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June 30, 1998
A heavy rain settled the brown smog that usually hangs over Lanzhou, a medium-sized city on the banks of the Yellow River in northern China's Gansu Province. It was midday, and for lunch I walked over to the upscale noodle house on the corner. The place was antiseptically decorated in white tile, the staff wore white smocks, the chopsticks were made of white plastic. I was the only customer. I took a seat at a table across from a floor-to-ceiling poster of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet locked in soulful embrace. A Hong Kong pop songstress was crooning about love and moonlight from the radio behind the cashier.
The waitress saw me and dipped inside the kitchen. She didn't need to ask me what I wanted; there was only one dish. Noodles. Not the Lilliputian variety sold in the United States, but Central Asian Brobdingnagians known as laghmien. Laghmien are made of an egg dough that is beaten out into yards-long sinewy hanks, and a serving may, in fact, contain nothing more than a single, coiled twelve-foot noodle.
The waitress emerged bearing a bowl of laghmien in steaming broth. I waited until it had cooled and then dipped in my chopsticks, pulling out a length of noodle, biting it off, and chewing. Laghmien are tasty, if difficult to eat with chopsticks -- at least for me.
A hubbub arose in the distance and grew louder. Two nouveau Chinese businessmen wearing faux silk suits and pagers on gold chains burst through the door, strutted past me, and took seats on opposite sides of the table under DiCaprio and Winslet.
"Xiaojie, Laghmien! (Bring us noodles, Miss!)," they shouted. The waitress hustled them their order.
They wasted no time in hunkering down to their meal. In unison, as if mirror images of each other, they plunged their chopsticks into the broth. Jowels to bowls, they hooked wrist-thick hanks of laghmien and shoveled them into their mouths -- slurping, sucking, inhaling, and chomping off portions without letting the noodle trunk line fall from their lips. This was truly a feat: it required a gnashing of teeth to sever a section while the main hank was held in place by lip-suction and a pincer grip of chopsticks. They began staring at me, and their lips and larynxes started doing double duty, both feeding and opining volubly on my probable nationality. Oily broth dripped from their chins onto the tabletop.
I lowered my head, wishing to hurry through my meal to escape this spectacle, but my noodle slipped through my chopsticks time and time again. I wanted to ignore the cacophony -- one hears it in almost all restaurants across China -- but I could not: my neighbors' stares drew me intimately into their repast. I stared back at them and my mind slid into the surreal: it began to appear to me that they were feeding to the rhythms of the song on the radio. As the singer soared to crescendos of pathos and romance they shoveled faster and more passionately; as she waxed melancholic they seemed to slow and mellow. Then their slurping drowned out the soprano, increasing in volume until it reached deafening decibel levels; their fleshy lips metamorphosed into those of gigantic, bottom-feeding catfish, sucking up seaweed and silt and sewage and carrion....
Within minutes not a noodle remained between them. They leaned back, belched lustily, and grabbed the rolls of toilet paper next to the salt to dry their broth-besplattered maws. Tossing seven kuai apiece on the table, my noodlemates jumped to their feet and sauntered out, leaving me alone again with the stars of Titanic, still timidly working on yard one of my noodle -- in blissful silence.
Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Greece, Moscow, Siberia, Transylvania, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.
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