No, this isn't about the one that got away. It's about the one that bit me. Twice. Our story begins in China, somewhere in the hinterlands in a small town restaurant. The year was 1995.
If you've ever done much traveling you'll know that the food choices for different cultures are very different than our own. Most of us would not be surprised by this. China, in particular, has developed some very strange food cultures that I would guess came out of years of poverty and scarce food supplies. You know this when the local delicacies are the items other cultures would consider pests or at best, inedible: rats, bugs, dogs, cats and slithery slimy things come to mind.
As a vegetarian most of the strange food items on the Chinese dinner tables were never presented to me as a challenge since they were mostly animal based. I dodged many a bullet at the dinner table because of my vegetarianism. And I have to tell you, I've been the topic of many an evening's meal because of it. Not just in China, but all over the world, people want to know how I stay alive without eating meat.
In Hong Kong, deep fried duck's feet is a real treat and I am always offered first pick of the crispy little devils. But I can easily pass without offending. Life's been good.
But in 1995, I still ate fish. So technically I was not a vegetarian but a pescetarian. My Chinese distributor at the time was always incredulous about my eating habits. He didn't just think I was weird, off base and strange, he thought I was downright nuts and a big wimp when it came to food choices. When the fish dish would come around he would delight in offering me the fish head, knowing full well I got squeamish and would decline. He would then take great pleasure in putting the entire head in his mouth and crunching down on it, the fish eyeballs, teeth and other nasty parts dripping down his chin. I think he loved watching me squirm. I was the butt of many a joke amongst the dealers and guests invited to our dinners. I didn't mind it was always in good friendship and fun.
As we had spent a few days together, each dinner became more of a challenge for him to see if he couldn't trap me into agreeing to eat something disgusting. I was wise to his moves and kept a wary eye on whatever was approaching the table.
But then I got trapped. My distributor hatched a plan that backed me into a corner and I had nowhere to turn. You see, there is the matter of honor. Amongst guests at the table, amongst a group of guys, and certainly in this Asian culture, it is not polite nor honorable to decline food that is presented to you. Certainly there is understanding for personal choices of not eating meat or not drinking alcohol. That's ok and accepted. But if you do eat meat, or you do drink alcohol, then you darn well better eat or drink what's put in front of you.
"Mr. Paul. You eat fish?" Oh boy, I could see this one coming from a mile away. It was the look on his face that he was up to something bad. I was going to regret this question.
"Yes, I eat fish. I love fish."
"Do you eat snake?" Ahhhh, here's an easy one. Snakes have this weird category where they're not traditional meat, yet they certainly aren't fish. So here was his trap. I could easily wiggled out of this one by explaining that to me, snakes are animals and I do not eat animals.
"No, no snakes."
"Ok, no problem. I order fish. You eat it." A wily grin spread across his face. I was clearly wrong about this game. He had something else in mind.
The waiter came out to the table carrying a bucket. A bucket? What kind of crazy slop would they bring out in a bucket? This should prove to be interesting. The waiter came over to my distributor and showed him the contents of the bucket. He nodded his approval and motioned for the waiter to come to my seat. I looked inside the bucket. There, staring back at me was a damn snake. Beady eyes, teeth, nasty looking. They had this poor creature restrained somehow and he was in water, enough to cover most of him. His nasty head stuck out and he was not a happy camper.
"That's a snake! I don't eat snake."
"You eat. It's a sea snake. You eat fish. Snake is fish. You eat." Crap. He had me there. He got the best of me. But this wasn't going down just the way he planned. Now it was my turn to get him back.
The story gets better tomorrow.