Have you ever felt guilty for eating a submarine sandwich? I have.
It happened in Beijing, where I am spending my junior year of high school with the foreign exchange program School Year Abroad, at a Subway in between a café and a McDonalds. If only the café was a Starbucks and the Subway sold its sandwiches for $5 instead of 30 yuan, I would have practically been in America.
The sandwich had mayo, bacon, pickles and American cheese…toasted, and it was the longest footlong I’ve ever eaten.
It was 12 inches of wheat bread with an additional three feet of shame, or four feet counting the added embarrassment from the sound of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” playing in the background.
I came to China to stop being an American for a while and instead find out how people in other parts of the world live, and yet here I was with two other S.Y.A. students, one from Texas and the other from Montana, sitting in a Connecticut-based fast food restaurant with sepia maps of New York City plastered all over the walls. This was not the kind of cultural exchange I had signed up for.
Things only got more western from there when a man walked in and, in stereotypical, the-louder-and-slower-I-repeat-myself-the-more-you-will-understand-me American tourist English, said “I’ll have the sub of the day,” to the young Chinese woman behind the counter, who clearly didn’t understand a word he was saying.
The man was getting on my nerves, so I decided to step in and try to say “sub of the day” in Chinese. It didn’t work, but, eventually the man’s sandwich conundrum was resolved, but my issues were only amplified.
The man decided that because I was an American, and I tried to help him speak to the sandwich artists who, he told me, usually speak English, we were now friends, and so he decided to get to know me better.
I found out that he was from Los Angeles and that he was in Beijing as an English tutor, which didn’t make any sense to me since he couldn’t speak a lick of Chinese.
I told him that I was also from Los Angeles and that I went to Harvard-Westlake. He looked confused and told me he’d never heard of the school although he lived in the Van Nuys area.
After that, I dismissed him as an idiot as he had probably done a long time ago to the poor Chinese women who he most likely thought were too dumb to understand his order.
When the man left, I didn’t sigh, but I felt relieved. Not just the man but the entire Subway experience was too much of a culture shock. I quickly finished my sandwich, it wasn’t that good, and I left.
At home, I told my host mother that my friends and I had only gotten a snack, and, the three of us, baba, mama, and I took out our chopsticks and noisily slurped up our homemade noodles, and I was happy because I knew that was the way it was supposed to be.