You know how making and serving food is an expression of love for a lot of people? I’d like to propose that, sometimes, eating it is an act of love, too.
After last night’s donkey parts dinner I’m feeling rather pious*, though I probably won’t be by the time I finish this post. So allow me to present a somewhat famous ancient passage in a fresh translation: the Donkey Parts Version (DPV). Or, if you’re of a more squeamish constitution: the Culture Stress Version (CSV), because that’s what this is really about anyway. ;)
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If I slurp down this gelatinous slab of donkey blood without making a face, but do not have love, I’m like two mass exercise dance groups of at least 100 grannies each, both in the same public square and each with its own impressive sound system.
If I chew and chew and chew some more and finally choke down this unnecessarily large chunk of fried donkey penis just in time for the next toast, but do not have love, then I’m like that guy at the gym who brings his portable mp3 player — even though the spinning class music, the aerobics class music, and the house speakers are all already competing for prominence in the weight room soundscape — and sticks it right in the middle of the floor where we can more easily trip over it.
If I drink more Tsingtao than I want to so the host will have face and the guests won’t feel that I think I’m too good for them because the obnoxious and juvenile male social world is just that way, and surrender my body to a night of greasy indigestion, but do not have love, then I’m like thirty high-pitched Chinese preschoolers in a cavernous classroom of hard surfaces who won’t stop yelling Wàijiào Lǎoshī!! even though you’ve said Good Mooorniing! to them five times already.
Love is patient with the snot-faced little double-fingered nose-pickers even when the English you’re employed to teach them is beyond their developmental capacity as 3-year-olds, and love is kind even when their parents send them to school sick and they cough in your face and leave their boogers on your teaching toys. It does not envy people with long-term tourist visas. It most certainly does not boast about being a wàijiào; it is not proud.
Love does not rejoice in or act entitled to lǎowài privilege, but rejoices in the truth, like when Chinese friends feel close enough to burst your deluded protective bubble about how fluent your Mandarin actually isn’t, or like when you find out you’ve been saying or doing something wrong for years.
Love always protects face, always trusts that, on average, these people aren’t really any worse than the people you came from, always hopes for deep and meaningful cross-cultural relationships, and always always always always perseveres in language study.
Being male in China means navigating the drinking culture, which varies from region to region. If you want to be healthy and not get drunk on a regular basis, this can be challenging. Not drinking would seriously hinder your social interaction with other men (never mind your ability to conduct business). That’s just how thoroughly embedded into the culture alcohol is. A lot of people — foreigners and Chinese — don’t see any middle ground; it’s either get sloshed or don’t have many male friends.
Just the other night a neighbour came over for a Christmas dinner. He brought me baijiu as a present but said he’d prefer to drink beer with dinner, and to drink slowly. That started a conversation about drinking in China, during which he explained that for two thousand years it’s been proper social etiquette for a host to display generosity by getting his guests drunk, and that only recently has this begun to slowly change toward the more “civilized” drinking of the West, where, in polite company, people can enjoy a little alcohol together but there’s no expectation or obligation to drink extreme amounts. (Turns out most adults don’t like getting routinely wasted — who knew?! ;) )
But that was an exceptional situation. Typically in Qingdao, a half-complete dinner between male friends looks like this:
It’d be easy to find bigger bottle displays to photograph; I just happened to snap this mid-meal on the way back from the bathroom the other night. To North Americans it might look like a lot of beer for a family restaurant, but to me it looks like *not baijiu*. Qingdao is the beer capital of China, and that means that — unlike our foreign friends in other parts of China — I don’t have to choose between dealing with baijiu or having male friends.
We recently had an interesting experience for us, as former North American suburbanites, when Jessica bought a live chicken in the neighbourhood market instead of chicken meat, and had it butchered. She said it was still warm when she was preparing it in the kitchen. There’s also this unforgettable infomercial that used to play in the back of Qingdao taxis, where a chef pulls the shell off a live crab. Anecdotes like that (which are in endless supply), and this photo from two days ago, hit one of the trillion interesting-to-me cultural differences between China and North America. Turns out that meat actually comes from animal carcasses! Did you know? Dead animals! Who knew, eh?
These skeletal remains are hanging outside a mutton restaurant that I passed by this week on my way home from work, basically as advertising: Hey! We have fresh mutton here! Aren’t these carcasses appetizing? Generally speaking (of course), in China there’s still much less of a disconnect between been food and its sources — in this case: meat and the fact that meat comes from the bodies of animals.
Contrast with North America, where meat is sold as far removed from its animal of origin as possible: skinless, boneless, sliced into plastic-wrapped rectangles — somehow it feels “cleaner” to us. But that’d be suspect for many our Chinese neighbours, who would instinctively question the freshness of plastic wrapped meat so far removed from its source.
The anecdotes are endless, like — and this is something that I keep forgetting — serving a fish with the head and tail not removed turns a lot of North Americans off. As if we prefer not being reminded that it was an actual fish before it became fish on our plates. Same with chicken heads. IMO, China’s approach to food makes more sense. North Americans don’t eat bugs, but they do eat crabs, lobsters and honey (seriously: do you know what honey is? Youtube it.). North Americans don’t eat dogs, but pigs and cows? — no problem.
North Americans have some weird cultural hangups when it comes to food. I suspect it has to do with cultural hangups East and West both have regarding bodies in general — though as anyone who’s spent significant time in China could tell you, those somatic hangups play out in different ways. Though I also suspect it just has to do with modern life in general; the century-old American worlds in many of our kids’ books (like Little House on the Prairie) seem much closer to China than today’s America when it comes to meat.
But whatever the reasons, when it comes to food, China is fearless.*
(*Unless you’re talking food safety and pollution, but that’s a different deal).
If you like dead animals and/or meat, there’s plenty to be found in the following posts: