Book review: Fried Eggs with Chopsticks by Polly Evans

It took me halfway through the book Fried Eggs with Chopsticks to find the beautifully summed up explanation behind the title: 

“Eating a fried egg with chopsticks, I thought as I sat on the bus to Nanjing some hours later, bears small-scale similarities to the greater trials of traveling around China as a foreigner. It is frustrating and frequently ludicrous. Sometimes it is funny. Small tasks take infinitely longer than they should. You look ridiculous, often. But in the end, pride shattered, patience tried, and seemingly against all odds, you do in fact arrive. And then somebody comes along smiling, and points out the easier route you should have taken.”

Polly Evans is a Brit who had this wild idea to write about China while traveling it by public transit. In case the magnitude of this isn’t clear to you, let me explain that public transit in Calgary is trying at best, and I speak the language. I have ridden the metro in Prague, the city bus in Busan, and almost lost my life several times in taxis in Israel. You definitely need to take a Blanche DuBois approach to the whole thing, go with the crowd, get out of the way, and jump turnstiles when you’ve obviously taken the wrong turn.

Chinese public transit, according to Polly, is fraught with its own special set of trials which I will leave for you to find out about. One phrase that she encountered on a regular basis was mei you, meaning ‘we don’t have’ or ‘it’s not available’.

This phrase is a major source of frustration for her throughout her travels and it reminds me of the Korean equivalent obseyo which is always, without fail, accompanied by the sign of an X, meaning ‘No.’ The X can be made with your two index fingers to be polite, but I have faced many full on arm-crossed Xs. As if ‘No’ couldn’t be more disheartening when you really need a ‘Yes’ and then you add full body involvement to the mix. Like shouting in sign language.  Obseyo was my most hated phrase in Korea, especially when trying to shop for clothes in a ‘free size’ world as a regular-sized western woman.

Fried Eggs with Chopsticks is a delightful and unique take on travelling in China, and is well worth the read.

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