Many foods in China translation into English in the form of “body part” of “animal.” In the past few days I have eaten “liver of cow,” “tentacle of squid,” “tongue of duck” (ducks have tongues?), “intestine of pig,” “penis of ox” (ok, I didn’t try that one, I just saw it on a menu), and the omnipresent “feet of chicken” (“fong jow” in Cantonese).
Having struggled for the past few days to shift my internal time clock half a day, I have found it has made it difficult to do just about anything that requires extensive concentration—though my state is very useful in creating really funny stories of the “lost in translation” sort. Having wandered blurry-eyed into the orientation program for my masters program at The City University of Hong Kong (After a bit of maneuvering after arriving here, it turns out I will enroll in a Master’s Program for the next 9 months, more on that later…), I was invited by a group of local classmates to a lunch of the traditional Cantonese variety: dim sum. Dim sum is more a style of eating then a particular type of food, its closest culinary relative, through an American lens, is probably a Mediterranean tapas meal, like that of one of my favorite restaurant, Devotay in Iowa City (USA) (Iowa Citians should note, Devotay has a new web address at devotay.net; no longer devotay.com)
Being 1 of 2 foreign students and a Dim Sum virgin, there was much curiosity by the other students in seeing if I could a) use chop sticks and b) would eat what was put in front of me. Squid, cow intestines, fish balls, shrimp dumplings, pork buns, and other tasty treats came my way and I tried them without hesitation—all placed in my bowl by my eager new friends in a motherly “here eat this…” sort of way. (Being in this new country makes me feel like a four-year old at times, unable to express myself, unable to understand what is going on around me, lost if not for a guiding hand, and reliant on the kindness of others to sometimes do the simplest things (“how the ‘hell’ do you use a squat toilet?”)
Anyway, one of my classmates, with a slightly knowing grin, stuck a chicken foot in my bowl and said, “try this…” probably knowing very well that most of those outside of Asia and Africa rarely dine on this particular part of the chicken. I felt the amused glances of the locals as I cautiously stuck the entire poultry paw into my mouth. I looked up to see that everyone was watching for my reaction. I chewed. They watched. I chewed some more. They watched. Slowly grins began to emerge, though I didn’t feel that my facial expression had changed much. I kept chewing. They started to giggle. After checking to make sure my I didn’t have a dab of chicken foot sauce on my chin, I asked, “ok, what’s so funny.” Finally, one of them leaned in and ask, “Are you going to spit out the bones?” Laughter broke out around the table.
You see, here is a perfect example of that “East Meets West” thing, dangerously coupled with new foods. To my Chinese friends: in America it is not really acceptable to spit out bones or other pieces of food while eating, and is usually done about as discreetly as Chinese people use toothpicks (veiled under a hand or napkin). On the other hand, to my American friends: it is extremely normal to spit out bones here directly onto the tablecloth (no hands, napkins, or tactful head turns needed). Oh, and no one had chosen to inform me that there were bones that required “discarding” so I had, in fact, consumed the entire thing. (This would be the American equivalent of giving someone an artichoke, only to be given back an empty plate.”). Though this experience hasn’t given me cold feet on eating the myriad of new food, it will lead me to be a bit more cautious when eating cold feet next time.
This, I’m certain, is only the beginning of culinary tales of comedy.