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 Wàiguó 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.
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:
For as far back as I can remember, the coolest things in the ocean have always been octopuses, sharks (of course sharks) and anglerfish.
If you don’t understand why, go google image search anglerfish. I’ll wait.
I’ve seen sharks at the aquarium and handled dogfish on the fishing boat, and we occasionally play with octopuses in our neighbourhood vegetable market. But I’d never seen a real angler fish until last night, when I was picking up take-out at one of our favourite local restaurants. They have a big display of live and nearly-alive seafood that changes every night, depending on what the boss finds at the seaside market. I wasn’t sure what these fish were at first, but the teeth got my attention:
The staff told me 安康鱼 ān kāng yú, which my dictionaries don’t have. But between Baidu and Pleco we found it: it’s a monkfish 鮟鱇 ān kāng, which is a kind of anglerfish (notice the real name is nearly the same as our initial search, except with a “fish” radical added to each character: 鱼 + 安 = 鮟 / 鱼 + 康 = 鱇).
Anglerfish! How cool is that? Their… bioluminescent things (I won’t even pretend to know what the actual word is) were plastered down on their heads and don’t show in the photos, but it was easy to lift them up for a look.
A google image search for monkfish turns up what looks like the exact same fish as in the restaurant — a particular kind of very ugly anglerfish.
A google search for anglerfish will give you nightmares.
I remember as a kid being told how there were people on other countries who were so poor they had to eat fish heads and rice. The general point about how good we have it in the West compared to most of the rest of the world is more or less legit, but it never occurred to me then that people in other countries might actually like fish heads.
(From one of our neighbourhood restaurants.)
A Chinese celebration is a special thing. We’re grateful that we occasionally get to take part in them. The way they’re done — the ‘family style’ dining, the toasting, etc. — really is fun when done well.
And, of course, there’s the food. Weddings will have special dishes, fancy dishes, expensive dishes — and for Euro-Americans that often means eyebrow-raising dishes.
There are two kinds of adventure eating in China. It’s one thing to deliberately go out of your way to seek out some crazy-to-your-home-culture dish — like dog or máodàn or cányǒng or starfish — and share the photos on social media, regardless of how common those are to locals (Canadians eat bull testicles — did you know?). Sure it’s cliche but whatever, have fun. You’re not hurting anybody.
The other kind of adventure eating is the the kind that seeks you out. You’re just going about your business, accepting a neighbour’s dinner invitation or attending a friend’s wedding feast, and you’re served “cicada monkeys” 知了猴:
Both of those were last weekend for us, at a friend’s wedding banquet, which was lots of fun.