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Section II: Living in China continued

Eating, Drinking, and Smoking in China

This chapter discusses the most important things you need to know about eating out, cooking at home, alcohol, the bar scene, other social venues, and Western food, including the enormous cultural differences in our respective definitions of breakfast. Finally, the social significance of cigarette smoking in China is reviewed in detail.

Restaurants in China

Korean Barbecue

Typical Korean Barbecue

"Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore" is what you'll think to yourself the very first time you venture outside your apartment looking for something to eat and drink in China.

Most foreigners love Chinese food and ate it regularly (if not frequently) in their home countries. However, be advised that the Chinese food you have grown accustomed to back home is not the same in China. At anyplace other than 4- and 5-star hotels, the overall quality of ingredients is considerably poorer, selections are almost entirely different (i.e., unfamiliar), presentation is rarely considered and dishes will be brought to the table in a haphazard manner: usually vegetables first, followed several minutes later each by entrées, appetizers, and then soup, in that order. If you ordered dessert (such as steamed buns), you can expect that to be served first. Your "napkin" is literally a roll of cheap toilet paper, usually enclosed inside a plastic dispenser, and all but 4- to 5-star hotels will expect you to eat with chopsticks (and, in response, one foreigner—who simply could not master the use of chopsticks—used to bring a clean knife and fork along with him every time he left his apartment to eat out, much to the amusement of the Chinese staff).

Tap water in China is not chemically treated and, therefore, it is not drinkable without first being boiled for at least 10 minutes (and that only kills microbes but doesn't remove waste particles). Consequently, the Chinese rely on bottled water and a water cooler (with a heating element for hot water) for their drinking water and these units can be found in every home and business. Because they have to pay for drinking water (typically 8 to 10 yuan for a 5-gallon container), do not expect to be served a glass of water with your meal, which is standard restaurant practice in any Western country. They will however sell you bottled mineral water for two to three yuan per 333 to 500ml bottle.

It is said that the Chinese eat anything that walks, crawls or flies and that appears to be true. Although it is more popular in Korea than in China, many Chinese do eat dog as well as chicken and pig's feet and ears, not to mention the full gamut of their internal organs. And fish heads (which we usually discard) are considered a delicacy in China and are usually offered first to the guest of honor.

One thing you'll find in China that you probably never saw before in your home country is a type of restaurant referred to as "huo guo" or hot pot. Hot pot is the Chinese equivalent of the Swiss fondue style of cooking: A pot of broth—usually divided in the middle with a spicy mixture on one side and a plain vegetable broth on the other—is placed on a portable gas range, usually embedded just below the middle of the table, that boils the pot of broth while you place sliced meats and vegetables inside of it. The cooked foods are then usually dipped into a mixture of soy sauce, chili or hot pepper oil, garlic and sesame seed paste before eating. This style of food is particularly popular with foreigners.

Carousel Buffet Restautant, Garden Hotel, Guangzhou
The 360orotating Carousel Buffet Restaurant, Garden Hotel, Guangzhou at about 500 yuan per person.

Another type of dining experience that is popular with Westerners is Korean-style barbeque (photo above) in which you place cuts of raw meats and vegetables on a grill situated over something similar to charcoal briquettes and barbeque your own food. Another variation of this is where the food is essentially stir-fried on top of a greased pan that is placed over the gas range.

Of course, the Chinese are famous for their Peking Duck and, in that regard, you won't be disappointed during your stay in China (especially in the north of China, although most cities everywhere have at least one restaurant that serves an authentic Peking Duck). A whole duck will run you anywhere from 32 to 48 yuan (less than USD $6.75), depending on location, and it's at least one dish in China that will meet or exceed your expectations.

The other thing worth mentioning, and it's something that you will notice immediately upon eating out in China for the first time, is the near-deafening din that you will just have to endure inside most restaurants in China. It will appear as if everyone inside that establishment, from the other patrons down to every single waitress and waiter, is in a competition to see who can shout the loudest. The relative calm and quiet typically found in most Western restaurants will become just a fond memory of the past. For this reason, those who need to conduct business or are hoping to have an intimate conversation will usually (out of necessity) reserve a private dining room, referred to in Chinese as a bao1 xiang1, and these are available at all but small family restaurants throughout China. There is typically a minimum charge to use these private rooms which is customarily calculated as four times the average cost of one meal. Some of these private dining rooms are quite large and beautifully appointed, sometimes with large TV screens, DVD players, and karaoke machines for hosting elaborate banquets (the Chinese rarely entertain in their apartments, barring family members and very close friends).

In Search of the Holy Grail (Western food)

Customer Getting her Money's Worth at the Chinese Pizza Hut Salad Bar

Pizza Hut patron getting her money's worth at the one-trip only salad bar

Many foreigners evaluate their cities on how authentic the Western food is. With the exception of Western restaurant chains such as the Outback Steakhouse and Subway Sandwiches (which can only be found in Beijing, Shanghai, and, to a lesser degree, Guangzhou), the Western food in China is best described as Chinese Western food (i.e., a Chinese version of Western food, and even at Western chains, such as the Outback Steakhouse, the quality may not be the same). It is very difficult to find a decent steak in China because the Chinese are not big beef eaters and, consequently, beef cattle are raised and fed very differently than they are in the West (or even Japan for that matter).

Most foreigners, for a "taste of home," are forced to resort to the three common fast-food chains that can now be found almost everywhere in China: McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut, and the prices appear to be comparable to what one would pay in the West. For example, a double-cheeseburger at McDonalds is usually eight yuan (about USD $1.12) and, at times, is on sale for five yuan. A large Cheese Lovers Pizza at Pizza Hut here will run you 70 yuan (about USD $9.87) and drinks, which are not refillable, begin at 15 yuan (USD $2.12)—and, remember, you can't ask for a glass of water because "we don't have it" (méi yǒu). Unlike in the West, patrons are only allowed one trip to the salad bar and this leads to some very creative feats of structural engineering on the part of the Chinese patrons. Even Frank Lloyd Wright would be impressed.

Most foreigners find culinary refuge inside of 4- and 5-star hotels, most of which offer all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner buffets starting at around 88 yuan and running as high as 500 yuan ($73.00) at 5-star establishments within international cities such as the Carousel buffet restaurant inside Guangzhou's Garden Hotel (pictured above-left). The average price for a dinner buffet, at 4- and 5-star hotels outside the three major international cities, typically runs between 100 to 200 yuan per person. The foods at these restaurants gnerally offer a very fine selection of Western and Chinese food (and Chinese food that is closer to what we had grown accustomed to) as well as Brazilian barbeque (i.e., barbequed cuts of roast beef, brisket of beef, pork loin and others that are sliced to order right onto your plate), not to mention a sushi/sashimi bar.

Whatever Happened to Pancakes, Bacon and Eggs?

'Breakfast' in Xian?
Typical Chinese breakfast offerings

Finally, the Chinese concept of "breakfast" is very different from our own. A typical Chinese breakfast consists of milk or, more commonly, a yogurt drink and either rice porridge, some type of bread or a "baozi" (a steamed bun usually containing a green vegetable) depending on location. Unless you are close to a upper-scale hotel, you won't find a restaurant serving anything that even approaches a Western breakfast.

In addition, although coffee drinking is becoming vogue in China (especially among the younger generation and those who could be categorized as Chinese yuppies), it is one (maybe the only) food item that is actually exorbitantly priced when compared to Western standards. A single non-refillable cup of coffee, in restaurants that actually serve it, is typically 18 to 22 yuan (almost USD $3.10). The cup of coffee is served with a container holding plenty of sugar packets but usually only one non-dairy creamer (or the equivalent of Coffee Mate). If you ask for a second creamer, you will be charged an extra two yuan for it and Equal (the artificial sweetener Aspartame) will only be served at 5-star hotels (and, outside of the three major cities, is not sold in local supermarkets).

In great part, these prices are influenced by the impact and incredible success of Starbucks, not just abroad but in Beijing and Shanghai as well. However, one can readily find a local streetside "café wu" (coffee house) in most cities where a whole pot of locally grown coffee will run you 1 to 3 yuan per person. For your apartment, you can pick up a large bottle of NesCafé instant coffee and Coffee Mate for about 53 and 23 yuan, respectively. Those living in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou will be able to find a drip coffee maker at places like the Friendship Store or Park ‘n’ Shop, as well as imported ground coffee including brand names such as Folgers and Maxwell House.

The other thing worth mentioning, especially for those hailing from North America, is that—for the most part—milk in China is processed using a different method of pasteurization referred to as UHT (ultra-high temperature) in which the milk is heated to 138°C [280°F] for at least two seconds (as opposed to the North American system of HTST—high-temperature, short-time—in which the milk is heated to 63°C [145°F] for 30 minutes and then rapidly cooled). Milk that has been pasteurized using the UHT method, when combined with sterile handling and proper containment, can be stored unrefrigerated for very long periods of time. For many North Americans, buying unrefrigerated milk in silver-lined cardboard boxes takes some getting used to but the milk is perfectly fine and will last a lot longer once opened.

Cooking at Home

Many foreigners are able to successfully recreate the types of dishes they had grown accustomed to back home by doing their own cooking (although this practice seems much more common among women and families). Of course, many Western ingredients will be hard to find, especially in smaller cities, but with a little bit of ingenuity one can eat similarly to how one ate at home with enough forethought and effort. The other advantage to cooking at home is that it becomes much more possible to save money. Many foreigners have purchased portable meat grinders in order to make their own chopped meat and supermarkets that have a meat department will grind selections of beef or pork for you as well. For a very nice discussion of the five different cuisines in China, and how they are distinguished from one another, it is suggested that you visit the Ethnic Food Company website.

Finally, in regard to vegetarians, with the exception of a few vegetarian restaurants one might find in 4- and 5-star hotels in the three international cities, about the only way of insuring a genuine vegetarian diet is to cook and eat at home. The cooking oil used to prepare non-meat dishes will also be the very same oil used to cook meats and fish, despite what you will be told.


By Western standards, alcohol is cheap in China—especially beer. A 500ml bottle of local beer in China (especially in the north and northeast) can be had for under two yuan (about USD .28). Domestic wines and brandies, that are quite drinkable, can be purchased for under 20 yuan (about USD $2.82).

With the exception of China's national and relatively inexpensive alcoholic drink baijiu (see sidebar), hard spirits are another matter altogether. It appears almost impossible to buy a real imported bottle of Scotch whiskey in China as "spirit counterfeiting" is rampant (Patton, 2007). The Scotch whiskey in China is watered down so that what you are really buying is a bottle of pre-mixed Scotch and water with food coloring added to give the proper appearance (but keep in mind that the bottle will be sealed and stamped as authentic). Many have reported that the Rye whiskey tends to be real as well as Vodkas and Gins. As a rule, because of the import taxes, if you pay anything less than 50 percent more for that bottle of imported whiskey (than you would back home) it is, more likely than not, fake. Many foreigners will try to acquire a taste for baijiu (as, for one thing, you know it's real) and some are more successful at it than others. There are many different qualities and grades of baijiu and, if you drink baijiu, it is recommended that you drink only the most potent (58 to 62 percent alcohol by volume or up to 124 proof) as these contain the least amount of impurities.

The Bar Scene and Other Social Venues

Beijing, Shanghai, and, to a lesser extent, Guangzhou will have entertainment or recreational establishments and other social venues approaching what Westerners are familiar with in their respective countries: flashy nightclubs; Western restaurant chains and coffee houses; movie theaters featuring first-run Western films playing in English with Chinese subtitles (later dubbed in Chinese with English subtitles after a week or two); ice skating and roller rinks; video arcades, and; even amusement parks, to name the most common ones. In a few instances, the cost will be less than what you would expect to pay back home, while in most cases the prices will be comparable. For example, movie theater tickets generally run anywhere from 50 to 120 yuan for VIP seating ($7.30 to $17.50, respectively) in major cities. However, familiar social venues will either be scarce or completely absent outside of international cities.

The bar scene is highly variable in China depending almost entirely on location and the relative density (or lack thereof) of foreigners. The Chinese prefer to congregate in places like tea houses and Karaoke bars (KTV) than they do in pubs or neighborhood bars. In areas populated by a fair number of foreigners, certain local bars will earn the reputation of being "foreign bars" strictly on the basis that foreigners tend to congregate there at night and not necessarily because they do or offer anything different or special (and there is often fierce competition between establishments and even restaurants hoping to earn this reputation).

If you are into the bar scene or otherwise need to be surrounded by Western-like entertainment venues and social outlets in order to feel comfortable, you will need to avoid working in any city other than Beijing, Shanghai, and, as a distant third, Guangzhou. Foreigners in second- and third-tier cities rely heavily on the Internet, cheap (pirated) DVDs, and satellite TV (for those staying more than a year and willing to make the investment) as their primary, if not only, forms of entertainment. Those who can speak a little bit of Chinese will also enjoy spending several hours at a time in bath houses (in the north) and at spas and massage parlors available throughout China (see Personal Care and Entertainment in Technology and Electronics for more information).

Social Significance of Cigarettes

Although cigarette smokers are thought of as social pariahs in the West, smoking is alive and well in mainland China. In fact, China can be thought of as a smoker's haven and paradise, and it leads the world in the production and consumption of cigarettes. In 2004, China produced 1.79 trillion cigarettes, 32 percent of the global total and the share of China in total world tobacco demand is likely to increase to 43 percent in 2010 (Worldwide Institute, 2005). However, in stark contrast to Western countries where the largest growing number of new smokers are teenage girls, you will rarely see a Chinese woman with a cigarette in her hand outside the three international cities (and even in Beijing, it was recently estimated that only slightly more than 10 percent of all women smoke [, 2008]). In the vast majority of cities throughout mainland China, cigarette smoking among women is typically associated with prostitution.

Zhonghua Cigarettes

One of China's most expensive and exquisite cigarette, Zhonghua, at 650 RMB (about $95.00) per carton made from flue-cured tobacco and winner of the National Quality Gold Medal award.

Although Hong Kong implemented a rather severe anti-smoking law effective January 1st, 2007, many mainland Chinese smoke freely in public places, which will either come as a highly appreciated relief if you are a smoker, or as a nightmare if you are a non-smoker. There is a growing concerted effort to eliminate cigarette smoking in public places, such as in hospitals and inside taxis and elevators, but enforcement of such laws varies considerably by province and city. One notable exception is in Beijing where they passed a rather strict public anti-smoking law in 1995 that is widely enforced.

In addition to the remarkable prevalence of cigarette smoking, cigarettes themselves have a rather strong social significance in China. Chinese men often offer cigarettes as a common form of greeting and introduction. It will not be uncommon for you to be sitting in a restaurant when, all of a sudden, a strange man approaches and presents his pack of cigarettes to you with one already protruding from the pack for your convenience. Many, if not most, government leaders smoke and, when at large gatherings or meetings, it is very common for the men to offer their colleagues a cigarette. Even if you don't smoke, it is suggested you gracefully accept the cigarette and place it in your front shirt pocket "for later" with a warm heartfelt "thank you."

As many Chinese men do use cigarettes in making introductions and for social networking, many will partially evaluate your economic worth and social status on the basis of the cost of the cigarettes you smoke in public. Cartons of cigarettes in China range in price from 35 to 800+ yuan ($5.11 to $117.00, respectively), and the same tobacco company often produces several editions of the same brand name that range considerably in price (identifiable on the basis of the color of the pack and whether it is a hard or soft pack, with the most expensive editions sold in soft packs). If you smoke Chinese cigarettes that cost less than eight yuan per pack, it is very likely someone (a student, a colleague, etc.) will suggest to you that a person in your position should be making more of a proper appearance in the type of cigarette he smokes.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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