I recently returned from a trip to China. In addition to visiting a number of historic (and ancient!) sites around the city of Xi'an, there is one activity that I engaged in above all others:
I ate. I ate a LOT.
I believe that my hosts were determined to introduce me to every possible dish that was popular in the area. At every single lunch and dinner there seemed to be a never ending supply of food being brought to our table. In fact, one day, near the end of my trip, I was asked if I was getting full. I replied, "I've been full since my second meal here!"
In short, the food was amazing. I have no idea what it is that is served at the Chinese Buffets I've been to, but it certainly does not compare to the local food in Xi'an. Everything is completely fresh, and full of flavor. I was also surprised by the amount of red (cayenne) pepper that is used in their meals. I consider this to be a very good thing! They also used a lot of little green hot peppers. Yum.
In at least one restaurant, when we ordered some fish, they first brought the fish to the table in a large black plastic bag for us to inspect and approve before it was cooked. The fish was still alive.
One evening, after I had been in China for a week or so, I went out to eat with a large group of people. We had a nice private room which was wonderful. Also, we were noisy, so we might have been assigned this room to keep the noise down. Someone ordered some of the beginning courses and some beer, and after a discussion with some of the waitresses serving us (we had more than one!), they turned to me and asked me if "I'd like to visit the chicken."
By this time, I felt pretty comfortable with many Chinese customs - particularly those centered around eating, which, as I mentioned, I had done a LOT of already. So, I knew what this was all about. I decided that I didn't really need to visit the chicken to see if it was fresh enough; my experience so far had been very good with the food, and this seemed to be quite a nice restaurant. I was sure the chicken would be excellent. It didn't need me to visit it.
So, I confidently stated that "no, I did not really need to visit the chicken, I'm sure that it is just fine!"
This reply seemed to cause just a little bit of a ripple of confusion to move through the group. Apparently, they didn't understand exactly what I had just said. This is understandable. I speak English and they speak Chinese. There are a lot of differences between these two languages, and while I thought they handled English very well (and I handled Chinese VERY poorly), it isn't too uncommon to have to say things in another way to be understood.
"I'm sure the chicken will be great. I don't need to see the chicken running around before we eat."
More confusion ensued. A number of Chinese-English dictionaries appeared. Some of them were electronic. Pretty cool, really. After a bit of typing, page turning, and people silently mouthing the words they saw, they repeated their question, with emphasis:
"No. Would you like to visit the chicken?"
There was no mistaking it. They wanted me to visit the chicken. It seemed important. I would give one last rebuttal. I knew if this failed that I would probably be visiting the chicken whether I wanted to or not. I was preparing mentally for a lot of feathers and a beheading. Ewwww.
"No, really, I don't need to see the chicken. Please feel free to cut off it's little head without me present!"
Now, there was more than a ripple of confusion, there was a wave. There was a hurried conversation with the servers and more consulting of the dictionaries. They REALLY wanted me to visit the chicken, yet were confused by my responses at the same time. I knew in my mind, that I was going to be visiting the chicken for sure.
"If it is really important that I visit the chicken before they cook it, I will go", I said.
I am ALL about international relations. I didn't want to screw this up and mess up a trade agreement or something. I imagined getting my passport taken away when I returned to the United States. How would I explain that?
Still, they again insisted that I visit the chicken, which I thought a bit odd since I had pretty much already agreed to visit the poor bird prior to its impending death.
"They would like you to visit the chicken to show you how clean it is!"
They bathe their chickens? Impressive.
"The chickens are clean?"
"Yeah, you said they wanted to show me how clean the chickens were!"
"Not chickens. Chicken. K. I. T. C. H. E. N.", they spelled. "Chicken!"
"You mean kitchen", I replied, thinking how funny my responses must have seemed, now that I knew what they were really saying.
"How do you say that?", they asked.
"Kitchen", I repeated.
"...Chicken...", they slowly repeated.
"No, kitchen", I replied, saying the word slowly and carefully.
"That's really hard to say."
I thought about it for a minute, and then agreed. Kitchen really IS a hard word to say.
"OK. Let's go visit the CHICKEN", I told my hosts.
And we did. It was very nice. The chicken was good, too.