Vegetarian restaurants: a taxonomy.
Or: La la la la la! I can't understand you!

There are several kinds of vegetarian restaurants, and each have their place in the world: the restaurants based on the theory that vegetarian cuisine must imitate meat; the homestyle places; and those which manage to break free of the limitating modifier "vegetarian" to sublime deliciousness.

The first vegetarian restaurant we acquainted ourselves with here in Fujian province was of the first type (Fake Meat), and very tasty. We chose it as the site of the farewell banquet we threw last night for our Chinese friends and colleagues.

According to the textbooks, Chinese friendship is fueled by favors. In my brief time here, I've learned that this is true -- but it's not just cold quid-pro-quo'ing. Having to perform favors to keep the wheels of society going means that one is always on the lookout for favors to perform. Sort of like observing the mitzvot. Last night at the banquet we threw I experienced a marvelous balancing of emotions: satisfaction that we could treat our friends, and warmth at the hospitality and welcoming nature of the Chinese that had occasioned this treat of ours. Or maybe the warmth came from the not-bad Chinese beer, and the many times I said "ganbei." (Everyone pretended to understand my toasts -- courtesy of the Oxford concise Chinese-English dictionary and an American soupcon of linguistic chutzpah.)

We took a taxi back to our apartment complex, and the three of us walked around the circular driveway connecting the buildings. In a large, empty room in the middle building, whose windows looked out onto the driveway, we saw a solitary man playing the recorder. His music was beautiful, though I couldn't identify it as anything more specific than "Chinese."

The security guard and the doormen were chatting outside. I managed to ask them, in Chinese, "Does he play every night?", and they said no, just a couple of times a week.

"Is he a musician?" I asked.

They both laughed. "Sorry! We can't understand you! Ting bu dong!" No! I wanted to shout. Give me another chance, please! I can make this sentence work! I can change around the tones!

I have some experience with speaking languages other than English, my native tongue, and I can tell you that Mandarin Chinese has been the one which (in my brief time here) has demonstrated the most frustrating variation in how (or whether) I'm understood by the person I'm talking to. I performed an unintended experiment a few days ago on a street in Fuzhou, going into several establishments and asking, "Excuse me, please, where's the internet cafe?" Of five people I asked, three responded, one looked at me without saying anything at all, and one, a young woman working at a salon, shrieked, covered her face with her hands, and ran inside. Is it my Mandarin, or is it the fact that I'm six-foot-two and blonde?

I tried to ask the women my question again about the recordist, but the great wall of incomprehension was down for the night. I got to understand a bit; that's a tantalizing symbol of my entire trip.

The second type of vegetarian restaurant is typified in my mind by Veg City Diner, in New York (rest in peace!), now replaced by Curly's Vegetarian Diner. In other words, it's been a great trip to China, but it's going to be time to go home soon.

The third type of vegetarian restaurants include the best I've ever eaten in. Ladies and gentlemen, I have been to the mountaintop: the best establishment I've ever slurped a noodle at is right here in Fujian. More information to come.

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