Good Eggs And Bad Eggs

By Stephen Ewashkiw | November 16, 2013

7,939 km so far.

We arrived in the town of Honghu this afternoon after a flat and fairly unexciting ride 75 km south from Xiantao.

There were many small towns along the way, but this isn’t the mountains anymore.

Agriculture takes place even in the water around here.

Agriculture takes place even in the water around here.

Here, small towns just equal lots of hazards on the road for cyclists. What kind of hazards? I am glad you asked.

No Rules Rules

Scooters signalling left, and then suddenly turning right. Busses pulling up right in front of you and slamming on their brakes. Huge dump trucks careening down the road directly at you, in the wrong direction. People cycling sloooowly along the road, making erratic moves, almost always just as you pass them.

Whole families walking down the middle of the road, oblivious to the vehicles that also want to use the lane. The garbage collector and her hand-pulled cart who nearly put the metal handle through my neck. Or our favourite of the day: a mini traffic jam with carts, scooters, two city busses, several pedestrians and a couple of dump trucks all at a standstill. Why?

Because a minivan was parked sideways in the middle of the road. Where else would you park?

Jane’s note: Dear people of China, the middle of the road is not a parking spot. The bike lane is not a parking spot. The sidewalk is not a parking spot. These are all hazardous places to leave your car, and may result in someone getting hurt. Thank you for your understanding.

What Part Of 我们不吃肉 Don’t You Understand?

Admittedly we should have eaten before we got to Honghu. We didn’t arrive until 2pm and this is just too late for either of us.

Finding a food stall or a restaurant seemed impossible today, possibly partly because it was well after eating hour. But also because most towns are arranged by type of industry: there are streets for stores selling building supplies, streets for stores selling clothes, streets for stores selling home wares, and streets for restaurants. The food streets are often hidden down the most unlikely looking alleyways.

We rode through town for a while before we finally found a restaurant. I went in first, got a table, and said ni hao to the ladies working, who didn’t reply, and didn’t come over to the table. Odd.

If we hadn’t been so hungry, we would have walked right back out again, not liking the atmosphere in here. As it was, we were desperate for food, which invariably clouds our judgement.

When Jane came in she went to the back of the restaurant to talk to the ladies. She showed them our 我们不吃肉 (We don’t eat meat) card. They seemed to get it, repeating the phrase back to Jane, and pointing out dishes that did not appear to have any meat in them. They helped Jane pick out a couple of side dishes, and then heated up two bowls of soup for us.

Vegetarian they were not. One had hunks of meat, the other what seemed to be fish roe and some kind of animal tendon. Even the cauliflower side dish had pieces of meat in it.

I complained. I showed the proprietress the meat, and explained, again, that we don’t eat meat. She didn’t care and brushed me off. We were so hungry we ate around the meat, had some potatoes, tofu, and rice, and grumbled to each other about it.

Jane’s note: It’s not only that we don’t want to eat meat, we don’t want to have animals killed on our behalf, so every time we are served up meat, even by mistake, it means that we’ve contributed to an animal suffering. The idea of which we really really hate.

Then, when I went to pay, she tried to charge me ¥60. This is an outrageous price for lunch at a small restaurant in China. I protested. I explained, again, we didn’t eat meat, that she had knowingly served us meat, and that I was not prepared to pay this much. I offered her ¥30. She said no. I said, “OK. We will leave then.”

She didn’t understand because, well, I was speaking English. I took her to the table and showed her the meat. I said, “No!” After some back and forth, her in Chinese, me in English, neither of us getting anywhere, I paid her ¥50. This was still too much, I felt cheated, and she knew she had cheated us. She laughed at me as we left.


Why No WiFi?

Now to find a hotel.

We had a few hotels marked on the map and headed to the first one, which was close to the restaurant. The owner spoke a little English, assured me they had WiFi (they even had a sign saying they did) and had one of the staff show me a room. There was no WiFi in the room. I asked him about it. “6th Floor,” he told me. Oh, ok.

So then I asked to see a room on the 6th Floor. Guess what? No WiFi. I came downstairs and told him, and he wasn’t surprised. He sort of shrugged and said, “No WiFi.” He offered to let me use his computer. Why go through all this if he knows there is no WiFi? We left, and went looking for another hotel.

Exchanges like these are very frustrating. They have been rare for us in China, since most people are amazingly friendly and honest, but they colour the whole day, the whole trip. Do the dishonest people of the world not realise, or care, that their dishonesty has a very real and serious effect to not only their business but the businesses of their friends and families?

Diamond In The Rough

After finding a nice hotel, with WiFi and friendly staff, we ventured out for dinner.

mah jong table in a hotel room china

Last night’s hotel was Mah Jong ready. If only I could remember how to play.

This time we went to a big, very busy, middle-class restaurant, not wanting a repeat of lunch. The owner found us a table right away, in the front window so everyone could see we were eating there, and had the hostess come and help us.

We showed her our don’t eat meat card, which we had already shown the owner. She helped us pick out dishes, which included one which I suspected had meat. I questioned this and she assured me, “No meat”.

Pot of rice porridge, one of the few things on the fancy restaurant's menu without meat.

Pot of rice porridge, one of the few things on the fancy restaurant’s menu without meat.

Guess what? Meat. When this one dish came it was very clearly filled with meat. I called her over. Her boss came too. I showed it to her, showed her the card again and gave her a “What gives? look. She said “Not meat.” I said, “Yes, meat.” She talked to her boss.

He explained, by gesturing, that it was some sort of horned animal, then made a sound like a trumpet. Was he miming a water buffalo? I don’t know, but we have seen a ton of them in the past few days. I said, “bu chi rou”. The waitress started to protest, but the owner immediately stopped her. He made her take the dish away, and a few minutes later they had brought us a new dish, this time small pancakes with raisins in them. Definitely vegetarian.

He didn’t want us to make a scene. He knew there was a mistake. He took care of it. I hope the waitress didn’t get into trouble because of us.

Jane’s note: We are starting to wonder if “rou”, which clearly covered all meat in the north, has more specific connotations in the south. Does it just mean “pork” down here or something? If anyone knows, please enlighten us!

I am trying to come up with a great moral to these, admittedly minuscule, difficulties, but everything I write down makes me feel like I am whining. I am fortunate to have the life I have. Not everyone can pick up and travel the world. Not everyone can pick and choose what they will and won’t eat. That I am even able to run into these difficulties in a town that most of the world has never ever heard of is tremendous.

What would I have written about if these things hadn’t happened? I (try to) look for the good in everything, even if it is sometimes hard to see. I know that each and every interaction helps me learn and grow, and that on the whole today was a good day.

Soundtrack: The Beatles, Abbey Road | Local Natives, Gorilla Manor | Barenaked Ladies, Gordon | Calexico, Live at the Marquee, Tempe, AZ | The Story podcast | Jane’s iPhone on shuffle  

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  1. Comment by Sally

    Sally November 18, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    Hello guys~
    It’s true that people in China know very well in exploiting foreigners, prices and treatments will be totally different, you guys have to pay more attention on that. And it is crucial that before you have any trade or exchange with them, you have to negotiate on the prices first, otherwise, they will charge you as much as they wish!!

    About “Rou” (Meat), normally speaking, it include all kind of living things already. If you want to tell others you guys are Buddhist so as to prevent them to serve any meat, one point should be noted — I’ve heard a saying that FISH is excluded from meat (as my parents told me that some Buddhist are allowed to eat fish as well), so you need to beware of this. And yes, Arthur’s saying may be better, as all people know monks do not eat everything that can move (LOL). But just a small amendment on it :“ 我們吃素, 跟和尚一樣 wo men chi su, gen he SHANG yi yang”, this look better. =P

    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen November 19, 2013 at 7:31 am

      We have had very good experiences on the whole with people being honest, and charging the real price for things. I suspect her hotpot really was 30 RMB per person, although it is possible she was gouging us because we are foreigners. Who knows.
      We are definitely going to update our cards so we clear up any confusion, so thank you for the language tips.

  2. Comment by Arthur C

    Arthur C November 18, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Hey guys, hope you’re having the time of your life! But seriously, don’t expect anything from China. Both my parents are vegetarians, they would bring their own food with them on trips or just eat the real basics, hard boiled veges. And yes, ppl in China mainly think of “rou” as pork and probably thought you guys are muslims as you prolly don’t look like monks. Instead, you should have had a card that read “wo men chi su de, gen he xiang yi yang” which reads “we are vegetarians, like monks”. 我們吃素的, 跟和尚一樣。Better luck if you were cycling in Taiwan, as there are a significant population there who are vegetarians. Anyway just stick toplain boiled stuff to be safe, as they’d often fry stuff in lard or black oil.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane November 18, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      Great, this is really useful.

      We know for sure that the differences are regional. In Xi’an and Beijing, some Chinese friends taught us that “rou” was meat and read our “wo men bu chi rou” card as meaning “we don’t eat meat”. We have always gotten great vegetarian food using this phrase until recently. The words for “vegetarian” seem to be only understood in cities – in villages people have no idea what it means.

      We have heard several times that we should start telling people we’re Buddhist, so in this region we’ll definitely give it a try and see if that works. My language app also suggests the phrase “bu chihun” which it says means “to not eat meat” so we’ll try that as well.

      We are trying to be a bit flexible and not worry too much about oils and broths, since this would just make us crazy and hungry!

    • Comment by Sally

      Sally November 18, 2013 at 9:57 pm


      Yup, Bu Chi Hun (in Chinese: 不吃葷) may also work. In Chinese, 葷= meat or dishes with meats, you can have a try on that too.

  3. Comment by Michael Moldofsky

    Michael Moldofsky November 18, 2013 at 6:58 am

    Maybe you need to update the sign to say No Pork, no cow, no chicken… I do think the soups you eat have beef or chicken stock. Oh maybe have a sign that says vegitarian.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane November 18, 2013 at 3:44 pm

      We have a card that lists all the kinds of meat, so we’ll start using that too. I’m sure we’ve eaten a lot of animal stock on this trip, but we’re trying not to think about it, because we need to eat something other than fried veggies and rice every once in a while. I’m sure all of this will be 100 times harder when we get to Vietnam and Cambodia…

  4. Comment by stone

    stone November 18, 2013 at 3:54 am

    If you just say “rou” it almost always means pork even though “rou” is the word for meat. I think it might be easier if you said you are Buddhist but that is just a guess on my part. Good luck. I’ll ask my wife what a better phrase would be.

    • Comment by stone

      stone November 18, 2013 at 3:28 pm

      My wife says Arthur’s reply is really clear. You can also say this too 我只吃素菜 which is “I eat vegetable dishes”. Or maybe you can create a new card with animal pictures crossed out.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane November 18, 2013 at 3:42 pm

      Thanks Stone and Stone’s wife – when did you get married??

      We’re going to try a few new things: see my reply to Arthur, but pictures with animals crossed out is a good idea, though I’ve been wondering if Chinese people use the same graphics for that kind of thing. No Smoking signs don’t seem to mean anything to them, after all :).

    • Comment by stone

      stone November 20, 2013 at 6:11 pm

      I got married in March of this year and you are welcome.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane November 20, 2013 at 7:01 pm

      A very belated congratulations!

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