Chinese people once laughed at me when I was eating. I was dining by myself at the time, and tears flowed over my reddened cheeks. Sweat beaded across my brow, and the corners of my mouth curled into a severe frown. From time to time, I had to put my chopsticks down, grab a tissue, and blow my running nose, hard. So, what had happened? Why was I weeping? Was I an emotional wreck? Had a beautiful woman just spurned me? Did somebody kidnap my cat and send me a ransom note?
Um, no. I had made a huge menu mistake with Chinese food. While dining at the Jiangnan People’s Commune 江南人民公社 across the street from the Changzhou College of Information Technology, I ordered what I thought was sauteed string beans. They looked that way on the picture menu. Dear god, they weren’t. They were stir-fried green peppers with lots garlic. Eating this dish brought me physical pain. So, why did I insist on trying to finish it?
Stubborn, hard-headed pride. I ordered, it was served, and I was going to eat it. I wasn’t going to be that type of foreigner that would squeal in terror and flee at the sight of culturally challenging dish. So, I sat there and ate half of it. Then, I pretended to be full, and I politely asked for a to-go bag. Once safely out sight of restaurant, I tossed that doggy bag into the garbage. Why was being so polite? I ate at that eatery quite often, and I didn’t want to insult them. I didn’t want to be an ugly American. Yeah, it was totally a face-saving issue. Especially, if I was going to be going back in the following week for tried-and-true lunch options. One rule of life is this: don’t piss off the people who usually feed you.
Ever since this incident, I have had some delicious lunches and dinners at this particular place. But, I had one other epic ordering blunder. Again, it involved thinking “string beans” and being served something completely else.
In this case, the alleged “string beans” ended up being duck intestines — complemented by tongues and other innards. The name was 干锅鸭四宝, or “Dry Pot Duck Si Bao.” You see, I thought I was ordering something duck meat, because I saw the character 鸭. A Chinese friend later told me that 四宝 (four jewels) means a dish will have four types of organ meat.
I didn’t blanch in horror once I was served this. I have eaten weirder things in the name of respecting Chinese hospitality. Once, I had the rather Satanic sounding “lamb’s blood” in hotpot. I ate about half and found the duck tongues to be very chewy. Then, I left. I had long since stopped the fake “to go” shtick. I had eaten this place enough to know they really didn’t care, so long as I paid my bill.