IT WAS ABOUT 10 HOURS into a 16-hour flight to China when it occurred to me: I don’t like Chinese food. But only hours later, my friend Peter and I were in a restaurant in an old section of Beijing, reached via a labyrinth of alleyways. The place was filled with rich and steamy smells; nude fowl hung in the windows as if awaiting some sort of audition, and large burlap bags of rice and tins of spices lined the walls. Our guide ordered dinner for us in what I can only assume was fluent Mandarin.
I love going places; I want to experience the whole wide world and commune with my brethren in all points north, south, east, and west. I consider myself a traveler, not a tourist. On trips, I usually bring only a backpack and a guidebook, and—despite my cloistered palate—have vowed never to eat at American chain restaurants, here or abroad. One look tells you that I’ve managed to survive quite nicely, thank you. There is, after all, always some native interpretation of meat and potatoes, and—more important—I have discovered that every culture has some version of candy.
But then came the food in Beijing. Peter and I had discovered a cheap, last-minute tour to China and we seized it. So now, here we were: in the heart of the city, plates piled high, bowls stacked on the enormous table. There was beef tendon, all sinew and muscle; pickled eggs, black and covered in dark, gummy jelly; steaming frog soup, ventricles and other inner workings of said amphibian exposed. The state of dishabille was embarrassing. At least a cheeseburger has a sense of modesty, its beefy visage veiled in Cheddar.
In our few short hours in Beijing, I was already overcome. The city froths with people, cars, bicycles, pollution, buildings old and new, and more people. I had struggled to keep up with Peter and our guide, and I forced myself to be present and in the moment, dammit. So help me, I was going to be a traveler, not like the plaid-shirted American fellow we’d seen who pointed in bewilderment to the iconographic poster of Mao overlooking Tiananmen Square and asked our tour guide, “So is that guy your king, or what?”
I pushed rice and entrails around on my plate. More dishes were stacked on top of those that already covered the table. I was teary from hunger and hoped that one of the offerings would be nachos. Then, with the sort of fanfare that used to accompany the birthday sundae at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour, a large tureen was placed on the table. “Aha!” our guide said, “Bull-penis soup!” The neighboring tables applauded.
In that moment, it became sparklingly clear what a fraud I was. As much as I tell myself I love being in new and different places, I want some form of comfort food while the unfamiliar swirls around me. And frankly, the word penis is unnerving in any context, especially on a menu. When in Rome, I’d always tried to do as the Romans do. But what if the Romans were completely insane?
“Don’t worry,” said our guide. “The soup is special—only for men!” Those who partake of it, he explained, are blessed with virility. I reminded Peter we were just friends.
Later in our hotel room, we were silent in our exhaustion and took to our separate beds. The jostling of the day reverberated in my bones. Gazing up at the ceiling, I ate Oreos from the hotel gift shop. I wondered how I could continue to call myself a world traveler if I couldn’t partake of the smorgasbord that is life? The world’s open bar? Low blood sugar can make one very deep and introspective.
But there was something else I wanted to know. “Pete!” I hissed across the room. “You know that, um, that soup you tried at the restaurant?”
Pulling back from the precipice of sleep, he replied groggily. “Not nearly as good as it sounds.”
We slept soundly.