Tourism and Taste
To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those
who have it in common, as a table is located between those who sit around it; the
world, like every in-between, relates and separates at the same time.
Arendt 1958: 48
The sun was rising over a crisp morning in Inner Mongolia, the People's Republic of China. As an exchange student in Beijing, I decided to spend a weekend in Inner Mongolia with a few foreign friends, not too far from the provincial capital, Huhehot. Although we considered ourselves quite adventurous and attuned to all kinds of hardships and unusual experiences, we opted for a “regular” tourist hotel, a cluster of kitsch, cement replicas of the traditional wood and felt Mongol yurts (with a comfortable bathroom). Our hosts were waiting for us to go to breakfast. We were ready for the usual Chinese fare: rice porridge with pickled vegetables, warm soymilk, maybe a hard-boiled egg; something I was not particularly fond of, but had grown used to. Even after almost two years in China, the simple thought of a steaming cup of espresso was likely to make me salivate; as a matter of fact, I had brought a tiny espresso machine from Italy, and I received the coffee grinds by mail … None of that here: we were served a hot, greasy boiled sheep knee, accompanied by hot tea mixed with melted rancid butter and fried millet. The meal ended with a tiny glass of extremely strong – and mysteriously undefined – liquor. In my head, the food I was facing could not really fit under the title “breakfast,” a category that at any rate had already been quite stretched in the previous months of my stay in China. The set of rules through which I approached and interpreted my meals was to be revised once again. I knew I was having breakfast, because it was early morning and the first meal of the day, but any other clue was pointing to a different, more substantial kind of meal. My culinary competence – my patrimony of food-related knowledge – was clearly insufficient to face the challenge. Why was I finding the experience disturbing? Wasn't it food, after all? Why was I enduring that breakfast as a threat to my wellbeing, to what I had so far considered my fairly enlightened and tolerant worldview, to my identity, to the very order of things?