Cuisine aids cultural study

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August 29, 2008

1:13 PM

“Sorry I’m late,” a tardy friend explained to our language teacher. “I had the spicy diarrhea.”

In America, my bowel movements never excused me from an exam or even a class. But as I learned from studying abroad in China, human excrement is granted more significance than civil liberties.

In class, we leaned forward to witness our teacher’s response. It was only our first week in Shanghai and we were still naive to Chinese gastrointestinal culture.

“How does he know his diarrhea is spicy?” I asked a classmate. My classmate explained that maybe he meant something else entirely. This is a common frustration for a Chinese learner, who must regularly grapple with a language that takes on different meanings based on tone of voice. A person could say mother and might actually have meant to say Morocco or hemp necklace.
Whatever his intended meaning, surely our professor would grimace or at least giggle at the mention of spicy diarrhea. Our teacher was a tall wirey woman with black glasses and a double jointed elbow.

“You have spicy diarrhea?” she asked as her elbow stretched out of its joint, resembling a broken tree branch. After a moment’s pause, she nodded knowingly and made a note in the Mickey
Mouse binder in which she took attendance.

Chinese people have little faith in a foreigner’s stomach. At dinner with my Chinese friends, it would not be uncommon for a special plate of mild food to be brought out just for me. If I wasn’t given a special meal, my Chinese friends might coach me through a meal. At regular intervals they might remind me to have a glass of ice water or to slow down when eating the spicy dish.
Although I appreciated the interest that my Chinese friends took in my gastrointestinal well-being, I came to find them cloying. Once at dinner I became so irritated that I dipped my bowl into the hot pepper oil used to cook food. I drank the oily mixture and my friends watched in a combination of horror and amusement. Within moments my stomach erupted like a volcano, and, well, you can imagine what happened next.

The human stomach and all that it digests soon became a common topic of conversation for me and my friends. On a Friday afternoon we might talk about where to grab dinner. Instead of using taste to help us decide on a place to eat, we often would decide based on how the food settled in our stomachs.

“Should we go to the dumpling place down the road?” my friend asked me.

“I’d like to, but the food there made my stomach churn for hours,” I said “Could we go to the restaurant that sells spicy tofu instead?”

If we were in a loud place I might not be able to hear what my classmate said, but I already knew what her response would be.
“That restaurant gave me the Spicy Diarrhea,” she mouthed forlornly to me. More often than not we ended up grabbing burgers at McDonalds.

Three months was a long time to spend in a foreign country, especially one with a language so different from English. But as any language learner will know, learning a new language is about more than learning vocabulary and grammar. Language represents a new way of understanding and organizing the world. While I might have spent too much time speaking with other foreigners and eating Western food, at least I could talk about my bowel movements like a genuine Chinese person.

To visually represent what she called “the path to language harmony,” my language instructor drew a diagram on the blackboard. It was a picture of a crater from the profile view. My teacher explained that in order to feel comfortable in China we would have to first put ourselves in a number of uncomfortable situations. These uncomfortable situations were represented by the deep pit on the blackboard.

Only by eating Chinese food and interacting with Chinese people could we pull ourselves out from the pit of cultural despair. With one arm bent like a pretzel, my language teacher called on me for a suggestion on how to achieve language harmony. My stomach pounded as my body painfully recalled the spicy soup I had enjoyed for lunch.

“I have the Spicy Diarrhea,” I said. My teacher nodded her thin head approvingly as I walked to the bathroom beaming.
James Damon is a Confusion Corner columnist. His stomach is transitioning from Chinese food to the Caf’s cuisine.

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