On our recent travels in South Korea we stumbled upon an Irish pub. It’s a running joke with us that wherever you go in the world, there’s an Irish pub, so we had to pop in and take a look. And I started salivating when I saw that the menu featured not only fish and chips, but also shepherd’s pie.
It’s at that point that I realized I’d become everything I used to despise.
There’s a certain type of British emigrant that’s really in search of the UK with better weather. They gather in communities where there’s a pub called the Red Lion, refuse to learn the language of their new home or to interact with the locals, live on Full English Breakfasts, and spend their time watching British soap operas and EPL football under a Union Jack and a picture of the Queen.
That’s not me, I always thought. I’m open minded, a citizen of the world. Even when we were living in the UK we ate a variety of different cuisines, and when we traveled we embraced the local culture and tried out all its culinary delights.
But when living away from home is not a holiday but a long-term commitment, something changes, I found a deep need for something familiar and comforting takes hold. I still cook mostly the same meals I made back home, with the menus adapted to use ingredients available in Beijing. And whenever we go out to eat, if we allow the boys to choose where we go, the answer is always the same: “Somewhere western!”
This is not to say we never eat a la Beijing: we love jian bing and jiaozi, and simple economics and the need for a healthy diet means we can’t live on pizza and burgers alone. We’ve learned to read and order off a Chinese menu, to share dishes, and we’ve sharpened our chopstick skills beyond measure. But from time to time the craving for a taste of home becomes irresistible.
In part it’s a question of familiarity. A friend who travels a lot in South East Asia told me he’ll often go to McDonalds in Vietnam, when he wouldn’t dream of dining there in the UK. “Sometimes,” he said, “you just want your dinner to be easy.”
But there’s more to it than that. Food is central to our identity, and for everything we love about living in China we remain British, and will be wherever our future adventures take us. So I’ll continue to consider PG Tips not pu’er to be a “proper cup of tea”, and if you ever find me eating shepherd’s pie in an Irish pub in Busan, then you’ll have to forgive me. I’ll have some bibimbap with you tomorrow.
Photo: jypsygen via Flickr