Scenes from a Domestic Life in China, Part Two: Last Night I Died and Ate in Heaven

Dining out at Lotus Su, the vegetarian restaurant where we took the foreign teacher, truly was like dying and going to heaven. I have to give credit to Zhang Ye. She did a bang up job of finding hidden vegetarian gems, in Harbin of all places!

We also dined at regular restaurants and ordered strictly vegetarian dishes, but trying to order exclusively vegetarian dishes is no easy task by any stretch of the imagination. No matter what you always run the risk of small pieces of chopped or shredded meat finding its way onto the plate. Typical conversations run like this:

“Oh, you’re vegetarian? Well, how about chicken? Chicken dishes are okay, right?”

“No, chicken is meat.”

“How about fish. Fish okay? We got good fish today! Fish on special!”

“No, sorry. Fish is not okay. We just want vegetables.”

Chinese restaurants are fast, though. You have to give them that. You won’t have to wait long to get your food. Problem is, they may not come out in any reasonable order. You will get desert and coffee before the entrees and entrees before soups and salads. This situation of course does not occur at fine dining establishments where the Chinese observe a very strict order: cold dishes, hot meat and vegetable dishes, soups, carbohydrate dishes like noodles and dumplings and rice which they call 主食 zhǔshí or staple foods, and finally fruits to cleanse the palate. But in your lower and middle class eateries, it’s a free for all. Moreover, your strictness of vegetarianism may depend on your stores of patience.

“Excuse me, what’s this?”

“It’s shredded pork.”

“You told us this was a vegetarian dish.”

“It is.”

“But it has shredded pork.”

“Yes that’s right.”

“Okay, right. So, you know.” Awkward pause. “Then, you know, that’s not vegetarian. Vegetarian means all vegetables. This has meat. This is pork.”

“Only has a little bit of meat. Little bit.” The waitress pinches her thumb and forefinger together in emphasis.

“Okaaaaay, well,” exasperated awkward pause, “we don’t want any meat. At all. Just vegetables. Only vegetables. NO MEAT WHATSOEVER.”

“What! No meat? It won’t taste good. The cook won’t do that.”

Smack forehead. Gather last stores of patience. Plaster smile on lips. Sweet dulcet voice. “Please tell the ‘chef’ that I will take full responsibility for the taste of the all-vegetable vegetarian dish.”

“Waitaminute, lemme go ask him.”

Sweet Jesus-Allah-Buddha!

I speak Mandarin rather fluently. Can you imagine the struggle for non-Mandarin speaking travelers? Anyone coming here must have resilience out the wazoo and Fort Knox-sized reserves of tolerance.

You won’t have these problems at Lotus Su. It’s a restaurant that is run by Buddhists, or that at the very least promotes the Buddhist lifestyle. Unlike the quote-unquote vegetarian restaurant next to the quote-unquote Buddhist Supreme Bliss Temple in downtown Daoli district, the owners at Lotus Su seem to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

The atmosphere is decidedly upscale. This is not your poor man’s vegetarian restaurant that you can find in Taiwan on every other corner. And this is the way to go I think here on the Mainland. Make it chic. Healthy, organic. Cater to the growing sector of China that has more and more disposable income. The place is very chichi, but not expensive at all. Three people can eat for a little over one hundred kuai. At the more upscale, but still not considered fine dining places, I pay double that easily.

Lotus Su decor

Lotus Su decor

And their washroom (singular, unfortunately at the Kangshun Street location) is immaculate, offers paper, soap, and hand towels—yes, I said it: hand towels my brothers and sisters! Praise FATHAPPYBUDDHA! No more wiping your hands dry on your pants.

The washbasin is also uniquely and smartly designed in the shape of a lotus blossom pool. You have to push or pull the stem of the lotus blossom in order to get the water to trickle down the lily pads, meander along the rocks, and finally reach your hands. A slow artful process much like Buddhist meditation and well worth the wait. In addition, a flat screen TV on the wall plays soothing ethereal music, and every half hour or so a stout jolly Buddhist monk comes on and elucidates the Dharma. This feature might annoy non-practitioners, but for me it’s like reaching an oasis in the desert.

Lotus Su washbasin

Lotus Su washbasin

The one negative aspect of this particular location near the Hengshan WanDa Cinema-plex is the draft. The front and back doors are not insulated with antechambers nor draped with thick gray cotton blankets, ubiquitous in entrances everywhere in Dongbei. So, anyone seated adjacent gets a blast of arctic air every time a guest enters the premises or an employee exits the rear. This might be enough to put one off. Until you taste the food, that is.

I was a vegetarian for a significant portion of my life (yes, I’ve fallen off the non-meat wagon since coming to Dongbei) and I have eaten or have tried to eat vegetarian meals in the USA, Mexico, China, Taiwan, Australia, Korea, Germany, and Spain. So, a few places in the world. Let me tell you: Lotus Su is the best vegetarian restaurant I have ever eaten in in my almost half-century of existence. Now, granted, I am a poor church mouse, so I have probably missed out on super-expensive venues that also serve ambrosial cuisine, but for my lower class slash middle class wallet, Lotus Su serves the tastiest veggie dishes I’ve ever had the immense pleasure of stuffing into my gob.

All of us (even the diehard meat eaters among us) were astounded. Every dish was out of this world. Every dish smacked out of the ballpark. We knew it was vegetarian—you could feel the ever-so-slight difference in consistency between beef, pork, chicken, fish and the veggie substitutes—but the taste! OhmaiGAHD! You really might think it was fish or pork or chicken. Just amazing.

Of course, like other vegetarian restaurants all over the world, the Lotus Su chefs take pains to make the dishes look authentic: the fish includes—and don’t ask me, I don’t know how—skin replete with scales; the chicken drumsticks come with pseudo-bones stuffed into the ‘meat’; and the squid has rubbery tentacles! Like I said, I don’t know how. Ancient Chinese secret. More likely modern science has been harnessed to perfect the flavors and textures. We asked the maître d’ and he said the ‘fish’ was made with soybean, egg white, rolled tofu, and a kind of seaweed and the ‘chicken’ dish was made with monkey-head mushroom AKA Lion’s Mane mushroom. The latter apparently has many medicinal benefits, one being it made my taste buds explode with euphoria.

素滋味 sùzīwèi (Vegetarian Chicken)  in foreground. 五香酥鱼 wǔxiāng sūyǔ Five Flavor Crispy Fish in background.

素滋味 sùzīwèi (Vegetarian Chicken) in foreground. 五香酥鱼 wǔxiāng sūyǔ Five Flavor Crispy Fish in background.

Why don’t I eat there every day? One, it’s still a restaurant experience and who can afford the time and expense every day. More importantly, however delicious, it’s still processed food. Amazing, delicious, vegetarian, but still in the back of my monkey mind, I’m thinking ‘processed.’ And I still try to eat as many raw foods as possible. Still, after the crap I put up with out here in the boonies, it’s nice to have access to a slice of paradise served up with inspirational quotes from a virtual Buddha. Harbin is beginning to grow on me. If this keeps up, I may run out of excuses to leave.

Of course, being the thoughtful husband/step-father that I am, I wanted to share this divine experience with Hobbit and Danny. As usual, there was the pre-dinner squall about how we were to arrive at aforementioned establishment.

“I don’t want to have dinner too late,” barked my little Hobbit. My little energizer Hobbit had been drinking coffee—a volatile combo.

“I know. I don’t either.”

“And Danny has school tomorrow, so how are we going to do that? We can’t be out too late.” She dashed into another room and I tried to followed, but ran into her as she came back into the dining room. I apologized; she glared and pushed me aside.

“One dinner isn’t going to kill him.”

“You don’t understand. He has a lot of studies. Too many studies. He’s not smart like you think. Not smart. No no no.”

“No, I’m getting that. I realize he’s got…limitations.”

My stepson is the one Chinese student out of one-point-five billion Chinese who isn’t adept in science and math. Lucky me. Instead, he likes hip-hop. Hip. Hop.

Lord, shoot me now and spare me the court trial later. Perhaps I fret for nothing, but I have visions of this wild-child finishing his education in America and given his proclivities and fairly inordinate rambunctiousness turning to the dark side. And turning to the dark side in America can be pretty dark. I worry that he will grow up twisted and warped. Sex, drugs, rock and roll. And cheap easily obtainable firearms.

Worse. The tremendous disparity and prejudice will weigh down on him relentlessly like a massive iron, crushing his flesh, his bones, his identity, until he can’t take it any more. And since we can’t afford healthcare, I fear he might do what some do in America when under a lot of stress: he’ll go to the local Wal-Mart and pick out an Ar-15 with the semi-auto function disabled and then have a personal Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Sandy Hook. Take your pick. I’m not being flippant. I really worry about this.

I’m probably projecting, but I fear for him. What if America perverts him? What if I pervert him? He needs a lot of compassionate support at this time of his life. He’s at the age where he could go either way: develop normally with a sense of respect and empathy for the dignity of others, or follow the twisted path of the misguided troubled youth with orange hair who made movie night an unspeakable tragedy. I’m skirting the obvious here, I know. I am America. I will influence him of good or for ill. That terrifies me. I don’t want to fuck this up.

Accordingly, I am trying to build up reserves of goodness in him, fill him with happy memories that will give him pause when he’s angry beyond measure and reaches for that M1911. We share something in common: short fuses. He lopes about the apartment like a loaded cannon and heaven help anyone who gainsays him. He’s on a vicious cycle that I am all-too-familiar with.

I have been striving to do happy family things and share lots of good times together. I realize unfortunately that I am not particularly suited for this type of endeavor. There is something deep inside me that knows I myself am damaged goods. I didn’t have a normal upbringing. Or perhaps it was normal in that my family was dysfunctional like most every other family in America. Even as a child, after a while, you realized there was something rotten. By about nine or ten, I could tell the difference between my garden-variety dysfunctional family, other supremely fucked-up and downright scary families, and then the proverbial Waltons (not the evil demons dressed in humanflesh that run the Satanic multinational discount department store; I’m talking about those unbelievable goons from the TV show: ‘Goodnight John-Boy’—those Waltons).

Fortunately, I was exposed to a few actual Norman Rockwell-type families. I met a few families that played together, went on walks in the park together, sat down and ate meals together. (Without someone hurling the Thanksgiving carving knife across the table—good times, oh yeah!) Even as a stripling, it was hard to believe that sweet, happy families existed. When I entered their homes, I always felt as conspicuous and out of place as a flea-infested, grime-encrusted bag lady shopping at Sax Fifth Avenue. There wasn’t merely an economic element to it; in fact, a lot of the so-frightening-your-testes-shriveled-up homes I visited were families of some of my well-heeled pals. (‘You wanna do a line? Go on. There’s plenty.’) But if goodness and purity and wholesomeness were gold, then these several virtuous families were American royalty. Rich or poor, love was everywhere in evidence. They were loyal and supportive and gentle and kind. In other words, they were completely alien to me. I wanted to turn my new family into an alien family, but it was proving to be an uphill battle.

Hobbit, despite being a hobbit, or because of being a hobbit, has her own specific set of idiosyncrasies that creates peculiar challenges in the domestic sphere. There are rules and patterns that must be observed or there will be hell to pay. Trying to do something simple like having a meal together feels like preparing to storm the beaches of Normandy. Plans have to be made; maps drawn and re-drawn; watches synchronized; clothes laid out well in advance. Confirmation phone calls and ‘Are you there yet?’ text messages barrage the radio-sphere…it’s a complicated campaign and it saps my strength. I’ve worn down my molars a considerable amount since getting married and moving into Hobbit’s domicile.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s all my fault (as I am constantly reminded). The secret to a happy marriage lives and dies on the tacit understanding that the wife is always right and whatever troubles befall the family ultimately is due to some defect in the husband. Men take heed. Learn this lesson well. Accept it, breathe it, live it, love it. And then and only then will all be well.

We made plans and decided to meet in front of Lotus Su, which was not easy since Hobbit rarely leaves the severely circumscribed environs of her hobbit-hole and its immediate purlieu; moreover she has an abysmal sense of direction. I was coming from a lecture at the HongGongDa Number 2 Campus so it made no sense for me to travel all the way back to the Forestry University where we live just to pick them up and then double back to the Lotus Su. It was an uphill battle, but Hobbit agreed to take a taxi.

Taking a taxi is another incendiary meme: I refuse to take buses in China because of the waste of time. Regardless of the time expenditure, the dire exposure to raw humanity is more than I can stomach. I’ll fight dragons all day long, but spare me having to rub elbows (and other anatomically sensitive areas) with the great unwashed of the Middle Kingdom. Hobbit eschews taxis on the premise of saving money. She lambastes me for being such a fiscal wanton. Cornered like the closet capitalist that all liberals are under the skin, I have taken to sneering at her peasant sensibilities.

“You might have the time to waste on the bus, but I certainly don’t. My time is precious,” or “You might not mind being jostled and having your bum repeatedly massaged by queer-eyed middle-aged lechers, but I don’t!”

The maître d’ opened the door for us and showed us to a table, too close to the front door I noticed. He is a handsome man, hair shaved down to a monkish stubble, svelte and lithe like a Shaolin monk, possessing glowing healthy skin and one of the gentlest most beatific smiles I’ve seen inside or outside of a temple. He tried to pull out a chair for Hobbit.

I have to mention, Hobbit has several strong aversions that border on the clinical. Before even sitting down, she inspects and cleans the seats with those disposable wipes, which never fails to draw queer looks from the wait staff and nearby patrons. I stand and wait, biting my lip, feeling embarrassed, and wondering if this normal behavior in Dongbei. Most people just give the seat a quick sweep with the palm of the hand. I dare not allow my skin to come into contact with the possibly contaminated surface of the chair where a stranger most likely recently had parked their tukas. Doffing our winter coats also requires close supervision. God forbid if a coat sleeve touches the floor. Before and after touching the menus requires another pass with a moist toilette. And of course, before eating everyone must wash his or her hands. The maître d’ just keeps smiling and says nothing, waiting patiently. I want to hug him.

Observing strict hygiene is not the problem and in the Northeast it probably will save your bowels tremendous irritation if it doesn’t out and out save your life. No, I do not take exception to these steps. I take exception to the manner in which Hobbit tells me. Her tone is not sweet lovey-dovey hobbit—the hobbit I fell in love with; no, it’s Hobbit that has been cursed with a fell eldritch spell: eyes popping from sockets, veins throbbing on forehead, voice screeching like a banshee on the barrow; that type of hobbit. I half-expect her cute little head to spin around. Not my favorite type of hobbit to say the least.

“Surely,” I remind her firmly, “at my advanced age, I know to wash my hands before eating.”

“Do you? Do you?” Hobbit screws up her eye at me and half-rises out of her seat in challenge. She thumbs her nose at me, “Y’know…I don’t think so!”

“Sit down, Hobbit, before you have a heart attack. There’s only one bathroom at this restaurant, so I’ll go first. You two look over the menu.”

Their menus are tabloid-sized double-sided sheets of colorful paper that you can take home with you. And this might be a slight drawback or a positive, depending on your point of view. Their menu is not overwhelming like many upscale restaurants that proffer hefty leather-bound tomes with endless choices, so many that, by the time you get through it, you’ve completely forgotten what it is you wanted to order from the beginning. Still, you cannot say Lotus Su’s menu is limited, but it might do with a few more choices in the future.

Hobbit goes to wash her hands after I come back, and when she returns, Danny goes. Hobbit and I are talking about how ingenious and lovely the lotus blossom washbasin is when we hear a commotion coming from behind the partition that screens the short walkway to the washroom.

“Oh no.”

“Oh no what?” I ask.

“I think….” Hobbit pops out of her seat and bolts towards the commotion. I put my head in my hands and beg for sweet release from this torment.

Hobbit and Danny return. Hobbit is scolding Danny in low menacing tones.

“What (I’m afraid to ask) happened?”

“Danny broke the sink.”

“You’re kidding.” I look at Danny.

“I couldn’t get it to work. It wouldn’t turn on.” His face is turning red from either anger or mortification.

“So you decided to force it.”

“The handle wouldn’t turn!”

“You didn’t realize that maybe, just maybe, there was another way of turning on the water other than twisting the head off? How about asking someone? Did you ever think of that?”

Lotus Su washbasin up close

Lotus Su washbasin up close

I feel my blood beginning to boil and remind myself: this is a Buddhist establishment, this is a Buddhist establishment. Om mani padme hum! Serenity now! But I feel my equanimity and compassion eroding like a sandcastle on the beach, collapsing like a house of cards, caving in like a straw house in a hurricane…you get the idea. As I said, I am not well suited for matrimony or fatherhood. This I admit freely and in full cognizance of my numerous and profound deficiencies as a sentient being.

We apologize to the maître d’ and smile ever so sheepishly. His face is not as beatific as before. I wonder how much one of those custom-made lotus blossom sinks cost. I put it out of my mind. This is quality family time.

I try to keep the conversation light and focused on positive topics. Hobbit isn’t exactly what you’d call a tankard half-full kind of Halfling, her protests to the contrary. I notice that whenever the three of us are together, she spends a significant portion of the time ‘correcting’ Danny: reminding him how to behave, what to do, how to study, ad infinitum. My head seemed to swivel on its own accord towards the kitchen. I needed some bodhisattva provender to make things right.

And it most certainly did. When the food arrived, it was so delicious that it transformed all negative karma into delicious karma. Instant. Delicious. Karma! No one could stay in a foul mood once the first morsel entered the mouth. A marvelous transformation took place and suddenly everyone was happy and filled with culinary-induced joy. Hobbit no longer noticed the gelid draft wafting in from the front door. Danny stopped moping over his gaffe with the washbasin. And I, I luxuriated in the delectable combined bliss of Five Flavor Crispy Fish, and Fresh Pepper Tea Mushroom, and Eight Treasures in Fish Sauce! Scrumpdiliumptious!

Five Flavor Crispy Fish

Five Flavor Crispy Fish

Clay Pot Rice

Clay Pot Rice

Crispy Veggie Hand Roll

Crispy Veggie Hand Roll

Braised Green Beans 干锅豆角

Braised Green Beans 干锅豆角 (I think!) 

We ate to our heart’s content and felt no need to overstuff ourselves, as if the dishes themselves evoked a sense of moderation. We packed the leftovers for home and for once there was no fighting or bickering about taking a cab home. Our bellies were filled. We felt warm and drowsy with contentment. Ah! God bless Lotus Su!

Here’s a sampling of the menu:

五香酥鱼        wǔxiāng sūyǔ       Five Flavor Crispy Fish                     ¥55

素滋味            sùzīwèi                       Vegetarian Taste                               ¥42

辣香肉            làxiāngròu                  Spicy (dog) meat                               ¥42

鲜椒茶菇       xiānjiāo chágū           Fresh Pepper Tea mushrooms        ¥32

捞汁八宝       lāozhī bābǎo              Eight Treasures in Fish sauce          ¥32

黄米煎糕       huángmǐ jiāngāo       Fried Yellow Rice Cakes                    ¥26

煲仔饭            bāozǐfàn                     Clay Pot Rice                                      ¥18

拿酥卷            násūjuàn                    Crispy Veggie Hand roll                    ¥12

The translations are all mine, which means they are inevitably wrong, but asking Hobbit for some help is tantamount to root canal with a rusty metal spork. It’s better if I not bother her with these petty details.These are just a few of the wonderful dishes they have and if you live in Harbin and like vegetarian meals or if you want to spend an evening in paradise, then head over to the Lotus Su vegetarian restaurant. It’ll sort out your taste buds and adjust your karma right quick. Peace and compassion to all living creatures.

The Lotus Su vegetarian restaurant can be found at three locations in Harbin. The one below is for the Kangshun St location next to the Agricultural Bank, up the street from the Hengshan WanDa Cinema-plex:

形象店地址,南岗开发区康顺街15号,(与天顺街交口,农行隔壁)。In English: Xingxiang Store address, NanGang Development District KangShun Street #15, (intersects with TianShun Street, next to the Agricultural Bank). ¡Buen provecho!

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