Bringing Honor to My Family

carlyLike my ancestors before me and their great ancestors before them, I like love food. The members of the Santiago clan aren’t known for being particularly picky about their cuisine. Eat first, ask later (or ask while eating). But eating anything in China is like a blindfolded taste test. The labels are written in Chinese, so I sit and I poke and I prod.

While I come from a long line of low maintenance eaters (and pride myself for it) I still must inspect the mystery meat that is tossed onto my personal safe haven of choice, white rice. Just because it looks like beef, photographs like beef, and is doused with similar sauce does not guarantee beef.

However, there comes a point in every young adult’s life, where you realize your budget restraints, stop questioning and start eating. I’m not saying I gave in to eating turtle or even chicken claws for that matter, but like the Donner party would have said, “When I’m starving, I will eat almost anything”.

Lunch is promptly at 12pm every day. Like any daily activity, it is a large, public game of charades in which I act out what I’m thinking, the Chinese guess, and occasionally someone bilingual steps in to finish the job. 2 words! Hot? Cold? Hot Tea? Two Sakis? Hot Water? Ice Water? Ding ding!

Unfortunately, this isn’t foolproof, but, in general, I've discovered that China has great food. Especially, if you trust a native Chinese foodie to lead your American taste buds in the right direction. Here is a mini-guide to my food adventures thus far:

baozi1. Bao zi AKA The reason I’m still living today. At only 1 RNB (.16 American cents), bao zi takes the cake (or the entree) for the most affordable, delicious meal I’ve yet to encounter. It consists of a bread-y outer shell with a meat and veggies core. Kellie and I buy two and call it lunch. Rain or shine we’ll be there.

The children who work at the store with their father can see us coming from a mile away. Mostly because I’m the only non-Asian en route to Parkview every day, but I digress. We are regulars and we are proud. In fact, I’m so enamored with this delightful snack that I’m willing to wait until the eldest child is old enough to wed. #secretfamilyrecipes. I’ll check back here in in about 6 years (when it’s legal) and propose. No language barrier can stop our love!

2. Peking Duck AKA Beijing’s pride and joy. There are whispers that Obama comes to Beijing just to indulge in the succulent duckitizer (see what I did there?), but this has not been confirmed. After our peking duck meal with the USC alumni, I have only, but fond memories of the sweet meat and celery wrapped in a tortilla and covered in dark sauce like a Chinese burrito. Ole! I approve.

3. Chow Mein AKA The authentic version of every poor college student’s favorite kind of effortless meal. It’s pretty well known so no need to get detailed. Noodles + Broth + Chicken (other meat) +/- Spice= Satisfying meal.

4. Eggs and Rice AKA I didn’t know that was a thing. Apparently, people have been eating this unique combo together for centuries. I approve. Eggs, unlike the other proteins here, don’t have bones. And if they do, then run away…run far, far away.

*#4 Revised: Rice and anything is a Chinese staple.

zongzi5. Zongzi AKA A holiday treat. Zongzi, sticky rice dumplings with __ inside, is eaten to celebrate The Dragon Boat Festival every year. Technically, you can fill in the blank with whatever ingredients you want. The ones that were given to me at work were filled with dates and peanuts. Turns out, not a big fan of dates. (no pun intended)

The Dragon Boat (Duanwu) Festival is an annual Chinese tradition allowing the country 3 days off of work to watch (and celebrate) the dragon boat races. They (including myself) have to work the weekend before so really what’s the point, but that’s a story for another day. The tall tale goes: A long, long time ago (B.C.), there was a poet and a statesman named Qu Yuan who became one of China’s most famous citizens. But he committed suicide after arguing policies, fighting the system, being exiled and other such drama during the Warring States period. Boatsmen raced to recover his body, splashing water and beating drums to scare away the fish. At some point, people threw rice into the water to feed his soul. This went on for awhile until people realized the fish were eating the rice so they wrapped it in seaweed to make it more difficult for the fish to get to. Since then, it has changed from seaweed to bamboo leaves. And the Chinese people eat them around the holiday.*

lycheechinese-fruit6. Hot Water AKA It can’t be much clearer than that. What I once thought was a weird tasteless beverage has now become a soothing, glorious way to start the morning. Rita aka Trixie (the Chinese intern we work with) claims hot water is better for your body and digestion. And tap water is a NO GO straight from the faucet, so heating it up kills the germs. Plus, all the cool kids are doing it so, like, I want to fit in and be cool too.

7. Lyche AKA A pointy Chinese fruit. It has a weird texture, but a sweet taste. It was good. A bit of a surprise. Slightly sweet/sour with a squishy texture. In case you find yourself on this side of the world one day and stumble upon this foreign fruit, I suggest you try it. Peel it, bite into it and decide for yourself.

My last snack related note has to do with Chinese utensils. Everyone uses chopsticks. And they are the best of the best. Superior skill. But there are rules. You can’t just stab away and expect to not offend someone in these parts. And if you are a rookie like Nicole (who prefers chopsticks with the training wheels you can find at Pick Up Stix) good luck finding a fork. At the Chinese family style dinners, everyone picks food directly off the dish on the rotating Lazy Susan with said chopstick skills and throws it straight into their mouth. This could be my favorite thing about Chinese family style dinners. I get to pick at food without judgement!

While I’m only aware of two rules so far, I figure I should write them down. I tend to forget cultural etiquette when I have my eye on the prize food in front of me.

chopsticksCHOPSTICKS 101

1. Never stab your food. I broke this one on the first day. As the ancient legend goes, Carly wanted to relieve her fingers and put down her chopsticks. Instead of laying them on a dirty tray, she stabbed them into a pile of rice and left them there while she took a sip of water. Carly then proceeded to eat like nothing, but by this point she had disrespected her food and need not do it ever again!

2. Never point your chopsticks at someone. Also broke this within the first few hours of arriving in Beijing. In short, I did not bring honor to my family that day.

Much like Mulan who redeemed herself by dressing up as a man, taking her father’s place in the war, and basically showing all of China that girls rock, I am also set on redeeming my ancestral honor by figuring out standard Chinese food etiquette and braving the Beijing street food options. Practically parallel storylines, right?

But will I be successful? Will I learn Chinese? Will I redeem the Santiago family name? Will I bring honor to my family once again? Will I end up marrying the bao zi maker’s son? Tune in to find out next time.

*There are many versions of this tale. I suggest not quoting my version. I have taken the liberty to paraphrase a bit.


Carly Santiago is a senior at USC and is in China doing an internship in P.R. She's been sharing her experiences at