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I wanted to do something special for our last meal together before the girls moved to Hohhot–Maggie and Molly were really missing the food from back home. Both McDonald’s and Pizza Hut (and also KFC) have chains here in China–we’ve seen several on the drive into Beijing. So, I tried to google where the nearest McDonald’s or Pizza Hut was.

It was difficult. Because I could get neither mapquest nor google maps to work for me. Actually, I really don’t know where we are… for sure. And when I tried to look up locations on the respective company websites the answers were all returned in Chinese.

I asked the director of the preschool (she’s the one who speaks the most English and makes the best attempt at translating but we still have a huge language barrier between us) where the nearest McDonald’s was. Blank stare. I tried to explain that I wanted to do something special for the girls before they left and they really missed food from America. Confused look. I asked for han bao bao (hamburger)… golden arches? … french fries? … Nope, nothing sparked.

Then I said Pizza Hut? “Ah! Pizza? This I know,” she said. “Good. Where’s the nearest Pizza Hut?” She said I would have to take a taxi (our first). “No problem.” She was concerned we would get lost–not having any Chinese or a phone to call if we got into trouble. I repeatedly assured her we would be fine (after all, the people we’ve been staying with are super kind and always eager to help–wouldn’t the rest of the city be the same?). Finally, after having promised to be back by 8:00 p.m. (so if we weren’t she could send out the search party), and armed with a handwritten note (in Chinese) for the taxi driver to get us to and from the pizza restaurant (and saying a prayer), we headed out.

Hailing the taxi was easy–step out into the middle of the street and wave. I showed the driver my note, he said something in Chinese, I made my universal gesture for “I don’t understand” and off we went–on the craziest ride, swerving in and out and across lanes of traffic (how I wish I’d taken video because driving here is so unbelievable. It reminds me of driver’s ed, when I would help out on the driving range for extra credit and be assigned to sit in the passenger side of the car with a group of Asian girls who spoke no English. I was scared for my life and riding the extra brake the whole time. Now I understand, they were good drivers if the driving here was their only example). Within minutes we pulled up to “Big Pizza.”

Maggie, unsure of the wisdom of the trip, asked “How will we order?” “Hopefully they’ll have pictures,” I replied. Inside, we didn’t see any pictures but we dutifully waited in line while new arrivals walked right up to the desk ahead of us. I finally realized there was no line, you just have to step up and claim your space. The cashier didn’t understand our English, but called someone from the back. He told us it was a buffet (phew, solves the ordering problem) and we paid our admission.

Up the stairs (all dining halls seem to be up flights of stairs) we entered a room that looked like any American pizza place. A large buffet took up the middle and one side of the room. Tables and booths lined the other. Knives, forks, and spoons were wrapped in napkins on the table, American music completed the ambiance.

The pizza looked like pizza, with some weird toppings. Lots of fruit and bean toppings. The girls finally found pepperoni pizza on their second trip back. In addition to pizza there were some other “American” dishes along the wall–chicken nuggets, corn on the cob, french fries, chicken wings, popcorn chicken, potato salad, meat balls–and some labeled “new product” that were strange to me. There were plenty of drink offerings, juices, a soda fountain, hot tea varieties, and even beer on tap (“Not for young person”).

We had our fill of almost-home cooking and it was time to head back–leaving the restaurant an hour earlier than promised! We walked across the busy street to hail a taxi going back towards our apartment. The first few were full. I finally caught the eye of an empty cab, and just as it pulled up to let us in, another car swerved in front of it. “Lola!” (as they affectionately call me here–really my Chinese name is Lao La but it comes off more as Lola). It was Mr. Li, an investor at the school. He had been sent to keep an eye on us and had been waiting to give us a ride home. We were glad to see him–ok, maybe relieved is a better word–and made it safely home to be greeted warmly by the others who were waiting at the school for us.