Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.
Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.
After a prolonged period of stability, I finally bid Belgium farewell in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and traveling.
I was on the verge of blissful slumber when the red dot flickered across my face, settling right in the middle of my forehead and jarring me from my restful state.
What the hell?
Straining to focus through my drowsiness, I could make out a blurry figure standing to my side. A futuristic gun gripped in a small, pale hand. Aimed right at me, there was a lone beep, followed by an equally unsettling metallic click. Then, much to my relief, it was withdrawn. “Thirty six degrees” purred the air stewardess, with a robotic smile. And off she went with a swish of her red and yellow tie scarf. A faint trail of perfume hanging in the air.
“No Swine flu for you then”, chuckled S.
“Welcome to Beijing Capital International Airport”, announced a tinny female voice as we filed out into arrivals. It was cold and our bodies felt weak from lack of sleep. On touchdown there’d been more Swine flu checks. A swat team of masked doctors going about their faceless work with a brisk mechanicalness. “Thank you, enjoy your stay”.
According to the Chinese government back in 2009, Beijingers could expect up to two hundred and fifty clean air days a year. Peering out the taxi window that morning as we hurtled down the motorway, it was glaringly obvious that this wasn’t one of them. In fact, the skyscrapers that flashed by my window were enveloped in a thin, grey haze. The afternoon sun, meanwhile, found itself reduced to nothing more than a dim, dirty orange disc seemingly plonked into the sky. A dried egg yolk of a thing, a spent force.
Our taxi driver spoke not a word of English. But of course we’d anticipated this, providing him with the Chinese address of our Beijing base, Leo Hostel. And oh was that journey a long one, our progress regularly stunted by bouts of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Consequently, it felt like an age before we finally pulled up on the edge of Dazhalan Street. Stepping out and unloading our bags, I was horrified to discover that the entire road was under construction!
Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.
Our taxi melting into the smog, S and I stood surveying the miserable scene before us. I recall cursing our luck. That of all the streets in Beijing, we had to go and choose this one. The road had basically been reduced to one massive trench, an army of orange-vested workers striding back and forth.
“How do you even walk down that?” whispered S.
The workmen were busy carrying iron bars, digging holes, fiddling around with pipes and generally shouting and spitting a lot. Right in the middle of all this chaos stood a lone supervisor, his hair slicked back to one side. He wore a white shirt with a black tie and had his hands firmly planted on his hips. Understandably, he looked like he wanted to be somewhere else… anywhere else.
Watching the disorder in a state of disbelief, I soon realised that it was possible to traverse the street. However, it would involve negotiating a comically narrow bed of wooden boards strewn outside the shopfronts. Not that we had a hope in hell of getting our luggage down there. “I’ll go and see if I can find Leo,” I announced hopefully.
“Maybe I can bring someone back, we just need an extra pair of hands”.
Off I went, traipsing through mounds of rubble, tiptoeing over broken planks and hopping over puddles of foul-smelling filth. Sections of the makeshift pathway consisted of little more than a single board, enforcing me into the role of tightrope walker. One false step and I’d be down in a mud-pit with the labourers.
Every now and then I had to perform the even trickier task of passing another pedestrian. All I could do was press myself up against the wall to allow the other to squeeze by. I’d been struggling on like this for around ten minutes when I started to wonder just how far down the hostel was. I hadn’t seen any building numbers, which left me completely in the dark as to my whereabouts.
Luckily, just when I thought I’d unwittingly passed the place, I caught sight of a large, red sign. I could have easily missed it, as it was partially hidden behind a team of labourers pushing a massive yellow digger.
Scrambling over a wobbly, wooden platform, I fell into reception where I was greeted by Sunny, a pretty young Chinese girl with an alert smile below a pair of black reading glasses. “Hello, you are welcome Leo Hostel!” she sang.
Explaining my predicament, Sunny’s sunny disposition rapidly melted into genuine concern. “Don’t worry, Noodles will help you!” I was just about to tell her that brunch wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when a plump young Chinese man appeared in a red Leo Hostel T-shirt. He and Sunny engaged in a minute or two of harsh-sounding dialogue, the man nodding as he listened. Then he turned to face me with a wide smile and a firm handshake.
“My name is Noodles” he laughed, “let’s go!”
I followed him through a back kitchen, past clattering pots and chattering chefs. Then we emerged into a brick courtyard and out into a network of narrow alleyways. Or hutongs, as the Chinese call them. “Err… Noodles, where are we going?” “Shortcut!” he grinned as we took a left… two rights… another left… or maybe it was a right.
“Where are you from?”
“Why you come China?”
“Oh you teacher, can help me improve my English!”
Now we were back onto Nightmare Street, our alleyway adventure having cut out a large chunk of the assault course. “This street is crazy, Noodles!” I exclaimed, as we closed in on S, a nervous-looking dot in the distance. “Yes… is no good. But they work fast, because government say must finish in three month. No finish on time, no pay!” he laughed.
Introducing himself to S with a further dose of Noodles charm, our hero grabbed the largest of our suitcases and led us back down the quagmire. Cutting back into the hutong, we met another Leo rep who had come to help. A morose, slouching teenager who seemed less than enthusiastic about having to assist us.
“This is Rice!” giggled Noodles, as his accomplice relieved me of another bag. “Noodles and Rice, ha ha ha!!!” he howled, slapping me on the back. Scowling somewhat, head to the floor, Rice ploughed on ahead, clearly keen to get back to Leo. “Rice speak no English, very bad” tut-tutted Noodles.
We slept for a wonderful twelve hours that night. Hence I felt ravenous by the time we got down to Leo’s café for breakfast. Settling into a cosy corner table, we were perusing the menus when who should walk in, but our knight in shining armour, Mr. Noodles. “Ah teacher and lady!!!” he cried, approaching our table.
“Food here is good but please, don’t eat Noodles!!! Eat Rice instead, ha ha ha!”
Rice himself merely grimaced at us from the corner of the room, where he was mopping a section of the floor by the kitchen door. Empowered by some surprisingly decent coffee and a round of banana pancakes, we quickly set to work on our Beijing exit plan.
With teaching jobs already secured in the capital prior to our arrival, the clock was ticking on what would be a glorious four-week, cross-country adventure! I was so excited to hit the road, I could have happily left that day. But sadly there was stuff to do. First, we had to transfer our luggage over to Linda and Ivan, an English couple who’d kindly agreed to look after our stuff while we were away.
Second, we needed to make our way to Beijing South Train Station. Our quest was to secure two tickets to the nearby city of Tianjin, the first stop on our trip. Questionably, we decided to tackle a five kilometre walking route in what turned out to be thirty five degree heat! What’s more, it was another smoggy day, the sun conspicuous by its absence.
Getting away from our hellish street as swiftly as possible, the route took us through several expansive residential areas. As anticipated, the city was exceptionally busy and noisy. A grey, largely colourless concrete jungle soundtracked by the incessant honking of passing traffic.
Moreover, this was the first time I saw people wearing face masks. Thus I couldn’t help but wonder if we should be wearing them too. And what, exactly, we were currently breathing into our lungs.
Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.
There was much to take in that day. A lady selling puppies from a rusty old cage. Groups of ripped men swinging around on monkey bars in a metallic street gym. We got more than a few looks from curious locals as we made our way. There was a high-pitched “helloooo!” from some giggling school children and plenty of cheerless staring, mostly from the elderly.
One particularly sour-faced old woman even took time out from hobbling to openly gawp at us. Standing just inches away from me, she proceeded to inspect my shoes at great length before eyeballing me with an uncompromising death stare. “Ni hao!” I chirped, but she didn’t reply.
As the day wore on, it got hotter and hotter. As a result, many Chinese men began rolling their T-shirts up to their chests for relief. What a strange sight this was for us China newbies, especially those older men proudly sporting their unsightly potbellies.
Here and there we had to cross mammoth four-lane roads, the green lights giving us barely enough time to make it over to the other side. This was compounded by the fact that most drivers impatiently honked and revved at us as we scampered to safety. It was all rather stressful.
A kilometre or so from the train station, we came upon a small park where pairs of men battled each other at table tennis. One of the matches, played by two bare-chested men, proved fiercely competitive. They celebrated and mourned the passing of the points with great gusto. “Yaaarragh!!!” screamed one of them, following a prolonged rally, thumping the table victoriously with his fists.
Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.
Suddenly, and much to my surprise, the men called me over to play. Thrusting his bat into my hand, the guy who’d just lost the rally jogged over to a nearby water fountain to refuel, while I got my ass royally kicked by his friend. Ten minutes in the searing, smoggy heat proved punishment enough for me. So I made my excuses, cajoled my new friend into a photo and we were back on our way.
When we finally rolled up at Beijing South, the damn thing was closed. I knew something wasn’t right the moment we began our approach through the station’s huge, deserted square. We were about halfway down when a posse of street kids sprinted over. One of them was barking at me in frenetic Chinese, stabbing a finger back at the station. “Yes, we know”.
Tired from the morning’s exertions, S suggested we take a taxi over to the main train station. On arrival, we joined the chaotic throng of bodies swarming in all directions as we attempted to work out which ticket counter we needed. After much confusion, a whole lot of waiting and the awfulness of the man behind me hanging over my shoulder, we emerged victorious, the proud owners of two train tickets to Tianjin!
Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.
Photo courtesy of Bjorn Christian Torrissen.
“Sounds like you’ve had a busy first day!” laughed Linda, as we all clinked glasses. We were at a restaurant somewhere in Chaoyang District, a massive space decorated in dark wood and hanging red lanterns. The place was chock-a-block with hungry customers. And yet there seemed to be just as many waiters and waitresses, many of whom had converged around our table.
They took my coat, pulled back my chair for me and pounced to replace my beer the second I took my last gulp. They jumped to attention when I rose for the toilet. At one point, a girl came scuttling over to ask me what was wrong. But I’d just been scratching my ear.
And then there was the food, a magnificent array of mouthwatering dishes that had me ruing my lack of chopstick skills. I loved the spicy runner beans with minced pork. And the fried eggplant, served in a sweet, honey sauce! There was also an entire fried fish, grisly head intact, delivered with chopped onions in a rich, tomato and garlic sauce.
Noodles and Rice, a short story from China.
Linda and Ivan were so hospitable it was humbling. One of S’s cousins had put us in touch with them, after which they’d gone out of their way to welcome us. Ivan taught us a few Chinese phrases, Linda offered invaluable cultural insight and they even picked up the dinner bill.
We’d only known them for a few hours and yet it felt like hanging out with old friends. “If you need a place to stay when you get back to Beijing, just let us know” clucked Linda. Wow, I thought, we’ve really landed on our feet with these two.
“So sorry to see you go,” pouted Noodles, as S and I checked out at reception. “Thanks!” I said, tightening the straps on my backpack. “Rice will miss you very much, ha ha ha!” he squealed, as the grumpy dude himself slinked outside, lit a cigarette and frowned off into the distance.
Exiting Leo into a pleasingly clear and fresh morning, I looked up at the sky to see hints of blue forcing their way through the clouds. “Ready?” asked S, as the sound of hammering and drilling kicked in down the street. “Yup” I replied, and off we went towards our great adventure.
‘Noodles & Rice’ is the first chapter of my short story series Challenged in China.
Why not also check out my location reports from across Beijing.
I’ve also written travel reports from all across China.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.
Seems like your first few days in Beijing were full of quintessential China experiences: dug out streets, Beijing belly, smog, people staring unashamedly at you, but also friendliness of the locals and great food. Great first chapter, very well written.
Hey Anoush, thanks so much for joining me at the beginning of this new short story series! Thanks for kicking off the comment thread, there was indeed a string of very Chinese experiences on that first day!
Love it. Not been to China but love the way this story precisely captures those feelings of first steps into an unfamiliar culture. That “pushing the comfort zone” feeling that is exciting, scary and stimulating all at once and to my mind is one of the things that defines a true traveller. You captured it all so perfectly here, Leighton. (Btw, I tried to comment on your post yesterday but kept getting an error message).
Thanks Phil! I have seen a lot of China over the years, probably my most travelled country. Unfortunately that means a billion articles to do and it all starts here. Thanks for reading this longer piece, I’m glad so much of it resonates. Yesterday’s post was a balls up by me, I was working on a draft and accidentally hit publish. Then of course scrambled to delete it.
Ah that explains it!
I’m looking forward to your adventures in China 🇨🇳 I wanted to visit Fujian and Yunnan five years ago, but because of the tense politics between Turkey and China, they stopped granting tourist visas to Turkish passport holders. I can only visit China if I travel on group tours 😞 We don’t know what the future holds, but it would be nice to see China since I’ve learned the language for a while and love the culture. Sigh… So, your stories are highly appreciated 😃
Hey Bahanur, it’s lovely to hear from you! I’m not surprised to read that visa issues got in the way of you visiting China. There are often problems of this nature when it comes to travel in the country. I really hope you get there one day, amazing that you can speak some Mandarin! I have spent some time in Fujian, which is an amazing province. Looking forward to eventually getting all my China travels onto the blog, but it’ll take some years I guess. This short story series mostly focuses on Shandong Province.
leighton your short stories are second to none. this is travel writing! i look forward to reading about your first experiences on the road in china i am sure there will be much entertainment ahead. hopefully not all at your expense hee hee. really enjoy the descriptive nature of this article and the humour. the black and white table tennis photograph is pure gold
Cheers Stan, thanks for joining me at the start of this new short story collection! Some of the humour will definitely be at any expense 😉 Such was the way of it. Photos in general were a massive challenge for this series due to the fact that all I have left are reduced quality images because of a hard drive fall. That shot with Mr. Table Tennis is definitely one of the better shots.
Great story of confusion Leighton. Arriving in any strange place can be daunting, but I am sure China was even more so right from the moment the red dot hit your forehead. The good news is you found the Leo and Rice and Noodles as well as other people who just wanted to help. People are the same all over the world. We just have to calm down enough to see it. Looking forward to more of the story. Happy Easter. Allan
Thanks Allan, couldn’t agree more. China could often frustrate me to breaking point. The social culture, particularly in crowds, was often infuriating. But one-on-one and in smaller intimate groups I met so many lovely people. Not just from this first year, but throughout all my travels there and my years teaching in different parts of the country. Happy Easter!
You capture the excitement and determination of that leap in with both feet attitude. It takes a special kind of courage born of previous successful experiences elsewhere in the world. I respect your starting in Beijing. We began our first foray in Hong Kong before moving into the interior. It provided a gentler transition. I’d forgotten about the temperature checks but quickly remembered and the panic feeling wondering what I would do if I failed. Looking forward to more.
Thanks Memo, I appreciate that you have read my previous incarnation of this story and indeed the ones that will follow. It has been a lot of work revamping them, but I feel they are infinitely better now. The collection is perhaps too long to put out in one stream, so I’ll be publishing the first 8 this time around documenting that first stretch of China travel. Then it’ll be onto a new country for some travel reports! I guess after that I can return to the China stories for the next leg of the 2009-2010 story. Cheers!
Jumped right in to all that is Beijing! I had completely forgotten about the men lifting their shirts, not a sight I want to remember I guess. My last time in Beijing was for the Paralympics. They had reduced the smog dramatically for the Olympics but not for Paras. When we arrived a week later, we still had blue skies, but by the time we left the views were similar to yours when you can’t see the buildings right behind you. Sounds like the rest of your mini vacation will be entertaining as usual! Maggie
Beijing during the Paralympics must’ve been an experience, Maggie. The period of travel that follows this story lasted for a month and was mostly spent in Shandong Province bookended by some time in Tianjin and Shanghai respectively. They were great times and such eye-opening experiences, I can’t wait to share these stories over the next four weeks.
Bejing, despite the smog, traffic, and crowds of people, looks like a pretty great city. I have never seen a table tennis park, but what a wonderful idea. While I could detect your frustration, Linda and Ivan must’ve been one of the brightest spots in your visit there. And let’s not forget Noodles. What a character! I am looking forward to reading more about your adventures in China in the coming weeks. (Oh, and I would’ve wanted to adopt the puppy too.)
Hey Kellye! I didn’t know it then, but Beijing was a city I would grow to love. Eventually ha ha. I spent two years living there. A year across 2009-2010 and just over 12 months in 2014-2015. Slowly but surely I’ll get all of these experiences out on the blog, but boy is it gonna take time. Thanks for joining me at the beginning of the story!
I loved every word and look forward to more!
Oh my … you landed right on a construction site! Noodles and Rice 😄 … that must have been so funny! Who would have guessed that walking to a train station could turn into an adventure? And how nice to meet new friends that make things a little easier in a new city. Jeez, I’m tired after reading this post Leighton! I hope things will calm down a bit going forward …
Beijing is certainly not for the fainthearted, even at the best of times. I would love to tell you that things calm down in the next stories Corna, but then that wouldn’t be exactly truthful! 😉
I’ve visited Hong Kong many times but not yet made it into mainland China so enjoyed your introductory chapter about life in Beijing. The green beans with minced pork looks delicious. Hope your Easter weekend is progressing well. We’ve just tucked into roast leg of lamb with all the trimmings and now watching the final round of the Masters from Augusta.
Thanks for your comment, Marion. Hong Kong is (or certainly was) an amazing city but yes, a whole different kettle of fish to mainland China. Happy Easter!
Quite an eventful start to your stay in Beijing. Thankfully, there are always people who help along the way. Your story is intriguing, and I’m looking forward to reading more.
Thanks for stopping by, Tricia!
Not the noodles and rice I was expecting from the title 🙂 It sounds like Leo left you with some happy memories, and I’m looking forward to reading more of your China adventures.
Thanks for your comment Hannah!
I agree with Hannah, I thought it was going to be about some kind of dinner fiasco but it sounds like Noodles is quite the jokester! The smog does look really bad, and I’m sure it only gets worse every year. My sister’s boyfriend went to China for a study abroad and he’s pretty tall, so everyone there wanted to take pictures with him.
Thanks Lyssy. Yes, tall and blonde folk seem to get the most attention in China. For me it began with staring in Beijing and then lots of photo requests once I got out to 2nd, 3rd tier cities and of course smaller towns and villages.
Even though it was hectic getting settled in, it sounds like the city was full of adventure. That is neat that you had the opportunity to play table tennis there with the locals!
I love it when you get to connect with people in some way despite great language and cultural barriers. Thanks for joining me on the start of this new short story series, Allie.
Looking forward to the next episode!
That a gripping intro- I was a little worried for your life there. Glad it was just a swine flu check and not a crime scene. Rice and Noodles are the best- they would make a great dynamic duo in a series of some kind. All around what an interesting beginning of your time there including the construction, face masks, and crazy city on one side but a wealth of warm and welcoming people on the other side. 🙂
Thanks Meg! I love the idea of Noodles and Rice as a TV series duo. Detectives perhaps? Thanks for your encouraging response to this opening chapter. Beijing (and indeed much of China) is made up of the vast contrasts you describe and can take some adjusting to.
Beijing seems so busy and active and yet so lovely all the same. I love the lightheartedness of Noodles and Rice! You have a knack for meeting the most wonderful people wherever you go; this is a true gift!
… or maybe just dumb luck ha ha. Thanks Juliet for reading, commenting and joining me at the start of this new short story series!
Noodles seems like a fun guy! I laughed out loud at all his jokes and poor Rice! haha. Enjoyed reading this first chapter and about the wonderful people you met along the way!
Aw thanks so much, it’s been a lot of work putting this series together but the feedback of those who read makes it all worthwhile. Cheers Amarachi!
Oh gosh, sounds like you were off to a bit of an adventurous start with having to navigate through the construction zone just to get to your hostel. Good thing you had some help. Noodles sounds like quite the character! And how fun to play some table tennis with some locals.
Thanks for joining me at the beginning of ‘Challenged in China’! Plenty more “characters” coming over the next instalments.
I have a cousin who has lived in Beijing for many years and teaches at a school there- I have often considered visiting as I would have a place to stay and a tour guide, but have always been a bit intimidated by it (and averse to the smog)! It helps to know that you grew to love it and I’m really looking forward to reading more about your travels in China 😊
Hey Laura, I understand your hesitation about visiting Beijing. But I’d definitely go for it, it’s an incredible city with history, art and food that will blow you away. I think it would be especially good for you because you have an insider that knows the ropes. Later, maybe next year, I will get around to publishing my Beijing travel reports and articles from my travels across the country. A huge job, sigh, ha ha. Thanks so much for joining me at the start of this new short story collection.
Bonjour from us duorempong, couple van life from Indonesia 🙂
Welcome to my blog!
Wow, what an exhausting first day in Beijing! I loved the enthusiasm of Noodles ahah! It’s also great that you “knew” people there already, it always helps not feeling completely alone! That was a very fun read, thanks for sharing!
Thanks Juliette for checking out the first chapter of ‘Challenged in China!’ As I wrote this piece I couldn’t help but ponder what became of Noodles. Fifteen years is a chunk of time and of course we’ve had COVID since then, I hope he’s still doing well but suspect that enthusiasm for life may well have waned somewhat.
Would never imagine that the title of this post referred to people’s names! Such a funny way to get english friendly names from Noodles and Rice. Looking forward to reading more!
Hey Nic, thanks for checking in at the start of this new short story collection! I hope you enjoy the ride 🙂
I’ve been away for a bit and glad to start your new China story. Funny start!
Hey Ruth, it’s great to have you back. As it happens, I’m thinking about some away time of my own. I hope you are well.