When one lives overseas, one expects problems, especially with the big things like visas, banking, taxes, insurance. You know, the Big, Important Shit that makes life annoying even when one isn’t overseas. And they are. The horror stories about opening bank accounts in China are endless. However, because problems are expected, nobody’s particularly surprised when informed about some arcane-and-highly-obscure law that requires you to bring your passport, two separate documents furnished by your work, a second form of ID and miscellaneous other documents, just to process a simple banking transaction. (This actually happened to me.) You just roll your eyes and go with the flow. What else can you do? The problems that aren’t expected, however, are the ones that blindside you at 3am in the morning at the 24 hour KFC when you and your starving friends find out that ordering a side of fries requires 30 minutes of negotiation, cajoling, scolding, and lots of hand-in-the-air-throwing.
[Scene: It’s 3am in the wee hours of the morning. All is quiet except for a group of hungry foreigners, fresh from an alcohol-fueled game of Cards Against Humanity. They are walking towards the brilliant fluorescent lights of the nearby KFC. All else is dark.]
Blonde American: Oh good the KFC’s open! I’m starving.
Chinese-Canadian: Not so fast. It only looks open. The McDonald’s near my place says it’s 24 hours, but it’s never open past 10pm.
Hungry Texan: Yeah, there’s one near where I live that is only sometimes open 24 hours. It says it’s 24 hours, but it’s really not.
[Everybody rolls their eyes. Muttered “Oh, China”s are heard.]
BA: Well I don’t care. I’m hungry. It better be open. We walked all the way here. I want a burger.
Me: I just want fries.
[They troop up the steps to the door. The lights are all on, but there’s nobody inside.]
Hong Konger: Okay. Moment of truth.
[HK reaches out and grasps the door handle. Everybody holds their breath. He pulls. The door opens. Everybody sighs in relief. They troop up to the counter and look around. Nobody’s there.]
BA: I just want a chicken burger meal. Fries and a coke. Set meal 1 looks good. Where is everybody?
CC: Are they messing with us? There’s nobody here! [He calls out in Chinese, and peers into the back to see if anybody’s hiding in the back.]
HT: Goddammit, China.
Token Russian: It’s a trap!
[CC commences hollering at nothing in particular, trying to get somebody to come out. Suddenly, a sleeping man hidden behind one of the trash bins jerks awake, startling the group. He puts on his KFC baseball cap.]
KFC Slacker: [sleepy, irritable, clearly wasn’t expecting to actually work on his shift. welcomes the group in a monotone voice.] Welcome to KFC. What can I do for you?
Short Brit: Geez, he scared me. I didn’t even see him.
HT: I saw him when we walked in, but I thought he was some homeless guy spending the night or something.
BA: I’d like to get set meal number one up there…
[Various other members of the eight-person group speak up, placing various orders for the set meals up on the menu board.]
KFC Slacker: Actually, you can’t order any of that.
Group: Wait. What?
KFC Slacker: [pulls out a single-sided laminated menu and places it on the counter. It’s the late night menu.] You can only order what’s on this menu.
[The group gathers around and stares at the menu.]
BA: There’s no fries in any of the set meals.
SB: They don’t give Coke with any of the set meals either. Hey, HK, is it like this in Hong Kong too?
HK: [mildly offended] Hell no! We get fries in Hong Kong just fine.
TR: We get fries in Russia too. Only China has a completely different menu.
CC: But they have fries separately though. Why don’t we just get a set meal and substitute fries and a coke for the congee and chicken wings? [He turns to KFC Slacker.] I’d like this set meal, but I’d like to substitute Coke for the congee and fries for the chicken wings.
KFC Slacker: [confused] Wait what? No. No.
CC: What? Why not?
KFC Slacker: It’s impossible.
CC: How is it impossible. [explains as if to a small child.] We’ll just take the small Coke, it’s cheaper than the congee on the menu, and fries are the same price as the chicken wings!
KFC Slacker: [brain explodes.] No, that’s too complicated. You have to take everything on the set menu or you can’t order the set menu.
Me: But you guys sell fries in your set meals the rest of the time though! Why can’t we have fries instead now?
KFC Slacker: It’s night time now.
BA: Fine. We’ll just order our meal separately. God, China, why can’t we have fries in our set meals like everywhere else in the world.
[The group starts placing orders, a few choosing the rectangular New Orleans-style burger, and a few choosing the round, spicy chicken burger.]
KFC Slacker: You can’t choose both.
[beat of silence]
[The group explodes into various exclamations of “what the fuck!” and “are you fucking kidding me?!” and “seriously, I just want a fucking burger.”]
Me: I’m sorry. What do you mean we can’t choose both. Aren’t they both on the menu?
CC: Yeah. What the heck!
KFC Slacker: [clearly not wanting to work] Well, you can’t!
HK: [laconically to the rest of the group] Translation: I don’t wanna work, so I’m going to make life difficult for you so you guys leave and I can go back to sleep.
SB: This. This is exactly why I’m leaving China.
BA: I’m starving! I just want a burger. Is that too much to ask?
TR: Oh hell no. Now we’re going to make his life as difficult as possible.
CC: Yeah, fuck this shit, we’re going to get our food dammit.
Me: [in Chinese to KFC Slacker] Just exactly what is it you guys sell here? [points to the menu] Tell me what on this menu we can actually order.
KFC Slacker: You can order everything on this menu.
Me: We just tried to and you keep telling us no! Why can’t we order both burgers?!
KFC Slacker: [reluctantly] Well, you can choose both, but two burgers is more complicated than one burger. [degenerates into a long-winded explanation of how complicated ordering is] If you do order two different kinds of burgers, it’ll take at least 40 minutes for your burgers to be done because it’s 20 minutes for each different burger. So you should just pick one burger. Unless you don’t mind waiting for an hour.
[beat of silence while the group absorbs this incomprehensible explanation]
BA: Well, I’m starving, and I want my food fast. I don’t want to wait one hour for my burger to come out. Let’s just all pick one burger.
Me: I don’t want a burger. I’ll just have fries. And a Coke.
[The rest of the group places their order. Once the order is placed, we seat ourselves at a table. We are surrounded by tables littered with the detritus of past patrons. The workers here have unsurprisingly been slacking on the job.]
While we waited for our burgers, we wondered if we’d made a mistake choosing to come to KFC instead of McDonalds, but nobody could say for sure. After more late night investigation a few weeks after the fact, though, I can now say that we would’ve been in the same boat either way. McDonalds doesn’t serve savoury foods at night. You can, however, have some dubious-looking macarons or cheesecake in lieu of a burger and fries.