Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Food Ethics or We Are All Diseased

I teach a unit in Passages 2 (the highest level book before students decide to do full-time study of either IETLS or TOEFL) about animal ethics, which has a very different meaning in China than it does in America. One of the conversations that I bring up centers around food and why, as a species, humans have a generally agreed upon set of meats that we agree are good and meats that we agree are bad, but there is a large spectrum of grey area of meats that are considered okay by some but not by others.

An open-air market in China
China is filled with open-air markets, and what I’m now referring to as “back alley butchers.” On our way to work, up what we call “Smelly Fish Street” for apt reasons, people hawk live (and often dead) fish, crabs, mollusks, and various other forms of seafood, which occasionally break free only to be squashed by a bicyclists. This predominantly centers around an alley whose main purpose is to serve up various meats, fish, spices, fruits, and vegetables. Many western/developed countries have a huge disconnect between their food and where their food comes from, to the point that when I ask a lot of my American students the origin of their food they tell me, “The store.” As if the grocery store was actually a giant farm that produced the food they consume. It’s hard to feel disconnected from your food when you can literally by the whole animal, as is often the case here.

A pretty typical meat stand. Now imagine 50
of them in a row with more variety.
When I ask my Chinese students why certain meat is off limits, many suggest religious reasons. Very true. Many people think cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks are fair game, but cows are off limits to Hindus and pigs to Jews. I then ask for any other reasons they can think of and they normally suggest that endangered species don’t get eaten. I normally say, “Right, we’re not going to eat a panda.” This normally elicits a laugh, because the idea of eating a panda is so bizarre.

This is when I channel my inner Andrew Zimmern (host of Bizarre Foods and creator of the tagline, “If it looks good, eat it”) and start throwing out different things and test the students' response, all the while playing the Switzerland of meat appropriation and pretending not to have an opinion.  I had an interesting conversation with one of my students about one of my least favorite animals:

Me: “Alright, so what about rats?”
Diana: (yells) “That’s disgusting.”
Me: “Why?” (Mind you, my stomach is churning at the very idea of eating a rat.)
Diana: “They’re so ugly!”
Me: “Does your food need to be attractive?”
Diana: “They eat trash.”
Me: “Okay, that’s fair. They eat trash, so you would, in turn, be eating trash. But we’re thinking about city rats. The big, ugly black ones that live in your trash can. What about rats that live out in a swamp and eat only the grass?”
Diana: “That’s still disgusting.”

I then explained to her about the episode of Bizarre Foods I saw in which Andrew Zimmern travelled to Uganda where swamp rat is a staple because they’re 1) clean, 2) plentiful, 3) cheap, 4) good protein. She wasn’t convinced. I’m not either.

Here are some other things that come up:

Horse and donkey: Most westerns would scoff at these on their plates. Horse is a riding animal, almost close to a pet, and in general doesn’t belong in western dishes. It’s a pretty common food source in China.

Bug kebabs. 
Bugs: Another western taboo. These are a pretty common food source, particularly in Southeast Asia for the same reason as rats are popular in Uganda. Bugs were pretty much the epicenter of every Task 2 Fear Factor challenge, in which terrified Americans competing for half a million dollars would need to eat a cockroach. News flash: Fear is relative.

Turtle: I brought this up to the same student with whom I had brought up rats and she, again, looked shocked and awed because she loves turtles so much. (I honestly didn’t know that before suggesting it.) Anyway, about a week later, I saw five dead turtles for sale on Smelly Fish Street.

Rabbit: This is a sore subject for some because rabbits are pets. But rabbits are also food for a lot of people all over the world.

Sheep and goat: These animals are not necessarily considered by most as “taboo” but I’ve met a fair amount of people who just think eating sheep or goat is gross for one reason for another. As with many opinions regarding meat, it’s sometimes hard to find an articulate explanation.

All the other parts of the animals: Feet, brains, eyes, tail, privy bits, tongue, whatever. Even though I’m not into piling myself a helping, I admire that civilizations, including China, actually use the majority of the animal they’ve slaughtered.

Dog: This is a polarizing meat, and I tend to save it for the end of the conversation. Many of my students shudder and think it’s disgusting – which is the way I feel because, to me, dogs are loyal friends and companions – but I’ve had a handful who think, or used to think in the case of one, dog is a scrumptious chow (so to speak). And it certainly is sold and consumed here. There are restaurants that specialize in it, and fully intact, shaved dead dogs are sold down the aforementioned alley, a.k.a. Dead Dog Alley.

Much of the western consensus regarding meat has to do with the procurement. But again, this tends to only apply to “non-standard” meat sources. For instance, shark fin, which is appropriated in an exceedingly cruel way, wherein the fishermen drag the shark into their boats, cut off its fins, then throw it back in the water to drown. Our stomachs and bleeding hearts wrench at this, while we wolf down our Big Macs and KFC and Value Time chicken/pork/steak without an iota of thought about where that meat came from. (If you want a non-PETA take on McDonald’s egg procurement, check out this link

Factory-farmed chicken, which is pretty much every
chicken sold in fast food places and supermarkets
that doesn't specifically tell you it was locally grown
on a cage-free farm.
We get our proverbial panties in a twist because other countries eat different meats that we do, and
somehow we think that, because our diet consists of pork, beef, and poultry, we are somehow superior. But we can't be bothered to delve into the elemental nature of our own food and we continue to propagate fast food chains, have some pretty absurd ideas about what "free range" means, and allow ourselves to buy "value" (read: cheap) meat, like the stuff available at Super Wal-Marts.

So, why is it that some meat is okay and other is shocking? I don’t have an answer, but I think the whole thing is very interesting, particularly as someone who eats very little meat to begin with. For me, my stomach churns every time we walk down Dead Dog Alley (unfortunately the quickest route between our school and King Street, a place we frequent for groceries and restaurants), and not just because of the dog carcasses. The pig’s heads, the huge slabs of ribs, probably from a horse or cow, the full chickens, dangling from the walls by their feet, and the myriad other meats dripping blood along the suppliers’ tables creates a stench that curls my spine. But the reality is still that that is what meat is. It’s not prettily packaged patties that grow in a store. It’s not breaded nuggets we buy at a fast food place. It’s not steak stripped of bones and hair. It’s an animal.

I’m not telling anyone what they should and should not do in the case of meat. I, myself, do partake – I love turkey (D’Angelos, I’m coming for you when I get home), I love squid, I love tuna – and I’m not prepared to give those things up. But, particularly in western countries – America, I’m looking at you – we are in absolute denial about what our meat really is. Part of that, I imagine, is blissful ignorance, but I think it is one of the catalysts for America’s very skewed and – dare I say? – diseased relationship with food. It is exceedingly important, I think, to know the origins of your food, if even for the pretentious reason that knowledge is power and ignoring your foods’ origins is a weird form of self-censorship. And, for the record, no, children, your food doesn’t come from the store.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Special Shops and Meanderings

It's spring here and there are some flowers. As Karen Walker said in an episode of Will and Grace, "Aw, honey, they're almost beautiful."

I've been here ten months now, and I officially have no clothes that fit and very few without rather catastrophic holes. (Donations accepted, thanks.) I am now wearing predominantly an extremely ugly pair of jeans - made uglier by the fact that they're now a size or two too big and baggy in all the wrong places - and yoga pants. I'm rationing the yoga pants, however, because I want them to last. And apparently, I wear clothes harder in China.

So, yeah, right, now all my clothes are too big. Before you all go saying things like, "Oh, how wonderful," a couple of things: 1) Remember who you're talking to; 2) Really think about the next thing I'm going to tell you. I eat 100% more Oreos and KFC and drink at least 75% more soda and alcohol than I do at home. My diet is disgusting. I would say that, because we walk to work, which averages probably about an hour total (to and from work twice) five days a week, I'm getting more movement, but I think the weight loss is mostly psychologically influenced. And, despite it, I'm still too big for pretty much anything in China. I'm a 5XL here.

5XL. I'd have to go to what my students call "a special shop" to find anything that fits. And it's not like there aren't any fat people here. It's just that fat exists in kind of a different way. Actually, I should say that beauty ideology exists in a different way. In America, beauty and health are very much intertwined and we're force-fed this idea that in order to be healthy and desirable our abs must be flat and our thighs mustn't touch, and in order to achieve this we should drink laxatives (SlimFast) and hop onto fad diets and pay billions of dollars to the diet industry all the while being self-deprecating and promising that our future selves will be different, which is it's own special brand of bullshit. BUT we can still walk into almost any store - except, you know, those "super cool" places like Abecrombie and Fitch - and buy plus sizes, or as I like to call them, sizes. In China, beauty and health are mostly separate, but thin is very, very much in, to the point where people who would probably be a size six or eight in America think they're enormous. Especially for women, being waifish with arms that you can wrap hands around is quite sought after. Forget weight lifting. Anyway, consequently (perhaps), the vast majority of stores aren't stocked with larger size clothing.

An anecdote: Around August - so, a while ago - I asked one of my students where I could find leggings. I rather stupidly hadn't brought any, and I thought it would behove me to have a pair or two. Her mother was a shop owner, so my student said she'd ask her mother if there were any "special shops" that sold leggings. She reported back to me that I could "have them tailor made." Fucking leggings. I can buy them for $6.00. Tailor made. Jesus.

So, anyway, I am now stuck with my hobo-esque wardrobe, which grows more bedraggled everyday. It's spring, as I said, so I can hopefully start wearing skirts and dresses soon, but I bid adieu to my last functional pair of tights several months ago.

I am very much looking forward to Cumby's-hopping and refilling coffee for $1.09 while buying some new tights and jeans. I will then eat a bagel. Perhaps a turkey grinder. That's the plan.

Oh, also - and on a completely different topic - does anyone know when George R.R. Martin is planning on finishing book 6 of A Song of Ice and Fire. I mean, seriously. Okay, so I've never written an epic series, or anything, but there are things that need to be clarified. So, if somebody runs into him, tell him to get on it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Big Fat Wonderful Cat

Typical Samson, snuggled up on the bed.
I saw your photo online. I went to meet you in Springfield. You were wary at first. I sat on the floor and tried to play with you, but you didn't care. You sat under a desk. I stayed on the floor and talked with Quinn for a while and asked questions about you to the person whose desk you were under.

Eventually you came out. Still wary, but you rubbed yourself on my back and gave me headbutts on my elbow.

You didn't cry once the whole way home.
The cat family.

For about two days you lived under the bed, nervous about your new surroundings -- somewhat interested in Desmond (who was moreso interested in your special food) and rightfully cautious of Emily whose bark is much worse than her bite. When you came out, you found a place on my pillow and you pretty much only left it to enjoy your place on my couch. Or my chair. Or my lap.

Samson's 16th birthday party.
I'd always wanted to adopt on older cat because it didn't seem fair to me for any animal to spend the rest of their lives in a cage, waiting for permanent love. I honestly didn't think you were going to last so long.

I'm so glad you did.

Here is the truth: I have had some wonderful cats in my life, but you are the best of the best. I don't know who you are -- whose soul inhabited and created your life -- but you are the most unbelievable companion.

Even people who don't really like cats like you. And those people who already liked cats love you. Because you are a cut above.

I don't know why your previous people let you go. I can't imagine why they would have. Who could
Samson and Jake sharing a head-butt moment.
willingly give up that face? Those eyes that look at you with pure love? The dog-like way you follow people around? And the big white paw that reaches up to you, demanding affection? The way your enormous, pillowy belly points upward as you roll around on the floor, your back paws clenched in a comical, endearing way. And the occasional spryness with which you manically chase a toy mouse, a ball, or nothing at all, and then promptly return to a cuddle session.

You have the worst breath ever. But it doesn't matter because a headbutt from you makes everything better.

Pillow time. 
Every time I took you to the vet she told me you were too fat. That always made me laugh. Like I was going to put my 17 year old cat on a diet. One time, she was snipping a matt away, and she accidentally nicked you and you ran into my arms. I thought that was the sweetest thing. I still do.

I'm so sorry I'm here right now instead of by your side, even though I know that you actually love Megan more than you love anyone else in the world. You were a serious consideration for me to stay. I'm so sorry I couldn't.

More than any creature I have ever met, you thrive off love. So know, remember, realize how very loved you are.

Keep my pillow warm and furry and enjoy the kisses of the spring sunshine.
Christmas isn't complete without a family photo.

Eat your Chobani and stay with us, Samson. You may be ready to go, but we're not ready to let you.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

All in a Day

It's finally happened. It took ten and a half months, but the inevitable finally occurred: I got hit by a bike on my way to work.

Let me paint a picture for you. There is a sidewalk. The sidewalk is loaded with parked scooters and bicycles, vendors selling toenail clippers and smelly food, somebody doing open-air welding with construction parts all around, there are cars parked every which way. I cannot walk on the sidewalk. There is a bike path. The bike path is teeming with pedestrians, bikers, people on scooters food vendors, small trucks, and pretty regularly cars that honk incessantly like you're walking on THEIR bike path.

There is a blue truck parked, blocking half the bike path and it's hard to see around it. Because of this, people should make an effort to slow down, be slightly more conscientious.

They don't.

The parked blue truck is longer than I thought it was. I saddle up next to the side of it. An older man on a bike comes at an alarming speed around the truck right in my direction. I shimmy to the right to try to avoid him. He points his bike at me. I continue to shimmy to the right, but a little faster and he does, too, apparently not as concerned as me about the encroaching impact. This is mostly because he's gazing off into the horizon, seemingly unaware that there are too many people trying to squeeze past this truck. I've almost made it to the curb, but I really, really, really want to avoid stepping on the sewer grate, festooned with various pieces of trash, discarded food, and generally weird, wet, smelly things. Just as I try to lunge for the curb, he hits my left leg.

Could he have just kept going straight? Yes. Could he have gone right? Yes. Could he have actually looked up and/or ahead to see that I was right in front of him? Yes. Did he care? Not one iota. In fact, he didn't say A SINGLE THING - not that I would have known if he were apologizing anyway, but the fact that he didn't kind of gives you some idea of the frequency with which this probably happens - and just drove away merrily as I muttered some curse words and brushed the dirt of my black pants.