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  • Groceries in China are mostly a mystery to me. Outside of the fruit and vegetable, or beer and wine section, little is recognizable to western eyes. Even staples items like bread, which the Chinese have never taken to apparently, is sequestered in the undersized bakery section‘ next to flavorless baked treats-devoid of both sugar and chocolate-Something I find unforgivable. Bread in the west is the center of the food universe and found in every conceivable shape, size, density, and flavor. Entire sections of store are dedicated to the endlessly clever ways to produce varieties of bread and its best friend: Cheese. Having spent most of my life fairly well addicted to all things cheesey, it came as an unpleasant surprise, that like bread, cheese is largely uncommon in much of China. Losing both of these gentle food giants put a devastating dent in my normal diet and weekly dinner menu.

    In fact, we have yet to find much that resembles an American version of Chinese food outside of rice. Northern Chinese food does not resemble the menu at the “Great Wall Restaurant” back home. We haven’t found any Kung Pao Chicken, General Tsao's Pork, egg rolls, or sweet and sour anything. We have found an endless variety of meat-mostly pork, and lots of boiled vegetables swimming in cooking oil. Baked foods in China are a rarity and reserved mostly to western-oriented restaurants. Very few Chinese people own ovens and do most of their cooking on gas-fired woks and with rice-steamers. Homemade or store-bought pizza? Tollhouse cookies? Lasagna? For my house and most others, these are all fantasy dinners for the lack of an oven. The Pillsbury Dough Boy is persona non-gratia in my neighborhood.

    One irony in moving to Asia is how much you find yourself craving foods you once loved but gave up years ago in order to eat better and stave off getting fat and diabetic. Alex and I find ourselves reminiscing about Pop Tarts, Captain Crunch, Taco Bell and Twizzlers. We speak of them in hushed voices as if speaking of lost pets; our voices cracking slightly at the mention of Dunkin’ Donuts or Chipoltle.

    Fast food in China generally consists of three American companies: McDonalds, KFC, and Subway. In bigger cities, you will find Papa Johns, Pizza Hut, and DQ-without the accompanying brazier component-just ice cream. I have heard people say there are Burger Kings and Carls Jr. too that could be just a Chinese legend like dragons, the whimsical child cartoon character Pleasant Goat, or civil rights. Visiting these old friends feels especially good when you live far from home. They remind you of past lives, when going out to eat meant meeting your friends at Taco Bell or Pizza Hut after high football games, or of cruising up and down Main Street to McDonald’s because there wasn’t much else to do in high school but drive around and drink cheap beer and eat even cheaper food.

    Next up: Part 3 of 3: How Much is that Doggie in the Window?
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