Day 3: Complacency

I awoke at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday with heavy eyes. I could see through the curtains that the sun was starting to make its way over the horizon. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and pushed myself to a standing position. I wanted to get up and go to the gym but my head felt like it had a weight attached. As I stumbled to the bathroom I made a semi-conscious decision and halted mid-stride. “Screw it”, I thought, just as I pulled the covers back over my head… I needed more sleep.

The alarm went off again at 8:45. My arm ventured out from my warm cocoon into the crisp morning air to swat at the source of that horrendous noise. I felt a stout, round clock in my palm and fumbled around the back trying to find the off switch. After a few seconds I succumbed and flipped the covers off from over my head. I reached up and turned on the bedside light before finally shutting off the infernal racket emanating from the wooden clock of Satan with the gold trim. It was even harder this time for me to stand up, but I succeeded and made it to the closet near the door to my room. After throwing on the first polo that I found I grabbed my jeans that were crumpled on the floor and stuffed my legs into them as quickly as I could. With one eye half open and the other fully shut I grabbed my room key and forced my way out into the hallway, only barely steadying myself against the opposite wall to avoid falling face first into the gaudy hotel carpet.

I couldn’t help but drag my feet the entire way down the hall until I finally made it into the elevator and punched the button for the third floor. The cup of coffee that I eventually ordered couldn’t make it down my gullet fast enough, as I somehow managed to order another cup mid-gulp. My mind was almost numb from being so tired. It was very possible that my internal clock finally realized that it had been shifted by twelve hours and it was trying to auto-correct itself, but with dire consequences for my state of mind. Within a few minutes Tony joined my and said that he was feeling much better from the day before; however he still felt rather weak, and would therefore take it easy on the breakfast foods. All he ate that morning was a small bowl of Miso soup, and told him that I felt bad for causing his stomach so much turmoil, but he brushed my apology off saying that it was not my fault that I liked spicy foods. What a nice guy, that Tony is.

After we finished our meals and got our belongings together for work, we met in the lobby to head off to the free trade zone.  This day was the first day that felt like normalcy as our taxi swerved in and out of oncoming traffic. The taxi driver cursed at a group of pedestrians that wandered too near the edge of the road as apparently they almost made him run them over.  Damn pedestrians, always getting in the way…

Fast forward a few hours (which is ironically what my memory does when I try to remember the events of this morning) and we were walking to lunch.  We headed to the same multi-leveled cafeteria that we had eaten at the day before, and it was Tony’s first time there. After getting our food and sitting down I started looking around at the others as they ate because I noticed something very strange. When they held their chopsticks, there was only maybe an inch or two protruding from the back of their hand, which was the complete opposite from the way that I held my sticks. I had never realized it, but apparently I had been “choking up” on my sticks my entire life. I tried aping their method of utensil use, with very limited success initially, but eventually it started to feel more natural as I was able to make a scissoring motion with little to no effort.

I was feeling pretty confidant with my chopstick skills by the end of lunch even though I barely ate anything. I was still feeling rather full from breakfast, so I hardly finished even half of my food. As we walked back to the site, we did nothing but talk about work and the issues that we had seen that day, as well as the critical orders that would drop later that evening for the second shift. Somehow, the remainder of the day slipped out from under me and it was suddenly 5:45 in the evening.  I had my head buried in my laptop screen as Tony and Stella surprised me, saying that it was time to go catch the hotel shuttle.

On the trip back, I remembered that the guy who took over for the guy who used to be my manager told me that his favorite thing to eat in China was something called Hot Pot.  Unfortunately, when he told me this I never actually followed up to find out what it was; however I still told Tony that I was interested in trying it, and he said that it would be a great thing to do for dinner on this particular evening. So we returned to the hotel, headed to our respective rooms to collect ourselves, and rendezvoused in the lobby, this time meeting up with Mae and Carrie (from Configuration Engineering).  It was time to experience Hot Pot! … “Wait, so what is hot pot anyway?” I queried, to which Tony answered me, “It’s a Pot of Hot, and another pot of not so hot”.  Right, I think I’ll just wait and see for myself, I thought… to myself…

We walked around the block and made our way up a staircase to a walking bridge that spanned the four corners of a busy intersection.  As we went to the opposite corner of the four-point walkway, Tony pointed me towards a large black sign with tiny white letters that read, “LITTLE SHEEP” and a few large red circles enc… ya know what, just look at the picture to the right and you’ll see what sign I saw.  This restaurant was on the same level as the walkway, so we only had to go across a small extension of the bridge that led directly into the doorway.

As we crossed the threshold I was overcome with a smell that I couldn’t quite identify. In fact, this smell was very possibly the most potent aroma that I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. It was a hearty mixture of garlic, spices, and ginger amongst numerous other unrecognizable scents and flavors.  The air was so thick with aroma that you could taste it, and it tasted delicious. My mouth was already salivating and I didn’t even know what I was going to be eating yet!

As we made our way to our table and sat down, I noted that every single table in the restaurant had some type of cooking surface (much like an electric stove top) set into its center. This did nothing to clue me into what a “Hot Pot’ was, yet my excitement and anticipation were building at a steady pace. The waitress brought us our dinner ware, and my colleagues proceeded to teach me something very interesting.  At nearly every restaurant you go to, everybody at the table is provided with a cup of tea, a set of chopsticks, a spoon, a bowl and a small round plate.  Finally, a large plastic bowl is set near the center of the table.  Apparently, it is extremely wrong to drink from this first cup of tea, which is actually provided as a way to clean your dishes and utensils before you begin your meal (this is something that completely went over my head on Tuesday night).

The procedure goes something like this: you first stir the tea with the end of your chopsticks, before emptying the cup into your bowl. Next, you dip your spoon into the bowl before submerging the rim of your tea cup. Finally, you pour some of the tea onto your plate before swishing it around and then dumping it into the large plastic bowl in the center of the table.  Once you have cleaned all your dinnerware to your liking, the waitress takes away that plastic bowl and brings a new pot of tea to refill every one’s cup.  It is at this point that you may drink your tea and avoid looking like a foreigner that knows nothing about Eastern culture, but of course, it’s not like I’m speaking from experience or anything…

After this rousing cultural lesson the “menu”, which was a piece of paper on a clipboard, was picked up by Carrie, who proceeded to check a number of items off with a pen before handing it to the waitress.  There was some discussion in Chinese during this part, but I really had no idea what was going on and I basically just stared blankly at other tables trying to figure out what this hot pot thing was to no avail; however my question was shortly answered, only not to complete satisfaction.

Suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, a large circular ying-yang pot was placed on the cook top surface.  In one side of this pot was a reddish liquid that I could tell was filled with those spicy red peppers that I’ve become so familiar with, and large cloves of garlic, while the opposite side only had the garlic, and some green onion slivers. This was apparently the hot pot, and yet I was still severely confused.  Perhaps, I thought to myself, Carrie was only ordering a number of crazy straws of various lengths for us to sip out of the hot pot? Or perhaps we were supposed to just dip our bowls in and eat it like soup.  I was too confused to even think to ask somebody what was going on, but Gilbert (I forget what his function is) must’ve seen the confusion on my face and said, “We need to wait for it to boil”.

Boil?!  We’re drinking boiling liquid??  Now I was well beyond confused and entering the realm of perplexed, which was only exacerbated by the fact that four plates of rolled-up raw meat were put out onto the table. At this point I failed to put two-and-two together because I was still making seven in my head.

The meats were explained to be lamb and beef as Stella tried picking up one of the plates and scraping a few rolls into the boiling liquid. It was at this exact moment that I finally understood what a hot pot was.  We cook our own food right there and then eat it!  Exciting!  The redder side was a spicier liquid that would infuse your food with the flavor of hotness and deliciousness, so you can safely bet on the fact that I only ate from that side for the remainder of the night.

A cart was eventually rolled to our table side that contained all the food items that had been checked off on the clipboard by Carrie.  Aside from the beef and lamb that I already mentioned we got tofu cubes, tofu skin (which was by far the most delicious form of tofu I’ve ever had), long stringy mushrooms, two kinds of meatballs (but sadly I only remember the chicken), parsley, lettuce, spinach, long rice noodles, and corn on the cob.  Additionally we got a large loaf of sweet bread and some random skewers of delicious already cooked lamb, but neither of these things were meant for the hot pot.

The pattern of the night was that everybody would toss a few items into the pot and let it sit until cooked, at which point we’d all go around and pick out a few things to put on our little plates.  Once everybody had their plates full we’d throw in a few more things and let them cook while we ate. I was really surprised at how delicious everything was and how well the red peppers (the ones in Chinese food that they tell you not to eat) blended with the garlic cloves to infuse such aromatic flavor into everything that was placed within that boiling liquid.  It was fascinating.  At some point Gilbert pointed out the fact that I wasn’t supposed to be eating the red peppers and showed me how he and Carrie (the only other two eating out of the spicy side) were separating the peppers from their food. Of course, he was only trying to protect me from getting a case of Burning Acid Belly as Tony had the day before and didn’t realize that the spice was non-existent to me.

By the end of our meal I had (as usual) over indulged myself and was on the verge of busting the seams of my jeans. Everything that I had that night was delicious and I was feeling extremely good about my handling of the chopsticks, as nobody even once offered me a fork or knife, and that was a pretty good feeling.  I was even able to pick up and eat the slippery rice noodles, which is huge.

As we strolled home I couldn’t get the smell of the restaurant to leave my thoughts, and I figured that perhaps my brain enjoyed the meal so much that it didn’t want to forget the remarkable aroma of all those juices cooking.  Little did I realize that my clothes were in fact soaked through with the smell, much in the same way that cigarette smoke lingers the day after you spend a night drinking in a bar. That fact did not tarnish the meal though, so don’t think I’m complaining.

That’s about it for the third day.  I hope you found this tale of “the pot that was hot” intriguing, and feel free to leave your stories of delicious and confusing foods in the comments below.