Friday, June 24, 2011

le nouveau

My grandfather is a missionary, and he used to say that the most successful way to become part of another's culture is to share their food. (Although he said this in a slightly racist, ambiguously offensive way.) It surprised me as he's someone who won't eat cereal because it is too Western. But his friends would describe my grandfather smiling peacefully in an African desert, gracefully eating anything that was offered, the only one to drink from a jar that was dug out of the ground and looked like it hadn't been opened in years (they found out afterward that was a close approximation). Apparently he was the one everyone remembered years afterward.

I've always admired that quality. I remember the anger and embarrassment I used to feel when my parents had guests over. The kids would whine and stage whisper to their parents whether it was ok they didn't eat something.
"well just try it! it's something new. No I don't know what it is, but just eat it!" And my mother would politely show them the pizza she'd already heated up just in case. Even the adults would poke at the dishes as though it were an alien thing, refusing the japchae glass noodles that my mother had taken all day to prepare. Someone once exclaimed that something had rotted in the refrigerator, only to blush when it became obvious that it was the jar of kimchi cabbage on the bottom shelf.
Actually thinking back, I'm not sure why we had guests over so often anyway, but I guess oblivious persistence is my parents' virtue.

I was determined not to make the mistake when I was first invited to eat with the namja's family. I felt like Belle in the scene of Beauty and the Beast with the prancing dishes and plates. Except the dishes prancing in front of me were of fish intestines, marinated chicken feet with minced vegetables, congealed blood with beef intestines. Pork knuckles and fermented beans, beef tongue, stomach lining, fish liver in steamed egg.
They politely declined eating anything, and instead watched as I finished all the dishes, including an extra dish of beef tongue.
The crowning dish was a platter-sized bread stuffed with all the leftover dinner items mixed into one. The waiter smiled when he set it in front of me, a wobbling meat tower the size of my head, which I managed to finish three quarters of before giving up.
I found out afterward that the dishes weren't usual ones; I suppose it was a kind of test and also a slight form of amusement.

It's been many months since then, but as I still don't understand enough Chinese to contribute to a conversation, my role is to sit and eat with healthy enthusiasm. It's a challenge, if I ever place my chopsticks down, I get a concerned look.
Passing food is a form of love and respect, and to refuse is impossible, so I end up being the one to eat most of the dishes.
The last piece of intestine, please give to her.
no no it's ok, please take it... oh ok thank you thank you.

I suppose it's better than the Korean way, in which the challenge is to drink as much alcohol as is presented.
Why is your glass not empty?
Because once I drink it you will just fill it again.
and the question will repeat once more. paradoxical.