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Every Virtue and Vice June 28, 2004

Posted by LHK in Uncategorized.
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Today I got my first incredulous “You didn’t eat any Chinese food in Hong Kong?” from one of the students. To which I matter-of-factly replied, “No, I didn’t.” And if that’s a sin, it’s one I’m happy to live with, because Dorothy and I treated ourselves to proper versions of all the Western food we had been craving. Because I live in Japan, Land O’ Food Obsession*, I deem it necessary to make a list:

It’s the Hong Kong Western Food Bonanza!

Delaney’s Irish Pub
vegetarian potato and leek soup (me)
steak and cheddar melt (Dorothy)

Hotel Breakfast Buffet of DEATH
fresh pineapple and bananas, obviously canned peaches in too much heavy syrup, tomato baked beans, hash browns, uber-creamy scrambled eggs (the latter three were best when mixed together), croissants, bacon and ham for the non-vegetarian, and french toast with maple syrup. The staff was very slow in keeping the buffet fully stocked, and when we decided we wanted more french toast, we had to ask several times. We finally alternated in going back up to the buffet to check for more french toast, and giving signals to indicate if it was there yet or not.

The Spaghetti House
green salad with properly creamy Thousand Island dressing
properly thick deep-dish pizza with mushroom and green pepper

(Here’s a page from The Spaghetti House’s menu. I like to research restaurants I patronize, because I’m a nerd. They’re a Hong Kong-based chain, it seems. How hard is it, really, to put a cute little broccoli stalk icon next to all vegetarian items on the menu? According to the entire restaurant culture of Japan, nearly impossible.)

Oliver’s Super Sandwiches
properly topped cheddar cheese sandwich on wheat toast (me)
properly topped tuna salad sandwich on wheat toast (Dorothy)

some restaurant / bar in Lan Kwai Fong with an American-aviation-inspired name and a claim to sell the world’s best hamburgers
utterly amazingly proper veggie burger and shoestring fries (me)
chili cheese fries (Dorothy)

Coyote’s Bar and Grill
5-PAGE-LONG MARGARITA MENU
chicken, beef, and cheese nachos (Dorothy)
grilled veggie tacos, black beans, guacamole, and Mexican rice (me)

Italian restaurant in SoHo that was full of foreign tourists, including a group of about 20 young Australian women who only drank daiquiris, talked about stupid things like spam e-mail, and ordered all low-carb shit until the end of their meal, when they all caved and ordered cake for dessert
tomato bruschetta
mushroom, parmesan, and cream sauce pasta (Dorothy, who finished her “American-sized portion.” Yes, the menu really said that. Internationally, America is famous for starting wars and being gluttonous.)
spicy tomato and red pepper pasta (your humble narrator, who shamefully had to ask the waiter to take away her unfinished American-sized portion)

Ben and Jerry’s
Oatmeal Cookie Crunch (me)
Chunky Monkey (Dorothy)

even the cafe at the blasted airport could get international breakfast right!
banana pancakes (Dorothy)
mushroom and tomato omelet (me)

* = Japan is the Land O’ Food Obsession. I bet Adam thought I was exaggerating about this until he came to visit. He, too, would now confirm this label. There are food stands everywhere, every town smells like food, and people are eating eating eating everywhere you go. On his last evening in Tokyo in May, he and I were sitting at the beach at Odaiba, and we were the only ones on that beach without food to go with our milk tea. Even the seagulls were munching on cheese curls. If you turn on the TV at any time of day, at least one channel (but usually 2 or 3) will be airing these baffling shows that feature people tasting food and always, always having a culinary orgasm in which the climax is marked with a shrieked “Oishii!” (“yummy!”). This evening on the train, I sat beside a man reading a magazine that appeared to be dedicated to nothing more than the latest menu additions at Tokyo restaurants. To say the Japanese people are proud of their cuisine is an understatement. They are immersed in it to the point of being on the defensive about it. They are shocked if foreigners know about it (“Really? You eat sushi?”), but they want to make sure you like it, too. It’s an insular, sharply defined culture and cuisine, and yet it barely exists beyond this little strand of islands. I’m sure the Japanese people are pleased when they can send a crazy American girl back to her home country extolling the wonders of yakisoba and inari sushi and 99-yen tofu. If only there wasn’t so much discussion of it! I have had enough talk about food in lessons these last eight months to never need to have another more-than-five-minute conversation about it again. Every discussion of Japan locales eventually makes the inevitable segue to food. I can’t mention wanting to go to Hokkaido without being immediately hit with, “Oh! You must eat Hokkaido crab!” or “You have to eat the Hokkaido camembert!” No. I do not go on vacation to eat. Except, well, with Hong Kong, I sort of did.

Now that I’ve returned, I’m back to my usual grapefruit and bananas and bran cereal and plain yogurt and plain tofu and too too green salads and wheat bread, with the occasional trips to the Evil Bakery of Sin, Sunday outings with Dorothy to get cheap, bastardized Italian at Saizeriya, and listening to Craig’s Japanglish chatter with the cooks at the yakisoba / okonomiyaki joint.

As a contrast to everything I’ve just said, I bought a copy of Fast Food Nation at the Hong Kong Airport, and I haven’t felt like eating much of anything since I seated myself on United Airlines #890 and opened to page one. I avoided the book for a long time: “Self, you really don’t need to read that book. You’re already a vegetarian, and you don’t even set foot in McDonald’s. Reading it will just gross you out unnecessarily.” Always the literary masochist, I traded HK$150 for my appetite. Even if I hadn’t read the slaughterhouse chapter, I’d still count it as one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. On the plane, I read the chapters about the beginnings of fast food and children’s marketing — how Mickey D’s and their ilk need to reel in consumers as soon as they begin cutting their teeth. The majority of their advertising is directed at human beings whose brains are still forming. What frightened me the most were the business-speak names given to all the methods of marketing analysis: “The Character Lab, a division of Youth Marketing System Consulting, uses a proprietary technique called Character Appeal Quadrant Analysis to help companies develop new mascots. The technique purports to create imaginary characters who perfectly fit the targeted age group’s level of cognitive and neurological development.”

I remember being three and four years old and calling to my parents, “Let’s pretend! Today we’re McDonald’s characters!” I still get a little guiltily wistful when I think of Grimace and Birdie the Early Bird and Mayor McCheese. But not that damn Hamburglar. He haunted my nightmares for years.

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