Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pink Poodles and Rubbery Skin

Spring time has arrived without warning in Shanghai. The sun is shining and the flowers are opening their weary eyes. Like the hips of a Flamenco dancer, the blue sky teases people to come into its embrace. Children cavort on the streets and toss off their winter coats, vendors smile as their rusty and oxidized fingers get a respite from the elements, old weathered men gather around shaky card tables to gamble away their beer money, and women strut down the roads donning their new spring outfits as they flirt with anyone who is privy to their glance. There is a cheery quirkiness to all the peacock feathers, and even the passing poodle with its brightly dyed pink ears and feet induces a smile. A light-hearted breeze carries the dancing giggles of school girls from over across the road and one no longer feels as though, with each step, the grunt of the bruised wintry earth deepens. One is no longer weary and can grab at the world as it drifts by.

I met a friend for lunch at a local Chinese luncheonette. We passed the tins of boiled-basted-and-fried chicken feet at the entrance and sat at a rickety wooden table in the back of the room. Lunch hour was almost over and the remnants of past clients - cigarette butts, glass coke and beer bottles, chopstick wrappers, and food bits - were strewn throughout the room; peoples’ foot prints were embedded in the muck left behind. The old-fashioned divider under our table was not intended for our western physique and we struggled to fold them into-under-or-beside the table. The waitress’ smile was eager and friendly but her English was as weak as our Chinese was strong. Chinese restaurants tend to have menus where each dish is accompanied by a photo but this menu boasted no more than Chinese characters and we struggled to order our lunch.

Was there a menu which did have photos? All the elementary mandarin phrases which had been earnestly practiced and memorized ad nausea from 1-2.30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays with my teacher Joyce seemed to ebb and flow in my mind. My arms flailed about without control as I tried to patchwork together random phrases but the poor girl eyes just got wider and more confused. I pointed to the one picture decorating the otherwise barren and dirt walls. The waitress turned to look at this crumpled magazine page that had been framed in a glassless unit and smiled, exuberantly declaring that the restaurant did serve chicken.

Oh yes, the photo was actually that of a farm scene and she thought we had pointed to our meal of choice. With sweat pouring down my brow, with the flush of shame glowing on my cheeks, I began to point at other things, at other people. There were still a few dishes with coagulated remnants on tables in the vicinity and she made a list.

After sucking on the chicken bones, spitting on the remains and relishing the last juices encrusted on their fingers, our neighbors began to stare at us. We were certainly more entertaining than their now empty plates. They lit some cigarettes, lounged back in their chairs and smiled, chatting to us in Chinese. The waitress tossed some plates onto our tables, the sauces flowing over the edges of the cracked mismatched plates. A plate heaped with chunks of hacked at chicken, its yellowing-rubbery-skin covering bits of bloody tendons, joints and bones. Since I was still being observed, I closed my eyes and began to gingerly search for pieces of flesh with my chopsticks, my fingers shaking as they rubbed against the rubbery mask.

Surprising, the meat was lovely.

I stopped into a vegetable market en route to my house and realized that I was no longer shocked by the different foods on exhibit and was actually mesmerized by the rows of baskets housing different kinds of eggs. Stacked in rows of three, with dirt twirling about in its environs, the Century egg (preserved duck, chicken or quail eggs in mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice straw; after the process is completed, the yolk becomes a dark green, cream-like substance with a strong odor of sulphur and ammonia, while the white becomes a dark brown, transparent jelly with little flavour or taste) was a bit disconcerting but certainly did not compare with the Balut from the Philippines (Pre-hatched fertilized eggs that are allowed to develop until the embryo reaches a pre-determined size and are then boiled. The photo is disturbing