What doesn’t kill you makes you more picky

Sometimes eating out in Hong Kong is a leap of faith. Unfortunately, I am forced to make that leap every day because of our company policy that no hot food is allowed in the office.

The financial district of Hong Kong is dominated by mega companies, each with thousands of employees (we have about 2,000 ourselves), and I suppose it would just be impossible to facilitate lunch time inside the office. As a result, at the stroke of 12:30, hundreds of thousands of hungry workers take to the streets of Central to try to find a meal.

As you can imagine, this can create many problems. Firstly, with so much congestion on the sidewalks, it is damn near impossible to walk anywhere quickly. Secondly, unless you manage to slip away from the office ten minutes early, you can expect to wait up to half an hour for a table (which is why people take an hour and a half or more for lunch). Thirdly, and most importantly, you simply must chuck all concepts of ‘personal space’ out the window — everybody must share the tables because there are simply not enough to go around.

I remember being quite shocked during my first month here when I went for lunch with a colleague, and as we sat at an already small table, the waitress ushered four other people to sit with us. I, of course, was the only one phased by this, not accustomed to this table-sharing. I suppose we in the west, who tend to have a lot of space, have these clearly defined notions of mine vs. yours. This is my seat, this is my two feet of arm room, this is my corner of the elevator, this is my table in the restaurant. I stand here, you stand there, we don’t have to get too close.

In Hong Kong, personal space just doesn’t exist. Your space? Forget about it. Be prepared to get close to strangers. Be prepared for hungry people to stand up right next to your table while you eat and patiently wait for you to finish and leave. It’s a dog eat dog world when it comes to eating out, and you better learn how to tolerate it or you will certainly go crazy… or become anorexic.

As for the ‘leap of faith’ I mentioned before, it refers more to the food itself. A common joke that the only thing on four legs that Chinese people don’t eat is the table. Indeed I have to admire the fact that they don’t believe in wasting anything, but it is still a hard adjustment for a little white girl who is accustomed to deboned, deskinned perfect little white chicken breasts.

A few weeks ago a colleague and I were wandering around, looking for a restaurant, and she suddenly decided to take me to this notorious street market, right by the Mid-levels Escalator.

This place is a neat freak’s worst nightmare. Innards and body parts hanging in the stalls, workmen with dirt-streaked faces smoking cigarettes, old ladies shouting food orders over your head, vents exhaling the stink of grease and exhaust, giant pots with a cornucopia of brown, bubbling god-knows-what. The table was covered with bones, seeds, fish skin, inedible bits of some sort of animal. The old lady working there came and wiped the table with a cloth that must have once been white, but now looked like it housed enough live bacteria to start a new era of evolution. I noticed a squished cockroach under my chair. I sat down extremely carefully and tried not to touch anything.

This was going to be tough. Every bone in my body was telling me, “RUN! RUN LIKE THE WIND! GET OUT OF THIS PIT OF FILTH! DON’T EAT HERE!”

But my colleague looked at me with a concerned smile and said kindly, “Is this okay?”

I gulped. “Yes, it’s fine.”

Over the past seven months I have learned my lesson not to order meat in these kinds of Chinese restaurants. I either order vegetables, shrimp, or fish. I just can’t deal with the reality of the “waste nothing” food culture here. I can’t deal with bones, gristle, fat, skin and all the other realities of protein sources. The other day I went into a place, and deciding that the picture looked good, ordered something with meat. It arrived, and in the centre was a huge chunk of fat. Yes, that’s right. Fat. Not meat with fat, but an actual chunk of fat. The whole thing immediately went into the garbage and I immediately went out the door.

Don’t get me wrong. In Hong Kong we have a lot of choices and there are many places that are not a total assault on the senses. I used to think it was sort of sad that the foreigners seemed to stick to these sterile food places, with neatly rolled smoked salmon wraps, pumpkin soups and egg salad sandwiches. But now I can understand why.

When you are so far from home, and surrounded by so many strange and overwhelming new things, you can’t blame people for seeking out something familiar. I like to try new things and embrace a little culture shock now and then… after all, that’s why I’ve been living in different places. But in a place like Hong Kong, it’s important to know where to find a little piece of home.

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