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Expat's Eye
Print Edition> Expat's Eye
UPDATED: December 7, 2009 NO. 49 DECEMBER 10, 2009
From Iron Bowl to Iron Stomach
Eat, drink and don't worry in modern times



A few decades ago, "Iron Bowl" referred to not having to go hungry in China if you were employed by the government. The government gave you a job that secured the filling of one's rice bowl. This concept and practice did create loyalty, as the times were hard. China has moved far past those times to become the major exporter of rice, as well as lowering its poverty level from a whopping 65 percent in 1981 to less than 10 percent now. You can argue the criteria or annual income of families for determining "poverty level," but nevertheless, no one can deny the improvements of the last two decades. People are working and eating, and in Beijing, the food is incredible.

As a newcomer transplant to this society, I was warned by everyone back home not to drink the water, not to eat street vendor offerings, to stay away from fruits and vegetables I did not recognize, to steer clear of ice cubes, not to drink certain brands of sodas, alcohols or teas, and was advised not to breathe. I've never had much luck going without food or beverage, and breathing is a habit. The clincher to all these "good" advices is the fact that most of them were given by people who had never been here, or knew anyone who had ever been here. Incredible, their innate knowledge.

As a world traveler, my simple rule of thumb has always been: I'll eat and drink what I want, and I may become sick for a day or two, but then it passes—no pun intended—and I am good to go, again, no pun intended. Now, do not misunderstand me. I do not press my luck. I stay away from food vendors whose hands and fingers look as if they had been probing assorted orifices, and I do not normally eat at restaurants where many of the cliental scamper in and scurry out on four legs. But I refuse to be paranoid to the point of a diet of granola bars and boiled beer.

Since arriving in Beijing, I have had some incredible meals, and most of those in anything but Five-, Four-, or even One-Star restaurants. I make it a point to avoid the imports: KFC, McDonald's, and Subway. Good stuff, but I am in China! I may revisit a taste of home in another month or two, but for now, I crave nothing nostalgic.

The Chinese have a talent for combing foods and sauces. The vegetables, many of which I cannot name or identify, are fresh and delicious. The meats cooked in sauces delectable and spicy, and the assorted dumplings savory and scrumptious. And I have had stomach issue zero. Yes, I just knocked on wood, but the fact remains that my gut has felt better on my new Beijing diet than it has in the past couple of years at home! Maybe it is lack of coffee and cream, but I attribute it to an overall better diet of fruits and vegetables here. I tell friends and family back home of the joy of being able to partake in such an extravaganza of culinary experimentation without adverse effects, but they will not concede. To save face, and stick to their doom and gloom predictions for gastronomic toxic exposure, they respond with, "Well, you just wait," or "Mike, you've always had an iron stomach. The rest of us would die."

Whatever the case, I hold these truths to be self-evident:

1. The food is delicious.

2. My stomach is not Iron, I just plain feel better as a result of what I am consuming for body fuel.

3. Without sounding like I am revealing too much, I am more regular!

4. I drink bottled water, but brush my teeth with tap H2O. Again, no problems.

5. And, the Food is Delicious!

So please, eat, drink, and don't worry. The mind has so much to do with the body, and perhaps people think, or know, they will get sick, and sure enough, they do. Either way, it'll work itself out in the end.

The author is an American working in Beijing

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