Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Eater's Remorse: Money Gone Bye-Bye in Shanghai

While we're in Shanghai (on my blog, at least), I want to tell you a little story about disappeared dollars and the city over the water (the literal translation of shang hai). It's not that the city is particularly expensive; rather, everything in mainland China is extraordinarily cheap due to the favorable rate of exchange. The American dollar is at least strong overseas in Asia, and for that, Boy and I were grateful, spending no more than $8 US for hour-long foot massages each (of which I have cause to regret, but that's another story for another time) and under $10 US for meals for the both of us, combined. However, we'd heard stories of the glorious shopping in Hong Kong, and that being our final destination before the honeymoon officially ended, we'd wisely very little in terms of merchandise and sundries, saving our money for use in Hong Kong.

Using the RMB (ren men bi, or "the people's currency," also known as the yuan) my parents had so generously given us, saved from their last trip, we had thus far managed to spend only that money. We hadn't realized what a fortune we really had in our hands with their gift, and over two weeks into the trip, we were only beginning to tap into our own shared reserve of cash. I, fortunately, hadn't even had to exchange more than $60 US, and had only spent maybe $5 US of this.

Anyway, you see my point here -- we had lots of Chinese dollars, changed into their currency or not, and were holding on to it for Hong Kong.

The story begins here, in the beautiful, Eastern-style flea market tourist shopping area in Shanghai. We were excited, as my previous post indicates, to see Cantonese dim sum for the first time in our travels, and stopped in to enjoy some at the Hu Bin Delicious Food Restaurant (with a name like that, can you go wrong?). The food here was excellent and Boy finally got the char siu bao he'd so desperately been craving since we landed. I was tempted to try the more exotic dishes like the chicken feet with jalapenos and black beans (one of the more famous yum cha delicacies), but erred on the safe side and got the filling sticky rice with chicken and black mushrooms, wrapped in a bitter leaf.

This was a bit expensive compared to the cost of dumplings in Beijing and our previous meals in Guilin, but we were in a touristy area, so it wasn't too unexpeceted. It was 12 RMB per dish, for a total meal cost of 30 RMB, which roughly equates $4.50 US, since Boy was (and still is) on his Diet Pepsi fetish (I swear, they must put crack in that crap). I know this sounds like nothing, and it was, but our first steamed bun experience in Beijing cost us 4 RMB for a bamboo steamer of nine freshly-wrapped dumplings, which translates into somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 cents.

So we left feeling fat and happy, Boy being thoroughly satisfied with himself upon finally being able to consume fluffy sweet barbequeued pork buns, ready to shop, when apparent calamity struck! With our stomachs full and puffed out, we stumbled upon ... a food court. A massive, cavernous cafeteria with bamboo steamers stacked up ten high, woks flaming, noodles flying, dumplings frying, bread baking, crustaceans red and staring, and exciting scents filling the air.

I begged the Boy-about-to-pop to just let me pleeeeeaaasssse take a little look, just a quick round around to take pictures and get a scope of the offerings. Too full to argue, he consented, and this is what we saw:

Naturally, I had to at least taste SOMETHING from this smorgasbord, and after confirming that the filling was indeed pork, I opted to try a dish of good old-fashioned crescent-shaped fried dumplings. After growing up with my dad's and subsisting off his frozen and "imported" ones (and I use that term loosely ... it's debatable whether driving bags of frozen dumplings to New Orleans after visits with the family count) from his restaurant, I wanted to see what the originals were all about. I'd tried some in Beijing that were horrid, and so I hoped that this would be a little closer to the pockets of joy I was accustomed to.

I went up to the grumpy cashier to pay for them, and she asked for what I thought was 14 yuan. Interestingly, "fourteen" and "forty" both sound really similar in English AND Mandarin Chinese, so after I went through my tiny Vera Bradley coin purse to rootle out 14 RMBs, she snorted in a disgusted fashion and rejected my money. She pointed emphatically to the screen: 40 RMB. Well, duh.

Feeling like an idiot, I stuffed my US money, all $140 of my dollars, to the bottom of the coin purse and went through pockets and the rest of the money floating at the top of the coin purse. Flushed red with exertion and embarrassment as I held up the line (and I HATE line-holder-uppers), I finally paid as Boy grabbed the tray for me. Stuffing my change into the purse, I clumsily tried to find open seating as we walked around in confusion in the packed out cafeteria.

We finally found a seat that was good, and sat down to try to shove even more food into our ever-expanding stomachs, procuring aged vinegar for dipping as we shuffled through the aisles. Well, long story short, it was not very good. The wrapper of the dumplings were all very well and good, thick and doughy and as crunchy as it was brown, but it was fried in way too much oil, which dripped down your chopsticks onto your wrists. With no napkins to hand (not an uncommon situation I found myself in during my time in China -- ironically, for the country that INVENTED paper, they're awfully stingy with it), this was inconvenient, to say the least. The filling was indeed pork -- but the word I didn't understand until too late and a familiar but unfamiliar flavor filled my mouth, was choi sum, or in Fuzhouhua, my native tongue, sian tsai, a sour, crunchy, pickled vegetable of sorts, and an unwelcome ingredient. Even more apparent was the overwhelming taste of celery, a taste that overpowered the meat and seeped through every pore of the dough.

What is up with the celery in EVERYTHING?! The same thing ironically happened in Xi'an at another cafeteria-style restaurant, and I was similarly disappointed.

To add insult to injury, I found that under the glare of disapproval and in my utter consternation over paying the right amount of RMBs, I'd dropped the $140 in US cash that I'd been saving to spend in Hong Kong. Of course, this discovery was made in the wee hours of the night, long after we'd returned from the Shanghai river night cruise to see the spectacular city lights, and about an hour after we'd been comfortably ensconced in our gorgeous hotel room.


There is no greater eater's remorse, though, to say that your over $140 dumplings were not at all -- not even the slightest bit -- worth it.



  1. Sorry to hear that you dropped your money, but this post MAY have motivated me to move to China for a year. Just sayin'

  2. That blows! Hopefully it wasn't the rude cashier who profitted from your loss.

  3. Aww, thanks for the support, guys!

    Kfunck1 - if you move to China, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Guilin are where you want to go if you're interested in great food. Ooh, and anything in the Guangdong (previously known as Canton) province. Anyway, more to come on food in other cities, so don't be too hasty!

  4. So "sian tsai" isn't actually Fuzhou hua at all. If anything, it's more mandarin and dad actually calls it za cai. I just brainwashed you all as a kid :)