Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Lanzhou lamian

For lunch the other day I went to a local lamian restaurant. Lamian literally means "pulled noodles," and it involves yanking and stretching and pounding great slabs of dough and then boiling them into long, long noodles. They're typically eaten in a bowl of broth with meat, green onions, or other small vegetables. The food originates from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, in the northwest, and is associated with a large ethnic group in the area, the Hui, who tend to be Muslim. Even if you don't know the characters for Lanzhou lamian, you can usually tell a lamian restaurant. They tend to be hole-in-the-wall places. The women who work there wear scarves and the men wear little round white caps. The spicy sauce found in lamian restaurants is the best spicy sauce I have ever tasted.

I struck up a conversation with the workers. They wanted to know if their kind of restaurant could do well in the US. "How much would that sell for in America?" a waitress asked me, pointing at my bowl. She was 21 years old and wore a beautiful scarf with pictures of flowers on it. I looked at the bowl of noodles. It had cost me 4 RMB, about 50 cents.

"This would probably cost between 30 and 40 RMB in a big city," I said. They smiled at each other in mild amazement.

"How much would it cost to rent a place to have the restaurant each month?" the waitress asked.

"I really don't know," I said.

She thought for a moment. "What do lamian restaurants look like in America?"

I said that most Americans haven't heard of Lanzhou or lamian, but there are many Chinese noodle restaurants in America. "Most people just call them Chinese noodles," I said.

"Do they look like this?" she asked, gesturing at her own restaurant.

I didn't really how to respond: I didn't want to say that they tended to be cleaner and more comfortable, so I just said, "they resemble McDonald's."

One of the waiters put a VCD into the TV hanging above our heads. What looked like a club scene started to play.

"That's in Lhasa," he said, dancing along to the techno music. "In Tibet."

"Have you been there?" I asked.

"Yes." Tibet is relatively close to Gansu province.

"Why did you come to Shanghai?" I asked. "Why did you leave Lanzhou?"

The waitress smiled. "Money," she said, shrugging. "We needed money."

A friend of mine who works in Shanghai once said, "Shanghai is a good place for making money. I don't think it's really a great place to live."

Many migrant workers have this attitude. An American journalist recently commented that in Shenzhen, China's recent boomtown in Guangdong, everyone is so focused on making money that there is no time for friendships, or relaxation, or love; hence in Shenzhen there are many "lonely heart hotlines," where people who need someone to talk to can call. Shenzhen is a city of migrant workers. The average age is about 29, and everyone there automatically speaks Mandarin to each other, China's common language, even though the city is in the heart of Guangdong, where people speak Cantonese. Shanghai is a much older city, with an entrenched Shanghainese population, but for migrants it can still be a lonely place. For all the talk in China about a unified, homogeneous Chinese culture, a migrant worker in a city like Shanghai can still feel very much like a foreigner.


Chloe said...

Hi Sam! I love reading your blogs. I'm learning so much about China through you... I should call you Professor Sam! You're informative and interesting, a very rare combination!

I'm incredibly jealous that you're in Shanghai and I'm in Arizona. So, just to rub it in, I must confess that I ate cottage cheese tonight. It was incredibly, wonderfully delicious. :-P

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