China may have lax environmental laws, but it is far from being a wasteful country. Everything is used. It’s rare to see garbage on the street. A common sight is people on bicycles pulling trailers piled high with cardboard boxes or paper. Or people begging to collect the empty plastic water bottles from tour buses. They weren’t begging for money. They wanted our empty plastic bottles. There isn’t a deposit on the bottles, but presumably the collectors get some compensation if they bring in enough bottles. Land is used. Looking through a fence hole, I saw a woman who lived in a huge apartment building collecting cucumbers from a plant she nurtured at the otherwise empty backyard of the building. There was only eight feet between the building and the fence. In the hutongs—the old-style way of living in Beijing, a sort of shantytown of connected courtyard residences centered around a water source—you see pots of vegetables and flowers and herbs growing in unlikely places. On the side of the highways you see thin rows of plants like corn, or fruit trees. And each swelling fruit is surrounded by its own burlap bag to protect it. When food makes it to the table, all of the animal is eaten. When a few of us went out for Peking Duck, the duck head, split in two, had its own special plate. I couldn’t face the eye or brain, but I did have a bit of duck cheek.
Kate Anderson at the Ming Tombs outside Beijing
Speaking of food, there are many differences. I enjoyed the eastern-ness of the “Western” buffet at the Beijing hotel: congee, bok choy, steamed pork buns, fried rice. And western foods not usually eaten for breakfast, namely soup and a salad bar. The meal fed to tourists at large restaurants was largely the same. Lots of dishes, and lots of variety, but again and again, pretty much the same: rice or fried rice, bok choy or another variety of cabbage, dumplings or spring rolls, chicken with peanuts in a spicy sauce, at least one dish with pork, another dish with beef, one with fish. Meat is fattier, and there is a much lower ratio of meat to vegetables than you find at Chinese restaurants in America. When the plate of watermelon slices comes out of the kitchen, you know the meal is over. Fortune cookies are not seen, as they are a completely American invention. Beijing street food is partially on display for tourists, or else why would there be English translations? The selection is staggering, and almost everything is served on a skewer, from fruit kebabs to grilled meat. Then there are the more unusual offerings: dog meat pot, starfish, mealies, scorpions, snake, sheep penis. These foods are not just there for show. Adventurous tourists order a slithery or crunchy skewer that then gets grilled or deep fried, but Chinese people are also ordering—and not on a dare.
By Kate Anderson, Touro Law Summer Abroad Program in China