Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Thousand Year Man: Part 2

The Thousand Year Man: Part 2

After what seemed like a long day, we finally sat down and had a lunch. Robert wanted to eat in a restaurant located really close to Mao’s house. His rationale was that we’d be eating in a place the Mao himself may have eaten. I had only brought about 150 yuan (which is only about 25 dollars), so I was hoping that we wouldn’t eat anything that’d require me to break the bank in one sweep. As we looked over the menu, Robert started speaking Chinese to the waitress and pointed to several things on the menu. I was a little nervous to even ask him how much it’d all cost, but I did anyways. Surprised, he said “It is my pleasure, you are my friend. It’s no problem.” Relieved, but embarrassed, I happily accepted. (While the exchange rate may be 6:1 here, I’m still quite poor and am treading water financially all the time, so any excuse to not spend money is a good one).
Robert was most excited about one particular dish which was called “Mao’s Meat.” Via translation, he told us that this dish was one of Chairman Mao’s personal favorites. About four cigarettes by Robert and Dawson–along with about twenty minutes–the meal arrived…and then again….and again….and again. Suddenly there were four giant plates of food in front of us. And just as I grabbed my chopsticks, another two dishes were placed on the table; six meals in total.
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If you look at the picture above you can see all the dishes we were served. With Mao’s Meat front and center next to my glasses. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “That looks good,I want Mao’s Meat,” but believe me, you don’t. I was as excited as anyone when the food arrived, but Mao’s meat was an epic fail. Mao’s Meat ought to have been called Mao’s Jello Fat, because that’s all it was. There was maybe a small splinter of meat per Mao cube, but the majority of it was a jiggly-wiggly nightmare of Mormon Jello gone very, very wrong. Do you want to know how I know it was especially bad? Robert didn’t like it either. In fact, none of our Chinese friends would eat it. Robert kept speaking English to the Chinese waitresses, saying “Mao would never do this to innocent people,” or “Mao would give this back.” The rest of the food was pretty good, albeit very different than what a Western person might be used to.
For example, there is a little jar of toothpicks to the left of the Mao meat. If you look directly up from that you’ll see a pile of chicken bones. Now, hold that thought for a moment and look directly to the right. See the yellow bottle on the far right of the screen? Well, the bowl that is behind it is a type of Ginger Chicken. While it tasted fantastic, we had the misfortune of realizing that our chefs essentially minced up an entire chicken, cooked it,  and served it to us. For every small morsel of chicken you ate, you also received a gratuitous amount of crushed chicken bones to go with it. This made eating dainty impossible. Which brings me back to the pile of chicken bones. Essentially, what we learned by watching our hosts is that you eat the chicken a la sunflower seed-style, and spit out the extras on to the table. So throughout the meal you’d have five people munching bits of chicken, and spitting out the extras near your plate. This became super-awesome when you realize that in China everyone eats community style. So to get more food, you had to reach over people’s spit piles to scoop some more. It sounds gross (and it was), but it was a lot of fun.
It was certainly a conflicted moment for me however. On the one hand, we have a very kind, very gracious host who has just said that he’ll be paying for everything, but on the other cultural norms from America were being violated all over the place. I kept thinking to myself that I am the one that is the foreigner in their land, this is normal, I’m the weird one. The experience was positive, and was made even more hilarious once Robert, Lily, and Dawson started drinking the infamous Maotai.
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This can represents the most coveted Chinese Alcohol you’re likely to ever come across. This particular bottle was sealed in 1983. To give you an idea of how highly the Chinese esteem this drink, later in the day we went to a Mao museum that had a bottle of this stuff that had been hand crafted for Mao personally, but was never consumed. They take this drink seriously.  Robert was sure to tell us several times that each bottle will cost well over 3,000-4,000 yuan. It was impressive, but really awkward when you consider that we don’t drink. Robert accepted our excuse once I told him that he was actually lucky. “You get to drink for both of us,” I said. Immediately his eyes lit up and he told me that he could do that for me.
Shot after shot after shot, they drank while we also drank….pear juice. Robert told us that part of the reason Maotai is so coveted is because you can drink it all and not get drunk. This is not true. Within an hour he was pretty buzzed, but a happy buzzed. He told us how great Mao is and how he would have been great friends with Washington. He also told us about his great dislike for Japanese. The climax of this conversation ended with Robert standing on his chair shouting to everyone else in the restaurant in English about how he hates the Japanese. It was embarrassing, but hilarious. Here I am with my wife and baby in the heart of China; the very place Mao himself grew up, and I’m dining with Chinese friends and cursing the Japanese. I have to admit, I found it to be an awesome experience, and loved watching Robert get into a groove while Dawson–the more quiet philosophical drunk–told me about Chinese and Japanese relations in very broken English.