The Thing On My Plate
J. Allen Whitt
On a two-week speaking trip to China, I was accompanied by my Chinese host Mr. Zhao. Yes, we visited the Great Wall, saw the tombs of 73 generations of Confucius’ descendants, visited Beijing, Shanghai, and other attractions. A university professor in the States, I was scheduled to speak at the University of Shandong in Jinan Province near the end of my stay.
We took a train from Beijing to Jinan. When we arrived in Jinan, I did not realize that the university had scheduled a dinner in my honor. The President of Shandong University, three faculty members, and Mr. Zhao and I sat at a large round table with a turntable in the middle. Food was placed on the turntable and sent around the table for us to partake. My thoughtful hosts made sure I had a spoon and fork. I felt that was a little too much, especially since they used chopsticks. Most of the food was delicious, and I recognized some of it from my trips to Chinese restaurants back home.
But one dish merits special attention. When it came around to me, I did not like the looks of it. It consisted of long, segmented, dark brown strips of something about one-half inch in diameter. Sort of like a large, discolored pipe-cleaner or small Slinky toy. I took a couple of pieces on my plate. With some trepidation, I took a bite of one. To my Western palate, it was disgusting. Somewhat slimy, with a taste I imagined as a cross between an over-cooked, tough link sausage dipped in dishwater and rolled in sand. It grated against my teeth as I chewed—and chewed, and chewed. When I had finished the dainty bite, I cleverly pushed to rest of it to the side of my plate and attempted to bury it under morsels of other food. I took a shot of báijiǔ, a vodka-like high-alcohol spirit, to wash the taste out of my mouth. As I did so, everyone else politely took a drink too.
As the meal progressed, Mr. Zhao translated our comments from Chinese to English and English to Chinese. It was an honor to be thus treated by my gracious hosts. Near the end of the meal, I began to inquire about the various dishes we had eaten. Through Mr. Zhao, they explained each one.
Not wanting to be obvious about it, or offend, I reserved the unknown dish until the last. I pointed to it on my plate and asked Mr. Zhao what it was. He did not know. The question went around the table. Some shook their heads, and several replied to him in Chinese. When Mr. Zhao turned back to me, he looked puzzled. “We do not know what to call it in English,” he said, “But it is something that lives in the bank of a river.” I immediately had visions of snakes—and worms.
That was all I needed to know.
Another slug of báijiǔ.
About the Author
Allen Whitt is a Vietnam veteran of three combat deployments to the Gulf of Tonkin aboard an aircraft carrier. He recently retired as a Professor Emeritus of Sociology, and now enjoys writing creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. His novel, Notes From the Other Side of the Mountain, was selected as a Finalist in the 2013 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. The Endurance of Letters, a short essay of rememberance, won first place in a national creative writing contest for veterans. He also has a number of other publications in such magazines as Cream City Review, Veterans’ Voices, As You Were, Lyric, Westview, Concho Review, Front Porch, and Louisville Magazine.