck getting a strangle-hold on. Having met a Chinese-born, Taiwan-immigrant and eventual Las Vegas settler, we’d discussed all manner of things; the most prevalent of which was a ruse for ensuring sleeper seats on the train from Xi’An bound for Shanghai.
The plan was as follows; head to the ticket office at the train station and present British Passport along with existing seated tickets (the closer the departure time came, the worse the idea of sitting for 14 hours seemed). Ask my “translator” to explain that a meeting was occurring the following morning, necessitating sleep. When the clerk gave expected resistance, I was to slam my fist and demand to speak with her manager. Magically, a pair of hard-sleeper seats materialised and having paid a little over the odds, it’s better than sitting in the sardine-class carriage all night. Threatening it seems, is acceptable behaviour also.
Whilst far from the luxury of a T or Z-class soft-sleeper, my six-berth hard-sleeper is comfortable enough to facilitate some slumber. Contemplating the tools I’ve just unwrapped and using to eat my 20Y train food – which is about as salty as distilled anchovies covered in a sprinkling of Malden’s sea salt – I think I’ve had a revelation. These things are ridiculously complex implements for eating the main foodstuff of Asia; rice, which actively moves as you try to pick it up. Even with a spoon, it’s the Eisenberg’s uncertainty principal of food.
With such difficult utensils for consuming rice (which I hear is actually technically a fruit), the only possible way to get a mouthful is to slurp and suck it in. It’s both an eye and ear-sore each time consumption commences; hunched over bowls of rice in order to minimise distance between nourishment and piehole, hands move quickly to extract contents. Perhaps a spoon would better serve the purpose? They do have those here, though with a lipped shape it’s scientifically impossible to fit your gaping and starving rice-abyss around it comfortably. The generally accepted behaviour of exposing mouthful of churned matter whilst speaking, and making chomping noises you might sample for a children’s TV show, will surely then revert your appetite. If you’re able to continue, watch as unwanted bones and cartilage are expelled from food gateway directly to the table. And hence these noises must have become acceptable. It’s the same with noodles; stupid dangly things that can only be eaten with a fork and a twirling motion. Invent a written language they did; but paid little attention to the need to eat.
A cascade of manners must have occurred; if slurping is acceptable then why not other bodily noises too? Drank too much pop and need to expel gas – yes, burping is fine. Itch inside your nose and need to sneeze, better out than in after all so spray over your fellow man happily. Locals are content to accommodate this behaviour and continue breathing, yet cover mouths with handkerchiefs when walking along a busy road. Last time I checked, diesel fumes didn’t carry airborne viruses. I’ve seen things that make Glastonbury toilets seem clean in comparison; watched as flying hacked oral projectiles paint the floor in varying shades of Khaki colours; held my breath as locals have opened mouths or exposed armpits that surely must harbour the same kinds of bacteria that schoolchildren grow in Petri dishes. It’s utterly horrible and indescribably disgusting and it all started with a stupid pair of wooden sticks.
Whereas in the Western world, if something isn’t fit for purpose; it’s redesigned, reengineered or improved upon until it is – here things have remained static for thousands of years. How’s that for world-leading class and excellence. Perhaps it’s jealousy on my part; I’m new to the world of difficult eating. I am, however, practiced enough to command these timber tools of misery better than many friends I’ve made. It doesn’t need a great deal of dexterity to direct a knife and fork; we even bequeath toddlers with plastic replicas before they can speak. Hand over a pair of twigs of banging and all you’d have is a generation of drummers.
Stuffed in the middle I’m considering those chopsticks again; if they might serve as an impaling instrument of doom to quieten the snoring, farting, snorting, stinking male to my left. I’m not convinced, a knife and fork would far better suit my purpose; that’s not Western arrogance, just a simple fact.