My Own Personal “Fear Factor”

When I was younger, my family would all sit down together and watch “Survivor” and then “The Fear Factor”.  On “The Fear Factor” reality show, contestants have to face their fears by outlasting the others in uncomfortable or disgusting situations. It was always a good time to scream or laugh at the awful conditions people put themselves through for the cash reward. The second phase of the competition was always eating something mentally repulsive. Contestants would try to gag down taboo meats like ox testicles. My family would always debate about whether we could eat the strange meals. I have eaten duck or pork intestine three times while in China, and each time I flash back to watching “The Fear Factor” with my family. If I were on that reality show, my training in China would definitely help me eat a few gag-inducing foods.

Obviously I know that the repulsion I feel towards certain foods is completely culturally constructed. But when I’m trying to swallow down a piece of chicken foot or duck blood, that understanding hardly helps me. I definitely don’t have a nuanced palate either. I have tried my hand at ostrich, but in general I tend to pass on any meat besides chicken. Before I came to Shanghai, though, I decided that I could not let my squeamish stomach limit me. If anyone was going to be eating strange foods, it would be me.

China is a great place for a cultural experience with food, too. Vegetables don’t necessarily taste like vegetables because they’re loaded with MSG. Chains of restaurants can make your stomach sicker than street food. Meats are plentiful, full of bones, and sometimes look still living. One of my best friends went on the Davidson in Peru program, and she brought me back a book called “Extreme Foods.” About one-fourth of the book’s examples were Chinese foods. A nervous American in China might spend days eating at McDonald’s while an adventurous eater can eat everything from dragon fruit to dog meat.

Although I was very nervous at first, intestine really isn’t too bad. I almost gagged during my first encounter, but by the third, I was eating some just for fun. It looks and tastes like I imagined intestine would (very, very chewy). Eating has been one of countless great benefits of coming to China. After eating so many culturally different foods, I doubt I’ll ever fear a food again.

Shanghai’s Wet Markets

In the United States, meat is neatly packaged, clean, and always perfectly pink. Or at least that is what advertising tells us over and over again. We hardly ever see the live animal that we are eating, and most of us do not want to. With the exception of seafood, American consumers like their meat to look as unlike meat as possible. The antithesis of American meat-phobia is Shanghai’s wet markets.

For our Chinese Marketplace class with Professor Pan Tianshu, my group is investigating the idea of hygiene and freshness at Shanghai wet markets compared to American grocery stores. For freshness, we are interested in how long it takes for the meat to go from animal to food on a table.  For hygiene, we are interested in the cultural relativity of cleanliness and food preparation. To that end, we visited a local wet market with many stands of meat, vegetables, eggs, and fish. The food is plentiful and very different from markets in the United States.

In Shanghai, there are fruit stands on every corner, but the wet markets with meat a little less common. It is rare to see a foreigner visiting the wet market, but the markets are packed with locals in the early morning. The wet market is lined with little stands, which are often run by one or two family members. When visiting the wet market, one can easily find live chickens and fish, many different bird eggs, pork, beef, and most vegetables and fruits.

The first stand we visited was serving live fish in tubs of water on the street. There were several vats of water categorized by type of fish. Each shallow layer of water had a tube running from it, which presumably oxygenated the fish’s water. The fish would flop around and slowly swim on their sides in the tub. I suspect that the water was not completely oxygenated because the fish were very lethargic, which is good for the sellers but bad for the fish. At one point, a man drove up on a moped with a huge plastic bag strapped to the back. He parked next the vats, pulled the container off, and started filling a new tub with water. At that moment, we noticed that the bag was actually squirming slightly on the ground. After the tub was filled, he pulled the bag open and started dumping out the fish. Fish would rush out gasping for air, and most would plop down into the tub. A few escaped and flopped onto the street, but the man deftly caught any escaped fish. It was an interesting sight to watch, and it was certainly not one that you would find in the United States.

Another memorable point about the wet market is the perception of food safety. Although there is a grassroots movement against factory farming, most Americans assume their meat is safe and the animals are well treated. In reality, that often is not the case, but most Americans do not ever see or come in contact with the reality. In China, a shopper can exactly see how their meat was prepared. Fish are killed, descaled, and chopped on a small stool right near the shopper. Chopped meat is laid out on an outdoors table for hours with a fan to keep the flies away. Live chickens are crammed into small cages, or they sometimes even walk around the shop without any restraint. It is beneficial that Chinese consumers can see the status of their meat, but at the same time, some of the wet market conditions are rather unappealing. For example, the sight of loose chickens wandering around next to meat that has been in the sun all day would bother me. Of course, that is probably a result of my American background.

Food is always cultural, and the wet markets are great evidence of that fact. Visiting Shanghai wet markets is meaningful because they show that food does not have to be frozen and packaged like it is in the United States. In the United States, we are so distanced from the animals that provide our food, so it is great to see a wet market where the underlying fear of meat is not present.

Family Matters

One thing I’ve learned during my few months in China is how important family can be.  Of course my family has always been there for me and I’ve met countless relatives over banquet dinners.  But growing up, I always attended these banquets with my parents.  Normally we’d have thirty people at two tables and an endless stream of fancy dishes.  I’d do my best to be polite and eat what was put in front of me.  Unfortunately, my inability to speak Chinese made these dinners uncomfortable.  I would sit and not my head when people talked to me, doing my best to appear as polite as possible.  In my head I wanted to have the meal, be polite, and go home.

But during this trip, I haven’t had my parents with me during these meals.  My first meal alone with relatives was here in Shanghai.  During the mid-autumn festival, I got to have lunch with my paternal grandfather’s younger brother’s family.  At this meal none of my relatives could speak English.  While our conversations were limited to my limited vocabulary, I definitely was able to make a connection with them that I had not made before.  Some of the meal we spent making simple small talk.  Other times we simply sat and ate the delicious food.  And yet throughout the entire meal I felt a sense of connection with all of them.  I had only met them a few times before but they treated me as if they had known me for years.  It felt good to be included with them.

My next family meal came in Taiwan.  My mom emailed me a week before our trip letting me know that I had relatives in Taipei and that I should arrange a meal with them.  Before the meeting, I had no idea who these relatives were.  I simply knew that I was related to them some how and that I needed to go to eat with them.  I went to purchase a few small gifts before the dinner.  Immediately after meeting them, I felt welcome and comfortable.  After some light discussion (they spoke English!) I found out that my grandpa’s father and this great-uncle’s father were brothers.  My great-uncle, great-aunt, their three kids, and one grandkid were all present.  While this may seem like a very distant relationship, they treated me as if I was a part of their family.  My great uncle told me stories about the three years he spent living with my grandpa while they were younger.  Hearing these stories touched me and helped give me a different view of my grandpa.  To this great-uncle my grandfather was not an elderly figure who took care of him like he was to me.  To my great-uncle, he was a friend and brotherly figure.  While I knew that my grandfather was an amazing man, it was very special to hear such personal stories of how he had changed another person’s life.  My great-aunt even began to cry a little bit as she remembered my grandfather’s visits to Taipei and Kending.

I think these experiences have definitely helped me to appreciate my family even more than I did before.  One of the biggest reasons I want to become fluent in Chinese is so that I can connect with more of my relatives.  I want to be able to hear more of their stories and learn more about my family history.  I’m definitely fortunate to have so many amazing family members all over China and am excited to get to know some of them better during my time here.

There and Back Again

It was not until I returned to Taiwan after spending a month and a half in Shanghai that I really discovered just how different the cultures on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are.

Or, to be more accurate, it was not until I found myself acting in accordance with Shanghai culture (and against Taiwanese culture) that I began to realize the gulf.

In broad daylight, on the fairly busy Linsen North Road in Zhongshan District, Taipei City, I found myself stepping out to cross the road during a lull in traffic, at a point roughly equidistant from the two nearest crosswalks. As I did so, I had 5 revelations in rapid succession:

  • This is really rather stupid;
  • This is quite lazy;
  • This is probably illegal;
  • This is what people do in Shanghai, and;
  • This is not what people do in Taipei.

A month and a half spent in Shanghai, with its unique traffic patterns for both pedestrians and drivers had desensitized me to the sensibilities about traffic I’d learned growing up in the United States (as in, it’s probably quite stupid, not to mention illegal, to jaywalk). When I began to cross a busy street in Taipei I realized that jaywalking is not generally considered acceptable behavior there, as it is not generally considered acceptable behavior in the United States.

I discovered many further differences between Taiwanese culture and Shanghai culture over the next few days. “Night culture” was perhaps the most starkly different. Shanghai, which is often considered a “global” city, quickly shuts down after about 8:00 PM. Bars and nightclubs remain open, and it’s possible to find vendors hawking fried rice or noodles as late as two in the morning, but these are not really pervasive parts of the culture. Outside of the small areas of the city with a high per capita presence of nightclubs, the streets are almost silent at night. A garbage collector might roam the streets, picking up trash, but he’s invariably alone; a late night public bus might cruise its route, but it’s invariably empty; Family Mart or Lianhua Supermarket might be open 24/7, but, invariably, no one walks in during the late-night hours. For the average Shanghainese, night is a time to remain at home.

Taipei stands in stark contrast, with night culture is omnipresent. Night markets, the pride of the Taiwanese tourist industry, remain crowded by locals and tourists alike until 11 PM; college students stumble out of KTVs well after midnight; old folks sit around outside chatting until all hours of the night. Even late at night, the city still feels alive – while New York may be called the City That Never Sleeps, Taipei actually feels like the City That Never Sleeps.

Food culture also differs significantly between Shanghai and Taipei. In Taipei, friends connect over food on a regular basis – food is the basis for a large portion of Taiwanese social interaction (for really great examples of this, see the movies Eat Drink Man Woman and Au Revoir, Taipei, in both of which food is a central plot element). Food is also the primary focus of most Taiwanese domestic tourism. Whenever they go somewhere new, the main thing Taiwanese people do is try the special local treat (the variety and sheer numbers of these local delicacies is truly astounding for an island the size of New Jersey). In Shanghai, however, food does not seem to carry the same cultural significance. Oftentimes it can be nigh impossible to find something to eat during non-peak hours!

My analysis of Taiwanese culture undoubtedly carries a heavy bias, as the year I spent living there was highly formative for me, and I will likely always have an abiding love of the island and its people. We’ll have to wait for my classmates’ reflections on their time in Taipei to get a solid comparison of Taiwanese and Mainland culture. However, I think it really is fair to say that significant differences exist between the two, regardless of relative strengths and weaknesses. While these differences are not an insurmountable barrier, they do have the potential to inhibit unification, and culture is something that leaders on both sides of the Taiwan Strait need to be cognizant of.

Experiencing Anqing Baozi by Daniel Seabrooks

Experiencing Anqing Baozi by Daniel Seabrooks from thefieldworker on Vimeo.