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Today's word on journalism

Monday, October 22, 2007

Can’t Scare the Old Gray Lady:

"Good journalism for an intelligent general audience is hard. And we’re really good at it. Taking on The Times is not as easy as waving a credit card and proclaiming yourself 'fair and balanced. . . .' We have every reason to feel confident that we can hold our own if [Rupert] Murdoch decides to build The Journal beyond its business-reader base. In all the Murdoch parlor-gaming, I don’t hear anyone suggesting that he would attempt to match the depth of our coverage in culture, science, education, health, religion, sports, lifestyle, etc., etc. Not to mention business coverage that even devout Journal readers find they can’t afford to miss."

-- Bill Keller, editor, New York Times, on Murdoch’s promised Wall Street Journal challenge to Times national dominance, Oct. 16, 2007

Pigs' feet are yummy, but could I swallow live fish?

By Natasha Austin

September 17, 2007 | I have traveled to many corners of the world in my life and I have not just seen it all, I have eaten it all. It seems the more I travel to exotic places, the more interesting the delicacies of that culture. I have tried wild horse, groundhog, water snake, chocolate covered grasshoppers, and even my favorite, pigs' feet. It is odd that I would find great pleasure in trying new and bizarre delicacies, but one day in early March of 2001, I met my match.

I was living in Wu Han, China at the time, teaching English at a private school. I had been teaching there since January of that year. I came to China seeking adventure and excitement. As part of our agreement with the school, every English teacher would have to participate in a "Home Visit" to a student's home. English teachers were allowed to choose the student with whom they would visit. My teaching partner, Joy, and I decided to travel home with our student Sun Ling.

The trip started early in the morning as Sun Ling lived in the country away from the city. The jarring car ride lasted four hours. Toward the end of our journey, Sun Ling explained to us that we had arrived at the small city in which she lived. As we approached the main road, I noticed a few police and official government cars pull onto the road in front of us and in back of us. They continued to follow us. It was a small-town Chinese motorcade for two American foreigners, whose celebrity status was bound by their city limits back home. It was unbelievable. They flashed their lights and turned on their sirens and groups of people came out of their homes and stores to see what the ruckus was all about.

As we rounded a dusty corner, we came to a small collaboration of homes built in a half circle, all facing each other. I remember it was dusty and windy, a common condition of Western China. There to greet us were Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa from both sides of the family, aunts and uncles and a myriad of children running around. Never in my life have I felt so important and famous! Didn't somebody tell them I was just an ordinary girl from Utah?

Sun Ling's mother and father cordially bid us into their home. The home was modest by my standards, but I knew it was grand for Chinese standards. As we all piled into the small living room, each took their turn asking us a multitude of questions. For the umpteenth time I told them I do not personally know Tom Cruise.

After much jubilation, Sun Ling explained to us they had prepared a great lunch for us and that it was time to eat. Even with my heightened excitement my stomach was crying with hunger. Four hours on the road and all I had eaten was a package of fruit chews and crispy sweet rice crackers. For me, eating unique and bizarre foods is something I never decline. You'll never know the enchanting tastes of this world until you try them. I was eager and daring.

Trying to make us feel at home, the first course they brought us was peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Oh, how nice of them. I didn't have the heart to tell them how awful the bread was. The taste was faintly sweet, and the texture was similar to cardboard. I intently tried to eat it as quickly as possible. At least the peanut butter was authentic and when I closed my eyes it was almost the same.

As we continued to eat we were served some typical Chinese items. I loved the small pork dumplings and the bok choy. Everything was made so fresh. The Chinese waste nothing, and often serve items that most Americans would not eat. We ate cow intestine, snails from their own pond, and pigs' feet. I was ecstatic with the opportunity to try something beyond what I enjoyed in the comforts of my home back in Utah. Surprisingly, even to myself, I really enjoyed the pigs' feet. I often walked by them in the super market and wished I knew how to make them as savory and delectable as that day at Sun Ling's home. The pigs' feet were great and I felt triumphant. Just one more course and I would be stuffed and done.

In Chinese tradition you are not generally served a beverage. At the beginning of the meal you are given tea, and at the end a hot soup to sip, with nothing in between. After honoring us with this huge meal, Sun Ling's mother brought out the traditional hot bowl of soup. I was anticipating it when I could smell the array of vegetables and chicken. A nice bowl of chicken soup, what a great finish to the meal, or at least so I thought. As I went to sip my soup I was immediately stopped by Sun Ling's father. He explained that I must wait for the special addition to the soup. The soup looked great, what more could you add to it?

As I contemplated that doubt in my mind, I turned to see Sun Ling's mother holding a glass pitcher that looked as if it were full of a magic potion, given that the liquid seemed to be 'brewing' and move inside the pitcher.

"It is our family's delicacy," said Sun Ling, "you must add them quickly and drink while they still live."

While what still lives? What was she talking about? Upon inspection of the glass pitcher, I could see small white baby fish the size of a safety pin squirm around in the pitcher of water. With their bodies small and translucent, the only part I could make out was the small black pinhead-shaped eye balls. It was like they were staring me down, daring me to eat them. Live fish! I remember faintly in high school a young candidate for class office once swallowed a fish during an assembly. If he could do it, so could I or at least, so I thought.

I wanted to be brave and courageous. I did not want to lose face with my new friends. Joy, my teaching partner, looked as if she was going to die.

"Just swallow," I told her, "think of them as noodles." What good advice, but could I do it myself? As I poured a small amount of fish into my bowl, I caught a glimpse of the entire family staring me down. They were calling my bluff. I had to do it. I had to swallow the live fish swimming around in my soup.

"They are like noodles, just swallow them," I kept telling myself. As I brought the spoon to my mouth, I couldn't help but think of the awful way these fish were going to die. They were going to be eaten alive, literally. I have eaten a lot of fish, but never a live fish.

As I dropped them into my mouth and swallowed, the slimy fish slid right over my tongue and then down my throat. It was a tickling sensation in my throat as I imagined they were trying to fight their way back up. Continuous swallowing did not help; it was as if it only agitated them more. I couldn't help it; I gagged.

Seeing my desperation the father handed me a glass of water and I flushed them down my throat. Never in a million years had I imagined I would face a spoonful of live fish that I would slaughter with a swallow.

Since that day I have tried lots of amazing and bizarre foods, including maggots and cow tongue. Every time I try new things I can legitimately say, "I have had worse."


Copyright 1997-2007 Utah State University Department of Journalism & Communication, Logan UT 84322, (435) 797-3292
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