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Shortlist Saturdays: Fancy A Chinese? by Chezza Lee

Updated: May 29

“I think I fancy a Chinese tonight. You?”

I swear mealtimes never used to be this uncomfortable.

“Uh...I’ll just go with English, today.”

“English...that’s so boring. You’d do better to try something exotic.”

I ignored Shar as I punched my order into the small screen built into the table. She sighed and entered her own. I used to enjoy eating at restaurants.

This particular restaurant was known for its sensory deprivation techniques—uniform colours and heavy sound muffling panels—the better for guests to appreciate the food-that-wasn't-actually-food. Everything was shades of beige. A beige-dressed Chinese man entered the room through a similarly coloured door, carrying a bamboo serving tray that held a single small, white square. The Chinese man approached their table and stood beside Shar, waiting for his co-server to arrive. Shar waggled her eyebrows at me, always forgetting that I didn’t get the thrill from this she did.

A blond man in beige, also carrying a tray, entered the room and stepped beside me. He nodded at the Chinese man and, simultaneously, they picked up the small white squares with their fingertips and waited as we lifted our heads slightly, then placed them gently just inside our lips. I lowered my head quickly as I chewed on sustenance matter flavoured like a scotch egg. I used to love scotch eggs. This was not a scotch egg.

“Mmmm!” hummed Shar in delight. “Just fabulous. Tastes just like sweet and sour pork.” She turned to her waiter. “Arigato, is it?”

Face blank, the Chinese waiter bowed and returned to the kitchen.

“Are we finished, then?” I asked, ready to leave. Seeing the customers around us being fed by a multicultural array of servers made my skin crawl.

“No dessert?” Shar looked disappointed, but she shrugged on her fur-trimmed coat, nonetheless. Shar was privilege incarnate. Her father had been a key member of the sustenance movement here in England, and she often took it upon herself to be a spokesperson for the new world’s way of life.

“Let’s have a walk along the Shambles,” said Shar. “I fancy looking at a bit of history today.”

It was a summertime weekend, which meant the tourist crowd would be heaving in the Shambles this afternoon, but I wanted to leave the restaurant, so I simply nodded in silent agreement.

The Shambles was a narrow street in our hometown of York, with cobblestone paving and an array of crooked rooms and buildings that loomed over you as you walked. It was a medieval street, a pocket of history, that used to be filled with slaughterhouses and butcher shops; in the early fifteenth century, it had been known as “The Great Flesh Shambles.” Shar, York’s golden girl advocate against real food, loved tottering down this historic site of flesh peddling after she’d had few gin and tonics at Lendal Cellars.

Now, the Shambles were filled with shops peddling tourist trinkets and wizardry items. The Shambles had become internationally famous for appearing in a classic movie about a wizard that was based on a series of books written by a politically divisive author who’d died half a century ago. The fans still showed up, even years later, and they were here now, crammed down the street trying to take perfectly crafted videos of themselves to make their social media circles jealous, which the massive crowd of people were making difficult.

Shar pouted and blew out a puff of air that made her fringe puff away from her forehead momentarily.

“I forgot it’s tourist season. We can walk by the river instead.”

There were a few restaurants looking out onto the River Ouse, their patios filled with well-dressed patrons being fed squares of white by a diverse selection of beige-clad servers as if they were baby birds, necks stretched and heads tilted back to receive. I turned away to look at the lightly rippling waters of the Ouse, but even the river’s waters were brownish and bland. The world had seemed to be lacking colour as of late.

“I know you aren’t a fan of the sustenance movement, Fei,” Shar said lightly. She had refused to use my full given name, Yanfei, since we were children. I always let her because, well, we were in England after all, and my mother had told me we must make allowances.

“It’s remarkable progression, I understand that it is,” I said, trying to be supportive because I knew the part her father played in introducing the sustenance movement to the British. Because I knew she had become a self-appointed spokesperson of this movement herself. “Being able to reconstruct matter into edible forms with unique tastes—it's helping our world manage the global food crisis. I know it’s important.”

“It’ll help abolish world hunger. Obesity rates are down. People are finally getting the sustenance and nutrients they need. It’s revolutionary, Fei,” said Shar, her eyes shining and slightly wet.

“It’s just...”

“What?” Shar rolled her eyes. “You know the benefits of this movement. What possible objection could you have against it?”

“I don’t understand why we need to have ethnic servers to hand us the sustenance matter. Why we need them to feed us. Why do we still have restaurants, to that point? Everyone can make sustenance matter from their own homes.” The sustenance movement had made nutrition accessible—it was one of the main reasons Parliament voted it in.

Shar laughed, a light tinkling noise that echoed slightly over the riverbank.

“Darling, it’s just to add a little flair to the situation. Our culture loves dining out—why not keep the tradition, even if the core purpose has changed? It’s important to keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive, rather than letting those businesses burn to the ground.”

“Why do we need a Chinese person to serve Chinese-flavoured sustenance matter? Why are we paying for this?”

“Well, it just gives it a bit of authenticity, doesn’t it? We don’t need actual food anymore, but we can still have a culture’s flavoured matter brought to us by someone from that nation. It’s helping keep their cultures alive. It’s all about the experience, after all.”

“Food culture in my childhood was very different. More communal. Less about the people and more about the food itself.”

“That food was oily, greasy, and bad for you. And who knows what disgusting meats were being used. Blech. You’re much better off with just flavour and pure sustenance. And it gives plenty of work to immigrants, you know.”

To my left, an Indian man baby-birded a portly white man with grey-tinged chocolate brown hair. I looked away, feeling a bit sick.

“Don’t you feel like even though we’ve gained a lot, we’ve also sacrificed a lot?” I asked. “People a few years from now won’t know what original ethnic food even tasted like. Won’t everything blend together?”

Shar shrugged. “Things often amalgamate to create new things. Cultures are no different, nor is food. The colonies are resisting for now, but we’ll sway them eventually. They’ll see the benefits are worth it.”

“I’m Chinese, Shar. It’s a bit discomfiting to hear you talk so casually about erasing parts of my culture.”

“You’re only half-Chinese, Fei,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. A diamond-encrusted piece of jade sat on a gold ring encircling her finger. “I swear, you only act Chinese when it suits you.”

“It’s not that I’m acting,” I said, a little pleadingly, trying to make allowances. But she’s right, I think. I’m not entirely sure what I am. What culture I belong to. I feel like just another shade of beige in a world that has lost the potential for vibrancy. “I’m just still getting used to it, that’s all,” I mumbled.

“It’s been years already,” huffed Shar. “But you will get used to it, eventually. It’ll be as if the old ways never existed. You’ll be happier—you'll see.”

We parted ways at Peckitt Street. The sun was in its last throes of the day, casting a soft, golden light over the town. The golden hour. The beige hour.

Hurrying towards me on the pavement was a middle-aged couple, the woman with a cropped blonde bob and red lipstick, despite red being vastly out of style, and the man with light brown hair and a very bored looking face. They rushed past me without stopping, without a glance. I could hear the woman speaking as they dashed away.

“Hurry up, dear! We’re going to be late. I heard this place has an Eritrean option today—very rare. We can’t lose our seats! I wonder what Eritrean tastes like.”

“I wonder what an Eritrean looks like,” said the man. “Though I think I fancy an Indian tonight, myself.”

Their laughter echoed throughout the square as I walked slowly back to my room at Derwent College. As I walked, I felt the looming presence of Clifford’s Tower on my left, a thirteenth-century testament to British tenacity, its yellow bricks basking in the golden hour sun.

Chezza Lee is a Chinese-English emerging speculative fiction writer who likes to explore the implications of multiracial identities in worlds different from our own, often pondering what it means to belong in the liminal space that exists between contrasting identities, cultures, and communities. She was born in England and immigrated to Canada as a teen. She has a BA (Hons) Degree in English and Philosophy from the University of Alberta and an MA in Renaissance Literature from the University of York, UK. She is currently working on a xianxia pirate novel. Chezza can be found on Twitter @misschezza2 or at

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