Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008

City Basics

Arriving. If you decide not to take the groovy Maglev (50 yuan one-way) from the airport, a taxi into town takes about an hour and costs around 150 yuan. Most of the scenery along the way is gray and more gray — most of this land was marsh just 15 years ago and now hosts a sprawl of haphazard urban development that makes even the New Jersey Turnpike seem delightful — only brightening when you hit the Huangpu River.

Getting Around. Taxis are cheap and metered. While you hear the odd story of a foreigner getting ripped off, drivers are by and large conscientious. Note that taxis tend to take the most direct route, even if it's not the fastest route, because that saves you money. If you'd rather take the less direct but speedier route, let the taxi driver know when you get in the cab. Also, get your hotel concierge to write out the name of where you're going in Mandarin. Often, there is little correlation between English names and Mandarin ones. The Ritz-Carlton, for instance, is known in Mandarin as the Puoteman.

Tipping. China is still technically a communist country. Most Chinese don't tip, figuring a service charge at fancy restaurants works just fine. But there's nothing wrong with leaving a 20- or 50-yuan note. Don't add the gratuity on your credit card slip. I can almost guarantee that the waiter will never see a penny of it.

Dining Out. At restaurants, waiters will often suggest dishes that are considered special simply because they are expensive or their names are homonyms for words like "fortune." This does not mean these items are, by conventional standards, tasty. So unless you really dig sea cucumber or shark's fin, be wary of the "specials." Also, in Chinese restaurants, don't expect to order dishes just for yourself. Everything is served family style and shared. A good rule of thumb is to order at least one more dish than the number of people at the table. Two or three is even better — so you get to try more things.

Dumpling Etiquette. Remember those soup-filled xiaolong bao? You do not want to eat the soup and dumpling separately. That would be like ordering the perfect burger and then eating the bun, the patty and the fixings one by one. So, this is my method, perfected from years of dumpling experimentation: Put the dumpling on your spoon. Delicately, bite off the top-knot of the dumpling. You should have bitten off just enough to let the steam — but not the broth — out. Wait a moment. You can sniff the steam coming out of the hole if you wish. Then, take a second spoon, dip it into the ginger-and-vinegar sauce served with the dumplings and carefully pour a bit into the hole. Wait another moment. Occupy yourself with another sniff of the meaty vapors. Then, place the entire dumpling in your mouth. It is a life-changing experience.