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Pig Trotter and Packled Prunes


(The Hong Kong Disneyland Carolers, seen here on the steps of the Blue House. Photo by GuoDong Zhang.)

Sometimes being a slasher takes me to the most exotic far-off places. And sometimes, being in the most exotic far-off places means eating Chinese cafeteria food thrice daily.

Now, wait just a minute. I’m not talking about Americanized Chinese food! This is the real deal. Ain’t no Panda Express up in here, people. P.F. Changs it is NOT.

I always qualify the statement “I love Hong Kong!” with a quieter, off the cuff, “Bummer about the food, though”. I recently completed my third holiday contract of ten weeks singing with my a cappella quartet at a theme park, and I give every experience with them—except the food—very high marks.

Our Chinese friend Sunny even took us to see the site of the Occupy movement in Admiralty, and that alone was worth the trip. A student-led movement of protestors peacefully lined the streets in tents, studying diligently and giving away free haircuts to anyone who needed them.

This was not a rally for independence from China, though many Hong Kong people want that. All they wanted this time was the ability to elect their own leaders. We wondered how long it would go on until the mainland Chinese government came to shut them down.

We wondered this while munching on street food made of Creatures on Sticks.

At the local grocery, there are fish heads on ice. There are Pig knuckles. (Translated as "Pork Trotter"). An entire section of Dried Sea Things. I don’t understand them.

Foreign animal parts, gloopy sauces and bones fill out most dishes. I mean, why take the time to debone a bird when bones are so easy to spit out ? At the table. In front of everybody.

I imagine authentic Chinese cooking school goes like this: On the first day each student is issued huge ax for chickens and ducks and pigs. “Add rice and serve,” the teacher says. Diploma.

At lunchtime, my Chinese friends would sit across from me happily gnawing on a dim sum of chicken feet.

The canteen at work had simple, cafeteria-style offerings. I usually passed on the featured entrees, because on my first day I asked, what’s the soup? And the lady lifted a ladle of hot broth with a pig snout floating on top, and everything went in slow motion for about thirty seconds.

From then on, I started getting busy learning the words for plain rice and noodle bowl instead of getting nosy about what was in those scary tubs.

I got hungry again about an hour after eating.

Sometimes, on a good day, the lunch lady would reach inside a tiny refrigerator and pull out a gas-station style, pre-made bologna and cheese sandwich.

Sweet manna.

Hoarding it like a cat burglar with a vintage diamond necklace, I backed away from the canteen slowly, soundlessly, in an effort not to alert the other Westerners. You never saw jealousy like ‘bologna sandwich in Hong Kong’ jealousy. Nobody touch my feast.

Anthony Bourdain was on television there all the time. One episode, he was sitting on the beach, ripping up a crab to get to the tasty insides. He explained that the harder we work on our food, the higher the payoff, and that if we aren’t willing to put in even a little bit of work for tangible culinary delight, then how can we expect to do anything of value? Much less defend our country, our rights?

I couldn’t decide who he was telling to 'get over our bone problem'. Was he talking to me or the Chinese people? The student-led Occupy movement we visited was eventually disbanded. About halfway through my contract in Hong Kong, hoards of peaceful protestors were sent home, unwilling to confront the police with force.

Unwilling to debone the food. Unwilling to use violence. I tried politely not to notice the correlation.

Hungry people shouldn’t watch Anthony Bourdain, I grumbled to myself.

And I really heard myself then, how I sounded, in all my pampered American splendour.

What was I saying? Was I making a blanket statement about an entire culture that simply wasn’t true? Had I become annoyed by their assumed “laziness”? Was I so jaded in my Eurocentric mindset that I would blame these sweet, peaceful citizens for their inability to defend themselves against authentic tyranny simply because they don’t take the time to prepare their food with panache?

I have never experienced fear like those students out in the tents must have felt. The odds were stacked against them from the beginning, waiting to be driven out by men with tear gas and clubs. Shame on me.

Or is that the same mentality that causes an entire people to lose their shot at independence? America would not be America unless there had been folks willing to fight the good fight, laying down lives, and leaving behind wives and children who would only read about the conflict in history books from a quiet backyard. Might the Hong Kong people have something to learn from us?

Yet we, with our massive American egos, have something to learn from them as well. I couldn’t help but admire their mental control. They had an ability to leave their anger behind as they cleaned up after themselves, offered free services to one another, and did the best they could do under the terms of their own principals. Without guns. Without violence. They made thier statement.

I knew in my heart that it was time to mind my own ‘bones’. I’ve never really been hungry, not a day in my life. If I’m in a country where everything edible is considered good food, it’s because their families must have gone without. And we can’t waste good food when some folks literally starve.

Yes, there might be limited choices, but real hunger is having no food. Knowing I can come home and walk into a Whole Foods, and choose my own food, is a luxury beyond measure.

Perhaps I should pick out my favorite Dried Sea Thing and figure out how to cook with it. After all, what’s the point of being a slasher if I refuse the adventures that come of it?

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