Noodle Diplomacy

While serving as director of a semester long China study abroad program in 2004, I happened upon the Longevity Noodles shop.  I discovered the shop while wandering around looking for dinner on my first day in Nanjing that year. I have always been drawn to bas cuisine over haut cuisine and was immediately attracted to this plain, socialist era shop with its promise of tasty and cheap food.  The windows were small and dirty so that I could not quite see inside; a tangle of electrical wiring was affixed directly to the plastered brick exterior walls, one leading to a single hanging bulb to light the entryway. The steam from the giant cauldrons inside vented into the faces of the passersby on the street because that was the most direct route for the exhaust to the outside. The building was all about function and form and whenever I see these conditions, I suppose that the resources go mainly into the food; gritty is ambiance enough for me.

When I entered the shop, I noticed it had all the elements of efficient socialist interior design: stainless-topped counters white tile surrounds.  On adjacent tables, were stacks of identical bowls, but in three sizes––the very same bowls found in most every store and restaurant.  Next to the bowls were rows of stainless-steel containers holding bamboo chopsticks. In two large baskets were piles of blue porcelain spoons––designed to echo Ming Dynasty style.  To the right of the counter was an easel with a chalkboard menu:

Large bowl of beef noodles:             5 Yuan
Medium bowl of beef noodles:        3 Yuan

Small bowl of beef noodles:             2 Yuan

Drinks:                                               Tea (1 Yuan) or Coco Cola (3 Yuan)


The dining area was outfitted with about ten large, round tables with ten chairs each and with small pots of chili infused oil to spice the noodles.  These were shared tables, but not communal tables. Strangers sit next to each other without sharing conversation and avoid contact, as if the others were invisible. Chinese do feel compelled to engage in small talk with strangers­­––even with unexpected foreigners.

The shop was not crowded the day I discovered it. In fact, the workers outnumbered the customers, and I had one of the big round tables to myself.  The workers there were mostly middle-aged women dressed in white tunics and white chef caps; their ruddy, sun damaged cheeks betrayed their peasant backgrounds in the provinces. One of the women was making noodles by tossing dough and continuously stretching it and reducing it until it formed long strands.  When the dough took its final shape, the women would set the noodles aside until they were ready to toss in boiling water. Another woman stirred and dispensed the beef broth and beef chucks over the cooked and drained noodles.

Chinese beef noodles are ubiquitous comfort food and variations of the dish are found in most regions in China.  Nanjing beef noodles are not too spicy, but they are intensely flavorful.  The cooks fill sachets with a mix of onions, garlic, peppercorn, bean paste, and ginger root.  The sachet is combined with large chucks of braised beef to simmer for hours in large 30-gallon cauldrons before serving. But the most important ingredient is star of anise and the licorice like aroma filled the air in Longevity Noodles that day.

I ordered my bowl by first going to the booth at the front of the shop where I paid my five Yuan (8o cents) and where a women stamped a white slip of paper with “received,” and––apparently so there would be no mistake about who order it––jotted the word for “Foreigner” on the ticket. Without speaking to me or looking at me she shoved the ticket and a wad of small bills through the small opening in the booth. I sat down at a table ready to experience this delicacy that I had come to enjoy in my years of coming to China.

Despite the nearly empty shop, I waited for almost a half hour for my noodles. I was not surprised at the delay as prompt service is not what one expects in a shop of this type.  Looking out of the dirty window I could see hawkers selling various snacks: steamed buns, fried potstickers, rice gruel, and chicken legs. Longevity Noodles was situated in an alley off Zhujiang Road on the edge of a decaying Nanjing neighborhood. The shop, like the neighborhood, seemed to be struggling to be relevant in the new China, where private enterprise was emerging as a symbol of China’s prosperity.  Many of the buildings surrounding the shop had been razed––not because of an immediate need, but because the buildings represented another time that the government was trying hard to forget. The restaurant was a state-run enterprise of a type that was dying out in China, giving way to small private enterprise with more choice and better service.  The uninspired, dingy décor looked like it had not changed since it was built in the 1960s when most of the neighborhood was built.  The purpose of Chinese state-run enterprises has never been making money, but to employ.  As profit has not been a motive, service has not been part of the plan. But the subsidized product was cheap enough for everyone––when they happened to have it.

Becoming impatient, I tried to get the attention of a waitress who was doing her best to ignore me as she leaned against the wall reading a magazine.  I called out to her, but she acted as if I were not there.  I became bolder and more shouted out Xiaojie ‘Miss’ and she finally sauntered my way.  With a deep sigh, she asked, “What do you want?” as if my order were a mystery. “My beef noodles,” I responded. She walked away without a word. After few minutes she brought me my large bowl of noodles, releasing the bowl about three inches above the table causing the broth to splash over the rim.  She then walked away with a crabby, annoyed look on her face as she discharged her duty.

As I ate my noodles, I enjoyed them even more for their value––80 cents for such a bowl!  They were hot and comforting as the wind blew in through the open storefront, but the waitress’ treatment of me detracted from my experience.  I was accustomed to bad treatment by service people during my years in China, but this time it felt different, and I wanted to fight the system.  My free-market capitalist sensibilities collided with the culture of the restaurant. Cheap or not, I was planning to boycott the shop.  We had no common ground, and I would just go to the newly opened KFC or at least Jimmy Li’s California Noodles. I didn’t care if I had to pay two dollars.

My resolve did not last long. The next day as I was out to find lunch, I passed some pot sticker stands and steam buns vendors but was drawn back to Longevity Noodles.  The pleasant memory of the noodles the day before overcame the residual irritation about the brusque service. After all, I thought, service “is what it is” in China and the most important thing is the food.  I ordered a medium bowl this time. After paying and picking up my ticket, I sat down at a table with a group of three customers, as the shop was filling up for lunchtime. I nodded, not expecting a response; I was a stranger to them with no relationship to respect and no claim on their time or attention.

As I waited, I noticed a woman in a different kind of white uniform and no cap playing Chinese chess with someone who appeared to be a friend instead of a customer. I guessed the woman with the bare head was the manager and thought I would get to know the woman behind the shop. I imagined she would be interested in a Chinese-speaking foreigner with appreciation of her noodles. I approached casually and tried to make conversation with the woman and her friend by asking questions about the rules of the game. They completely ignored me and just slammed down her chess piece as non-verbal emphasis of her disinterest.


“Where are you from?”  Giving it another try.


“How long has this shop been open?”

Silence again, but with an icy glance this time.

“How long have you been manager?” I asked.

“A long time,” she replied, not looking up.


Happy just to move from invisibility, I asked who was winning, but she just talked to her friend.  She then became a challenge to me, and I was determined to become friends with this enigmatic noodler.  Nobody is that unfriendly, I thought. There must be another side to her.  But, of course, she had reason to be annoyed by brazen breech of cultural norms––I as a customer and she the proprietor and roles should respected. She could only give me so much license as a foreigner

I returned to my table to find my bowl of noodles there with chopsticks across the top and a blue spoon next to the bowl.  As I ate, I watched the chess game across the room, thinking of strategies to break into their social circle. My training as a linguistic field worker began to come to the fore.  What techniques might I use to breakdown the natural barriers and find common ground. Besides my place as a foreigner, I was a professor, and she was a worker. The two groups rarely meet in Chinese social circles.

For the next week I went almost every day to the shop, alternating my orders between large, medium, and small bowls, depending on my hunger level.  Despite my frequent visits nobody paid me any attention and the manager and staff barely acknowledged my presence.  My students wanted to know why I kept going to a place where people were so rude to me. “You know this not a healthy relationship!” asserted one student.  I had no rational response, other than I liked the noodles. I felt the need to justify my behavior: “Sure they are rude sometimes, but they make really great food!”  “I think the manger is becoming a bit nicer to me and lately––after all––there’re not too many other noodle shops like this kind anymore.” “These shops will not be around much longer, and I wanted to experience them while I can.”

After a couple more weeks or so frequenting the shop, the manager began to nod to me. Eventually, she greeted me and even asked where I was from.  I was pleased and flattered that she was recognizing me.  She called me “professor,” too, and explained that she had a daughter in a local college. I finally learned her name (Zhang Hongqi or “Zhang Red Flag,” revealing her birth during the politically charged cultural revolution). I called her Zhang Shifu ‘Master Zhang’, the term of endearment and respect in China for people lacking any other title. The next day I went early and asked her to teach me a card game that she often played. We had achieved détente and were moving toward a strategic friendship.

I sat down at Zhang Shifu’s reserved table next to her and between she and her bicycle repair shop friend Wang Xiaoqi (Wang Little Jade).

“What is this card game? Can you show me how to play,” I asked.

“Don’t you play cards in America,” she asked, not answering my question. “It’s called Da Lao Er–– ‘Big Deuce.” “Anyway, we already have four players. You just need to watch.”

It turns out that this was not a game to combine with idle conversation, but to report on scores, punctuated by slapping cards on the table. And this is no place for teacups, but instead for the more utilitarian tea jars with screw on lids that can be refreshed numerous times to extract every bit of flavor from the leaves at the bottom.

During the game I joked with Zhang Shifu, saying that if she were nicer to me, I would introduce more business to her shop.  She responded that she didn’t want more business because it would cut into her card and chess playing time, and that her salary would not increase with more business in any case.

The next morning as I made my way for lunch, I had a plan to teach my socialist noodle maker friend a lesson.  I rounded up all my American study abroad students, including many lower-level students with weak command of the language and released them in the restaurant. Being especially unfamiliar with the culture, these beginning students had more than the typical number of questions for the staff, whose irritation grew with every request for clarification. Trying to decipher the handwritten characters on chalkboard menu, the students asked questions of the manager and the cashier. The staff snapped back at the students in their nearly incomprehensible rural dialect (not at all what the students learned in class).  The students retreated but I urged them back. Some started wandering around the shop talking to bewildered customers in their best effort in Chinese.

“Excuse, miss, do you know how to pay for noodles?” asked one student.

“Please may I bother you to know how to get a clean spoon?” another student pressed a customer.

“Is it OK to drink the soup from the bowl,” asked a second-year student to the waitress.

“However, you want,” The waitress responded with annoyance.

Zhang Shifu was not happy with the confusion and––despite our newfound friendship–––came over to complain.  I told her that if she had been nicer to me that I would not have brought her all this business.  She paused incredulously and then laughed.  From that point on, our relationship was secure.  Humor and cards were my diplomatic tools and gradually. I became accepted as a regular. This was my place. I later carried out linguistic interviews with Zhang Shifu and her bicycle repair shop friend Wang Qiqi and they are now enshrined in my research. Wang Qiqi even broke social convention and tried to make a match between her son and one of my women students. There would be no strategic marriage, but there would be a friendship crossing social class and culture.



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