Pizza…with garlic bread and a heart check.

I was starving. I wasn’t very happy either. I’d just hopped off my second crammed, smelly, humid bus ride after returning to Chengyang from Qingdao where I’d tried to renew some paperwork.

Hours and hours of sitting and waiting in noisy government offices, being herded from one counter to the next and trying to understand the officials with my rudimentary grasp of Mandarin had taken its toll on me.

All I wanted now was some food.

I walked towards a local restaurant bursting with noise, locals and cigarette smoke, then past another and another offering the same menu and the same atmosphere. After my battle with officialdom and my lengthy, arduous bus rides, I couldn’t quite face a noisy, smoke-filled restaurant and more exposure of my linguistic shortcomings.

Pizza

I saw the sign and settled on this venue for lunch. China might not be known for pizza, and Chengyang is more famous for Korean BBQ than for Italian fine dining, but my mood demanded something familiar and filling.

I poked my head through the door and was welcomed by the friendly owner and the sight of some locals enjoying a hearty meal.

This’ll do, I thought

I gestured and pointed my way through my order and had communicated to the owner that I desired garlic bread and a supreme pizza. Exactly what constitutes a supreme pizza in China I wasn’t quite sure, and I didn’t care. I was hungry.

The garlic bread arrived and disappeared simultaneously. I didn’t register its taste or texture, just its journey to my rumbling stomach.

With my appetite partially sated, I surveyed the small restaurant and observed a primary school child struggling through her homework, a young couple exchanging loving glances and another young couple glued to their phones. The remainder of the patrons were locals happily devouring their pizza and chatting to the amiable owners.

Just before my pizza arrived, I noticed something odd. Something I’d never seen at a pizza restaurant, or any restaurant. One of the owners, and a middle-aged couple, were locked in a serious but amicable conversation, which ended when the couple appeared to give their consent.

I was intrigued.

The owner moved toward the kitchen with a determined posture, and disappeared. He emerged a few minutes later with a contraption of some sort. Obscured by the comings and goings of the restaurant I couldn’t quite make out what he was carrying, and only noticed the diners roll up their sleeves.

I then saw the owner attach his contraption to the arm of the husband. It was a blood pressure monitor. Exactly the same as the ones used in doctor’s surgeries. The owner was measuring the couple’s blood pressure.

Why?

I wasn’t expecting gourmet pizza and I wasn’t expecting a Michelin hat at a local restaurant on the outskirts of Chengyang, which is on the outskirts of Qingdao. Still, I didn’t expect this couple, and subsequent diners, to be having their blood pressure checked, AFTER they had finished their meals.

What was it about this pizza?

Before I could contemplate this conundrum any longer, my pizza arrived.

It looked OK, but should I eat it?

Does it induce heart flutters, high blood pressure, a stroke?

Why were the owners testing the blood pressure of people in a restaurant. Do they do this every day, is it part of the service?

My mind was racing so fast that it made me hungry. It seemed I had no choice.

I took a bite and it was…edible. Very greasy and cheesy, but edible.

I managed to fit in mouthfuls of pizza between moments of doubt, and I clearly lived to tell the tale.

I wasn’t, however, offered a blood pressure check.

And I didn’t order desert.

Image: Chad Montano

Here, take my child.

Parents in China tried to give me their children.

They approached me in supermarkets, on the street, in the park, and they thrust their young children into my arms.

I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know their children, and many of their children were mere babies. I didn’t ask to hold their child and I didn’t feel comfortable doing so.

Furthermore, the parents didn’t warn me or provide any explanation as to why they were handing their beloved offspring over to a random person. Well, they may have tried to explain but I didn’t speak more than a few words of Mandarin, and they didn’t speak any English.

The shock of being entrusted with someone else’s child left me dumbstruck, rooted to the spot. I just tried not to drop the poor thing. I also wondered why anyone would surrender their prized possession to a person they’d never met, in a country still operating under the remnants of the one child policy. Surely, in China of all places, a baby is a valuable commodity.

Despite this, the parents carried on unperturbed. They placed the child into my arms, smiled nervously and excitedly, then retreated. And retreated a little further, and further. Don’t go too far, I thought, I could easily run away with this baby.

Then I realised. Then I would discover why a bewildered Chinese baby was being cradled in my arms. A phone was produced and pointed at us and the parents would prance around in a frenzy, attempting to force a smile…out of the child or out of me? Probably both, I was as shocked as the child and my first reaction was certainly not to smile.

The parents would then snap away. Photo after photo while the baby became heavier and heavier in my arms. A conference would ensue, during which the parents would judge the quality of the photos.

Then, finally, one of the parents would approach. Great, I thought, now this bizarre experience is over. No, wait, the parent is not coming to take their child back, they’re just coming to straighten the clothes and fix their hair – or wipe the tears away – before retreating to take more photos.

Eventually, once the perfect photo had been taken, the child would be returned to its parents and they would walk away, many times without even a Xie Xie or a “Ni jiao shenme mingzi? (what is your name?).

It was a truly bizarre experience, which happened quite a few times. I can only explain it by pointing to the fact that I lived, and worked, on the outskirts or Chengyang, which is on the outskirts of Qingdao. Qingdao is quite a nice city, but Chengyang is not Qingdao. There’s nothing particularly bad about Chengyang, it’s just that it’s a fairly bland Chinese city, and one which sees very few foreigners. I was not a novelty, I was a freak show. Thus, when the Chinese saw a foreigner with blonde hair and blue eyes, they felt compelled to take my photo, which, in itself I din’t really mind. I just found it very odd to have my photo taken with their children.

There was another odd experience in Chengyang in which I had my photo taken.

I was heading to karaoke with some local friends, and we were in something of a hurry. We’d purchased some snacks and refreshments to smuggle into the KTV, and as we were leaving the supermarket, 3 young local women approached us and asked my friends if they could take a photo with me. Sure, as long as it doesn’t take long, we were hell bent on murdering some musical classics.

The photos were taken, the women appraised them and decided that they were acceptable. A conversation took place the whole time, entirely in Mandarin.

After the photo session concluded, I asked my friends why the young women were so determined to have their photo taken with me.

“They’re studying at university, and they wanted to show their lecturer.”

Why would they want to show a photo of me to their lecturer, I wondered, so I asked my friends,

“What are they studying?”

“English”