Do I eat the Head?

Next to my hotel is a collection of restaurants. Bill took Vega (my TA) and me to two of them. So when I decided that I couldn’t just hide in my hotel room and live on the breakfast buffet, I went to one of the two places I knew. I chose it because I remembered the menu had pictures. Baby steps.

I had my sentence all ready “A table for one, please.” (Qĭng gĕi wŏ yī rén de zhuō zĭ.) and I had written it out in characters onto a note card. This was both good and bad. It was good because the hostess did not quite understand me, but when I showed her the card, she smiled and set me at a huge round table. Most restaurants in China are family-style places, and I felt acutely alone at the big table. It was bad because for the rest of the night, the wait staff wrote answers to my questions on the note card, in Chinese characters.

Now, the title of this entry is an example of this. I thought I was ordering roasted duck, or maybe chicken. And I did indeed get a bird, though it was cool and not the parts I expected. I’m pretty sure I was given the half of the bird which contained the ribs and windpipe – like a weird, not quite breast, not really wing, and certainly not thigh part of the bird. And on the plate was half the head of said bird, cooked. I did not want to be rude, but I also did not know if the head was a garnish or a piece to be eaten.
I broke out my phrasebook and my dictionary app, and put together the following sentence:

Wŏ chī tóu ma (Literally: I eat head question mark)

I wrote it down, again because my pronunciation was perhaps not up to snuff. And it was the writing the waitress understood. Then she wrote a very long response in characters, and I had to admit I did not understand. It didn’t matter, as I started working on the pieces of the bird’s head I recognized – the brain, the eyeball. This seemed to please the two waitresses (I was really attended by four women – I think they found me amusing), and so we were all satisfied. I’m glad I ordered chopped vegetables too – there wasn’t enough windpipe to be filling. And soup – but again because they serve all food family style, I couldn’t finish everything. Culturally, I this is a sign of respect (it means that you are satisfied). My Western self was chiding because I couldn’t clean my plate.

Another thing about this – I was not ready for the deference. When I eat back home, sometimes I’m lucky if I get a server’s attention. Here, I was treated like a celebrity. Those four waitresses made sure that my tea was never empty, that I had more than enough of everything. I mean, one woman brought me a Pepsi on a silver platter, even though I did not ask for one (and I didn’t take it – not gonna go over budget). And because I know that a smile and a good attitude can make a difference, we all got along quite well even though I couldn’t understand them and they only understood me if I wrote in characters, or repeated myself several times.

I wonder if that’s what Imperialism feels like – the expectation of such behavior. It caught me off guard – I was a little uncomfortable feeling everyone watch me eat, listen to me mangle the language. Part of me can see the allure, though. Who wouldn’t like soy milk simply procured without having to say anything at all?


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