Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sour milk

*Editor's Note: The following post is not only quite lengthy, but contains some references to bodily functions which might be offensive to some of my more delicate readers. While I have been known to occasionally veer off into the realms of sophomoric humor, I maintain that the references below are in fact essential as vehicles for my humble attempt to capture the humor inherent in intercultural encounters. With that in mind, please enjoy.

My friend Beth is working her way toward that elusive label of "expert" in intercultural communication (she would vehemently deny that label, by the way). She is the only person I know who hears my stories about being AfroNuyoRican, moving from New Jersey to Arkansas, or traveling in China and responds not only with empathy, but understanding. In the midst of experiences here, I find myself wondering what she would think. So, this one's for you, Beth.

酸奶 suānnǎi - yogurt (lit. sour milk)

Yogurt was never one of my favorite foods in the States, though I would sometimes get inexplicable cravings. I may or may not have on occasion "borrowed" a few yogurts from my roommate Jon's plentiful stash in the refrigerator (vanilla was my favorite), and I enjoy the plain yogurt that is sometimes served with Indian food. But, on the whole, my yogurt intake was pretty minimal.

But here in Qinghai, it has become something of a staple. This is mainly because I am incredibly lazy when it comes to cooking. Add to that a propensity for waking up late, and yogurt quickly became the solution to mornings when I woke too late to prepare breakfast before class. Soon after that, I came to know that apart from homemade yogurt, the prepackaged kind in the blue and white box is the best quality. On my more leisurely mornings, I found that a little honey and granola (if available) can transform this yogurt into a 180 gram cup of heaven (complete with small plastic spoon for your convenience).

Enter Sam. At the beginning of December, Marty and I were asked to host a friend of a friend for a week or two. This is not unusual for us, but it came at an extraordinarily busy time for us. So, we put out the extra blankets, gave Sam an extra set of keys, and told him though we would be scarce he should make himself at home. And he did, which I am glad of, because a week or two turned into a month and a half. After all, this is China.

Feeling a little guilty that we had been "hosting" a guest for nearly a week and I had only seen him once, I decided to stock up on some easy breakfast foods so he could at least feed himself. I got a bunch of eggs, some fruit, and (of course) yogurt. These kinds of quick foods fit Sam's somewhat spartan schedule - up before sunrise, wash up, quick breakfast, then to the library until 9 or 10 pm to study for the master's degree entrance exam, which includes eight subjects (the GRE sounds relaxing compared to the system here). Though our paths did not cross often, the steadily depleting stock of food let me know that Sam was not going hungry in the mornings.

Sam was the consummate guest, going so far as to wash my dishes and mop the floor. He was very solicitous on a couple of occasions where I had severe headaches and stomach issues, bringing home Tibetan medicine (which tastes horrible, but seemed to work) to alleviate my suffering, which I appreciated though he tended to hover a bit. In the end, despite our busyness, we also managed to become good friends. As a result, Sam invited me to come to his home in a Tibetan village about three hours from the city. I accepted and made plans to head down soon after the semester ended.

The plan was to say goodbye to my good friend Corrie last Friday night and then leave early Saturday to head down to Sam's village. But, I got little to no sleep the week before, and got to bed late Friday night. When I awoke on Saturday, I felt woozy and had a bit of a stomach ache, so I decided to postpone my departure. My break had begun, so there was no hurry.

After calling Sam with apologies, and receiving repeated instructions from him on how to care for my stomach, I spent the next few days catching up on sleep and getting my affairs in order so I could spend a carefree few days in Sam's village. I said goodbye to another friend Tuesday morning, and then caught an afternoon bus to the village. On that four hour trip, I received several text messages from Sam asking when I was arriving and whether I was having motion sickness (which I was not).

Now, I have to make both a disclaimer and a confession here. My disclaimer is that it is the cultural norm here for everyone to be involved in your health business. Not much is considered private in that way, and people happily dispense advice on how to heal your maladies with all the confidence of a physician at the Mayo Clinic. So, Sam's hovering, giving medicine, and texting about motion sickness may seem overboard, but fall well within the bounds of cultural acceptability. My confession is that I am still not accustomed to this cultural phenomenon, and I was getting a bit annoyed.

This annoyance increased when I arrived at the bus station and Sam's first question was, "Do you have a headache? Your eyes look like you are in pain." Granted, I had been having headaches most of the time he had been staying in my home, but I explained that I did not have a headache, but had just woken up when the bus arrived. He nodded, and after 30 seconds said, "I think you don't feel good. Did you have motion sickness?"

"No," I explained, "I had no motion sickness and my stomach feels fine. I promise I will tell you if I feel sick, ok?" He seemed to accept this and we proceeded toward the area where we could catch a van to his village. As we approached the vans, he suddenly turned to walk in the opposite direction and said, "I'm sorry, I'll be right back." I waited for a few minutes, puzzled, until he returned with a red bucket in his hand. "Yogurt," he explained. "I know how much you like yogurt." Then we took the red bucket on a van and headed toward his village.

When we arrived at his home, I was reintroduced to the double-edged sword of hospitality in these parts. There is no substitute for the amenities offered to guests - seat of honor near the warm stove, food and drink appearing from nowhere. It's truly amazing. But, there is also a sense of separateness that can be off-putting. It is not uncommon to be welcomed so lavishly and then for most or all of the hosting family to refuse to eat or drink, or even to remove themselves to another room. They are often preparing food or performing other chores, but the end result is sometimes that you as a guest are left alone or with one other person in a room who might not look at you or attempt conversation. This situation can be redeemable if the family member who invited you makes sure to engage you, but Sam trapped himself in a library for six weeks studying Chinese politics, and his social skills are a little rusty. So, there were a lot of awkward silences and general discomfort in the three days I spent there.

As soon as I arrived, Sam's sisters brought bread and milk tea for me. His mother (who does not speak Chinese) explained that there would only be bread, noodles, and tea for me. No special foods. It was a little discomfiting to have her say that straight out, but I was kind of relieved, feeling like I was going to be afforded some measure of insider status. And then came the yogurt.

Sam said something to his sister in their local language (more closely related to Mongolian than Tibetan), and a massive bowl of yogurt appeared in front of me. Looking around helplessly, I asked if anyone else was going to have some. "No," Sam told me. "None of us like to eat yogurt."

It took a second for this to sink in, but then I realized that the entire red bucket (probably 2-3 liters) of yogurt was for me alone. This in and of itself is embarrassing, to feel singled out in that way. But it was also daunting in that I could not see how it would be possible for me to eat that much yogurt in the two or three days I planned on staying (I found out later that Sam thought I was staying through Losar, approximately five weeks altogether). If I did not eat it, they would either throw it away (not likely) or endure eating something meant for me that they didn't like.

So, I ate this huge bowl of yogurt. And before they left the room, Sam's mother and sisters made it known that they thought it was a bad idea for me to eat yogurt 1) in the winter, 2) so late in the afternoon, 3) without eating something more substantial first (I had no idea that this was not dinner), 4) having had stomach problems. It is this last point that turned out to be the most uncomfortable. Apparently my headaches and diarrhea had been a topic of discussion with Sam's family before my arrival, and his mother did not hesitate to ask very specifically about loose bowel movements and blood pressure, and make suggestions about diet changes. Every time I came back from the bathroom, she or Sam would ask if my stomach was ok, and I would have to explain that I was only urinating. It was 特别尴尬 tèbié gāngà, or incredibly awkward.

When the girls left the room, I turned to Sam and said, "Bro, you gotta help me out. I don't know what's appropriate for eating, and when, so help me not to go against the grain, ok? And please, tell your mom I am not having any stomach problems!" He looked confused as to my requests, but agreed. However, the next two days would show that he did not understand that I was asking him to be a cultural guide for me, and he continually asked me to do things which put me in embarrassing positions of being utterly foreign and other. Ah, Sam.

The yogurt is the quintessential example of this. Every time we were sitting at the house, mealtime or not, Sam and his family would ask if I wanted yogurt. I was torn between feeling bad for turning it down, feeling more and more strange eating yogurt alone, and reaching the limits of yogurt consumption. Did I mention that I am lactose intolerant, and large quantities of milk, yogurt, or ice cream make my gastrointestinal environment quite lively? Yeah.

Tuesday night was short, and only involved one bowl of yogurt. But, throughout the day on Wednesday, yogurt was put in front of me five times (seriously), as well as several cups of milk tea. I would politely decline the requisite three times, but my hosts were persistent, so I took in more and more lactose. After the fourth bowl in the late afternoon, I was amazed that my stomach had not shown any signs of distress, and I even managed to avoid eating a bowl offered right before Sam and I went out. But, after dinner that night, with his mother in the room, Sam said, "Oh, don't forget the bowl of yogurt from earlier!" and placed the soon to be infamous bowl in front of me. "Oh...thanks, Sam," I said weakly. And then I ate my fifth bowl of yogurt.

Afterward, we went to see some of the students who were preparing dances for Losar, the Tibetan New Year. I had met several of the students in Sam's English class that morning, and they soon persuaded me to make a fool of myself trying to learn their dances. It was all fun and games for about an hour, and then it hit me - yogurt overload.

My stomach began to cramp suddenly, incredible amounts of gas made themselves noticeably present in the abdominal area, and my stomach began churning. I know this feeling. Usually lactose intolerance just gives me a bad case of gas, and maybe some cramping. I consider it a small price to pay for Ben & Jerry's Oatmeal Cookie Chunk or an extra-cheese Chicago-style deep-dish pizza (wow, three hyphens in a row!). But this feeling was different, yet familiar.

How did I know this feeling, you might ask? China. Three times before in China I have had diarrhea so bad I could not hold it long enough to get to a bathroom. Three years ago while I was traveling in northwestern China, I had a two week long case of the runs, and a couple times it was so bad it hit me just as I was leaving the hotel/house, and little slipped out before I could reassert control. The third time was during this visit, when I was in the top bunk and could not get down the ladder fast enough to get to the bathroom. It's an awful feeling, but one that has been mitigated in these situations by being very close to home and being alone or with someone else who is having stomach problems.

So you can imagine my horror when I realized that this was the feeling descending upon me while I was dancing with 50 or 60 Tibetan students, a good 5 minute walk from Sam's house. When there was a break in the dancing, I got Sam's attention and asked if we could go home and pointed to my stomach. He agreed, and after explaining to the teenage girls who wanted me to dance more that my stomach was bad (seriously, nothing is private here), we headed toward the door of their practice area.

But as we turned in that direction, a delegation of Tibetan young men intercepted us. The night before they had been reluctant to accept my confession that I did not in fact know how to tiào jiē wǔ (lit. street dance, which as you might guess means breakdancing), but this time they knew I could grant their request - to sing Michael Jackson's "Beat It". News travels fast in a small village, I've discovered. I had told Sam in private that I knew how to sing the song, that traveled to his sisters, and then to some of the local girls, and then to this delegation of teenage boys. Everyone knew that I could sing it, so there was an air of expectation. What could I do?

So, I agreed to sing a little bit, trusting/hoping that my muscles could hold. After all, this was just lactose intolerance, right? So I sang, they broke out in thunderous applause, and then Sam and I beat a path to the doorway (sorry, couldn't resist). As we walked through the dark paths of the village, I could only concentrate on one thing - hold on hold on hold on hold on.

Just as we turned onto the path toward Sam's house, my concentration slipped, and so did my muscle control. Just meters away from my destination, I added to my bowel woes in China. As soon as we entered the courtyard, I immediately locked myself in the outhouse, and relieved myself. When I was at a stopping place, I surveyed the damage from the initial slip. I had not brought a change of clothes, so I was quite relieved to find that the damage was negligible.

That's where the relief ended. See, my bouts with lactose intolerance generally revolve around flatulence. It's almost superhuman at times, but the consistent factor is that it takes a long time for it to subside. Thinking of the attention that awaited me inside, I decided to stay in the outhouse and massage my abdomen until the bloating had dissipated (I have to thank my abuelita for this trick).

As I began massaging, I realized that all of the concern for my stomach that I had been deflecting for three days was for naught. This incident would prove to them without a doubt that my stomach was irrecoverably weak, and that all their concern and medicine was warranted. It would prove to them the ills of eating yogurt, and reaffirm their belief that we foreigners really like things that are not healthy for us. In the end, I had to chuckle at how miscommunication, aggressive hospitality, and my inability to communicate clearly about my preferences and health had joined forces to guide me into one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. If anyone heard me laughing and farting in that outhouse, they must have thought I was a madman.

When I finally went inside, Sam was alone in the main room. Thankfully, his mother and sisters had gone to bed, though his mother had left inquiries about my stomach with Sam. He asked how I was, and I told him much better. I tried to explain lactose intolerance to him, but the language barrier proved insurmountable. Though my stomach was completely better at that point, I did not try to resist him when he offered me Tibetan medicine, and I knew I would have to take it again in the morning. I told him I was embarrassed, and he assured me I need not be.

This morning, something had changed. I had to take the medicine, as I predicted. But, when Sam went to work, his mother invited me to come eat in the kitchen with her and the sisters. She laughed when her daughter translated that I thought I would skip the yogurt and milk tea this time. I had a great conversation with all three women before I went to meet Sam at his school, and it seemed all the stiffness of the previous two days' hospitality was gone. Perhaps my embarrassing situation had opened a doorway for me to be more normal in their eyes. Whatever the reason, we laughed together a lot this morning, and they were very warm and genuine in inviting me to come back to celebrate Losar with them.

I know that when I visit again in three weeks, and every time after that, Sam and his family will ask, "How about your stomach?" And I will love them for it.

1 comment:

Rahel said...

Ramon---I loved this post! I am many "fond" memories of such bathroom talk while living in Ethiopia---a commone excuse for my students not attending class was "she is suffering from a case of diarrhea!"
Good times....