Friday, December 08, 2006

At Least We Didn't Eat the Wool...

Last friday I accepted an invitation to join some students going out to eat lamb hot pot. For those of you who may unfamiliar with hot pot, it's a popular way of eating in China where there is a small stove with a pot of hot soup on it in the middle of every table. You order several pieces of raw meat or raw vegetables, and you put each piece into the broth to cook it. When it's ready, you reach into the soup with your chopsticks to grab your piece of cooked food.

Now, I have become accustomed to many of the odd things people eat here in China, and I've actually come to like a lot of them. But I completely forgot that when my students asked me to eat lamb, they meant eat the whole lamb. Usually, when people eat animals here, they eat every single part. In the true Native American style of "Waste Not, Want Not", any part of the lamb that can't be sheared off goes into the pot.

I want to take a brief tangent to say that I was never the least bit concerned about environmental issues until I first visited China last year. However, after only 8 days in Beijing, I had become (or at least started on my way to becoming) an environmentalist. After 15 minutes out of the train station, I had a headache. You could barely see 100 yards in front of you due to the smog. The streets were covered in garbage. It was kind of liked a look into the future: "This is what the world will be like if you ignore environmental issues". I still tell people in America that if you're not an environmentalist, take a visit to China. I guarrentee you'll change your mind about a few things.

Here's where a bit of inner conflict comes in. As a newly-found enviromentalist, I understand the wastefulness of eating meat and how it affects world hunger, so I must applaud the wastelessness of the Chinese people. However, as a cozy, pampered American, even after eating lamb skin, liver, intenstines, marrow, brain, stomach, and other unmentionables many times, I still severly dislike consuming them.

So as I was saying, all of this slipped my mind until when we sat down at the table and the waitress brought us our first three dishes to put in the hot pot: a plate of blood, a plate of tripe (stomach), and a plate of liver. Now, I detest tripe and liver, but blood is the one thing I absolutely refuse to eat. (It's not a big bowl of liquid blood. The blood that they eat here has coagulated/congeled into a semi-solid resembling opaque maroon jello). The Big Guy upstairs (and I don't mean Joe Darling) must have been listening to me yelling, because somehow there wasn't room on the table for the blood. Our waitress set the blood down for a minute on the table next to us, but everyone immediately forgot about it and never put it in the pot!

There's a couple more things you should know about eating in China. Everything is eaten family style (no one has their own food, it's all communal). Also, in order to show respect, before you take any food for yourself, you should always serve others (usually elders or respected people like teachers). So this means that because I'm their teacher, every time a student reaches for more food, they find the biggest and best piece of stomach and put it on my plate. I smile and say thank you.

Eating stomach is nearly impossible. I have a jaw problem and I clench my teeth at night, so my teeth have been worn quite dull. Stomach and intestines are the chewiest parts of the animal. Also, keep in mind there are no knives at the Chinese table. (Confucious does not approve.) So this means that I have to throw the huge wad of unmasticatable organs into my mouth, bounce it around my teeth for a while, then assisted with a big gulp of tea, swallow the chunk whole. It felt like after I swallowed the 4th or 5th piece of unchewed food, my stomach began to notice that I had neglected the usual practice of chewing and became angry at me. "Why won't you chew your food? We had a deal. You chew, I digest!" It was only after I had so angered my stomach that I began hiding the occassional chunk of stomach under the rice in my bowl when no one was looking.

Finally, the next course came which contained some real meat. It was mostly skin, but occasionally you would find a big chunk of fatty meat attached to the bone. It wasn't great, but not worthy of hiding under my rice. Luckily, this course also came with lots of pickled vegetables, so I slowly ate them as to not arouse suspicion that I thought the meal was terrible.

I returned home still hungry, and with my stomach still cursing at me a bit about the indigestible materials I sent it. I filled up on some fruit and felt fine later. In all, I still had a great time, and it taught me more lessons on how to 'grin and bear' things.

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