The Importance of Eating Pig Brains
“Do you know what that is?” Ah Jian asks, trying obviously and failing badly to contain a smile. He holds out a small bowl full of something that is clearly the brain of a former thing.
He taps his temple, and prods “So do you know?”
“It's a brain.”
“A pig’s brain, in fact.”
“So, you’ll eat it?”
“Fuck it. Throw it in.”
入乡随俗. Ru Xiang Sui Su.
The first Chinese proverb that any aspiring Sinophone learns.
Textbooks usually translate this phrase as When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Translated literally, it is: Enter the village, follow the customs.
“What do you think?”
“Tastes like thoughts. Dreams. Memories.”
Ah Jian laughs. “Do pigs have dreams? What do pig dreams taste like?”
“Garlic. Oil. MSG.”
The brain had arrived in its own little porcelain bowl, steaming, thickly submerged in garlicky oil. It was light gray now. Each of us got half. I wondered if I was eating creativity or logic. I didn’t like it. Not because it was a brain, just because it didn't taste good. Too slimy. We also had bread and mushrooms, eggplant, oysters, clams, shrimp, beef, lamb, lettuce, chicken, and beer.
It was 1:30 am. We were eating brains out of little porcelain bowls and we were talking about the New York Knicks and gay marriage and Federico Fellini. We were speaking Mandarin and drinking Tsingtao from tiny plastic cups and smoking Nanjing cigarettes. At the table in front of us a group of drunk middle-aged men blew smoke rings and fell over top of each, laughing at nothing but life in heavy local dialect. Next to us a sleepy couple sank into their shitty plastic chairs, the dude idly eating a lamb skewer with his right hand, the girl nestled, eyes droopy, under his left. The proprietress sat crouched over the register, gazing raptly at a Taiwanese soap opera playing on a small TV in the corner. On the screen, two lovers stood on a bridge and kissed. It was as bright as a supermarket and smelled like cigarettes, booze, and burnt bread.
The night began at KTV with me and Ah Jian and a few others. They sang Chinese love songs. I sang “My Heart Will Go On” “Rolling in the Deep” and “Right Na Na Na.” We all sang “Bad Romance” together. I learned, via mirthful giggling, that that word for “chorus” is the same as the word for “orgasm.” We went to a few clubs, each of which had that classic Chinese club style: Versailles aspirations, suburban subdivision budget. We drank 5 Yuan Er Guo Tou on the street. Er Guo Tou tastes like getting the wind knocked out of you. But for an unbeatable price. We ended up here, eating barbecue—the quintessential Chinese drunk food.
It would be hard to dream up a more typically Chinese evening, a more Ru Xiang Sui Su night out.
Ah Jian and his friends shocked me with their conversation. They knew about third string small forwards on middling NBA teams. Ah Jian’s three favorite movies, he said, were The Godfather, Cinema Paradiso, and City of God. He was excited about a new Spanish film that was coming to China in early October. They wondered why religion was such a big deal in the States. They wondered, with the tact of high school boys, about sexuality in our respective home countries. I deleted the history on my translation app. They showed me pictures of their weddings—all were my age and married. They were so much like me in some respects, so wonderfully different in others. Very quickly, we became friends.
We touched on politics. I bashed the current American political environment. They talked about American police brutality and racism—a commonly raised topic in China (and not by accident). But that was about it. I don’t think it’s that they don’t want to go there. Sure, there is fear of expression. But I think it’s more that they don’t know how. They never do it. Back home, these days, that’s all we do. And I see this over and over again. I expect to be assailed with questions about the newest iteration of the American president. I get none. I try to goad people into talking about him. They can’t. I suppose they think they’re insulting me personally by insulting our politics. Contextually, I suppose this makes sense.
But, I will often hear phrases like “America and China used to be best friends. Now America and Japan are friends.” Or, "America and Russia, not so friendly these days."
And that feels weird to me. What does that even mean. I am America. You are China. I have a friend named Koka from Tokyo, who once took me to Tsukiji fish market at 5:30 in the morning for the best breakfast I’ve ever eaten. He is Japan. My friend Katrina loved to dance on the bar at clubs. She always tried to get me to dance on the bar. I always said no. Once, when I was totally wasted, she convinced me to dance on the bar. She is Russia. Years ago, I used to smoke hookah and bullshit in Aseem’s fourth floor walkup near the Chifeng Lu Subway station in Shanghai. He is Saudi Arabia. Today I saw a little girl chasing her pet pig along the sidewalk. She ran after it and it screeched wildly as she grabbed it. She looked up at me and laughed hysterically. She is China. What does that even mean—“Japan and China aren’t friends. The US and China aren’t such great friends anymore.” Of course I know what it means.
But, shit, I’m sitting here eating pig brains with this dude. I’m looking up the Sideways ******* on my iPhone. We’re singing Lady Gaga songs together. Tell me again what it means to be friends. You think the average North Korean can't love a bowl of pig brains and a glass of beer?
I’m supposed to, like, fight a war against these people someday? I’m supposed to hate or be dubious of them or fear them or something?
When you enter the village, follow the customs.
There are two parts to this phrase. Enter the village. Follow the customs. The first part is the sticky part. Not everybody can enter the village. Not everybody is willing to enter the village. Not everybody knows how to enter the village. Often, we are told we’d better not. That village is bad.
But, to follow—to understand—the customs, you have to enter the village. Otherwise, you’ll just be wrong about what really goes on in there.
Globalism is supposedly on the wane. We’re supposed to put walls and shit around our villages. Make it harder to enter. Stupid! Sad! Bad idea! Because people like singing Lady Gaga songs together. And not just people from the USA. People like eating sushi. And not just people from Japan. People like believing in God. People like being friends. And not just people who live in places whose governments like to do joint military exercises together.
If you don’t Ru Xiang, you can’t Sui Su. If you don’t enter the village, you can’t follow the customs.
“So, do you like it?”
“Honestly, no. It’s…. I don’t know. I’m not feeling it.”
“Well. We tried it, anyways. I don’t like it, truthfully.” He reveals a half-eaten brain. “Too slimy.”