You win, Jollibee.
“Ugly American.” That’s someone who can’t step foot into a room that’s slightly different without being filled with slack-jawed awe, all lifted eyebrows and rolling tongue, shocked and gasping at everything that looks slightly different from normal.
I don’t think of myself as an Ugly American. I wouldn’t have, anyway. I have no real basis for deciding this, other than thinking I’m a good person. I can’t imagine a way that I would have thought of myself as someone who gasps and shrieks and becomes terrified at —
Look, one night Laura House and I ate at a place called The Original Fiesta Barrio of Manila. (Or, as I just found it’s actually called: Barrio Fiesta.) They gave us Ox-Tail in a Peanut Butter Soup Pot. And we ate it. We were nervous, and it tasted like peanut butter beef, which… isn’t something I want to put in my mouth. (Two girls with Texas educations that we were, my favorite part about our experience was when we wandered in pondering, “Where is Manila?” “I don’t know, but they make awesome folders.”) Anyway, the point is, we were at this crazy restaurant that night, Laura and I, bragging that we’ll try anything once and don’t get squeamish. Our server, who was awesome, brought a variety of foods to us, ranging from “something that will scare you” to “something I’m sure you’ll both eat.” And then he gave us long lollipops with tiny, sugary stars on top. Yay!
There’s a place in Koreatown called Soju Town. It’s near the Wiltern. I’ve eaten there more than once, even though it’s the strangest meal. Scrambled eggs and beer and some kind of Waldorf salad with sweet pickles and I never know what order to eat anything, but I eat it. And I don’t freak out.
But Jollibee. Holy shit, y’all. Jollibee.
stee had to go car shopping, so he almost didn’t come with us, but curiosity got the better of him. stee is a guy who doesn’t eat red meat, hates most vegetables, and finds calamari to be the most disgusting thing one could voluntarily eat. He doesn’t like spicy food, food in a color he doesn’t recognize, or food that smells “weird.” He isn’t the most adventurous eater, is what I’m saying.
This means stee got to about the doorway before he decided he wasn’t going to touch a bite of “Crispylicous, Juicylicious” Jollibee.
(Can I just say here I know that some of you who read this site live in the Philippines, because I get email from you. I can’t believe not one of you wrote to say, “Hey, dude. You’re making a mistake.”)
It’s not the easiest thing in the world, deciding what to eat at Jollibee. Luckily there was a line. We watched families file in to order spaghetti, fried chicken and cheeseburgers. The “Palabok Fiesta” platter seemed the most adventurous, with hard-boiled eggs, shrimp, pork, noodles and some kind of brown sauce. Jeez, when I put it like that, you’d think it was combination chow mein.
Hey. Guess what?
We came up with a plan. Each of us would order something adventurous (but not as adventurous as the Burger Steak) and if everything we ordered was terrible we’d come back and order the one-dollar Yumburger. Couldn’t go wrong.
We were wrong.
I ordered the spaghetti and fried chicken meal with a banana langka pie and headed back to a table. Stee followed.
“Holy cow, that stuff smells funny,” he said. “Can I look at it?”
I got all superior here and scolded, “You are going to have to be a little cooler, okay? Everybody else here is eating the food and enjoying themselves. We can’t be complete assholes. How are we ever going to be able to travel?”
stee didn’t seem to hear me, because he was staring at the spaghetti. “Don’t eat that. Oh, look at that! Dude. There’s hot dogs in your spaghetti. And cheddar cheese. And chunks of… what is that?”
I felt my stomach wiggle, just a little. “Ham.”
Ken and Ty joined us. “Okay, we’re all going to open everything at the same time.”
It was quite some time before anybody had a first bite. The only thing that looked like something we’d normally eat was the fried chicken, but once I pulled into it I saw that the meat was a pale brown, kind of tan color, and inside of the tan were the scary streaks of purple you never want to see in a meat that can make you quite ill when even your talented mom cooks it slightly incorrectly.
The Fiesta that Ken ordered had the smallest shrimp peppered on top of this pile of sauce and crumbled pork that had a top layer of something crunchy Ken called “breadcrumbs.” The hard-boiled eggs were imposing and scary. It took a very long time before anybody would not stop him from trying the food. [Dude. Ken! I just found out they’re crumbled pork rinds.]
“What are you supposed to do with that lemon juice packet?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Ken admitted. “I fear it’s to put on top of the food.”
“Even the eggs?”
My spaghetti tasted like Spaghetti-O’s. You know those hot dogs? That’s what’s in there.
stee wasn’t eating anything, his cameraphone out. He snapped pictures, pointed and asked a lot of questions. To be fair, he did the same thing when we were in Louisiana, trying something called Boudin Balls. (Don’t know what that is? You can click this link, but beware: it’s got the words “dip balls” and “butt chunks,” so you may never stop giggling.)
We became such Ugly Americans because this food was so beyond anything we could have guessed it would be. We couldn’t stop. We were embarrassing ourselves and still couldn’t stop. Every bite was another shock.
“This all tastes exactly like school cafeteria food.”
Meanwhile, Ty was staring at her Yumburger. “This isn’t something we can eat,” she says. “There’s a pink…sauce… and it’s pink?”
I tried being positive. “Do you think it’s still Thousand Island dressing?”
She put the burger in her mouth and then instantly winced. “No.”
“What’s it like?”
She shook her head slowly, sadly. She whispered just one word to describe the taste of her cheeseburger: “Sweet.”
“It’s like Wendy’s took all the goo that comes out of their burgers when they’re done cooking them, pressed that down into a mold, froze it in a patty shape, and exported it to the Philippines, where they put it between some bread, put pink sauce on it and sent it back here.”
Ty bought a Pearl Cooler (you may know this as Boba Tea), in a flavor called “Ube.” Now, I hate Boba Tea. I can’t handle drinking something cold and then suddenly a ball of gelatin flies into my mouth through this big, honking straw. It’s not right, I tell you. It’s not right.
Anyway, this thing was purple with little black “bubbles” at the bottom.
“It’s supposed to be coconut,” Ken said. “I asked if it was grape flavored, because of the purple, but that was apparently a dumb question. It’s chocolate and coconut, they said. The guy was really nice about it. He promised us we’d like it.”
Ty took a sip, got hit with a bubble, and recoiled in horror.
“I told you,” I said.
“What’s wrong?” Ken asked.
“Gelatin!” she said, after finding a way to swallow the syrup pebble whole. “I was just drinking and then gelatin flew into my mouth.”
“What’s it like?” Ken asked.
There’s a pause right before Ty and I said at the exact same time: “Terrifying.”
Ken tried it, only to discover he couldn’t handle the bubble either. We were now not even hiding the fact that this was an experiment gone horribly wrong. We took pictures. We discreetly deposited half-eaten food into napkins.
The last straw, for me, was the banana langka pie. It doesn’t taste like banana, nor pie. It tastes like burned pineapple butter on stale bread crust. With some kind of membrane in it.
“New plan. We are going to go somewhere else for lunch.”
stee left to find a car.
As we exited the mall, Ken said, “Do you guys feel like we somehow went to another country, made fun of everybody, and then took off?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “I don’t like feeling this way.”
“If you had told me yesterday that I’m the kind of person who can’t hold my shit together at a place like that, I would have been offended.”
“Yeah. Hey, I don’t feel good. And I mean in my stomach. And my head?”
“Oh, my God. I feel so weird right now. I can still taste everything, but like… in my brain.”
“I wanted to shout, ‘Stop eating this! What are you doing to yourselves?'”
“I just wanted to stop the children from eating it.”
We went to the French place down the street. They were once again all out of the spinach quiche I’ve tried three different times to order, it took an hour for our food to arrive, and then another half hour to get the check.
It was awesome.
While we ate our sandwiches and drank strong coffee, we continued feeling guilty.
Pam: You know, if I were at Taco Bell, and a group of Filipino girls came in, sat down next to me with a tray filled with shit, and started screeching and taking pictures? I’d be like, “I know! And we still eat it! It’s called a ‘Chalupa,’ and we still put it in our mouths!”
Ken: It’s true. Fast food is nasty, no matter what country.
Pam: Think of a corn dog. Or the McRib! How gross is the entire concept of Long John Silver’s? And have you ever eaten at a Waffle House? People from other countries must be constantly disgusted by what we’ll eat, three for a dollar.
Ken: But I do like my food to taste like the color it comes in. Purple things should be grape. Not coconut. And it came in a purple powder. We saw her make it.
Ty: A purple powder in some water with those black pellets.
Pam: Hot chocolate is a powder in water. And brown.
Ty: But it’s comforting! And feels like home! And… and…
Pam: We just call purple “grape.” It doesn’t taste like a grape at all. If those same Filipino girls put a watermelon lollipop in their mouths and start weeping because it tastes nothing like watermelon, but instead like a ball of sugar–
Ken: I’d be sucking on my watermelon lollipop, going up to them all, “What up? That’s what I call watermelon, ladies. You got a problem?”
Pam: That’s the thing. Everybody there knew we were freaking out, and they just patiently tolerated us being Ugly Americans. Which just makes us even uglier.
Ken: I have learned something about myself today. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s something.
Pam: Yeah. I’m really disappointed in myself right now.
Ty: What did you think was going to happen? We brought three cameras.
Pam: I know. I know.
Ken: Oh, shit. Look at the receipt. If we had bought three meals instead of two? We would have gotten a free gym bag.
Pam: We’re never going back there.
On the way back to my house I stopped at a red light, at the left hand turn. A group of war protesters were in front of us, asking us to honk for peace.
Suddenly the car that passed us tried to screech to a stop, but smashed into the large car that was turning into its lane.
“Should we stop?”
“I saw it. Did you see it?”
“I saw it.”
“Do they look okay?”
“I don’t know. Oh, that guy looks mad.”
“I’m stopping the car. I’m sorry, you guys. I’m now getting you involved in–”
“We have to stop. We saw the whole thing.”
“Will this make us less of assholes, if we stop and leave our information?”
“I think it will slightly redeem our Jollibee behavior.”
“Okay, then I’m definitely stopping.”
“That’s what I’m saying.”
It’s a good thing we did, because people were yelling and others were crying, and the cops said they wouldn’t come because nobody was hurt. We found other witnesses, and I took some pictures and waited for the crying woman’s mother to arrive.
As we stood there in the middle of Colorado Boulevard, glass everywhere, the people driving past us would honk, and every other person shouted, “Get out of the fucking street!”
There was clearly an accident, where two cars got smashed up — one pretty badly — and one woman was in tears.
Ty shook her head. “Eagle Rock is mean,” she said.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “From the food to the screaming strangers, I…”
“I have had a really good time.”
“Yeah, this was the weirdest fun time.”
“Let’s never do it again.”
“I’m glad we packed a year’s worth of memories into two hours.”
“It’s pretty impressive.”
“I kind of still smell like Jollibee.”
“Yeah. I have to go home and puke now.”
“I understand. See you when we have to go to court.”
[see all the pictures right here.]
[stee took some, too.]