My most fun cooking experience in Beijing, by Nicholas Flesch

Not long after arriving in Beijing and starting my new job teaching English—in fact it was during the first week of training before classes started—I decided to have a get together over lunch in order to get to know my coworkers better. I was far too reluctant to buy any meat from the super market, meat that had been sitting on a table for God knows how long, and so chose to do vegetarian burrito bowls. This was fine, because not only were some of my coworkers’ vegetarian but I could also easily find the ingredients I needed so long as those ingredients weren’t spices.

Hosting this party in my new apartment was something of an anxiety for me. My apartment, I’d say, was and continues to be a little grungy. It is also not unlike a cave and very dark throughout the day. I needed light, and so found all the lamps left over from the previous occupant that I could and set it up in my living room. Earlier that morning while buying all the ingredients I would need I also bought a lightbulb for this lamp. Now I was already in the process of cooking lunch and it was only twenty minutes before my guests were due to arrive when I had a lull in the preparations. It was in this lull that I decided to change out the lightbulb of that lamp.

Unbeknownst to me, that lamp was left in the corner because the last lightbulb in it had broken clean off, leaving only the metal piece at the base still screwed tightly in. Foolishly I had already plugged in the lamp and, while attempting to put in the new bulb, blew out my breaker with a fantastic show of electric sparks. I was now officially panicked. The lights were out, but the stove was gas and still running hot. I wasn’t sure exactly what to do, but I knew I couldn’t very well host anything in the dark. In my panic I turned to the only people I figured who could help me: my neighbors.

I knocked on my neighbors’ door for some time before the middle aged woman who lived there timidly opened the door a crack. I’m sure she was not expecting a fat white man to call on her that day. In the worst Chinese I could muster I said: “I have no electricity!” To which she said: “What?” I pointed across the hall to my apartment, the door still wide open, it’s interior very dark. “I have no electricity,” I said again.

My Chinese was bad enough that she gave up talking to me and went into my apartment. It was a moment before I realized that she was hunting for the circuit breaker box. I joined her, and after several minutes we located it. It was well out of sight over the top shelf of my coat closet. I flipped it back on and light was restored as was normalcy to this poor woman’s day. She was grateful to retreat back into her home.

I managed to remove the remaining bit of bulb from my lamp and insert the new one, giving light to my living space. I finished up the burrito bowls and everyone enjoyed them, though they were weirdly spiced, and afterward I reflected on how strange it was that this was the most successful party I had ever thrown.

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