Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cross-cultural Cuisine: This One's for You, Mom

"Four more bites, and stop crying."  These are the words that so many loved picky eaters hear growing up; And I was no exception.  OH, those blissful times sitting at the dinner table by myself, after everyone else has left, glaring at my meatloaf while contemplating the best moment to slip the last 2 out of 4 bites to my dog (I was always too chicken to actually do it.)  Eventually, my merciful mother, feeling sorry for this stubborn, skinny 7-year-old, comes out and softly coaxes me into taking another bite, while trying not to laugh. Soon, I'm skipping off to watch Nickelodeon, unaware that you, Mom, YOU were making me a better, stronger, more open-minded person.  Yes, you were.  And now, this ex-picky eater must admit, Meatloaf March potlucks are now my favorite!

Last term I made a goal to take each of my students out to dinner at some point throughout the year to get to know them better.  Chinese students--never to miss out on an opportunity to practice their English-- always willingly oblige. And a lot of great things have come from these outings.  It wasn't long, however, that I learned to fear these words: "Traditional Food."

Let me tell you about the first time this phrase was used in a conversation with me: A sweet girl with excellent English, Teresa, tells me how excited her parents are that she is eating with her English teacher and they've instructed her on a traditional specialty that she should introduce to me.  "OK!", I say energetically.  And so on the way to dinner we make a stop to try a famous local beverage that's been around for 130 years. (I may, or may not have made this fact up.)

"Oh, a drink", I think. "Well, this can't be so bad."  As we near the window I see some strange pieces floating in the beverages being served.  Teresa's friends politely decline a cup, and although this makes me a bit concerned, I know there's no backing out on the hospitality being offered me.  

I take a sip and feign a smile that I'm afraid came out as a grimace.  

"Do you like?"  Teresa asks nervously.

"Mmm! So, what's in this?"


~Moment of silence as I ever so deliberately finish swallowing.~

"Reeeally... Fr-from an animal?"

"Yes, do you like it?"

"It's interesting! So, it's umm, sperm. From an animal."

"Yes, from in the sea."

There are two choices at this point in time. Either, I throw the cup of sperm into the trashcan and, thus, throw away any chance of friendship with these sweet girls, or... I drink it.

"Oh."  And... I sip... and actually swallow. (All modesty aside, I deserve a medal.)

I've seen some pretty bizarre dishes on menus.  So, I didn't doubt it right away.  Endurance my friends.  This is what gets you through.  In my last 8 months in this fine country I have sat through many a meal chewing and swallowing without grimacing.  I have mastered the technique of scooting food around my plate and popping the occasional tiny piece of tofu, cow's stomach, or meat gelatin into my mouth in order to satisfy the gracious host.  You see, there's something called "saving face" in these parts.  If you make it clear that you don't like the food you've so generously been given, you would be forcing your host to lose face.  And, well, that just isn't nice.

I must urge you not to assume that I don't like Chinese food; really, I have come to love just about anything any street vendor will will dish out.  It's these "famous foods" that I am occasionally graced with that pose the ultimate challenge. 

As we continued our walk to the restaurant, I grasp at one last semblance of hope and turn to Teresa, "You know, are you sure you have the right word? For... this?"  Teresa promptly digs out her phone to reference her Chinese-English Dictionary.

A moment passes and I watch the realization flush her face.

"Shrimp.  I mean to say Shrimp." And she looks at me, mortified, and I look down at my half empty cup, and I can't help it-- I laugh. Hard.  I can't stop laughing.  Finally, she laughs.  And then we're all laughing.

I couldn't have done it without you, Mom.  One small bite of meatloaf for picky eaters, one giant cup of shrimp juice for friendships between all eatingkind.

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