“Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.”
The smell was the first thing that hit me. That unmistakable odor of a human being who hasn’t bathed in what surely was many months. I was headed to the trash to dump the remains of dinner but fond myself searching for the malodorous source, when suddenly a hand reached out to stop me.
It was a man, apparently homeless…and evidently of some minority ethnic background of Chinese.
I stopped, somewhat shocked. While I’ve certainly been accosted by homeless in many areas of the world, it’s never happened in the confines of a fast-food establishment. Clearly he was hungry, and after only the slightest pause, he started ruffling through the debris and trash on our tray….
Jody and I visited China last week, the first time for both of us. And last week was the week of “our” Thanksgiving. While Peking Duck is certainly the obvious choice in China for celebrating the day (there is no turkey there to speak of), we were saving that perhaps most famous culinary of China for our last night in Beijing. And although the Holiday Inn where we were quartered was actually offering what was billed as a “traditional” American Thanksgiving (at a reasonable price of about $65/person), we opted instead for a celebratory feast at the most popular western fast-food chain in China: Kentucky Fried Chicken!
While traveling throughout China we had heard an awful lot from our tour guides about KFC. Kentucky Fried Chicken, the world’s second largest restaurant chain in sales only after McDonald’s, has about 19,000 outlets in almost 120 countries. KFC became the first Western fast food company in China in 1987 with a franchise opening in Beijing. This Beijing outlet had the highest volume of sales of any KFC in the world in 1988. Capitalism and the West is a wonderful thing. Or is it simply crispy fried food?!
Of course KFC had an early and sustained advantage against other Western fast food rivals, fried chicken being a staple Chinese dish since antiquity. Hamburgers, on the other hand, remain “foreign” and largely unknown outside the context of the Gold Arches and that creepy King. Twenty-eight KFC franchises were open by 1994 in China; by 1997 there were 100 outlets. A few years ago they passed the 300 mark and growth, while slowed, continues exponentially.
Japan also celebrates both KFC and a Thanksgiving…of sorts. While the biscuits in Japanese franchises are shamefully bad compared to their American counterparts, Thanksgiving Day in Japan is eerily similar. Labor Thanksgiving Day (勤労感謝の日 Kinrō Kansha no Hi) is a Japanese national holiday held annually on November 23 as an occasion for commemorating labor and production. Like most other modern holidays around the globe, Labor Thanksgiving Day is the modern name for an ancient harvest of cereals festival known as Niiname-sai (新嘗祭), tracing back as early as the 7th century BCE. In modern times, this event encourages thinking about the environment, peace and human rights, all a result of the post-World War II Japan and her new constitution which focused more intently on fundamental human and workers’ rights. Oh, and by the way, the Chinese KFCs don’t even bother to offer biscuits, much to their credit.
In China, however, having seen KFCs throughout Shanghai, Xian and Beijing, it became somewhat of a dare to eat at one. And what better time than on that most American of American holidays: Thanksgiving. Arriving late at the hotel after a long day of touring, we invited all those traveling with us to come and celebrate, but only three others took us up on our offer. Walking just a few short blocks away from our hotel in the Christmassy temperatures of nighttime Beijing, we arrived with smiles on our faces and grumblings in our bellies. Unfortunately in China there is no effigy of Colonel Sanders like there is in Japan (see Christmas is for Lovers in Japan for more on the central role of the Colonel and his food in Japan). Oh the photo-ops the Colonel dressed as Chairman Mao would provide!
Chinese outlets are typically two to three times larger than those found in America and Europe; many are open 24 hours a day. And most provide home delivery…via electric scooter…where the hotbox of fried goodness is strapped directly on the diver’s back.
KFC has adapted its menu to suit local tastes throughout the Far East, and China is no exception. With items such as rice congee, egg custard tarts and tree fungus salad, over 50 different menu items are offered in each store. While the “Dragon Twister,” a wrap that includes fried chicken, cucumbers, scallions, and duck sauce sounds delish, it’s the “Zinger” burger that tops the best-selling list: a 100% breast fillet chicken coated in “zinger flavoring” combined with lettuce and mayo for those seeking a full-on hot and spicy flavor hit.
I actually ordered the Zinger (unknowingly), but realizing the wimps that most Americans tend to be about Asian-inspired spiciness, I was asked whether I wanted it “spicy or mild.” The sandwich was good, the fries where excellent, the cobbed corn was soft and bettered just like the ones back home, and the mash and gravy were actually very Kentucky-like. All-in-all it was a fitting meal to which the Colonel would most like offer his heartfelt “xie xie” (“thanks” in Mandarin Chinese, pronounced “she-she”).
But our meal, being more of a gimmick than a worthy celebration, failed to do justice the serious side of giving Thanks and acknowledging the bounty present in our accidental lives being born American. I can’t really recall what was moving through my head as the homeless man started to sift my tray for leftovers, other than I needed to let this man take what he could. There actually was still a lot of food left on the tray, and he took it all. I remained numb and paralyzed by inaction, an odd state for me, a person who’s rather decisive and prone to action sooner rather than later.
He moved away to the next person approaching the trash, and I dumped my tray in silent contemplation, bordering on shame. And as we five Americans all exited the eatery, wrapped warmly in our quality western-wear and bellies bloated with Kentucky’s finest, and headed to our expensive, securely heated hotel for an overpriced and fattening dessert, we returned to our light banter and happy chatter. As if nothing profound had happened.
But something profound had happen, and it continued to eat at me: the thoughts of that man who had to scrounge for food…on Thanksgiving. It continued to vex at me during our dessert at the hotel, and while we finished drinking our nearly $5 cups of tea. And it nearly consumed my mind as Jody and I laid down to slumber in our well-appointed King-sized bed…. I’m not one to believe too much in mere coincidence, and I choose to believe that the Universe was indeed speaking. It was simply my choice to listen.
“Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle,” is a quote I hold dear. While its attribution to Plato is suspect and highly questionable, there is little doubt of its lasting and constant voracity. It doesn’t matter why that man in the KFC was homeless or what derailed journey took him to such a dark place. What matters is that any of us could so easily find ourselves in a similar situation. A bad gene, a really stupid decision, an unrecoverable traumatic event or PTSD, mental illness, or just a bad car accident for those without insurance or a decent job….
And waking up the next day, I knew, much too late, what I should have done, and what I so easily could have done: I should have celebrated our American Thanksgiving with this Chinese homeless man by giving Thanks for all that I have in my own life by buying a proper meal for this man who lacked the most basic necessities.
Happy Thanksgiving. Be kind. Be pitiful. And be sure you give the proper Thanks for all that you have in your own life.