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.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fieldnotes From History (39)—Head Tales

[a] Back track 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.
I am ambivalent about this fieldnote. It is not particularly deep, and the potential "sensationalism" makes me a little uneasy now, twenty-six years later. There's nothing like eating the exotic (partaking of the other) to get people worked up. It is not lost on me that there is a profusion of crappy books and articles about China these days that focus on this sort of thing. The "othering" of heads is not something to which I wish to add.

On the other hand, I do not want to take another approach that a number of sinophiles favor—papering over cultural differences, and especially those that cast Chinese culture in a problematic light from the perspective of Westerners. I wrote this note because I saw "heads" everywhere back then—and more of them on a dinner table than I had ever seen in my life. Understanding that was my top priority. I was naive enough to assume that should settle it.

The duck heads haven't gone away as I have continued in Chinese studies. They are a common beer house appetizer, and have done as much to further "ethnographic" conversations I have had as anything else. Not that it matters, but full disclosure compels me to say that I have never gotten over my resistance. I don't eat them. I must admit that I am not above ordering a plate and a pitcher in the hopes of stimulating conversation among peers, though. I should not be shielded from criticism.

[c] Eyes RF
The contrast between food that "stinks" (this is a cultural and individual—olfactory—matter) and food that shocks is one worth contemplating. Fermented beancurd, on the one hand, and fish or duck heads, on the other, are not the "same thing," just because we might find them repellent. 

I had already begun to think about these matters a few years before, after reading Claude Lévi-Strauss's The Savage Mind and Marshall Sahlins's Culture and Practical Reason in college. This note only begins to tap into the analytical issues that flow from there. I urge anyone interested in these matters to read these two books and start working back through the details of the world we see (and eat).

This trip was with the Hsiung family, but the second paragraph touches upon an earlier lunch with the Chen family (these are common surnames). I included the experience in the same note because I couldn't stop thinking about heads and head-parts.

[d] Heads up RF
The second paragraph has some useful detail, but there is a bit of overkill, too. The quotation is from King Lear III.vii (one of my favorite texts, even back then). It really wasn't necessary (but it's a great play and a great scene; the "vision" theme in Lear is wonderful).

"I love fish eyes" is something I have heard from more than a few Chinese friends. Interestingly enough, every time I have told this story to Western students over dinner in China (I have overseen several groups over the years) a seemingly macho young man has headed straight for the eyes and popped them into his mouth. This has happened four times (four different people). In every case, the triumph was followed by unease and lengthy silence. Culture (and the culinary) is like that. So is individuality.

2 February 1986
When it comes to Peking Duck, nothing is left to waste. This has gotten me thinking about heads in the kitchen, as well as on the table. I let my host have his fill of the duck head and most of the fermented doufu. The latter is all about texture and smell. The former, though, is more problematic. Eating heads is not peculiar to Chinese culture, but it certainly is new for me. Cultural barriers still tower over my understanding, and this is one area that remains particularly fuzzy.

Some of my friends are quite passionate about heads, and this appears to be the other side of a significant cultural gulf. For example, the Chen family—very wealthy, urbane, and discerning when it comes to culinary matters— took me to a Taiwanese restaurant one afternoon a few weeks ago. Among other things, we ate a whole fish, which is the common way of preparing the beast here. Skillfully wielding her chopsticks, Mrs. Chen lunged immediately for the head and poked out the eyeballs. (“Out, vile jelly. Where is thy lustre now?”). Chomping happily, the iris presumably tucked in her gums, she turned to me and said: “I can’t help myself. I love fish eyes!”
[e] Tails up RF

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