Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Hey china, mind your manners. You becoming Chinese?

At the time, vegetarian Chinese food was new to me. The closest I thought a Chinese got to vegetarianism were those bowls of blackened fish heads some like to suck and crunch on while the fish’s eyes dolefully disappear into the slurping mouths.

However, anything is possible in Shanghai, so all the meat meals on offer at the new restaurant were actually cunning blends of vegetable, soya and noodle paste and sort of tasted like the real thing, and were lip-smacking good.

A group of us teachers, who went on a training course together, discovered the trendy restaurant near Huang Pi road.

The slices of cool watermelon were dinkum, so I snatched a slice off the plate and saw Tony’s eyes widen. The food arrived in a variety of bowls and plates and the lads and me, armed with chopsticks, tucked in. I ferreted a few slices of vegetarian beef off a plate near Tony’s hands and then used my chopsticks to heave a wodge of steaming noodles off a plate near Angelo the Italian teacher’s chest.

Tony’s jaw dropped as he looked at me, gobsmacked. ‘Rod, you can’t just take others’ food off their –’ Tony stopped as Angelo’s chopsticks whizzed under his nose to pluck off more of the look-a-like beef. Tony had an instantly recognisable London accent.

Angelo didn’t even say excuse me, I am sure Tony thought. Tony shut up, gaping at us all picking food off other people’s plates; a litter of hungry puppies with only two clattering and sliding-about bowls of nosh to share as their snouts shoveled through the bowls.

We chatted and slurped and munched like any self-respecting Chinaman while Tony picked only at the food under his prim chin. Bollocks, I did order this for me, or so I thought, I am sure was reeling through his mind. He gradually got more adventurous, stealthily advancing his chopsticks to table centre, where the onslaught seemed less fierce.

I grinned at him, head on one side, and swallowed the last of the boiled crab, some cunning blend of Chinese cabbage, noodles and perhaps eggplant, I guessed, all served with a fragrant seafood seasoning. ‘How many days ago did you get off the plane from Heathrow?’ I asked, eyebrows cocked, jaws chewing.

He looked at me in surprise. ‘Um, ten days ago, actually. How did you know? ’

Duh!

I know I am going to have to tidy up my manners when I leave China one day and return to “civilisation”, wherever that might be. I don’t notice the unruly, in-your-face behaviour of the Chinese so much because I have become somewhat like them.

In post-colonial pubs like Long Bar on Nanjing road, with its pink tablecloths and discreet Chinese waitresses, I have caught myself clearing my throat and chest with the vigour of a biker revving his stalling motor.

Only afterwards did I notice the smartly dressed Western couple staring at me, him with wry amusement and her trying not to wrinkle her nose as she hid a disgusted smile. It’s exactly how Chinese rid themselves of phlegm and other debris.

I imagined the couple staring at this lout, who, except for winter, lives life in a pair of shorts, usually two days’ beard stubble, wearing T-shirts with signs like ‘Free Beer — miracles do happen’ or gothic T-shirts with skulls bursting with flames. That’s because I snatch up any T-shirt I find in China that’s my size; the Chinese are much skinnier than us okes.

No hell, I actually like my T-shirts. I’m 45 and its time to relive my teen years. I still do Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. Roger Waters was here last year and I lapped it up, boogying and swaying to a live version of The Dark Side of the Moon with okes a lot more senior than me in a mere crush of three thousand people. That’s like having a private audience with Roger.

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Back to the manners: like most people I hate seeing Chinese hawk up and copiously spit on the street. Yet I found myself staring at another Western couple walking past me in amused disgust, eyes glassily staring ahead. I suddenly realised I had just spat on the street without thinking. I had had a cold and was very chesty – is that an excuse?

At the time, a few Chinese labourers, the brown-skins, were grinning and staring at me on their construction site as they always do. They always spit; it’s a national hobby. I gave them the thumbs up and they all responded with the thumbs up. I don’t know if it was because of my poor public behaviour but the signals looked like I had “arrived” in a way I never expected to.

The next book I write has got to be A Guide to Etiquette and Public Hygiene. When it’s finished and I’m ready to return to the Western world, I’ll have to study it.