From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fieldnotes From History (38)—Capital Duck

[a] Meal RF
Part of an occasional Round and Square series that follows the blog’s main theme (east meets west, round meets square, and past meets present), these snippets from my early fieldnotes are reproduced as they were written by hand—and then revised on an ancient desktop computer—during my first fieldwork stay in Taiwan (1985-1987).  All entries are the way that I left them when I returned to the United States in 1987—some nicely-stated and some embarrassing. Although the series began with my assumption that the entries can stand alone, I have found that separate comments and notes might help readers understand a world that is now, well, history. These are always separate from the original fieldnote.

[b] Cutup RF
The "drunken chicken" I mentioned in my last "Fieldnotes" post raised a significant interpretive issue for me early on (I was still in my first year in Taiwan). It seemed to me, then as now, that there are particular skills possessed by "natives" (I always use the term in the strict sense) that are difficult to incorporate for even highly-motivated outsiders. I tended to think of those things in terms of language then, and for good reason. Most of the things that native speakers could do with spoken Mandarin were banes of my existence. 

Seeing other things, such as chewing down to the bone while holding a morsel in your chopsticks or (as in this note) wrapping duck, onions, and sauce into a little pancake with chopsticks—and no fingers—made me understand back then some of the connections between language and culture. I actually remember thinking at the time that I would master the construction at about the time that I learned to chew and jostle with chopsticks. 

From there, I started to notice other such matters, ranging from the everyday ("shoveling" a bowlful of rice in highly gendered omnivorous fashion) to the occasional (getting introductions "just right" in a social setting). All of this came out of a simple fieldnote. Better put, a whole set of issues crystallized around a somewhat clunky set of observations. The detail here matters, too (and it was all new back then).

Still, those issue-crystals became much more important to my teaching and writing than the note itself. Would they be here today without the note, though? I think far fewer would be....without the clumsy first or second tries represented by jottings and fieldnotes.

The "lefse-like" cakes are actually much thinner than the Norwegian version I invoked in the fieldnote. It is hard to imagine putting a little butter and sugar on them and eating them as a snack (as is common with lefse).

The "finger" issue is one that I have treated in notes throughout my career. It is one of those seemingly small issues that creates vast gulfs of intercultural understanding. My first references to Westerners touching food with their hands (this note and a few others in 1985-1987) taps into something that has become much bigger for me as I continue to interpret differences between Chinese and American culture. It is another example of a tiny and seemingly "note-filler" kind of comment turning out to be the start of something that I think is extremely important. Stay tuned for more on finger food through the ages.

2 February 1986
When you order a duck, the waiter asks you to specify what side dishes and soup you want them to make from it. They use the whole duck. Nothing, except the feathers, goes to waste. Soup is the last course in Chinese restaurants—exactly opposite from American tradition—so that is where they boil whatever is left of the fowl. When the duck comes, the meat is cut and placed on one tray and the skin—which has been pre-inflated with a needle and roasted to a golden color—comes on a separate tray. 

The waiter also brings a plate of onion greens, lefse-like cakes, and bean sauce. The proper method for preparing the duck’s remains for eating is as follows: take a flat cake, put a crisp piece of duck skin and another of meat on one end, dip two onions in bean sauce, place them inside the meat, and roll it up. The ideal approach is to handle it all with chopsticks—no fingers. There is a little bit of room for interpretation here, but the looks of Chinese friends around the table says it all. Don't touch; don't use your fingers. Doing it "right" is a little messy, especially for unskilled foreigners. The sensory combinations are as formidable as the practical challenges, though.
[d] To go RF

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