Sai's Birthday Dinner & Stroll Through Chinatown

Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Thailand  ,
Friday, October 23, 2009

Lindsey already wrote a great post about this night, so I'll just include it below:

"Our boss, Sai, invited us to dinner one night.  He's a fun, cool guy so we happily accepted.  Then the question was raised of where to go.  He smiled like a mischievous kid and asked us if there was any food we were particularly opposed to.  I thought he was speaking of ethnic food
(Thai, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, etc.), and I shrugged and said we were down for whatever.  Dane, knowing Sai's sly ways better than I, quickly amended that, and said we have moral qualms with eating anything endangered.  I laughed but then saw Sai's pouting face and realized Dane had mentioned that with good reason.  You see, Sai loves to shock and awe.  We can always count on him to expose us to some shady or disturbing side of Bangkok previously unknown to us.

He wanted to take us to his favorite Chinese restaurant to try some "new" stuff.  You would think that sounds benign enough, but you have to realize most of the Chinese food we have in the U.S. has been significantly Americanized.  Egg rolls, sweet and sour pork, beef with broccoli, fried rice.  Nuh-uh.  That's not what the real Chinese eat.  Yes, everyone heard the rumors about the restaurants in Beijing having to take dog off their menus to suit Westerners sensitivities.  But that's not what I'm talking about.  The Chinese have developed an affinity for endangered species and dangerously acquired foods.  Their superstitions lead them to believe these prized substances will bring them good health and virility.  They capture sun bears and painfully extract bile from them to make medicines they claim improve libido.

Men also risk their lives to collect the nests that swifts build high up in caves because people believe the birds' spit used to construct the nests has health benefits for humans.  The Chinese have been dissolving it into a soup (aptly named bird's nest soup) for centuries, and now there's even a popular bird's nest drink manufactured and sold globally.  It's become a craze in Thailand, and the wealthy often give baskets of the stuff as holiday gifts.  Another delicacy adopted from the Chinese is shark fin soup.  A luxury item for centuries, which people can now increasingly afford, its pan-Asian popularity is causing a global decline of many shark species.  So you can perhaps understand our concern. 

We agreed to go, as long as Sai wouldn't insist we order anything against our consciences.  We were saved, however, when we arrived to find that Sai's favorite Chinese restaurant was closed.  Insert sigh of relief here.  He instead took us to a nearby riverfront restaurant that serves European food.  The food was delicious, normal, and we had a great view of the river and the famous Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn).  Afterward, Sai took us for a stroll through Chinatown.  It was a Chinese holiday - the Taoist Lent when many followers restrict themselves to a vegetarian diet and abstain from alcohol for nine days as a cleansing act.  The streets were busy and festive.  And Sai took us into apothecary shops and did his best to shock and entertain nevertheless."

Okay, I'm back.  Thank you Lindsey for letting me steal your narrative.  Let me finish by saying that Sai just likes to freak people out.  He's a good guy and doesn't club puppies or baby seals.  I think it's also important to elaborate on a couple of things too.  I know people can raise moral objections to eating almost any meat, but I think there are degrees.  Maybe it's just rationalizing, but chickens and cows that were bred exclusively for the purpose of consumption are one thing.  Endangered monkeys that must be eaten while still alive and sharks whose fins are cut off before the anguished creatures are tossed back into the ocean to drown....something else.  Bear Paw Soup and the bile that must be collected while bears are "frightened" is an entirely new level of cruelty.  I believe there is no sufficient justification or rationalization for that.  So even as an anthropologist, my cultural sensitivity and open-mindedness are trumped by my moral indignation.

I'll take this opportunity to also talk about superstition in general, because that's what causes people to perpetrate these atrocities and seek out the most exotic creatures to eat.  I don't judge all superstitions equally.  Wearing a lucky necklace or putting a dream catcher in your room I have no issue with. These are no worse than assiduously trying to avoid stepping on cracks because you don't want to break your mother's back.   Mankind has millions of benign little irrational beliefs.  Fine.  No problem.  But when superstition causes people to eat monkeys alive, blow things up, or subjugate certain genders or ethnicities, I think we're all allowed to speak out on behalf of logic and rationality. 

But this post wasn't meant to be all that serious.  I just want to address any readers who might think we're being unduly judgmental about Chinese cuisine.  Of course, General Tso and his chicken will always have my undying affection, and I have had beef and broccoli that actually made me weep.
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