Monday, March 21, 2011

Mystery solved

There is one dish indigenous to Wuhan that I truly enjoy eating. It is called ‘hot, dry noodle’, a noodle dish served with a sesame paste and peanut sauce. Unlike most Chinese noodle dishes that are swimming in broth and are sometimes overspiced, this particular dish has no broth and no bad-tasting spices. It is a breakfast favorite that one can enjoy all day long. Being as I enjoy eating it, I sometimes have it for dinner as well as for breakfast.

Several vendors all over Wuhan make Hot Dry Noodle, and they put their own twist to the standard recipe. Some add hot peppers, others add vegetables. I prefer the standard dish and only one husband and wife vendor team near the school makes it perfectly. As a result of their culinary know how, I patronize their stall the most. He and his wife feel quite blessed at the foreigner’s patronage because, invariably, if I’m in the restaurant having a bowl of noodles, several more people will come in just for the novelty of watching me eat. I’m really not kidding when I say this. It simply cannot be coincidence that the restaurant is empty when I get there, and by the time I leave every table and every stool is full, and the husband and wife team are kept hopping with calls of ‘fu wu yuan!’ (Waiter!)

The other day I had a craving for a bowl of hot, dry noodles and made my way up the street. My favorite vendors were happy to see me and greeted me with a big smile. They were in the middle of cleaning up after their mid-morning rush. As he wiped the tables, his wife asked me if I wanted my usual. “Of course!” I affirmed, smiling. The husband invited me to a clean table, and I sat down to wait for my delicious treat.

Shortly after I was seated, a woman new to the neighborhood came in. I had not seen her before, but later I learned she works at the farmer’s market around the corner. I am always eager to meet people in the neighborhood and make use of my growing lexicon of Chinese words. I thought that just such a chance materialized when she entered the restaurant and sat down at the table next to mine.

This new patron did not engage me at all. However, she did stare at me unabashedly. I cannot get away from being a novelty when I eat out, not just because I am a foreigner, but because I can use chopsticks and I eat with my left hand. After a minute or two of watching me eat my noodles, she asked the ‘waitress’ what country I was from. The response came swiftly: “America”, of course.

I thought it was rather strange that the stall owner did not encourage this new customer to ask me directly. Both owners are not only proud that I patronize their stall habitually, but also of the fact that I can speak Chinese. They usually encourage their customers to engage me in conversation, something that I gladly do. It earns them brownie points (guanxi) within the community and helps me too. Perhaps it was because the poor, harried chef was still in ‘rush hour’ mode, running back and forth from front to back of the restaurant replenishing supplies, that she barked a response rather than suggesting that the customer ask me.

The woman stared at me some more, using no discretion whatsoever. She started at my feet, taking a good, long look. She then let her eyes cruise up my legs which were somewhat uncomfortably folded around a pink plastic stool that is about the height of a kindergartner’s chair. Feeling ogled, I looked up to find her leaning forward, her glance lingering somewhere around my knees. I smiled at her but she still said nothing to me. Her roving eyes moved up my body: the length of my arms, the size of my hands, my face, my hair.

She then asked the stall owner: “Is that a man or a woman?”

I put down my bowl and replied: “I am female.”

“You understand me!” she exclaimed.

“Yes, I understand you.”

Horrified, embarrassed, she then threw her hands in the air and apologized over and over. I reassured her, explaining that it is a question I am asked often.

That is the truth. Even in the States I get mistaken for a man. “Honey, move over and let the nice man by” a young mother said to her small daughter once, when I was shopping at a grocery store. And this was when I wore my hair long, and was wearing a tee-shirt and shorts, in the summer. In fact, the only place no one has ever mistaken me for a man is in Auto Zone.

I don’t get where people could possibly mistake me for a man. I’ll admit I am a tall drink of water, but I have distinctly feminine attributes: long legs, hips, shapely derriere and, the most telling: breasts and longish, styled hair. My nails are long and manicured. I have no Adam’s apple. Even on days where I don’t much feel like it, I still apply at least eyeliner, mascara and a light lip-gloss, as well as jewelry before leaving the house. And those are just visual clues. My mannerisms, voice and gestures are feminine. I don’t know how I can be more female than I already am, and yet I am still mistaken, or at least confused for a man, even under close scrutiny.

Most of me thinks it is rather funny, but there is a part of me that thinks: “Oh, come on, now! Do I REALLY look like a man to you? How is it you cannot tell the difference?”

I can see where this patron might have been confused if I were standing up and she had to look up at me. Bundled up as I was that day against the cold wind, most of my physical attributes were covered up. Maybe there could have been some debate as to my gender. But, I was sitting down, knees together, and my face was level with hers. My manicured hands maneuvered the chopsticks from the bowl to my mouth. Our eyes met evenly when I answered her. Surely she must have seen the nails, the makeup, the shoulder-length blond hair and the jewelry. And still:

“Is that a man or a woman?”

The poor woman left before her noodles were done. I suppose she felt so embarrassed… not at asking the question, but at the fact that I understood her. I felt bad for her, not getting her noodles. But, this incident did finally answer a large, looming question for me.

I now know why people stare at me all the time: not because I am a foreigner, but because they are trying to figure out if I am male or female. Maybe I should start wearing a sandwich board when I go out, to answer the two main questions that pique people’s curiosity. The front side would say: ‘I am from America’ and the back side would say: ‘I am female’.

That should take care of the staring, don’t you think?

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