G-Super is a new high-end supermarket in the Zhonglou’s Injoy Mall. It’s in the basement, and they offer a variety of internationally imported items. While there are a variety of unique things in this store, three things stood out the last time I went there.
First, a friend pointed me to something curiously branded as “haggis flavored” potato chips. Haggis is a Scottish delicacy where spices, ground organ meat, and other ingredients are encased into a sheep’s stomach before boiling it. To some, it sounds revolting, and I used to swear I would never even try haggis. However, truth be told, I have eaten much weirder things in China, now. The Mackie’s of Scotland chips I had really didn’t have that strong of a flavor to them. The chips themselves were lightly dusted with the haggis-flavored seasoning.
These chips were just a side to the main course of the dinner I just ate. G-Super also sells Amberfish, a Latvian brand of canned and jarred fish. Essentially, I had a tin of smoked sprats. These are tiny fish that are larger than anchovies but smaller than most sardines. Obviously, the heads were removed before the fish were packed into the can. However, the tails were still on. That’s fine, because the tails are edible. I started eating these straight from the can with crackers. Eventually, I switched to a fork, and before I knew it, they were all gone. Quite delicious. They were much more tasty than the haggis chips. While Amberfish is a unique find, this product is not exclusive to G-Super. At least one other, smaller import shop carries their products.
To wash this all down, I had a carton of Galicia — a Ukrainian brand of fruit juice. My selection blended strawberry and apple juice together. I picked this up not only because I was thirsty, but out of linguistic curiosity. At first, I thought Galicia was a Russian brand. Besides the name, all the lettering looked like Cyrillic. However, when you have friends and acquaintances from Eastern Europe, you learn pretty quickly that many of your assumptions about parts of the world are actually wrong. The Ukraine also uses Cyrillic, but their alphabet includes the letter “i” and Russian does not. Recently, I also learned that Belorussian also has a letter “i.”
Language issues aside, these are not the only three unique things G-Super has to offer. Since this is in downtown Changzhouand an imported goods store, you can expect the prices to be a little high. The best way to get to this super market is to go through the Injoy entrance next to Haagen Dazs, take a right, and find the escalator going down.
In theory, it sounds really hard to screw up a churro. Basically, it’s just fried dough with a little bit of cinnamon and sugar. In reality, there are multiple ways it can happen. Bad dough leads to a bad churro. Old and dirty deep fry oil can also mess up what should be utterly simple. Then of course, there is a the quality and the type of oil when it’s fresh.
I was thinking of this because a Mr. Churros recently opened at Changzhou’s downtown Injoy Plaza. It’s yet another coffee and snack place that’s already near a Bread Talk, Costa Coffee, and a Starbucks. I went to try it, and when it comes to western food, the pessimist in me usually expects the worst. Thankfully, my sense of churro-related doom remained unfulfilled. Mr. Churros — while surrounded by coffee competitors — gets one thing uniquely right.
Their signature item is made fresh and on the spot. A string of fresh batter goes directly into the fryer, and the resulting churro is served warm. The menu is kept extremely simple: plain, with chocolate, with ice cream, and so on. It’s a very quick, very simple snack. Their coffee, however, left me unimpressed and with a little bit of heart burn. I had an iced Americano; I wanted it hot and with milk, but that’s not a service issue. My Chinese is just terrible. Still, I would go back. They have a take out window if you just want to stop quickly while on the go.
NOTE: This is a very old post cross-published from my personal blog. It’s also much longer than your average Real Changzhou post.
Here is a very surreal question requiring a nonsensical answer: how can you use saliva as building blocks? Specifically, when trying to build a wharf? As a liquid, it would never happen – unless you froze it and made ice bricks. For a time, I used to ponder this question and daydreamed of cargo ships and cruise liners moored to a dock while floating on a tranquil saliva sea. A mouth’s pink, ridged upper palate would double as the sky, reddened and swollen gums would make up the shoreline, and decayed molars would provide housing and infrastructure to the wharf and the pueblo-like town around it. Dockhands and day laborers would probably look like the offspring between a mutated Walt Disney dwarves and the oompa loompas you would find in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Hopefully, they won’t whistle while they work. What about a lighthouse? Easily covered: it would be a chipped fang or incisor retrofitted with a bright and rotating searchlight.
What would prompt such disgusting and grotesque daydreams on my part? Actually, “Saliva Wharf” is the English name of a northern Changzhou candy shop. Several times, I have walked passed it while wandering the pedestrian street outside of the Xinbei Wanda shopping mall. Most times, I saw a few kids gleefully inspecting bulk bins of sweets while their mothers looked on in a rather disinterestedly. The absurd English name used to captivate me, but it doesn’t anymore. It’s just bad Chinglish, and the more you live in China, the more you become immune to the weird Chinese-to-English collisions. Basically, Chinglish is boring once the novelty wears off. Even with that jaded point of view, one is bound to run into epic English bastardizations. They end up so ridiculous you have to laugh in spite of yourself, take a picture, and show it to everybody you come across. I recently came across such an extreme abomination.
The words “Fresh Scallop Asshole” in blocky black fonts stared right back at me. I scratched my head. I squinted. I even turned the page and turned back just to make sure I was hallucinating. I tried to make sensing of the wording and just couldn’t. Unlike “saliva wharf,” I didn’t even want to have playfully gross interpretations. Sure, I have a fundamentally demented sense of humor most of the time, but the thought of a scallop’s rectum stretches that a bit far. Eventually, I just shrugged, took a cell phone picture, and moved on. Sure, I showed said photo to anybody and everybody remotely interested.
Weeks passed, and for some reason, curiosity still gnawed at me. It went beyond the bad Chinglish. Of course, Tacos wasn’t actually serving “Fresh Scallop Assholes.” First, such things really don’t exist, and even if they did, they would be impossibly tiny. Eventually, I returned to Tacos to eat because 1) I wanted to know what the Chinese version of “Fresh Scallop Asshole” said on the menu, and 2) I like scallops, so it seemed worth the risk. The picture showed something that looked breaded and fried. Certainly, it couldn’t be that bad?
Even before I walked into the restaurant I felt kind of leery. The Wujin Tacos has a caricature of a Mexican painted onto its window. It complete with brown skin, a bushy mustache, and a big sombrero. That’s about the only thing remotely “Mexican” about the place. Once inside, the décor looks really strange. The chairs alternated between black and yellow. Black and white framed photography adorned the walls. Nothing in this place honestly spoke of “Mexico” the country. Contrast that with eateries in the USA, where the Mexican flag seems draped everywhere as a matter of pride. The lack of a theme continued into the menu. Sure, I found the “fresh scallop asshole” item again rather easily, but the other food items also confused me. You had your standard steaks and chicken wing dishes, but none of that is actually Mexican. The more I flipped through the menu, the more I thought Tacos just dresses itself up as “exotic” and “western” for Chinese people who might not know better.
Eventually, I found two things listed as “tacos” – one chicken and one beef. I called waitress over and ordered both. Then, I flipped back to the “Fresh Scallop Asshole” picture and pointed. At this point, the waitress wrinkled her brows at me. She tapped her pen against order pad and grew more confused. She glanced over her shoulder and shouted loudly towards the kitchen. Somebody in the kitchen loudly shouted back. She slightly shook her head no and said “没有” (not have). I smiled. Why was I not surprised? It meant either of two things. Either diners hold “fresh scallop assholes” in high demand, and they have a hard time keeping the ingredients in stock, or nobody orders it all. Since there was only one other diner in this nearly empty restaurant, I figured nobody orders it – especially English speaking foreigners who might find the name a bit scary. I smiled pointed back at “Fresh Scallop Asshole” and dismissively waved “not want.”
It seemed awhile to get my tacos, though. All four of them were profoundly underwhelming. They used flour tortillas – not the hard and crispy shells usually made from corn meal. Both the chicken and the beef were under seasoned. Sure, the meat had some juice to it, but I seemed to taste the vegetables more. They seemed only minimally dusted with a bit of black pepper. But that was all. All in all, the tacos were bland. The beef ones were even more confusing. Each taco had two medium rare strips of steak, but they were meager. It’s even more appalling once you consider the
price tag. I have had filling and satisfying meals at Chinese noodle joints for 15RMB. Each underwhelming taco order was easily twice that amount. The more I thought about, I realized that Taco Bell fast food back in America had more “Mexican Authenticity” than this place.
Before I left, I tried to puzzle out the characters in the Chinese menu description. I had looked at the photo I had taken. I could make out most of it with the help of Baidu Translate on my smart phone, but one character kept giving me trouble. The character was set against a wood-grained background, and that proved too hard for my cell phone’s camera and optical character recognition software. I squinted and scowled over “fresh scallop asshole” for awhile until just summarily gave up. In the end, I sent the menu picture to one my most trusted Chinese friends. Turns out, “Fresh scallop assholes” are actually just type of fried fish meatball. Buttocks and sphincters are not involved at all. Really. A graphic designer must have fed the Chinese menu description into a machine translator like Baidu Translate. That person must have cut-and-pasted the resulting English into the menu template without bothering to check. Obviously, the designer in question must have had no English skills at all. You don’t have to be fluent to know “asshole” is a naughty and impolite word.
My good friend and I traded WeChat messages over the subject, and I complained, a lot. I said things like “Some Mexican dishes are not that hard to make.”
“Aha,” she replied. “You know how to cook. Feed yourself!”
A day later, I did just that. I browned some ground pork in my wok, added a sliced red onion, and a can of red kidney beans. Paprika and a few heavy dashes of Tabasco sauce soon followed. I would have made guacamole too, but I didn’t have any avocados to mash, and I didn’t feel like going to the supermarket. Even if I had avocados, you would need diced tomatoes and a lime to do it right, and limes are hard to find in my end of China. Once simmered for awhile, it went into a tortilla wrap with a lot of cheddar cheese. It was both a simple and delicious burrito. Sure, my cooking is not “real Mexican” food, but it’s certainly more authentic than what you’ll find listed on Tacos’ menus.
Pardon me, hounded hope, for laughing from time to time.
Pardon me, deserts, that I don’t rush to you bearing a spoonful of water.
— Wislawa Szymborska
This is, by far, my most favorite lines from the late 1996 Nobel Prize winning Polish poet. It’s also from my favorite Szymborska poem, “Under One Small Star.”I first encountered it roughly like 14 years ago, when I was studying for my masters of fine arts in creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I had this phase where I read nothing but Slavic verse translated into English. The poem itself is a lengthy list of apologies; some of them sounded a bit silly, and others were quite profound. I didn’t know at the time that these set of lines would follow me through life.
This poem served me well the first time I angrily walked away American higher education and piecing together part-time teaching jobs. It was for a retail job at Walmart; the pay was about the same – only you could get health care insurance at Walmart. You couldn’t while part timing for American colleges. (This was before the age of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.) Of course, I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I spent years at a superstore in Freehold, New Jersey filled with petty scheming and constant moaning. Practically everybody else’s negativity was around me, and Szymborska’s poem hung in the back of my mind. I had a distinct pattern to my sarcastic retorts to people’s more sillier complaints. It went like this, “On behalf of the Walton Family, I do apologize for your hundreds of price changes and faulty telxon printer.” Some of my coworkers found this quite irritating.
Of course over the years, I angrily walked away from Walmart, twice. In the end, I went back to teaching freshman college writing. I got extremely frustrated with that, again, and I left for China and Changzhou. Since then, I must say my life has gone to a much happier place. I’m extremely grateful for that. Over the two years I lived here, Szymborska’s list of apologies receded a little in my memory and almost disappeared altogether. Something kept it from vanishing, however.
It’s funny how circumstances can change your appreciation of something, no matter if it’s a movie, a poem, or a memory. I found Szymborska again in Changzhou, as I did poets like Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, and T.S Eliot. Not mention gloriously awesome novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No, it wasn’t through an expat book club. It wasn’t through witty banter with fellow foreigners. Let’s face it: I have been quite antisocial for a long time. It was through a specific place, and passing it always made me smile.
The downtown Injoy Mall used to have a whole wall dedicated to Nobel winning writers. It was a timeline depicting the history of the award. Some of the entries had black and white headshots, and others didn’t. Except for the writer’s names, all of it was in Chinese. A few times, I used to get coffee at the nearby Starbucks and visit this display on Injoy’s second floor. Only, I didn’t do it enough.
It’s gone now, and now I know I took this small intellectual comfort for granted. The wallpaper with the Nobel Laureates has been peeled off. It’s been replaced with a bookstore. That should sound appropriate, but the books are in Chinese. While I am trying to learn the language, I am still functionally illiterate. Those books bring no comfort to me, and they essentially mean nothing so long as I can’t read them.
A truth: you don’t fully appreciate something until it’s unavailable and gone. I now sorely miss this one celebration of international culture. So, in that regard, let me summon and channel the ghost of Wislawa Szymborska and her great, great poem. Let me apologize:
Pardon me, Nobel Laureates; I should have spent more time absorbing your words.