Dancing Octopus Legs

I have mentioned in passing some of the odd foods available here, and there are some doozies, but the weirdest dishes passed my palate while living in Korea. There was the ever-popular street food—silkworm pupae. I came to quite enjoy a cup of worms as I strolled around window shopping. The taste and smell are not the best, but when you bite into one there is an initial crunchiness followed by a spurt of goo. Very satisfying. Then there was Korean dog soup, a favorite on cold winter days. The meat is dark, tangy, and shockingly delicious. It reminds me a bit of moose. I only ever had it one time. I was hungry when I first tucked into the bowl and well-able to power through, but as I ate, I became less hungry, until eventually every time I raised the spoon to my mouth I thought: “This is dog. This is dog. This is dog.” And, that was the end of that. Still, by far the weirdest food that I’ve eaten came in a high-end Korean sushi joint.

Now, personally, I can pretty much choke down anything. I may not enjoy it, but I get it done. It is one of the social graces I’ve developed living in Asia. If you’re invited to have dinner with a friend’s family, you should suck down your lightly boiled pig’s intestine, roasted pork fat, and under cooked chicken—and smile. This is the story of a newbie to Korea, who lacked my gustatory disposition, and a formal dinner party we attended together.

Tammy was a fresh graduate from an Ontario university. She was about 22 years old, and spending a year teaching in Korea was to be her first big international experience. It all seems romantic and wonderful when you’re young and sitting in Canada, and then you get here. Tammy arrived in my little corner of Hell—living in rural Korea thirty years ago really was a horror—a giggling mass of excitement and good intentions. The school director was happy to see her as he was short-staffed. I was happy to see her because I’d been living as the lone white guy in that Korean fishing village for months and I was going stark raving mad.

To celebrate Mr. Lee took the entire staff out for a nice Korean dinner. At that time in Yeosu (여수) if you wanted to go out for a decent meal you had two choices, sushi or Korean barbecue. Mr. Lee chose sushi. Yeosu’s sushi was hardcore, as you’d expect from a Korean fishing village. There were slabs of raw fish, uncooked mollusks and sea urchin, which if you’ve never tried is really tough to get down—there was none of this California Sushi Roll shit.

So, off we went to a restaurant. As we were a group of perhaps a dozen, we were able to get our own little private room, that had one of those tables with the legs cut short so that you could sit cross-legged on the floor while eating, Japanese style. The table ran parallel to the back wall of the room, so nearly half the people sat against the back wall, with the table in front of them. Tammy, as the guest of honor, was seated in the center of the table, with her back against the wall. There were at least two or three people on either side of her. On her left sat the boss, Mr. Lee, and on her right sat Mrs. Lee. The rest of us were randomly gathered around Tammy, who was the evening’s focal point.

As I’m telling this story, you have to bear in mind that this was 25+ years ago, and the availability of different types of food around the world has increased exponentially since then (The WTO and My Waistline). This was a time when not every gas station in Canada was serving sushi rolls. Most small- and medium-sized cities had no sushi. For the adventurous western Canadian, you could go to Vancouver and try it. Probably Toronto had sushi restaurants too.

So, this was a new experience for our girl Tammy. She bore up under the strain pretty well. It was very obvious to me, watching her face, that she was not enjoying the meal, but she managed to put on a reasonable show. You know, smiling, nodding, joining the conversation, complimenting the food, having a bit of Soju, and just generally holding her end socially. Neither the boss, nor any of the other Korean staff seemed to suspect just what a difficult time she was having choking down the food. Of course they wouldn’t. It was a really fine, high-end, dining experience—they weren’t looking for signs of dietary distress or nausea.

But, Tammy was showing all the classic signs. She was barely touching her food, while doing her best to appear to be enjoying the meal with all the fake gustatory verve she could muster.  But, a slightly closer look revealed she was green around the gills. Whenever she put some raw seafood in her mouth you could see that it wasn’t going anywhere. She would chew, and chew, and chew, trying to get it down, but it just stuck there. Inevitably she’d have to take a drink, and try to swallow it like a pill.

I’m not as fully evolved as I appear, I’m definitely capable of enjoying a bit of schadenfreude from time to time. I especially enjoy watching people suffer through culture shock, I suppose because I’ve spent so much of my life doing the same. I was seated opposite Tammy, and had a terrific view of the whole spectacle.

The meal was coming to an end, and Tammy, realizing the ordeal was ending, was visibly beginning to relax. I was proud of her. Then the final dish arrived. The table hushed in anticipation as the server came from the kitchen carrying the pièce de résistance. I knew something was wrong when I saw Tammy turning from sickly green to pale white. I looked over my shoulder to see the waitress carrying a large platter of slimy looking things—and they were moving. I had never seen the likes before. It looked like a heaping platter of wet writhing worms.

I turned my head back to the table, just in time to see Tammy, who was trapped between Mr. and Mrs. Lee, move her head to the left, and forcefully puke down Mr. Lee’s side, from ear to waist. Such a pity, she had done so well.

But, on the plus side, I thoroughly enjoyed the show. Mr. Lee was an ass—it was awesome.

What had been delivered to our table turned out to be Korean-style Dancing Octopus Legs (video here). According to Wikipedia San-nakji (산낙지) is a raw long armed octopus (Octopus minor), a small octopus species. They are killed before being cut into small pieces and served. The octopus’ complex nervous system, with two-third of its neurons in the tentacle’s nerve cords, allows the octopus to exhibit a variety of reflex actions without brain activity. In other words, the tentacles move on the plate posthumously.

As a meal, the San-nakji was tough to stomach, but as dinner entertainment, it put on one hell of a show.

 

 

 

Guanxi: The Chinese Art of Getting Screwed by Friends and Family

I first heard of guanxi (關係) in a university class on Chinese culture. Guanxi is a set of interpersonal relationships that function as a web of influence. Guanxi is variously translated to English as relationships or connections. These translations fail to convey the complex social ties that come from this web of kinship, friendship, patronage/clientage, or “friendships” of convenience, based on perceived mutual benefit. The concept of guanxi developed naturally out of Confucianism, with its emphasis on creating hierarchically appropriate associations among society members. The implied reciprocal benefits, obligations, and trust required for a guanxi network were viewed as helpful in maintaining the socioeconomic order.

My professor described guanxi in glowing terms. I remember him explaining it is natural to do business where there’s an established connection. It creates a mutually beneficial synergy, enriching your acquaintance with your business, while receiving preferential service and pricing. He went on to explain that guanxi could exist between friends, family members, friends of friends, or a friend’s family. Guanxi can be extremely tenuous; my friend’s father’s youngest brother is friends with your step-sister, therefore we have a connection and I would like you to perform my vasectomy. It just feels safer having “someone I know” working down there. I found myself nodding along with the professor’s points. Yes, it’s logical to seek a sense of connection with business associates.

I still like the idea of guanxi, especially in a high-context country like Taiwan. High-context cultures are community-driven, connection-oriented, distrusting of outsiders (exclusionary), and emphasize building trust through shared experiences. Guanxi makes sense in the Chinese cultural milieu. In theory it’s a great way to do things.

However, nothing kills theory quite like experience. I got an inkling that guanxi might not be that great while still in Canada. One of my (white) friends was married to a Chinese girl, and had a ringside view of Saskatoon’s Chinese community. He told me guanxi was a license to fuck over friends and family. I was incensed. Obviously this white moron didn’t know what he was talking about, and might even have some racist tendencies. I didn’t believe him, and I should know, after all I knew Chinese culture. I was in a Chinese culture class after all.

His example was of a local Chinese run auto shop. He claimed that the owners abused members of the Chinese community. They would rip-off friends and family, while providing good service to outsiders. Guanxi was the problem, or so he said. That just didn’t jib with my book learnin’. His idea was that because of guanxi the shop owner felt free to abuse their Chinese customer base. Those customers would come back. They had to—they had guanxi. However with strangers the shop needed to provide decent service or those people would not return.

I didn’t really believe him. My professor and I were in agreement—guanxi’s great. I now recognize my friend’s observations to be stunningly astute, especially for a relative outsider to Chinese. His ideas mirrored Bo Yang’s (柏楊) observations on guanxi and Chinese culture in The Ugly Chinaman (醜陋的中國人).

It seems true. I was misinformed. Guanxi is a nightmare for Chinese people. I can give many examples from my own (semi-Chinese) life in Taiwan. The first example I’d like to offer is trifling, but it bugs me. My neighborhood is served by Taipei’s shittiest traditional breakfast shop. I love my doujiang (豆漿), shaobing youtiao (燒餅油條) with egg, dan bing (蛋餅), and their food is good, but they rarely bother opening. If they open one, maybe two, days a week I’m lucky. They never open on the days I’m jonesing for xiao long bao (小籠包)It really pisses me off. Finally a couple of years ago a competing Taiwanese style breakfast store opened right beside the crappy restaurant. I was ecstatic. Finally I would be able to have fantuan (飯糰) whenever I wanted. The luxury! The new shop was great. The food was good and they opened daily. I was in heaven. Naturally the old breakfast shop began opening every day to compete. They started to operate like a proper business. I wasn’t having it. I did not want to support them. I wanted to take my business to the new shop.

My wife understood my feelings, but every time we went for breakfast she insisted on going to the old shop. To go to the new shop would have required walking past the old shop and into the new shop. A statement I was willing to make. However, my wife couldn’t bring herself to do it. She’d bought breakfast there for years, she chatted with the owner every time—there’s a bond. They had guanxi. Apparently the other Taiwanese felt the same. As soon as the old shop began conducting business properly the new shop withered and died, no one wanted to snub the old shop’s owners and patronize the new shop. Within a month the new store was out of business, within a month and a day the old breakfast shop took a holiday, and we were back to the  extremely intermittent daanbing availability—fucked by guanxi.

Another example comes up when dealing with health issues. Neither my wife nor I have any particular connection to healthcare providers. We don’t really know doctors. But, in guanxi culture it is necessary to have some guanxi. So, when either I or my wife need a doctor, I know that it’s going to be a shit show. My wife will start trying to find some connection to an appropriate specialist, exploring flimsiest connections seeking someone who knows someone, who knows someone that has a friend that knows a doctor. All so that she can say, “I’m acquainted with blah-blah” when she goes into the doctor’s office. Well, also she feels more secure if one of her social contacts vouches that this person is a good doctor. It’s meaningless, but reassuring. My approach when single was to randomly selected a doctor. I’m still alive. Now that I’m married I find myself playing the doctor guanxi game. Our connections are always at least seven degrees away from anyone the doctor cares about. Frankly it’s embarrassing trying to exploit such flimsy connections.

This outlines one pernicious aspects of guanxi. If you don’t have the connections you can be cut out.

Nothing I’ve said here is news to those living in a Chinese cultural environment. The Taiwanese know they are getting screwed by quanxi. It has been happening their whole lives. Awareness does not translate into ability to change. Guanxi is right at the core of Chinese culture, it is central to high-context culture. The very foundations of Chinese culture would have to change for people to stop getting bamboozled by guanxi.