There was one question I never wanted answered, the entire time I was in China. The question was a simple one: "What's for dinner?"
Some things are better left unsaid.
The food was good, most of it, anyway. But all of it was unusual. Sometimes it was unrecognizable. We use to joke about the 'mystery meat', but those jokes were not often all that funny. Our last night in Beijing we were all invited to a locally famous 'Health Restaurant' We all had a real treat in store, was all we were told.
The place was new. And very crowded. What froze me at the door was seeing a wall of glass tanks, close to the kitchen. Those containers were full of snakes.
"I'm not eating snake.' I said, in a voice that echoed my horror. No, no, I was told. We were not eating snake.
He was correct, in a limited sort of way. We could order snake, if that is what we wanted. But we were not there to eat snake. We were there to drink something good for our health: snake blood.
Mr Hu did the ordering. I didn't even look. A large snake was selected, and taken to the back. It was dispatched, somehow, and soon six tiny glasses arrived, filled with the blood. Another small dish came. I thought I heard the word 'gall bladder'. Do snakes have a gall bladder? Everyone politely declined, passing up the treat, until it stopped in front of Mr. Hu. He also tried to refuse the honour, but we insisted. He was, after all, our host! At last, with a look of glee, he took the meat, and swallowed it with relish.
He was honoured by our gift.
Politeness varies by culture. We were being honoured by this meal. I could not even imagine enjoying this, yet to refuse might be a great insult. The others followed Mr. Hu's example, quickly downing the tiny glass of liquid.
Some even later claimed to enjoy it. I put it to my lips, but I could not drink it. I replaced the glass on the table, thankful that the flower arrangement blocked Mr. Hu's view. He called for the bill, and we were soon gone. We ended up eating at an American style Restaurant, but I could eat nothing.
My memory is much different from the others about that night, although we have discussed things at length. They, who actually drank the snake's blood, say it was served at room temperature. I, who merely had the glass to my lips, recall it as very cold. Almost icy. A snake is cold blooded, I say.
Indeed, they agree, but that makes it room temperature!
Perhaps I have it wrong. Perhaps it was my blood that turned to ice that night?