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China class struggle: seated v. unseated

I knew should have taken a book. All I wanted was a bowl of knife-cut noodles, nothing more. Friends had warned me about the dilatory service in local restaurants.

But it was only 11:30 -- plenty of time, I thought, to hop down to the famous knife-cut noodle restaurant around the corner from my office, slurp down the noodles, and be back in time to finish up an article on the week's main event, the National People's Congress.

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Knife-cut noodles are a specialty of Shanxi Province in north china, a region famous for its rugged mountains, its coal, its Buddhist relics.

The cook puts a pile of noodle dough on a board he holds flat on his left arm. With a specially prepared knife, he cuts the dough and flicks it expertly into a boiling caldron of water. The noodles should be soft, but not flabby, and they can be eaten with a variety of sauces -- the one I favor being compounded of shrimp, sea slugs, and pork.

The restaurant is housed in a Chinese-style mansion, with red-painted doors opening into courtyard after courtyard surrounded by sloping title-roofed pavilions. If you are a "foreign friend" giving a banquet, you are ceremoniously ushered into one of the rear pavilisions, where you can dine expensively in air-conditioned comfort.

But all I wanted was half a catty -- two bowls -- of knife-cut noodles. With a friend from Shanxi, I marched intot he main Chinese dining room, already full of expectant customers -- some served, some waiting.

My friend and I tried to squeeze ourselves onto one of the big communal tables, between a couple of soldiers in khaki and a family about to enjoy their convivial fish. Alas, there were no chairs.

"Serve the people!" proclaimed a slogan prominent on the wall. The waitresses in white caps, white shirts, and blue trousers were too busy taking orders to find chairs for late-comers.

"Anyway," my friend said, "Peking restaurants never have enough chairs. I've seen complaints in the newspapers suggesting that they could get extra stools so that more people could sit around one table. But nothing has been done so far."

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Gradually the dining room filled up with late-comers like ourselves, standing between the tables and watching the noodles, dumplings, chicken, duck, fish, and other steaming, savory dishes being brought in from the kitchen on aluminum trays.

No Chinese meal is complete without noise -- animated table talk punctuated by shouts and laughter, the intervals filled with slurps and clacking chopsticks. The silent tables were the ones where no food had yet arrived. As for those of us who were standing and waiting, our presence was totally ignored, by both the waitresses and by the seated ones.

If Karl Marx had ben standing beside me, he might have revised his theory of the class struggle. "The real class struggle," he might have proclaimed, "is between the seated and unseated, the served and the unserved."

At 12:15 we were finally seated, the waitress piling up the dirty dishes left by the previous customer in the center of the table.

Meanwhile, a party of five, impatient to begin their repast, had already plunked down their hors d'oeuvres (which can be bought separately from the main dishes) beside a matronly woman and her son sitting to our left. Within minutes the woman and her son were finished and had left, and the party of five -- one woman and four men, and the apparently from the same office -- had somehow managed to spread out across the rest of the table, bringing chairs from other tables as they fell vacant.

"The best time," said a friendly young chap sitting to my right, "is at 10 in the morning. You're sure to be served quickly then."

"Or late, I suppose," I replied. "Say, after one o'clock."

"The restaurant closes at one," shot back the reply. Our order finally arrived at one o'clock -- the sauce pungent and steaming, the noodles soft but not flabby. Fifteen minutes later, our stomachs replete, we were walking out the door. We had no complaints about the food. And the time? As I said, I should have taken a book.

Preferably not by Karl Marx nor by Chairman Mao.

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