Thursday, April 28, 2011

Eating Face to Save Face

"Mm ba ba de / um bum ba de." — Freddie Mercury, "Under Pressure" by Queen and David Bowie, from Hot Space (1981)

Let me begin by saying that I don't want to tell you a story that involves a lot of suspense, or that climaxes with a terrifying vision, or that involves any sort of narrative tension, so I'm just going to lay out exactly what happened on a certain night in Huangshan and retrace a few steps afterward, going into detail and discussing what exactly was going through my head at a restaurant with an unrecognizable menu and tight-lipped fuwuyuans (waiters/-resses). The day my travel companion Emily and I returned from climbing the mountain (Huangshan), we ate a big bowl of duck heads. 
A series of events: eat a delicious noodle/beef/pepper lunch; wander aimlessly around the city (Huangshan); spot pagodas; climb the tower of a bank; stand around an elementary school; eat cake; waltz through a construction site; reminisce; nap; go in search of dinner (enter restaurant; guess at what we're ordering; ignore snickers of waiters[-resses]; receive bowl of mysterious food; realize food is duck heads [consider leaving; whine; remember eating scorpion; think about how cows also have heads; a young child in basketball shorts with a full fish in hand; using corn as bait; mallards off a dock's-edge from youngerdays]; take tentative bites; give up and try to leave; waiters[-resses] give you more food; eat vegetables; leave restaurant); return to hostel; discuss day's events.

So, Duck Heads, now you see how we arrived at this. Entering the building, what should have first tipped us off to the curious nature of the restaurant were the ubiquitous Donald Duck images; certainly the character wasn't legally being used at this place—Disney probably hadn't signed over any rights—but he was everywhere, pants-less, welcoming guests with an outstretched winghand. China is full of such uses of other people's (or companies') creations, so it wasn't extremely bizarre to see D.D. hanging out there, and we assumed we'd be eating duck (a popular dish, especially Roast in Beijing). I remember thinking that Donald Duck was a traitor to his species, like Charlie the Tuna ("Eat my people," they seem to shout, "Take my own flesh, my own blood, and eat, please."), but I didn't know D.D. was willing to go so far...
The other mistake we made was assuming that if we ordered blindly, despite trying to converse with the waitress ("We also like chicken and beef," I recall saying, hoping she'd point it out to us, and she didn't), we'd get something we had before, or at least something not too unfamiliar, something palatable. Emily told me we ordered some sort of duck in addition to vegetables and some sort of vegetable-ball thing, and, remembering childhood Christmas Days, remembering the denouement of that filmic institution A Christmas Story, I joked: "I hope it doesn't have a head," and, minutes later, when served, the exclamation (after the realization): "It's all heads!"

And speaking of realizations, here: the bowl arrived, a great silver half-moon, and in it a potpourri: spices, vegetables, unknown slices of unknown things, and, atop the melange, a dozen-odd T-rex-skull-fossil-shaped pieces of... something. I pulled one out with my chopsticks and commented on the odd shape and texture of the meat. We wondered if it was some sort of liver, or, well, we only knew it was a hard object. I flipped mine (I had been looking at the bone), and saw a cross section (they had been split down the middle, all) of what looked like a head, and, in the half-intact beak, I saw a lolling tongue (lit. lolling out the bottom) and what could pass for a brain, and as my mind raced, I looked at Emily, who was poking around the cranium with her own chopsticks, and said, "These are heads. I'm pretty sure these are heads." And after a brief spell of unbelief, we both accepted that they were, indeed, the heads of ducks. I poked around the bowl desperately for other meat, but only found vertebrae, neck, wing, and, perhaps more disturbingly than heads themselves, a full-on foot: a webbed spindly clawed end. Where was the rest of the duck? Where was the breast, the meat? I thought of ditching out on the place, of DFW's "Consider the Lobster," of all the animals I had eaten before that were, when served, already sans head.

I remembered that every time I eat meat, I'm eating something that had, at one time or another, a face. Eyes, nose, mouth. An identifier. An expresser. I thought that the burgers I eat regularly and the chicken I have almost every day probably lived a rougher life than did these ducks, probably were prepared in less hygienic ways, probably had more chemicals pumped in them throughout life, yet I found this, the duck head, disgusting. I came face to face, pun horribly terrifically intended, with my own meat-eating, and I considered, briefly, that eating meat might be something I no longer wanted to do.

Then I bit into the duck head. Never had I cracked a skull open to get to dinner, but that night in Anhui Province, at the lower-lying regions of a mountain range, I did, and it wasn't as bad as I had worried. I learned that what I find delicious isn't what others necessarily do. What delicacies are served in China are not the delicacies of other nations. That different cultures think about what they put in their mouths every day for sustenance differently, natch, and that, though I thought it'd be disgusting, I just needed to learn to try something new, something other people crave. 

Who am I kidding, I hated it. I was horrified by each bite I took, and I'll never eat something's face-meat again.

Emily ate a heart and gained the courage of a duck. This courage allowed her to eat more heads than I. 
The waitresses(-ers) had a station near us, and they watched the entire time we ate, giggling.
When the vegetables were served, they did so by removing the duck from the big silver bowl and filling it with some sort of red broth (I worriedly thought blood), brought it to a boil, and chucked the veggies in.
We cleansed our palates with Oreos later at the hostel.
Weeks later, finally prepared to write, tiny pages of notes next to me, I'm still too focused on the event, the spectacle (to me) of eating heads, to focus on what sort of insight may have been gained, what sort of conundrums were raised about my own meat-eating and carnivores in general, and what I learned about anything.
Duck heads, head-ness aside, don't have a bad flavor.

Memory, speaking, has too soft a voice.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Am Made Of What Mountains Are Made Of

"The reality we can put into words is never reality itself." — Werner Heisenberg

—A young boy flying over the heads of a crowd, jumping from rock to rock, teetering on the abyssal edge
—One dozen people sleeping in a bedbunked room; a huddled pair, middle cot
—Lotus Peak, the Highest Point, awarded medals, celebrate with Dr. Pepper, picture with old woman
—solitary-ish morning walk through a dense mistvapor shroud
—16 hours total of up-and-down stairs
—sharp granite fingers thrusting up through the crust of the earth, reaching through the clouds for a gossamered sun, crumbling fingernails with crawling, four-limbed miniatures sliding down the face

In Huangshan, one can be bring keys and padlocks to secure to the protective ropes and railings at the higher points of the range. Thousands cover the barricades, some rusted, some shiny and new, some seemingly about to fall apart. The old story goes that if one fastens their lock to the top railings of the mountain, makes a wish for the health of family or a loved one and throws the key into the chasm, their wish will come true. A hailstorm of lightweight keys constantly peppers the beat-cut bushes of the sudden-drop valleys, dotting the landscape with bits of invisible common earths. Thousands, millions(?) should have good health; thousands, millions are loved.

—Calves hard as rock, tired, though not as large and stony as the calves of workers who climb the steps each day
—Impossible views of mountains emerging darkfaced from the mist
—stealthing through a half-lit hotel for the rich in search of warmth and privacy
—the Mass Tourism of a UNESCO World Heritage Site swarmed by uncountable visitors dropping peanut shells at the feet of trees and half-empty water bottles at the tops of mountains
—"The mountain is inspecting your behavior while you are appreciating its beauty"
—the state of being a tourist and knowing the surreality of your visits, hoping that knowing grants something more

Taking notes on Huangshan while climbing Huangshan and sleeping on Huangshan and thinking about Huangshan for days and days post-Huangshan isn't a bad way to find yourself unable to write about what it really meant to go to and see Huangshan because at least you still have the notes. What I remember thinking is that these mountains were made somehow, and it couldn't have been from a fault line because I remember how that works from Geology 101. They definitely weren't volcanic. Only later did I find out that these sharp granite peaks were formed beneath the waters of a great sea that drained millions of years ago, and these stalagmitic juts from the earth were once covered in mesozoic seaweed. What's more, glaciers came through and cut all this up, sharpening the tallest of the teeth. And this granite, these pine trees, they share with me the base ingredients of everything. Make of that what can be made.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Only Compass That I Need (is the one that leads back to you)*

"It's been so long..." — David Bowie, off "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" from Let's Dance, 1983†

On returning from an eight-day spring-break vacation that spanned three cities, two major bodies of water, and one mountain range, upon arriving in Beijing on a rumble-roar red-eye train at 5:45 am with gunk in my eyelids and more sleep on my mind, when standing in line at the subway station with a leaky right eye and a stomach that screams for breakfast, I realize that I've been returning all the while to Beijing as if it were my Ithaca, my home. The idea must have been inceived somewhere between our trip to Yunnan and this very travel from which I have just returned, and it is alien, strange. Is it possible that over the course of a short two months I've become so accustomed to the busybodysea of Beijing that I could call its iron-and-concrete sprawl home? Maybe it's because I've been forced to become fast friends with 20-odd students around the same age as me who are now like a small family, maybe it's because the program I'm enrolled in has been so welcoming, or maybe it's because of a certain crazy-for girl, but the prospect of sticking around in Beijing is actually almost comforting. I don't plan on living here, and I certainly plan on returning home to my friends and loved ones in America this June, but still, there's something there in that first microgranular thought in the dark night of that train ride when I thought, "I'm going home."

There is nothing worse†† than being ripped off as a tourist other than being ripped off as a tourist while being fully aware of and helpless against the fact. So were we, my travel companion Emily and I, stuck in Huangshan at the base of the mountain: a ride, needed; a taxi, the only available. We had trekked the small town around the mountain looking for the bus back to the city (also Huangshan), to our hostel, asking hotel managers and restaurateurs alike for directions (Emily's Chinese is a few levels beyond mine, so she did most of the talking) but to no avail. We wandered into a Traffic Police station to find the place open yet empty, a cup of tea still steaming on a desk, the place silent and muggy. A tripod series of pictures propped up near the entrance featured grisly scenes of motorcycle crashes with Blood on the Pavement, the traffic police's deterrent against unlicensed driving or something. We found out, finally, from a few clerks at a Super-8, that the bus stops running at five pm. It was 5:30. Emily called the hostel we booked at, and they told her we could only take a cab. 
The taxi manager knew right away what was up. He was like a dead-eyed dog: he could smell our helplessness. Beneath brash attempts at bartering with his price, he could see that our only option was to take one of his cabs. He knew it and he took advantage, and though the price we paid was considerably less than others have paid in the past, and though in the US the price was more than reasonable, we knew that for what the meter would have been and what a Huangshan native would have paid, we were certainly ripped off. What could we do? We sat on our hands and thought spiteful thoughts. Emily hoped he had kids to feed to justify such dealings. I hoped (and later wished otherwise for the man) that he lived alone, that his only real happiness in life was earning rip-off money—a poor happiness, indeed. As a tourist, though, such is expected. People yell "hello" to you, they snap pictures, they mutter "外国人," they stare. 怎么 No harm done. When you're a tourist, you have to realize that you're already (in the pessimistic light) leeching off someone else's real culture†††, so you should, theoretically, just bite the bullet and take what karma kicks your way. 

So maybe that train ride home in the pitch hours of a lightless seaboard gave me peace of mind because I knew I'd be returning to the familiar, to a place where folks didn't care if you were different, to a place (Wudaokou) where the familiar thing was the foreign student intermingling with the Beijing native. Maybe Beijing felt like home because in Beijing the slurred-speech cabbies always run the meter. Maybe I was comforted by the quasi-family that mitosis'd in the fluorescent halls of a high-floored dormitory. Either way, Beijing felt like home, and though there's another home out there waiting for me, the fact that something feels like a duck and looks like a duck is enough, right?

*From the song "Compass" by Jamie Lidell

†It has been so long (since writing here, since being in Beijing). I'll update throughout the next week or two regarding the actual trip: climbing Huangshan, visiting Nanjing, cruising the coast at Qingdao, accidentally consuming duck heads, seeing the reaction to the Nanjing massacre ~70 years later, etc.

††Of course there is worse than being ripped off while traveling. There is being robbed/mugged, trafficked, killed, becoming a homeless stray, nearly starving, running out of money, finding our you were adopted, losing all one's teeth, getting in a knife fight, and on and on. It's only a figure of speech.

†††There is something to be said, though, about the certain types of tourism that permeate such places as the Grand Canyon, Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum, or even Huangshan: is there really a local culture being leeched off, or has the place been robbed of anything real it once had and turned into a corpuscle of pure disgustingly-fat greasy-boned mass tourism? When thousands flood a crevasse in the recesses of Huangshan to fight for position at the stairs leading, eventually, to Yingkesong, is anyone being leeched off of, or is the rock dry?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Homesickness ≠ foodsickness, but it may as well

"There are you—you drive like a demon from station to station [...] It's too late to be grateful; it's too late to be late again." — David Bowie, "Station to Station" from Station to Station, 1976†

From my dormitory window I can see a portion of the neighborhood of Wudaokou, and from my vantage point the the buildings seem to quake down from a high rim to a low center, a conical slide from the tips of the Microsoft and Cernet towers to a low point near the subway station, and this dip—this fat, low dip—like an enormous sinkhole, drains right down to an epicenter where the energy of Wudaokou trembles and erupts. You can walk to this epicenter, this lowpoint in the staggered concrete, and there you'll find (sandwiched between a restaurant and a lingerie boutique) a two-foot wide window and a long, thin kitchen where they sell hot dogs. 
The place is called Holy Fries!, either an exuberant statement about the nature of the blessed french fries or a 1960s-era-Batman-TV-show Robinesque exclamation, either of which works for the little 饭馆Holy Fries! suits the neighborhood, a university-dotted area known for its terrible pedestrian-laced traffic and its high level of diversity (due to the amount of foreign students pouring in). Holy Fries! is owned by and operated by a husband-wife/girlfriend-boyfriend duo (I haven't done my homework) of Australian or German (him, and again, I really haven't done my homework) and Chinese (her) descent. Like Wudaokou and its residents, theirs is a marriage of two hemispheres (unless he's from Australia, d'oh!), and the American or Italian style dogs and the "French" fries are enough to remind any worldly student of their greasy hometurf food. 

I went to Holy Fries! at the suggestion of a friend who once lived in Beijing, and the real reason he suggested it and another friend and I went was to quench our thirst for that rarest of sodapop gems, nearly impossible to find in China: Dr. Pepper. Hujiao Boshi, in the parlance of our region, isn't processed here (like Coke or the Chinese variety of Mt. Dew). Rather, it is imported by daring restaurateurs like the folks at Holy Fries! or the owners of Grandma's Kitchen††. It is a sweet/sharp reminder of home, and, when returning from Kunming (to Beijing, as noted in an earlier post), I strangely longed for such a taste. On that plane, that three-hour jaunt across the country, I felt my first real pang of homesickness, and the first thing it directly latched onto in my mind wasn't friends or family but food, oddly enough, and I craved a deli sandwich or a plate of nachos, and finally this craving for recognizable food led to a desire to see friends and family, to tell them stories, to hear what they have been doing, to listen to them simply speak, and finally to simply be home, to be in an open grassland where there is near-silence and solitude, to bike along a gravel road in the Midwestern countryside and be at peace, with what I don't know, but to simply be at peace. And this longing, as real as it may be, can be curbed by drinking an imported can of soda.

What I need to say though, is that in about three hours I leave for Huangshan (黄山), and though homesickness may hit me from time to distant time, there is entirely too much to see in the world to return home at the slightest tinge of desire. Until then, I'll drive like a demon.

†A twofold footnote here: 1) I will be leaving for Huangshan, Nanjing, and Qingdao very soon and won't return until April 17th, so I won't be posting anything for at least a week and a half. 2) David Bowie's Station to Station is not only the man's greatest album (IMHO) but boasts his largest and deepest-diving lyrics possibly in his career. Each song has catchy hooks and Bowie wailing, of course, but he packs some amazing punches beneath all the production. Check it out, maybe.

††Grandma's Kitchen, yes. When my friend and I first went to find Dr. Pepper, Holy Fries! was closed due to a power outage, so we ended up going to the only other place we knew of that sold the stuff: Grandma's Kitchen. Unfortunately, they sell the imported goods for 20 kuai a pop (pun unfortunately intended). The cost one must pay for perfection, though, is great, so we grabbed a few cans despite and enjoyed them for all they were worth.

Friday, April 1, 2011

For those who go abroad

(the following was written by me and published in The Dakota Student at the University of North Dakota on March 29, 2011 — I think all the rights belong to them now, not sure)
I am in China, and that's the first thing you need to know. The second is that David Foster Wallace killed himself 12 years after writing, in Infinite Jest, "That everyone is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else. That this isn't necessarily perverse." The third is that I have no credentials, that my age is a mere blink in geological time, and that this article has been written before by better writers than I. That this is all you need to know technically means you can stop reading here, and that's your prerogative, and just as Britney has hers, you can exercise it. I hope you don't.
Someone once told me that they were studying abroad because they wanted to experience another culture, and I thought, "admirable," and I also thought, "impossible." Then I chose to study abroad, and I spoke similarly. Why China?To learn Chinese. Why Chinese? Challenging, relevant, useful. What do you plan on doing with that? I don't know. So why China? Uh, I want to... Experience another culture.
But this isn't entirely possible, because you can only scratch surfaces, and if you try to shoehorn your way into a culture, all you're really doing is imposing yourself upon it, right? If you think by spending four months in, say, India you're going to knowIndia, you're going to somehow be a fount of information regarding India, you're going to, more or less, becomejust the tiniest bit Indian, the truth might lie somewhere closer to you poking at India (as if an entire nation of over a billion people were definable) with a yardstick.
Or maybe I'm looking at this wrong. Go abroad, please. But take what you're learning with a grain of salt, not because those teaching you are untrustworthy—no, they're probably terrific pedagogues—but because you yourself can't be trusted. I'm speaking from experience (and here's the can of worms about my experience: what makes me think Iknow anything?). If you're really serious about going abroad, please admit that your knowledge is already flawed, and that it still will be when you return, and that worldliness does not equal knowledge. That knowing and understanding are two different coins altogether.
On March 17th a Buddhist monk in Sichuan self-immolated in response to 2008 military crackdowns in Tibet, the second self-immolation since. The thoughts vaporized in that human pyre are not known, and what escaped into the immediate air, flaring up from a wet bald head, could not be seen.
If you go abroad to some strange place—the neck of some woods—that you don't understand, realize that the very woods you're in don't understand you. This is the first step toward reconciliation. If we fear what we don't understand (source: everyone ever), the problem lies not in what is feared but in our lack of understanding. I've seen fights break out due to lack of ability to understand one another on the most basic of levels: language. When you go abroad, you might not be able to get your point across, and in that moment of perfect frustration, ask why you and your conversational partner can't make sense of each other. Is it because you're both speaking different languages? Is it because you have differing perspectives? Is it because no matter how hard you try, no matter how big your metaphorical trepanning trephine, you can never really get into the mind of another person and examine their thought process? Is it because you will always be in your skull and your skull only?
As a semi-official representative of UND's Study Abroad program, I shouldn't tell you that you don't needto study abroad, but you don't. If it is financially viable and you are willing, by all means, go, you will never regret it, but when I talk about "those who go abroad," I don't just mean those who travel; I mean those who want to get at something more, something in the emptiness between minds. You can cover the world and still retain your same opinions, your sameWeltanschauung, your kanfa—you can choose to think what you think and always think those same thoughts. But know that there are other perspectives—just know it—be aware of it, and the fact that everyone around you has their reasons for doing whatever it is they do might be enough to stop you from blowing your top, or at least slow the boil. I guess what I'm saying is, When I talk about going abroad, I am trying to get at something—for lack of a simpler word—something metaphysical. An intangibility. By "abroad" I don't mean anyplace physical; maybe I'm talking about transcendence.
My god, this is preachy. I'm a dick sometimes, and you might be a dick, and our varying degrees of dickishness may be at the root of disagreements and minor altercations, but, as Wayne Coyne sang, after ruminating on our deaths, all of our inevitable deaths, "Let them know you realize that life goes fast; it's hard to make the good things last," then, as the music moseys along with Coyne's fragile voice, and the riff comes back, he asks of us, "Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face?" Well, do you?