Meals: Thanksgiving Table-talk

It's snowy and cold here in Harbin, about -15 Celsius (4 degrees Fahrenheit). The temperature isn't so bad, but the wind can be a real demon, especially at night. Most people have switched over to longer, heavier coats packed with feathers or a comparable synthetic. Traffic is a lot more annoying during the morning rush-hour (when I take a bus to my Chinese class) than it used to be. The weather is partly to blame, of course, but so is the traffic light at the end of my road that stays green for 5 seconds max. Everyone here "drives" a manual shift, so if you're not anticipating the signal change, you'll be holding up an angry line of honking cars. Luckily, the other drivers are thoughtfully honking before the light turns green, in case anyone might forget what it is exactly everyone is sitting in their car for.

Normally, I wouldn't have to deal with this weather very much, but now I'm commuting to a private language school to study Chinese. Even the 10 minute walk to my work is becoming more of an exercise in balance, now that the smooth, tiled sidewalks are covered in snow and ice. It's nice to see snow, though.

Chinese snowmen so far have been disappointing. In their defense, there isn't a lot of snow to work with yet (and most of it is concrete underneath). They're designed a bit differently, with conic bases and the familiar spherical head - a bit like a chess pawn (or Sorry piece, if that's your "parlour" preference). To confirm this, I asked both my adult and teenage classes: it's by design. When I drew the "Western" interpretation of a snowman with 3 body segments - all spheres - I was asked: "What's the bottom one supposed to be?" I had always assumed the oOO design to be representative of (from left to right) a head, a torso, and legs; that's how I explained it. Obviously, they aren't sculpted to the detail of a David but the Chinese version o< just looks like some poor bastard stuffed into a volcano. Luckily, I've been informed that for a snowball fight, the Chinese throw proper balls - not little cones. Somehow, "snowcone fight!" doesn't send the adrenaline surging, sounding instead like a depressing waste of syrup and shaved ice.

As for Chinese, it's been getting easier. It turns out that regimented studying is the way to go for me since it takes a herculean amount of motivation to self-study with the same results. Not that the results could be passably equal. Even if one of my frustrations about the class is too little speaking-time, at least I'm inundated with listening to it for a solid 2-3 hours each weekday. Learning-by-osmosis is real, especially with language, and I make an effort now in classes to stack the slower kids near the faster ones in hopes that something might spark. It couldn't hurt, right?

My individual progress is satisfying. Every time I chat up a taxi driver, I exhaust my slowly-expanding list of topics. The feedback is comical, though. If you can say only your hellos and goodbyes, the near-universal response is "Your Chinese is good! How many years have you lived here?" I guess I should be glad they're at least encouraging me instead of parting with "Sorry, buddy, you suck a fat one."

Speaking of eating dick, I did. And in public, no less.

No worries, it wasn't in the confines of an anonymous restroom gloryhole, but at a cheap local restaurant.. equally filthy, perhaps. Ok, I confess: it is a bit of a hole-in-the-wall. It wasn't like we waltzed in just hankerin' for a bull schlong, though - it took a bit of time (and a number of beers) to reach that tipping point. We'd exhausted our familiar menu options and asked our Chinese friend to pick something unique from the menu - something we'd never tried before. Naturally, she came across this gem on the menu and, with a smile on her face, asked us if we had the balls to try it. Never one to turn down a hearty helping of meat, I hoped to oblige, but wondered if it'd be any good. After a bit of prodding, we got her to ask the waiter "How's the penis here?"

"Good eating," he assured us. I was sold. After all, if they offer it in a restaurant, somebody must like it, right? I can't imagine they'd keep beef poles stacked in the freezer for any other purpose.

As we sat and waited for our order, our minds began to wander...
What would it look like? Would it be served diced and breaded on a small saucer, or raw on a plate longer than my forearm with nothing but a side of dipping sauce?

How much meat were we even talking about, here? It was priced at 20 RMB, which is considerably more expensive than the sliced potatoes, fish halves, and chicken hearts we were used to. The beers around here run you 2 RMB - was it going to provide us 10 beers with of happiness? (Disclaimer: this is a bad metric to use, because almost nothing can match a decabeer's worth of satisfaction.) Still, I was worried we'd bitten off more than we could chew. Even with three hungry mouths seated around the table... have you seen a bull's equipment?

As we were lost in thought, our stomachs hadn't forgotten that it was taking a while to prepare. "Where's the wang?" they seemed to quip. We worried that they didn't have it "in stock," but some poor server was hunting around out back with a cleaver and bucket. Would this fetcher of phallus attempt to "excite" the poor beast first, in an attempt to get more bang for his buck? Maybe instead the waitstaff had to peruse the cellar for a pickled prick left over from last season? Alas, I must admit my ignorance in these matters.

At least we were happy that what was coming for us would be unique. Our foreign friend also piped in, "You know what they say: '吃什么, 补什么' (chi shenme, bu shenme)!" I guess I didn't know what they say. She explained, "you improve (or patch up) what you eat." With one simple sentence, I suddenly understood many observations of Chinese culture that had previously baffled me. Lack constitution? Chew some chicken hearts. Need some smarts? Munch on a monkey brain. I guessed that since men (as evidenced by spam e-mail) seem continually worried about the size of their trouser snakes, it wouldn't be uncommon to order one here. I suppose a reason I never noticed it before could be that it's slightly embarassing to do so. Maybe these bashful guys just call in the order and take it to go. But, most likely, it's just not a favorite meal option - I haven't exactly seen these things hanging around the frozen foods section of my local grocer.

Of course, that's one interpretation. The Western version of this idiom - "you are what you eat" - hits a little too close to home for me.

Our dish did eventually arrive, and to our surprise, with little fanfare. The plate hit the glass tabletop with the same hasty clank awarded to any other dish. Atop it were four chunks of apparent meat, the top of each had been sliced up a bit to allow it to expand outwards while cooking. Picture it like a Bloomin' Onion, but with a cattle's love truncheon. It even smelled spicy.

I was taken aback to find the Harbin-standard peppers and spices dotting our dish, as they're already abused enough on standard skewer-items. It's as though there are only two flavors for "commoner" food: hot or not, where "not" has a 30% representation at best. But we were all a bit too peckish to care at this point. Already salivating, I gripped it firmly between my wooden fingers and thrust the meat into my mouth... and bit.

And chewed.
And chewed.
And glanced back and forth between the others in an attempt to find agreement: "this is a workout, huh?"
Most of it had been spongy and easy to bite through, but holy cow, the bottom was something else!

I'd never masticated a member that hard in my life.

I wish I could tell you that screams of pleasure erupted from our tastebuds, but the chemistry just wasn't there. Maybe we'd gone too fast? Maybe we were just nervous? It was our first time, after all.

Now, I'm no connoisseur of cock, but ours simply proved too difficult to chew, uncomfortable to swallow beyond that (gag reflex), and whatever natural flavor it had was compromised by the blase seasoning. Hell, it could've been the most delectable knob ever, but you never would've been able to sense it through that thick, artificial barrier. In all honesty, this overdose could have been completely intentional as they scrounged around the kitchen for whatever "mystery meat" could be pawned off to us unsuspecting patrons. All objections aside, I can still truthfully state that it was the best penis I've ever tasted.

The worst part about those spices, though? The day after. I know you don't want to read the details of my intimacy with the toilet, so I'll just summarize, short and sweet: of the cornucopia of things that have come out of my ass all these years, nothing has burned more than that weiner.

Now what must I eat to "patch" that hole?

Hallo! Ween!


The best part about teaching is you get to learn as well. That's "get to" and not "have to" - you could do absolutely nothing but read from the books and repeatedly enunciate word pronunciations, but you wouldn't be a teacher, you'd be a parrot. I've been living for 10 months straight on my personal condensation of Paul Graham's enlightened advice: "add value." It's a great little philosophy that can be applied anywhere, anytime. It's also a great way to ensure that your job isn't replaced by a machine (or more embarassingly, software alone).

Any job that affords you the time to do personal research is a keeper. My adult classes necessitate plenty of web searching and reading, and often from a variety of sources (which is ideal when learning about any topic) since I'm trying to find content for the right level of reader. I've noticed that having software (or failing that, university English students) to take source articles and reduce the vocabulary and grammar to an ability-appropriate level could be quite lucrative. How many times I've had to manually strain out the obvious artifacts of thesaurus abuse from news articles...

I got to learn a bit about Halloween this month, and the history of the holiday is far too interesting to talk about with the little time I've set aside for this post. Dressing up as evil creatures to blend in with the real ones: brilliant!

As for the Chinese here in Harbin, Halloween isn't exactly "visible" like it would be in a Western country. They've imported Valentine's Day and Christmas (the presents - not the Christ), so why not the candy-consumerism of Halloween? Off the top of my head and with no prior research, I'd say it could be that firstly most of the Chinese don't really have houses and neighborhoods to plunder. Of course, I live in a city, but the suburbs aren't the statistically wealthier and more educated product of White Flight that they are in the States. In fact, they're the exact opposite.

The school once sponsored a trip to a place nicknamed "Crazy Lake" that was indeed true to its name - there was only a vast field... no lake. It doesn't get much crazier than that. On the bumpy bus ride there, I had plenty of time to observe the literally dirt-poor living conditions of the country mice. It's been noted in a few of the news articles I've read about China's modernization that the magnitude of the flight from rural areas to the cities is staggering. Here is a page with additional reasonable-generalizations-with-a-grain-of-salt factoids about urban life. Can't disagree about the architecture... how the hell Asia managed to have such stunning ancient structures and absolute shit-ugly modern ones is baffling.

Baffled is what I am. And perhaps you, too - if you remembered that I was supposed to be talking about Halloween. Well, the point is... I wouldn't want to be trekking around anywhere in China at night, even if candy was the prize. It's just that dangerous. Not as in crime - no way. All of the reasonable civil safeties you take for granted vanish instantly here. I always walk with my head down not because of low self-esteem but for fear of disappearing into a fresh ditch or pile of glass shards. You'd think a sudden chasm would be indicated with an orange cone or at least a line of tape, but the idea seems to be: there's a hole there, can't you see? And that's fine. I like to live dangerously. But remember since China is one perpetual construction project, new booby-traps appear daily.

When I asked my older classes about trick-or-treating, they confirmed that they wouldn't feel safe just going up to strangers for anything, let alone edibles. It's understandable. There isn't much of that stranger-to-stranger communication. "If you don't know someone, why would you talk to them?" "Well... how else do you get to know them?" is a reasonable response, but it's still considered rude by many to do so. That doesn't stop me from trying to ask for directions, though.

Kids being kids, we all (yes, I'm included) enjoy an excuse to dress up with a costume and play pranks on one another, so I'm sure Halloween will find its way to the hearts of the more Western-influenced China as this generation grows up. Regardless of the spirit of it, in the end it's all about business opportunities here, and anyone can see that there's a lucrative market waiting to be tapped. When it does happen, I hope they remember my Oscar-worthy re-enactment of monsters and make other foreigners proud of their zombie phonics...

Happy Halloween!

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