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The International Writers Magazine
Chinese Dog's Dinner

My Heart Goes On
Neil Smith

One month after moving to Northeastern China I was invited to dine with some of the teachers in the small middle school where I taught oral English. I was told that the headmaster of the school, a head Communist party member would most likely attend, which was the reason we weren’t eating in the city. The man preferred a restaurant located outside of town as far away from the police as it could be since it served "special" dishes.

I had prepared a note, translated by a friend, that read, "Forgive me, but I do not eat blood, entrails, insects in either the larval or winged state, or the feet or heads of animals. I also do not eat dog. I do eat everything else in China. I truly love Chinese food. As you can see I am very fat." After I handed the note to one of the teachers in the van she read it and smiled, saying "Hao! Hao!" Good! Good! "I call and tell them!" and gave a thumbs up. Later I would find out that my friend had actually written, "Since coming to China I have yet to eat blood, entrails, organs, silk worm larvae, dog, civit cat, or any unique dishes. I would like to taste as many tonight as I can. As you can see, I am very fat."

The note worked. After we sat down at a large round table complete with lazy susan, waitresses began appearing with steaming dishes of food I imagine last seen during psychological experiments in America during the 1970’s. Will the Berkeley grad student actually spoon a monkey brain from its skull for ten dollars? What if we twist the thing’s dead lips into a smile? Will the well-bred American southerner go back on hundreds of years of cordiality and actually refuse food from his host, even if his traditional fried chicken and collard greens are replaced with a bowl of stewed dog and raw egg? Yes? What if we show him a picture of old Champ first?

I ate, placing the food in the pouch of my cheek as far away from my tongue as possible, chewing once, swallowing, and managing a smile as I picked the leg of a barbequed scorpion from my teeth. After I had eaten enough to satisfy social grace, the headmaster, a small man wearing Armani, formally stood from the table and poured a brandy glass near my hand with something called bijo. "Bijo" translates into English as "white wine", but is in fact a kind of rancid vodka moonshine that when imbibed bypasses your esophagus through a hole of its own making and attaches itself to your spine. It then travels directly to your brain while a small amount of it actually makes it to your stomach and begins its devil’s dance.

Now that the madness had been eaten and drank, everyone at the table smiled at me and I at them, happy to have passed the test until I looked down and saw a cordless microphone at my hand.
"What?" I said. Apparently I was also going to sing karaoke.

For the next several minutes I tried to explain that in America there were people who sang karaoke and people who strictly did not. I told them that the people who sang karaoke had their own special nights out, usually the second Friday of the month. On this night they were allowed to go to a bar and howl at each other while the people who did not sing karaoke stayed home and watched television with their doors locked. I was one of the latter. I even dropped some of the few Mandarin words I knew, Mei gua duh jung fu, American government, and shot my eyes around the table to give the impression I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. When this didn’t work I tried explaining that I couldn’t sing, and that as a product of the rural religious American south my singing voice was designed solely for asking God not to kill me in some horrible way.

The teachers were undeterred and the headmaster gave me a look that promised a revoked visa and prison time if I didn’t pipe up. I flipped through the catalogue and couldn’t focus my eyes enough to read the small misspelled song titles. I finally gave up and dropped my finger on a line of text, reading only the word, "Heart". When the teachers read my choice they clapped and smiled and began to chant, "My heart goes on, my heart goes on, my heart goes on." I had chosen "My Heart Goes on Forever" by Celine Dione, which just happens to be the single most popular western song in all of China.

I took the microphone and began singing and could not believe the fact that I was not only singing the song but that I actually knew the words. Apparently on some long ago road trip I had daydreamed about a Pulitzer and playing back-up to Tom Waits too long while the radio was on and the song had implanted in my memory for good. I sang, and was terrible. Everyone at the table was polite, sitting with hands crossed, eyes glazed. I imagine I would have gotten a similar response (and probably would have made a similar sound) if I’d been juggling kittens. When I finished one of the teachers solemnly stood and, still smiling like she was handing a psyche ward inmate his imaginary magic wand, gave me a bouquet of plastic flowers. For one moment I thought, "These aren’t mine, are they?" and briefly passed out. I was never invited to dinner again and now find it odd that for the rest of my life when I hear a French-Canadian singer crooning about a large sinking boat, I will remember the taste of dog.
© Neil Smith March 2007

See also The Inner Mongolia Story



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