ain’t all rice eaters here

Zhecheng county, Henan, April 2013 

I was on a volunteer trip to rural Henan with a group of Shanghai-based westerners from all over Europe and North America.

As we settled into our first meal, someone asked for rice. Our coordinator translated the waiter’s response for the non-Chinese speakers: “We don’t have rice. How about noodles or buns*?”

I wish I’d taken a photo of the reactions: shock, betrayal and in one effusive Spaniard’s case, outrage.

“This is China!”

“How can this be?”

“…” Furrowed brow, mouth slightly agape.

You see, historically the majority of Chinese who emigrated overseas were from the south and our main staple is rice, followed not very closely by noodles. In north China, they grow mostly wheat, not rice, and their staples are noodles, dumplings and buns, or mantou, as pictured above on a street food vendor’s grill (just to be clear, mantou aren’t usually served grilled).

Regional differences. I never realized how shockingly disparate they could seem.

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