On Being a Spectacle in Dalian

There are no western tourists here in Dalian. In fact, I have yet to come across any English speaking person other than that airline attendant who helped me in the airport and one other guy (more on him soon). Yes, this includes the non-English speaking hotel front desk and staff.

Because there are no western tourists or businesspeople as far as I can see, I’m assuming the locals here in Dalian — an urban city right across the way from Korea in NE China — don’t see many Caucasian, English speaking foreigners.

My basis for this opinion is I have become a goddamn spectacle anywhere I walk. You may think all this attention would be cool, but it’s extremely irritating.

At first I thought the restaurants were just overstaffed, which they probably are. Then I realized my sheer presence commanded a wait staff of 5 or 6 people who studied my every move.

For lunch I walked a couple blocks down the way from my hotel and resolved to find the McDonald’s or KFC that I saw on the taxi ride over here to try to make up for the "breakfast" the hotel served, which despite my meager appetite to my sickness, was thoroughly disgusting. Unable to find these beacons of sanitary, edible food, I did see one restaurant with an English sign: "BBQ". Aha! Once inside I was seated, handed a menu, I looked at four pictures of "meat" and, out of desperation, chose the fifth picture that seemed to look like nachos.

While waiting for the food to arrive, three — three! — waiters sat at the table next to me and just stared at me. Uncomfortable, I took out my China guidebook and pretended to read. Then one of the guys came and stood over my shoulder to look at what I was reading. WTF? I kept "reading" and fortunately he walked away. Then two other waitresses came over and kept looking at my plate as I ate it — which turned out to be corn paste — and then offered me a spoon to supplement my chopsticks. I used the spoon as a knife to cut the corn paste (sounds yummy, no?).

For dinner I went to the "Western restaurant" in the hotel. Not a single piece of Western food. I walked into the "restaurant" to find a confusing buffet style of options spread all over the place. Everyone in the restaurant started staring at me. About five staff people started surrounding me. One woman started following me, right behind me, with a notepad. WTF? Finally a young man dressed as a chef came up to me and explained, in English, how to work the restaurant. He’s probably the only person in the whole hotel to speak any English. He realized I didn’t have a clue what to eat so he said "you want this salad and some lamb?" I said yes. "Beer?" I said no, I wanted water. "No water." So I said orange juice, the closest watery substance I could think of.

I then was seated at a table and didn’t dare crack open the book I brought along with me, because I felt that would further insult the Chinese tradition of sharing a meal with others (dining solo, as I was doing, is rare). So I stared straight ahead, into a wall, afraid to turn my head and endure the curious, probably friendly but to menacing, glares of every waiter and chef and most patrons. The salad came to my table and was terrible. The "lamb" tasted like rubber and looked as processed as your favorite Hollywood star’s boobs. The orange juice boasted 1% orange, 99% urine.

I got up to pay my bill, creating another spectacle as my height always does. Six mis-communications later and the chef — who had been re-assigned from the kitchen to the Ben Casnocha Entourage — escorted me downstairs to help me use my credit card at the front desk. While they processed the card and he asked where I was from, I said San Francisco, and they all started giggling. A week ago I would have laughed with them, happy that California has such positive connotations abroad. Instead I focused on the status of the credit card swipe.

A few minutes later I escaped back to the safety of my hotel room, which is warm, wired, and ringing with endless honking horns and undrinkable water in the bathroom. Can’t wait to leave Dalian. And no, I didn’t take any pictures, why would I want to memorialize these past two days?

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