There Are Worse Possible Flavorings Than MSG

When I was teaching middle school (which I desperately miss, even though I like my current job),  I could always count on something interesting to liven up my day. There was one sunny August morning, during a jump start summer school program that I was serving as administrator for, that I will never forget. As I leaned against the quickly warming bricks of the school, chatting with my fellow crazy-enough-to-sign-up-for-every-extra-activity teachers and best teaching buddies, Jim and Misty, a young girl popped her head around the corner with a bright, “Look what I have!”  Now, knowing this kid, I knew whatever she was going to show me was something I didn’t want to see, but I wasn’t prepared for the *giant* praying mantis she shoved in my face!  (To me, this thing was James and the Giant Peach worthy. Granted, that might be a perception thing, since the bug was probably an inch from my eyeballs! In reality, it was probably a normal sized critter, but that isn’t the way my brain will ever recall it.)  With a squeal that would wake the dead, I hauled some serious teacher tail out of the cubby area we were standing in, nearly knocking over my fellow educators of our nation’s future, who were also startled by the appearance of the creepy-crawly dangling from this student’s palm.  After sending her off to put her “find” back in the tree where it belonged, the three of us calmed our racing hearts and tried to reign in the ridiculous laughter so we could actually go lead morning classes.  (I have to admit, in that moment, none of us was earning much in terms of credibility as teachers!)

Nearly a decade of teaching has filled my story coffers with other great tales of final exams which compare donkeys having conjugal relations with dogs as an example of irony (“You said it was when there was an unexpected twist!”), students who didn’t know what to do with a cassette tape (“When was this thing MADE?”) and kids who spent an inordinate amount of time building a tank as part of a biographical report on Dwight D. Eisenhower, and yet somehow neglected to turn in an actual research paper ( “I failed? But why? The tank is two and a half feet tall!”).

When my husband joined the Foreign Service and I resigned from my fabulous position in Marsing, I wondered if those moments of sheer craziness were going to be a thing of the past.

As it turns out, I had no need for concern.

While I am sure this holds true of many postings throughout the world, Chengdu provides me with just enough insanity on a daily basis to keep my on my toes. Take today for example.  The sun was shining (something not to be taken for granted here!), spring was in the air and fried rice was calling my name. Along with two good friends, I headed down what has lovingly been dubbed “Noodle Alley.” This is a one-lane “road” lined with an array of tiny restaurants, kiosk shops selling everything from twine and mops to light bulbs and metal tubing, and filled with cars and scooters trying to wind their way (in both directions) around the foot-traffic and pineapple-on-a-stick laden carts. We were headed to a small restaurant which I am sure has a name, but since my character reading skills have basically rendered me illiterate, I find by looking for the hole in the wall with a scrolling digital sign above the door. After sliding between the six tables set up in the inside part of the restaurant, we wove our way through the kitchen, passed the waves of flame scorching the low ceiling and around the old man shaving noodles into a pot of boiling broth, popping out behind the building onto a sidewalk turned restaurant courtyard.

We pulled up tiny Hello Kitty plastic stools and ordered our dishes of MSG flavored egg fried rice. (Yum!) As we sat chatting about how nice the last few days of sunshine have been, enjoying our heaping plates of lunch, I noticed a mangy cat picking its way across the corrugated plastic of an awning. As I stared, transfixed by its awkward posture, I realized it wasn’t crouching to keeps its balance on the uneven surface, but rather because it was taking care of business, just above one of the outdoor tables. I couldn’t *not* point this out to my companions, who turned to look, laugh and then quickly returned to their meals.

In America, people often joke about the five-second rule for food that drops on the ground. While in China I abide by a strict zero-second rule when it comes to anything touching the floor, I apparently am quite comfortable with a three-table rule when it comes to cat urine and my lunch.

So, while it may have been years since I’ve had a praying mantis shoved unceremoniously into my face, it has only been a matter of hours since I enjoyed the pitter-patter of feline pee as the soundtrack to my meal.

This is just one of the quirks of China that makes me smile on any given day…

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(Pictures courtesy of Stephanie H.)

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