A Diamond in the Rough

Over the course of my stay in China one of the greatest things I enjoyed about the culture was trying all the food. It in many ways reflects my own cultural heritage and upbringing with its emphasis on the importance of food, that I regard sampling the local fair as an essential part of experiencing and understanding a culture. I knew that a lot of the “Chinese” food one gets at American restaurants isn’t really authentically Chinese, or is at least modified to accommodate an American palate so making sure I ventured out and experiencing new food was something I made a conscience effort to do. In fact to be honest, I enjoyed the food so much I never had any real cravings for American food. The only exception to this was after we went to Inner Mongolia and eat the cheese there that I remembered how much I missed dairy products.

As a result of those two things I didn’t really seek out American food while in China. I had a burger on the 4th of July, but other than that I pretty much avoided western cooking. When some friends started talking about this place called Eatalia and how we should go there to eat, I was a skeptical at first. I figured it would be some place with something attempting to imitate pizza and some ok noodles disguised as spaghetti while really just trying to play up the western/international theme in order to draw in customers. My own experiences with some of the lower quality “Italian” eateries in the United States reinforced that opinion, as did my knowledge of China’s reputation for creating cheap imitations of western goods.

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(The ceiling of Eatalia)

When I actually went there I was very pleasantly surprised. It was actually interesting how the dishes were slightly changed to accommodate a Chinese taste while still being Italian in both style and taste. What interested me more than the food however was the people. The owner of the restaurant was there that night and was waiting on tables. When he first poured us our water I was staring down at the menu and said thank you to him in Chinese without really thinking about it, or even looking up, so engrossed was I in the menu. Without skipping a beat he replied in Chinese, despite the fact that we both spoke English, and were both westerners. Upon realizing that he wasn’t Chinese and that he had a Mediterranean accent I switched to using the meager number of Italian phrases I know, and he responded just as naturally seamlessly to the switch as he had to my initial sentence.

If an Italian restaurant in Beijing with a trilingual owner wasn’t cosmopolitan enough, the owner’s personal story only bolsters its credentials in that department. Over several conversations I’ve had with him I found out that he is part Egyptian, part Italian, has a Cuban grandmother, lived in Israel for twelve years, and came to Beijing with the Spanish embassy in 2004 before deciding he liked it so much that he would stay there. His time in China has given him knowledge and experience of the culture of Chinese business practice and that of the customers themselves, which can be seen in the example I’ve already given of how certain dishes are adapted to cater to Chinese tastes. The cultural appreciation of good food and quality ingredients that is so familiar to me combines with this effort in interesting ways. For example he makes his own prosicutto out of locally purchased pork, and because he is Muslim, he actually pays extra money to hire an Italian cook to taste and verify the quality of the meat and finished product.

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(Contents of my rapidly disappearing final meal at Eatalia)

Daily life in Beijing gets you used to a certain level of uniformity and homogeneity. China is close to around 90% ethnically Han and the local people’s constant staring at the “外国人” reinforces the fact that we are jarringly different in appearance compared to the visible norm. On top of that the tendency for people to not expect you to be able to speak any Chinese can create a feeling that you’re not really part of the society. Eatalia on the other hand is a microcosm for a different side of Chinese-Western relations, a place where  cultures are being blended and western goods, services, and traditions are on display. The restaurant’s expansion to another local outside of Wudaokou also highlights how China is ever increasingly providing a place for Western business and Western people to find a space to carve out for their own. The Spanish waiter and waitress I met there on my last night in Beijing further illustrate this fact. Faced with a dim economy in their home country, especially for young people trying to find work, they’ve come to China in order to explore new opportunities, included picking up a new language that could help them have better odds for finding employment if and when they decide to return to Spain.

This is the personal side of China’s new presence as an economic magnet, a place where people from all over the world can go to try to earn a living for themselves. Eatalia then isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an example of how globalization is effecting both China, and the rest of the world. And with food that good, I’d have to say Eatalia is doing so for the better.

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