The Ugly American: Eat the Donkey

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Looking back, I regret I didn’t eat the donkey. Especially after the café proprietor had gone to so much trouble to make the donkey sound delicious, what with the word “savory” hammered through the English description of the entrée and all. “Welcome,” he had said, leading me to an ornately carved booth. “We are happy to have you.” He presented me the specialty menu with pride; Savory Donkey Simmered in Savory Shanghai Sauce. It was then that I excused myself and left.

It was my first day in Shanghai, and on my first day anywhere I hate to head straight to the tourist spots, which is just my way of saying I hate tourist spots in general. It started when I was 12 and my parents took me to Washington, D.C., where I made the mistake of accepting a Roe vs. Wade flier from an activist, which my father then grabbed from me, balled into his fist, and used to beat the crap out of me throughout the rest of our visit. To this day I have an aversion to first-lady formal wardrobe picks due to a particularly pummel-heavy stroll through the Smithsonian Institute that day.

Anyway, I only had the one day in Shanghai, so I did what any reasonable drive-by tourist would do and I asked the disembarking cruise-ship workers where they liked to go. Han City was the popular consensus. “Han City,” I told the taxi driver, who, in turn, drove me three quarters of a mile and charged me roughly four mortgage payments for the trip. I hadn’t figured out the currency conversion before getting into his cab, so I deserved to be gouged if you ask me. No hard feelings on that one.

Han City is a four-story hive of knock-off vendors selling counterfeit versions of every designer item in existence. When I was there the place was packed not so much with tourists, but with purveyors of the tourism industry, like the gaggle of flight attendants on layover haggling over a bin of Louis Vuitton wallets and pirated Big Bang Theory DVDs, and the hotel concierges demanding twenty pairs of counterfeit Tom shoes in payment for directing an oncoming busload of guests their way. For me, I’m not as concerned with designer fare as I am with buying gifts to impress friends who are, so the place was paradise.

Unfortunately, the taxi driver had extorted most of my money to get there in the first place. Of course there were numerous ATMs, but I’m of the mind not to trust Shanghai ATMs, having heard totally terrifying (and probably false) accounts of how a single overseas ATM withdrawal resulted in the death by burning of entire family trees. So I was very limited in my resources, which resulted in a meager haul; one patent leather purse of indeterminate designer origin, a fake Hermes scarf and an imitation Dooney & Bourke backpack.

I stumbled back outside, down the street and up the stairs of a restaurant that promised authentic Shanghai cuisine. Perfect, I thought. After steeping myself in fakery for the past six hours, I felt I needed to expose myself to something authentic in order to feel superior to my friends when I returned home to the States. The café was dark and draped with beaded red silk. I remember being awed by the wood balustrade and paneling of the stairwell, how smoothed it had become over the years of use and contact. I’m pretty sure the place was closed, but the owner directed his servers to tend to me nonetheless, and they seated me with a flourish. It was obvious they were very proud of their English-translated menu.

This is why I regret I didn’t eat the donkey. Because of all the offerings I’d encountered that day, inauthentic and otherwise, it was the dear café owner and his eager servers that stand out the most in my memory. To this day I can’t tell you what happened to that purse, that scarf, that backpack, but I can describe to you the smile on the café proprietor’s face as he proudly presented me his menu, how his smile became crestfallen when I recoiled from the specialty of the house. I could have ordered the donkey, I think now. I could have taken a taste, smiled in return. I could have thanked him for having me.

Hollis Gillespie writes a weekly travel column for Paste. She is a writing instructor, travel expert and author of We Will be Crashing Shortly, coming out in June. Follow her on Twitter.

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