Picture this – a hot, sweaty Beijing evening and we need some food. Our hosts have left us for the night confident we’ll eat safely in the predictable, rather tedious hotel restaurant. We’re thinking – ‘in your dreams! We’re in Beijing – there’s no way we’re settling for tedious!’
So we ‘Deet’ up and set off, determined to find something interesting or at very least an adventure. And I always have the avocado I expected to eat on the plane if we blow it.
I’m the first to spot something promising, but it proves to be a hairdresser. In many countries there’s a chance of guessing what signs mean, but when it’s all in Mandarin – I don’t think so. Finally we just walk through a door to see how it works and – thank heaven – it has a picture menu. Our waitress is sort of friendly but has very clear ideas about what we should and shouldn’t eat – mostly shouldn’t. If she shakes her head much harder I’m afraid it’ll unscrew from her body. Finally we find something she approves of and place our order. We even manage a beer, which she serves us with a shot glass.
John has chicken – which he thought was duck – including the head, a foot, knees, plenty of skin and a little meat. My ‘salad’ is a mix of pea shoots and something akin to thin leather straps, which I assume is some form of fungi. We eat gamely and think of the long two weeks ahead.
It’s all about difference
It turns out the adventure was just the start of a fascinating trip. I’m pleased to tell you we ate some amazing food once we were with people in the know. But it was still a mind bender.
In the UK, we eat the meat of an animal and put the rest into sausages (so we can’t see what’s there) or animal food. In China they eat it all – you name it, they eat it and no pretence. Initially I was pretty squeamish, then I pulled myself together and thought it through. Which is best – to kill a living being, then get picky about which bits we use or to kill a living being and make best use of everything?
It set me thinking about the tyranny of ‘normal’. How we get used to stuff that we assume is ‘right’ without realising it’s just our way of interpreting the world. It’s the source of prejudice and so many of the world’s problems. One I get stuck on is ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. I was brought up to believe that this version of good manners was the right way to behave and I can get totally unstuck with other cultures who don’t even think about it. I have to keep reminding myself they aren’t rude, they’re just different.
Difference is a real treat when we get curious
China taught me so much. Not only is the way of living totally different, but the world of Google,
Facebook, Twitter we take for granted is an unknown. We had great discussions about the Christmas decorations, still hanging over the audience when John gave a talk, and how we all celebrate. I chatted blithely about Michael Buble – ‘it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas’ – but it seems he hasn’t broken the Chinese market. Never mind, I can liken him to Sinatra – but he didn’t make it either. Big assumption – I thought that everyone would know Frank. (Mind you, even here they’ve heard of Brexit!) Then there are the loo’s – how do they squat so easily? I soon understand – they squat everywhere – who needs chairs anyway?
I really enjoy difference. It takes me a while to adjust my lens, then I accept that my ways are just my ways. There’s no right or wrong just different. And it’s OK for me to want my own ways, I just need to allow others to have theirs.
And then I started thinking about Barry
I’d love him to be adventurous and enjoy difference, so I can take it as my job to encourage that. When he’s big enough we can go adventuring. And in the meantime we have London up the road – one of the most diverse cities in the world. What fun!
We can go to Loon Fung in China Town to experiment with chopsticks and smell the Durian Fruits in the supermarket. Go to Southall to eat curry and watch Bollywood movies in the big old fashioned cinema or walk down Bethnal Green Road to look at fabulous sparkly dresses We can visit Golders Green to eat baked cheesecake and visit the Synagogue. And that’s just the start. With 300 languages spoken in London, it’s a life lesson all on it’s own.
And while we’re at it, we’ll find out what it means to be British. We’ll visit the Queen, go the Tower, wander around Covent Garden and eat afternoon tea at The Lanesborough.
By the time I’ve finished he’ll see what a wonderful mix we all are. And when he’s ready to fly away and explore those cultures in their natural habitat, he’ll be excited to be the odd one out. And he can come home to tell me all about it.