The Noodle Joint

Just outside of the gate of the apartments where I teach was a noodle joint.

At least three days a week for the last 18 months, I have gone to this noodle restaurant. I have ordered a bowl of tomato and egg noodles from the manager, a pretty and alacritous women who spat words like they were a snare drum solo and slung noodles almost as fast. I have sometimes ordered a bowl of tofu soup, too.

I have learned how to order noodles, how to order soup, how to ask for them to go, how to ask what else they’ve got but never order it. I have learned how to have a conversation in Chinese.

I have seen the price of a bowl of tomato and egg noodles go from 10 to 11 yuan. I have quit having to actually order, smiled and said thank you, and just handed over the money, again and again and again. I have become a regular.

I have sat at one of the four plastic stools that surrounded each of the 20-odd wooden tables that ran down the sides of its long and narrow interior, shivering far from the closed doors in winter and sweating next to them in summer.

I have pulled the brown plastic chopsticks from the metal can on the table. I have used them to mix, then eat my sticky, chewy, gravy-slathered noodles. I have struggled to learn how to eat noodles with chopsticks, and I have forgotten how hard it used to be. I have shaken my head at the noodle juice splattered on my sweater. I have picked up the bowl with two hands and slurped down the last bit of cooling tomato slurry sprinkled with cilantro leaves and chives. I have watched myself do this in the half-length mirror that ran down the left side of the plain white walls.

I have listened to the Chinese customers bicker and spit and cry and joke and lecture and laugh and live.

I have studied Chinese characters during my lunch and dinner breaks with the spring-blue sky and the pink plum blossoms waiting outside. I chatted with friends about Beijing while hiding from the dark and smoggy night. I have sat with Jordyn when she was a fellow teacher and sat alone when she wasn’t anymore.

I have read a book and tried to take a deep breath on days when teaching threatened to overwhelm me, or when my relationships got rocky, or when it was just hard to be in China and I wanted to be home.

And now without even a prior hint, I have seen the interior go dark, the voices quiet, the pretty manager disappear, and the tables and stools and chopsticks and cans and half-lengthen mirror ripped out and tossed to the curb.

Eighteen months. One more change. But sometimes a noodle joint is more than a noodle joint.


Snail Soup

It took almost 8 months to learn I was eating snails.

Well not snails, exactly, but snail broth. With my noodles. And lots of it. In fact, every time I ate these noodles, once the noodles were gone, I’d slurp down the broth spoonful by spoonful until I couldn’t spoon it anymore, and then I’d grab the bowl with both hands and tilt it back and pour every last drop into my gaping mouth. Every last drop of snail broth, once or twice or sometimes three times a week.

Only I didn’t know. I wish I didn’t know still. I haven’t eaten the noodles since I found out. I need to. I love them, but now I’m afraid that I won’t be able to slurp down every drop of broth without thinking about snails, dead snails, marinating the boiling broth. Which tastes so delicious, especially with some bamboo shoots, lettuce leaves, tofu skin, rice noodles, and a hefty spoon of chili oil. I just wish I didn’t know.

From photobucket user Izos, these look almost identical to the Luo Si noodles I eat. Or ate.

It’s my Chinese teacher’s fault. Last week in class we started a new unit about “the taste of China.” The first word on our list was 特 (te) which means special. She asked if we’d found, by ourselves, any special tasting food in Beijing. I spoke up fast.

“Downstairs there’s a green noodle restaurant in the basement next to Burger King,” I said.

“Oh yeah, the 螺蛳 (luo si) noodles. Yes, even Chinese people think the flavor is very strong,” she said.

“What?” I said. I didn’t understand what “luo si” meant.

She drew a snail on the blackboard and tapped it with the chalk.

“Luo si.” Tap, tap. “Luo si.”

“No, no,” I said. A different place. There are no snails in the noodles. It’s always really busy. I told her the restaurant slogan.

“Yeah,” she said. “Snail noodles. No snails in the noodles. Just in the broth.”

“Snail noodles.”

When class ended, I walked by the place on the way home. I still didn’t believe her, even though I’d been thinking more and more how the noodles did have a strong, kind of strange taste. I reached the green storefront and looked at the massive characters, white ones, above the door. This why it’s dangerous to be bad at reading. They weren’t hard to see.

螺蛳 – snail.

Snail noodles. How I wish I didn’t know.