Published 2007-04-23

Much of what passes for “Western” in Xiamen would more accurately be called “Sinicized.” A good example is the local version of “coffee shops.” These are actually restaurants that serve Western dishes like sandwiches and french fries (and perhaps actual coffee), in a setting that is vaguely Western ( e.g. white tablecloths), but with Chinese notions of service (i.e. a bevvy of beautiful xiaojie welcoming you before you order, after that: does anyone actually work here?), and the food has a weird “Chinese” flavor. And of course the menu is seldom in English or (more likely) the “English” on the menu is Bizarro-English and only tangentially related to the menu items (Roman letters are purely decorative, natch). It’s as if someone saw a movie about a coffee shop once and decided to open their own coffee shop, but without ever having been in a real European coffee shop, or having eaten Western food, or having actually drank coffee. All of which contributes to a strange “let’s pretend” feeling for a Westerner who braves such establishments.

For example: Last week, my boss took our group out to a new Western restaurant near the office. This was a farewell lunch for our intern, an American college student who was working in our department for the past month. This particular restaurant — a new one, I think — had brasswork and linen napkins and photo-murals of Paris and a piano floating in a pool surrounded by ersatz rain. The Chinese notion of “Fancy Restaurant” is usually summarized as “hot and noisy,” which are regarded as Good Things. This place, for example, seats perhaps 200 patrons, all within eye- and ear-shot of one another. Eating out in China is a festive, social, and above all public affair. See and be seen. Westerners’ desire for privacy (in restaurants and all other situations) is regarded, as our guidebook poignantly observes, as variously “eccentric, arrogant or sinister.”

So this restaurant had some of the details right: linen tablecloths, a menu with items called “steak” or “pork chops,” a piano, etc., but the entire gestalt was wrong. It was like a fancy Chinese restaurant, but with European accents. For example, I ordered a sirloin, which arrived smothered in a black pepper sauce atop a bed of spaghetti with a fried egg on the side. And a glass of iced green tea. This all tasted good enough I suppose, but “Western” only in the most oblique sense. Our Chinese coworkers, like most of the patrons, cheerfully shared out their meals to one another; sharing food is a basic fact of eating.

I wonder what the typical Chinese person would make of P.F. Chang’s. Probably the same as above, but in reverse.

A rash of putative “coffee shops” have sprung up along the lakeshore near our apartment. They are all uniformly bad and overpriced, but have at least figured out a) how to make espresso and b) the notion of a coffee shop as a place to hang out. The older “coffee shops” (described above) are more accurately restaurants, and don’t brook much with hanging out. Interesting, though, that half a dozen or so nouveau-cafés have opened literally side by side along the same block. It’s almost as if opening a truly European coffee shop (let’s call them cafés, to differentiate from Chinese-style ersatz-coffee shops) was all the novelty the proprietors could stomach. “What kind of establishment is this? Where are all the xiaojie? Who will obsequiously and noisily greet the customers, then ignore them for two hours? Your strange notion of café frightens and confuses me.” Best not to push our luck by putting them, you know, somewhere far away from the other cafés. It’s like we have our own, brand new, Café District. This is not only really unhandy (because when you want a coffee, you have to take a taxi to the Café District instead of hitting the corner café), but also strikes me as hard for business. Everyone gives the same two or three cafés (the best ones) all the business, walking right past their unfortunate competitors.

Culturally, such novel ideas seem to happen “all at once.” This is what happened in our brand new Café District. Another example: apparently a year ago you couldn't get a cake anywhere in Xiamen. Then, all of a sudden, all the bakeries and coffee shops started serving cake. It was like, everyone was waiting for someone else to start selling cakes, then all of a sudden everyone was selling cakes. Kind of like how penguins jump off ice floes in nature documentaries. The cakes, by the way, are gorgeous and taste like air.

The easiest way to cope is just to pretend that these new putatively Western things are actually artifacts of a third culture. For example when adjusting to the local beers. All the local stuff tastes the same: like Miller Lite. There’s a profound aversion to hops (and to “bitter” food in general). A few imported beers are relatively widespread: Erdinger, Carlsberg, Heineken, and Corona. So it’s all lagers. There’s one restaurant that serves Sam Adams. I used to hate Sam Adams, but now it tastes like sweet, sweet manna. I would miss PDX beer but our lives are so different from Portland that, in this regard at least, it’s easier just to readjust my expectations. When all aspects of X are completely unlike America, things that are like 50% the same are actually more noticeably different. (This is why you seldom see actual Westerners in “Western” restaurants.) So having beer that’s half good is worse than drinking Chinese pisswater.

So I just pretend I’m not actually drinking “beer,” but a different local beverage, a slightly alcoholic wheaty unsweetened soda. Viewed in that light, Qingdao is actually a good beverage, and a steal at 5 kuai (65¢) for 620 ml (20oz) — much cheaper than Coca Cola. There are, by the way, actual sweet beers. Pineapple beer, for example, or a really horrid product called Blue Cowrie which features a drawing of an Aussie swagman in one of those pin-up hats.