I’m writing this from somewhere above the North Pole, as I fly back to the States from China with my husband, mother, 8-year-old son, 6-year-old daughter and newly adopted 2-year-old daughter.
This was my husband’s and my second trip to China, our first being in 2017 to adopt our 5-year-old son. This time was different, with our two biological kids in tow.
It would have been easier to leave them behind, but we wanted to show them where their younger brother and sister are from and give them some perspective.
While our main mission was to adopt our daughter and serve her needs as she adjusted to being with us, we had ample opportunity to sight-see and experience life in Guangzhou, China, during our two weeks there.
An exciting part of travel for me is the food, and Guangzhou is the center of Cantonese cuisine. If it were up to me, we would have been out every meal trying new foods and renowned restaurants.
Pictures don’t tell all
I lost track of how many times my son asked to eat at McDonald’s (they’re on every other block, even in China). And while experiencing our new daughter’s culture through food is important, she is 2 and dining out with a 2-year-old can be harrowing.
I should also mention that eating out in China is not easy. The language barrier can be like a brick wall.
It is common for restaurants, even upscale ones, to show pictures on their menus. But pictures don’t tell you what is in an unfamiliar dish, and most restaurants don’t have someone on staff who speaks English.
Even an adventurous eater like me gets exhausted eating out under those circumstances.
Thankfully, our hotel offered an upgrade that included light dinner and drinks every evening in the executive lounge and a breakfast buffet in the morning. With a mix of Asian and Western cuisine, I could enjoy my seafood pancakes, noodle bowls and Chinese vegetables while the kids chose eggs, cereal and fruit.
That freedom for them to eat familiar foods at many meals helped preserve at least minimal enthusiasm for trying new things when we did venture out to restaurants.
Cute little bites
Guangzhou is known for dim sum, which is served in bite-size portions. It’s like Chinese tapas, historically served from carts that visit each table with bamboo steamer baskets. You mark your choices in pencil on a paper menu.
Dim sum appeals to kids because it’s fun to try the cute portions, plus many popular dim sum dishes are sweet or fried. By the end of the trip we each had new dim sum favorites, including an especially cute coconut pudding molded in the shape of bunnies.
Our guide helped us order a few times at Cantonese restaurants, a perfect scenario because she could introduce us to regional favorites like shrimp dumplings and egg tarts while also checking that we were cool with everything first (“Do you eat chicken feet?” For the record, we have and once was enough.)
She also demystified why every server puts an empty plastic bowl on the table with the tea (hot tea is served without question at every meal). It’s traditional to use your first cup of tea to clean your dish, bowl, chopsticks and spoon by dipping the utensils into the tea and pouring the tea over the dishes into the empty plastic bowl. They don’t really need cleaning, but the tradition continues.
Our older kids did complain about being forced out of their comfort zones, but we didn’t let it stop us. One of our 8-year-old’s favorite meals was a noodle and dumpling bowl we ordered by blindly pointing to a picture at a stall in a food court — a food court where he’d insisted he didn’t want to eat. (The dish, I learned later, was wanton noodles, another Cantonese specialty.)
Girls night adventure
On our last night, our new daughter was exhausted, and our son was crabby, so my husband took them back to the hotel while my mom, older daughter and I had a girls dinner outing.
We passed by restaurant after restaurant trying to find one that seemed plausible to order from with or without help from Google Translate.
Finally we opted for a place that had the word “rice rolls” in English on the sign. I knew steamed rice rolls are a regional dish and had tried them at the hotel breakfast.
We ordered at the front register by pointing at a picture, but the hostess stopped us from ordering more before having me pay and sit down at a cafeteria-style table with a number.
We were not expecting a bowl of seafood congee, a bland, watery dish like oatmeal but made from rice, but that’s what she brought us, dotted with unidentifiable bits of seafood. We could only laugh.
The rice roll came next, a huge, eggy, crepe-like wrap swimming in soy sauce.
I’m proud of my daughter for trying both these dishes, and my mom and I made quick work of the rice roll, but we were glad we were stopped from ordering more.
We hopped next door to a dumpling restaurant with a hip corner tavern vibe and finished our meal with the best dumplings of our trip and a side of edamame. We encountered only a handful of communication issues.
It was the perfect little food adventure for the three of us.
With all the begging for McDonald’s we did cave once and get the kids Happy Meals. We were surprised to find that instead of French fries they came with little cups of corn.
When you’re traveling in a place like China, even eating at McDonald’s can be a cultural experience.
Alison Sherwood is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, a mother of three and freelance writer. Find her on Instagram @alisherwood. Email her at [email protected].
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