The Meaning of Lunch

Yesterday after class, I went to my favourite noodle joint. I call it “the Muslim place” because one of my friends identified it that way, and a nodding salaam alaikum is received with appreciation, and because I can’t read the blue and white sign in either Hanzi or Arabic. A wall poster for the city of Lanzhou, capital of China’s central-western Gansu province and an ancestral home of noodliciousness, makes me think that the owning family must come from there. It’s fairly clean (but don’t use the washroom), there is a posted No Smoking request (but don’t ask them to enforce it), the noodles are hand-made, old-fashioned, in-house (free and easy to watch, from the back tables, the one-eyed maker throw the dough), they re-use chopsticks (a little electric kiln sanitizes them, I believe), the food is hao you duo (good and plenty, and not too heavily oiled) and the price is right. I generally eat lunch for seven yuan – a dollar – or nine yuan when I’m feeling grand. Nobody knows my name, admittedly, but I get smiles whenever I go and often meet my former students there.

It’s across the street from the building where I taught for my first two years in Dalian, but from my new university it’s three bus stops and a stroll. I was going to play some basketball with court buddies after the morning’s teaching anyway, so I thought I’d haunt the old place. I sat next to the windowed front this time, watching the world of Ligong Daxue students, my previous world, go by. The wind was waving the broad-leafed trees across the (mainly) pedestrian boulevard. A few tall, fair kids, likely Russians or Belarussians, wandered by, along with a couple of African men a few moments later, but the people-watching follows an overwhelmingly Chinese menu. One of the ubiquitous blue flatbed delivery trucks scattered the students as it pulled up, and two young men – surely among the majority who failed to get placed in a university after the nation-wide entrance examination pressure-cooker cooled, their lives largely decided at 18 – came in. They picked up the cases of empty beverage bottles, and delivered new ones. It looked like a sweet soy drink in a ‘50s-style glass bottle. Yes, and another thing I like about this place: for fifteen cents, I can wash down my noodles with a small bottle of Coke or Sprite (or Fanta apple soda) and never touch plastic.

I love glass bottles. They get re-used, not recycled. EnviroBride always tsk-tsks me with “but they’re heavy to transport and so more fossil fuel is burned yadda”, but that sounds like a plastics-industry lobbying blurb to me. What about the  heat of processing the plastic? What about all the plastic that never gets to the melting and remoulding stage? I could try a little harder, but I’m not sure I really want the facts. I love the sound of clinking glass, that firm weight in my fist. I remember collecting the ten-ounce bottles for the 2-cent return, and the 26-ers for a nickel, which I could use for candy at Corman’s General Store, or blow a quarter for pop and chips at the bar of the Niagara Restaurant. (Grape Crush or Tahiti Treat? Wink or Canada Dry? I dare you to try the ginger beer!) This is not only nostalgia for my earliest entrepreneurship, but also for the economic genius: incentivized re-use of materials, ones that would degrade (eventually) even if the bottle broke before I could redeem it.

Though I really ought to find a lunch option a little closer to where I teach, I don’t plan to miss this place. (Try the beef noodle soup in the deep bowls.) It’s become a small solace in this still-inscrutable city. (Watch that little son-of-the-owner sprint to tables and never spill a drop.) Like much of China, it reminds me of the way “we” used to do things fifty, sixty years ago. (Notice the tiny, head-scarfed mama chopping in the back corner of the kitchen, just opposite the bottle cases.) I must learn what it’s called.

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