CelinaKDS. Three letters written on a small, garage-sized restaurant. There was seemingly nothing special about this classic, Chinese hole-in-the-wall. But my eyes were suddenly caught by the picture of a chicken burger, fries, and coke that was plastered on the window. I stared, still in disbelief; after a week in China, it felt like I hadn’t seen – let alone eaten – anything close to American food in eternity. I missed my native California, and this homesickness manifested in a strong craving for a meal from home.

In Hanzhong, a small, ubiquitously anonymous city in the heart of China, American food was hard to come by. Hanzhong didn’t receive many outside visitors – and, with few local attractions, had no reason to. But my companions and I had come to Hanzhong purposely, to teach English for the summer at a local college, and our arrival had been the talk of the city. We had been ushered into one Chinese eatery after another, eating quail eggs, duck blood, and ox tongue.  After such a welcome, my stomach and heart were calling for home.

I hurried inside KDS, dragging my five Western friends behind me, and was greeted by a stare of profound surprise. The lady standing behind the counter was small, with dark hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. Her unbroken, wide-eyed gaze remained on us as we looked around the restaurant. I was ecstatic to find that a piece of life that I understood so well had found its way to Hanzhong, China.

“Our inability to communicate directly didn’t really matter, though – in a few short days, we had developed a relationship that went beyond words.”

I approached the counter, but quickly realized that the woman behind the counter didn’t speak English. She hurriedly began speaking to me in Chinese, but soon understood what I already had – our complete inability to communicate. We awkwardly stared at each other for a few moments, embarrassment on our faces. I scrambled to remember the few Chinese words I knew, silently scolding myself for not knowing the word for “chicken.” After a few moments, she pulled out a picture menu and encouraged me to point at what I wanted.

So with my very poor Chinese and some wild gesturing, I was able to finally get a chicken burger, fries and a coke. We sat down and began to eat; all the while, the lady behind the counter continued to stare at us. My heart soared as my taste buds took in the flavors of home; instantly, unconsciously, I began thinking of my family. I had enjoyed my time in China, but I craved my home. The food was a familiar point of reference in an unfamiliar world.

The owner continued watching us with intent curiosity for about ten minutes before, suddenly, an idea grabbed her. She ran to the television, flipped through several channels, and put on a Justin Bieber song. She looked at us seeing what we would do, her eyes full of curiosity. After a few moments, I realized that she wanted us to sing.

CelinaI looked around the restaurant making sure no one would be around to see the coming debacle, and then broke into poor harmony with Justin Bieber. My companions stared at me, confused by my sudden musicality. But when they saw the lady at the counter smiling and clapping, they knew it was time to join in. Soon, people walking by her eatery were stopping to watch the show. China is full of different karaoke bars, and that day, this small eatery became a kind of stage as well. The lady was ecstatic, smiling broadly as we crooned along with the teenage Canadian on the TV.

The next day, I brought twenty of my university students to KDS for lunch. As we walked in, the lady’s eyes widened. I had the students thank her for making me feel at home, and she responded by putting the same Justin Bieber song I had heard the day before on a loop. I simply laughed and began what had already become a kind of bizarrely normalized routine, singing along with Justin Bieber.

“The place had been more than just a restaurant to me – it had been a point of stability in a world of change, movement, and difference.”

In the weeks that followed, I ate lunch at KDS nearly every day. The lady spoke to me in Chinese and I spoke to her in English, both of us well aware that we had no clue what the other person was saying. Our inability to communicate directly didn’t really matter, though – in a few short days, we had developed a relationship that went beyond words. Eventually, I learned how to order in Chinese, and was thrilled to learn the Chinese word for “chicken.” I developed a sense of belonging at KDS like no other place in China.

CelinaThe day before we left, my team and I took a picture with her, which we then printed, signed, and gave to her. She was so excited that she immediately hung it up in her store. Of all of the places that I visited while I was in China, KDS was perhaps the most memorable. I still think of the food at KDS; while there was nothing unique about the taste, the restaurant gave me something more important – a feeling of home in a very foreign place.

I returned to China a year later and was sad to see that KDS was no longer there. The lady who ran the restaurant, wherever she is now, has a picture with a bunch of crazy Americans and, more importantly, some lastingly strange memories. But visiting the empty space where KDS used to be, I felt as if my home in Hanzhong had been torn down. The place had been more than just a restaurant to me – it had been a point of stability in a world of change, movement, and difference. Now, every time I hear a Justin Bieber song, I can’t help but crave a KDS chicken burger. I think about my time in Hanzhong, about KDS and the lady behind the counter and all that she gave me – and sing along in poor harmony.