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One night with Duck Head, travels in China

By Timothy Hogg

June 19, 2008 

The teachers at the University I am teaching at in China vary in their levels of friendliness, most of them are what I refer to as “curious friendly”, like a dog is when they encounter other canines at a dog park.  They sniff around enough to make a decision as to who is the alpha in the pack and then act accordingly.  Most of the teachers see me as the foreigner and give the initial respect that is expected of them and then they usually do one of two things:

I become their personal “foreign friend”.  This is an advantage for both of us at first.  It allows me to meet other people, perhaps speak some English or learn some Chinese.  Being a foreign friend comes with immense expectations.  Be prepared to be ready at anytime to do anything.  Parties, lunches, tea, whatever you can think of, in the beginning, you will be requested to go to various events because of your foreign friend status.  Declining is possible, certainly, but not taken lightly.  In many cases, others have been informed of your attendance before you are even invited to the event, your “Chinese friend” has already told everyone that you will be coming and possibly that you will sing a beautiful English song!  Eventually, this relationship does not work out.  That natural bond that really makes a friendship never seems to come and eventually your hints or lack of excitement are realized, but more often than not, the novelty wears off, like a woman grows tired of a fashion accessory.  Eventually, the “foreign friend” relationship ends and both move on.

Occasionally, you actually do become a true friend.  This is due to a level of understanding and appreciation between friends, a common thread.  The people that I keep in touch with from China all have the same intentions and they are honorable and just.  We became friends because of each others genuine interest in one another’s cultural differences and our similarities bind us together.

Early one morning, about 8am, there is a loud, repetitive knock at my door.  Even something as simple as knocking at someone’s door is different in China.  For instance a normal knock would be, say three times, and wait for a response.

Knock, knock, knock and wait.  If there was no response after say ten seconds, we would consider knocking again or perhaps waiting to hear some kind of rumbling around from inside.  The Chinese do not bother to follow these simple courtesies.  Instead, they keep knocking at the door, repeatedly, like a cop with a search warrant might knock at the door, a fast rap, loud knuckles pounding against the hard, secured steel door, incessantly, until you have no choice but to open the door.  After about the fifteenth knock, I stare into the peep hole and see a younger man whom I do recognize.

“Mr. Tim?  Are you here?  I would like to speak with you?”  His voice begs. 

I hesitate, but decide to see what this person wants.  I don’t have class for another couple of hours and it doesn’t seem like he will stop knocking for some time.  The door clicks open and he stops his incessant knocking, giving me a full smile.

“Mr. Tim?  I have heard you are from America!  May I talk with you?”

This seems like an odd hour for a casual chat in my flat.

“I would like to take you for a traditional Chinese breakfast.  Would you like to come with me?”

Whenever anyone mentions traditional Chinese breakfast, I am brought to that first morning in Guangzhou, with the sugared rice noodle bowl.  It doesn’t sound appealing.  If he mentions a traditional Denny’s breakfast, perhaps a Grand Slam or a Moons Over My Hammy, I would jump at the opportunity. At this point it seems fair enough to assume that I will not be seeing anything like that for quite some time.  Citing my empty calendar of events for the morning and thinking that he might know a secret place, I decide to accept to open the door.

“Can I help you?”

“Ah, Mr. Tim?  I am Julian!  I am a first year teacher here.  So glad we meet now!”

I invite him into my flat which is what it seems his visit is primarily about.  He immediately begins to survey the small flat, his eyes moving over all of the accommodation that is provided to the foreign teacher.  I have heard that other teachers that live on campus do not have the same basics that a foreign teacher is accustomed to. 

“My god.  How much do they take from you for such a flat?”

This is an expected question.  When the Chinese are at their most cordial, the questions will still come as to how rich you are, how much the University is paying you and anything else surrounding you economic situation.  I have already learned that it is best to not specifically answer this question.

“It is included with my contract, so I don’t really know my friend.”

He accepts this answer, until he notices that there are two toilets in the flat, one Chinese, one Western. 

“My god! Two toilets!  You must be rich, Mr. Tim.”

I simply smile and nod knowing that there is no way to answer that question correctly.  I make a motion toward the door, which he understands that the tour is concluding.  Soon we are off, down the hill for breakfast.  Julian and I walk down through the main campus and across the street to the shops and restaurants that sit outside the school gates.  Everyday essentials are all located here, several restaurants, a couple mini markets, cell phone and other technology related vendors and a small fresh market.  The market sells fresh fruit and vegetables in the front and the very back is where the fresh meat is sold.  The meat market always has live chickens and ducks and usually freshly slaughtered pork and occasionally beef, lamb and dog. 

We head over to what must be the bun shop.  Julian is familiar with the people and it is immediate apparent that he is introducing me as his “foreign friend”.  The workers in the shop all smile at me and I give them my most cordial “Ni-Hao!” and they laugh at my perfection of their language.  Julian orders several buns from the giant bamboo steamers and we take the bag of buns and sit on a bench looking out toward the University.

“Do you know these buns, Mr. Tim?  They are from Tianjin, in the North of China.  These are called Gou-Bu-Li and they are very famous and delicious.”  I nod in agreement, suspicious of the flavor. 

One of the first things to learn in China is to be wary of any leafy green vegetables.  They are always produced by the local farmers who use any means necessary to grow the biggest vegetables to bring to market.  This usually includes, shall we say, human fertilizer.  Inside these buns there was the leafy green vegetable and a little piece of fatty pork (also something to be aware of).  I wonder if that piece of meat is in fact supposed to be in there or if it is perhaps a farmer’s turd, used to fertilized said vegetable.

Julian is watching me closely and it would be rude to not act like these weren’t the equivalent of a Krispy Kreme donut.  After a few bites, the thoughts of a dirty farmer fade out and I find myself savoring the moment.  Julian and I, sitting in the warm, late summer air, eating hot buns, all Chinese eyes on our dining experience, watching the foreign teacher down his first round of Tianjin buns.

“Mr. Tim, I have class, so I must go now.  Perhaps you like duck?”

Finally, someone has mentioned Duck!  “Yes, I think I do, but I think it’s too early for duck.”

“No, no, Mr. Tim.  Maybe next time, we have Chenzhou duck with the beer.  It is a very famous and special dish of Chenzhou” Julian states, smiling from ear to ear.  “I will make a plan of it!” I agree.

He then said he had to leave and started up the hill to teach his class.  I sat and watched him for a bit, watched him light his obligatory cigarette before charging up the hill to the University, wondering when would be the next time his path will lead to my door.

A few weeks later as I have completely forgotten who Julian is, he catches me at the end of my Oral English class with the Freshman, who are still too delighted to have an American teacher to pay any attention to what I am trying to teach to them.  When class ends each day, most of the girls I am teaching hang out, waiting for me to ask questions about life in America, if I might need help with something or to ask if I could sing a song.  Today, however, Julian walks in, smoking as usual, says something in Chinese to the students and in an instant they excuse themselves and leave abruptly.

“Julian, what did you say to them?” I ask, slightly annoyed but mostly territorial.

“Mr. Tim, this is your time.  The students must be respectful of this or maybe they will not ever leave your side.”

“Julian, they are fine.  I enjoy answering their questions, they are curious about everything.”

“Yes, maybe, but they must not be rude.”

My head nods, its futile to try to defend them, it seems that this is how the line of thinking goes in China and there is no reasoning out of it, I have learned that already.

“What can I do for you Julian?” I ask curtly.

“Mr. Tim, I would like to take you to the Beer Duck tonight if you have no plans.  It is a very special dish and I have asked the cook at a local shop to find a suitable duck for our dinner and he has agreed.”

“Well, it looks like I can’t say no.  There is probably some guy hunting ducks right now for us.”

“No. I am sure he waits till after lunch, they are busy right now with other customers.”

He misses my subtle joke so completely that makes it even funnier to me.  My anger changes immediately. I agree and he leaves immediately.  The total exchange requires about thirty seconds of my time, time taken from my students, who are now elsewhere after being chased off so that he could invite me for a duck dinner.

The Chinese are always prompt.  As the second hand grazes over the 6, the knocking begins.  This time, it’s immediately followed by calls of my name because we are now familiar with each other, so it seems to be polite to also yell while maintaining a consistent wrapping sound.

“Mr. Tiiiiiiiiiiim, it is me, Juliaaaaaaaaaan!”

I answer the door quickly.  To my surprise, there are four others with him, two people who look older and two who must be students. 

“These are people from the foreign language school, Mr. Tim.  I have invited them for the dinner of course.  This is ok, yes!”  This is not a question.  This is the notification that these people would be joining us for dinner.  They are peering into my flat, to the point of near awkwardness.

“Would you all like a tour?”

Their faces light up like Chinese firecrackers and nod.  I smile back.  This is the first time I have had any women in the flat since moving in and there are now there are four of them.  They take their shoes off of their feet and two of them take the only pairs of house slippers I have and the other two look at my feet and see that I am wearing the shoes in my apartment.  They poke each other to show each one and I start the tour that takes all of two minutes, please hold all of your questions until the end of the tour, please.

The women are amazed at my spread.  I assumed that Julian would have said something, but it is immediately obvious that this is their first experience in a foreign teachers flat.  There are a lot of Wahhhhs as they go through each room, looking at my king sized bed, dual bathrooms and kitchen.  After the tour has commenced, they converge in the center, taking it all in like it’s a celebrity mansion featured on a celebrity television show.  It’s hard to not appreciate it when you have people so energized about your living quarters.

They begin to discuss the flat in Chinese and I usher them out the door.  They continue their conversation in their native language all the way to the shop, which is located near the “New Teacher” dorms.  I know this is where Julian stays as he is indeed a new teacher.  The shop is full of students who immediately stop talking when they see me, like I am the headmaster and they are all swearing at one another.  I smile and say Ni-Hao loudly, and they all say it back and the moment of potential tension is broken.  We decide to sit outside, on a cheap plastic table with tiny plastic stools attached to it.  There is a slight hint of stale garbage in the air, this is not one of the cleanest places I have eaten, but there is no need to protest, perhaps this is the equivalent to the American greasy spoon.

A moment later the waitress comes out and Julian immediately begins to bark orders at her.  It is potentially the harshest tone spoken.  As he is ordering in Chinese, one of the girls translates the items to me, her English is sweet, yet broken.  There is one duck with beer, one, no two orders of potato, some green vegatables, (she is not sure what they are in English) and milk for the ladies and beer for him and I.

“Mr. Julian has just asked her to bring out the duck before it is cooked.”

I look at her puzzled?  Perhaps this is what the Chinese take to mean cold duck, but I doubt it. 

“Julian, is the beer duck cold?”

Everyone smiles at me.

“Of course not!  Do you eat cold duck in America?”

I want to tell him so badly that we drink it, but it would take several minutes to explain it.

“No, we don’t really eat the duck that much in America, only in Chinese restaurants.”

Julian translates this to the others, who again gave a surprised expression.

“This is crazy.”

The waitress brings out a plastic bag over to the table.  It is one rather large bird, its pink skin freshly plucked.  I nod and Julian begins to once again bark orders at the woman.  This is a cold tone, but he is smiling. 

“She just killed that duck last hour.  It was a good duck and it bit her, so she knows it will be tasty.”

The waitress brings out beer for Julian and I warm milk cartons for the ladies.  I have tried the same milk they are drinking and it’s delicious.  I am amazed that they can have milk in containers that aren’t kept cold and the milk tastes so smooth and creamy.  The beer on the other hand is still taking me some time to get used to.  Beer is the often the same price as bottled water, so much of the time is spent simply drinking lots of beer.  Tsingtao is the most “famous”, but there is something strange about the way that Tsingtao produces the beer as it does it all over the country, but they call it different beers.  I am assured that the beer I usually drink around Chenzhou is Tsingtao, but because the production is done locally, the label doesn’t say Tsingtao, but something else.  This is much cheaper than Tsingtao and tastes different as well, but the story always remains the same I ask about it.

The side dishes arrive first and all of them are stir fried with a lot of oil, which forms a little puddle below the food on the oval white plates that they are served in.  The potato dish I have eaten many times before this as it is always a safe thing to eat, provided the oil is fresh.  The potatoes are like hash brown potatoes, except not cooked until they are golden brown.  They serve it with carrots in the dish as well as a little la-jao (pepper).

The leafy green vegetables are not as oily but instead have a dark puddle of sauce below them.  I hesitate calling this soy sauce because the Chinese do not ever use and whenever I ask for it in a restaurant, they do not know what I mean, though it is in the grocery store. 

We drink some beer and wait for the main course to arrive and nibble on the side dishes. 

“Mr. Tim, sorry, but do Americans not eat these kind of vegetables?” one of Julians colleagues asks.

“I am waiting for the main dish.”

“Oh!” Everyone hears this and immediately stops eating.

“No, please eat!” I say and dig my chopsticks into the potato.  They all resume, worried that they might have not paid attention to some known foreign culture. 

“Mr. Tim, is your flat like what Americans live in?” asks one of the women.

I ponder this for a moment.  “We don’t usually have two toilets in one apartment, but I think it is similar to what we have.”

“You know Chinese do not like the western toilet,” she replies.

“I don’t really care for Chinese toilets.”

The Chinese toilet is nothing more than an over glorified porcelain hole in the ground.  It’s perfectly fine for me when urinating, but anything else can have potential nightmare like effects.  It had never dawned on my previously just how amazingly convenient a western toilet was until coming to China. For the Chinese, it seems to be just the opposite.  The simplicity of Chinese toilets allows them to get their business done and move on.

Julian is growing impatient. 

“I think we must go have a look to see what this cook is preparing.  You can have a tour of the kitchen.”

“Not before I eat, man.”  The conversation and thoughts about the toilets is enough.  Chinese kitchens are not appealing to the stomach, but they are a sight to see, much like the different kinds of Chinese toilets, after a meal. 

As he is getting up to go and see what the problem is when a gigantic platter is coming to our table.  The duck is cut into bite sized pieces, bone in, soaked in beer with thick ginger slices, cabbage, Hunan and green peppers and some other  spices.  In the center of the bowl is a small beer glass, upside down, filled with either duck fat or really thick beer. 

“Is that beer?” I decide to break the cardinal rule of not ever asking questions about the food I am eating until after I have digested it.

“Sure, with maybe some of the fat of the duck for flavor.  It is upside down and slowly drains while the duck is being eaten.  Please have a try!  Perhaps you would like the duck head, it is the most prized you know!”

I decline and I will continue to decline as it sits on the platter, watching us all through it eye sockets.  My western palette has no desire for such a thing, there is so much duck on the platter that it doesn’t make any sense as to why anyone would even entertain such an idea of eating a duck head. 

“Why is it such an honor to eat the head of a duck?”

Julian looks at me as if I asked something in the most offensive tone possible.  The girls, on the other hand, smile at me. 

“I agree and I have asked my father the same thing Mr. Tim.  I think its maybe not so delicious,” says one the girls.

Julian scowls and says something in Chinese to them and they bark something back in return. 

I am focused on the meal.  Most of the pieces of duck have both skin and bone in them, so my first piece is a dark piece with a small bone fragment attached to it. I am afraid to think what part this may have been chopped from, but since I have already pulled it from the bowl there’s little to do except quickly put into my mouth and hope for the best.  It can’t possibly be part of the lung or the other varied innards due to the bone attachment, so it’s a safe bet it’s actually meat.

…and it is.

The flavor is unexpected, there is very little of a beer flavor, the flavor of ginger and the other spices makes this dish tolerable, even borderline delicious.  Not every piece is delicious, however.  As I become convinced that this duck is indeed delicious, there is an occasional piece which I come near having to spit out because the flavor or texture is just not acceptable to my western palette.

The dish is quickly finished, except for the duck head, which is still lying in the broth that is left over.

“Look Julian, I’m sorry, but I am not going to eat that thing.”

“Mr. Tim, I have offered it to you.  You should eat it.”

I attempt to make an excuse. “I understand and appreciate the custom, but I am full.”   

“We do not eat the duck head to become full.  It is good health benefit and will make you stronger.”

“I am fine without it.  I think you should eat it so I can learn how to eat it.”

This is what I should have said from the beginning.  In a quick moment Julian sighs and grabs the bottom part of the skeleton, the jaw line, and begins to gnawing at it.  I am both appalled and amazed at the same moment.  Clearly there isn’t much meat in that area, but he does manage to get the tongue of the duck freed and eats this as the women grimace and the slurping sound.  He then moves onto the head of the duck, which he doesn’t spend much time on.

“You see the head of duck is very hard, but the brain is delicious, so at times I like to break it open.  Do you want me to show you?”

I would like to keep this meal digesting as long as possible, so I also decline this request.  I can tell he is not satisfied and I wonder how many Chinese really go as far as cracking a ducks skull to eat its small brain.  I know without a doubt that this will be one skill which I will not even attempt to become successful at.  Thoughts graze through my mind of a time not so far from this moment where there was little choice but to eat the head, brains, whatever of the animal because you didn’t know when the next opportunity to eat would arrive.  Perhaps most of these honorable moments that the Chinese talk about is due to pay honor to such times where maybe the most sick or elder man got to dine on the ducks brain because it was thought to hold some sort of magical cure or lead to a longer life.  Whatever the reason, walking back to the flat following the meal, I feel a slight bitterness to myself for at least not trying to see what this forbidden fruit was like.

The thought passes quickly as I know that there will be many more awkward moments that the cautious and scared western attitude wins over the free spirited, willing to try it all for the experience attitude. I am okay with this because in the end, it’s the free spirited, willing to try it all attitude that gets me into these situations in the first place.


Timothy Hogg is a traveler who keeps a blog of his experiences at http://www.whereishogg.blogspot.com and from time to time, occasionally feels that some of this blogging could actually be printed on paper.  He is currently working on a book about travelling and teaching in China.  He has a BA in creative writing from Washington State University and hopes one day that he might actually pay off his student loans for said degree.  He is married to a wonderful German woman who he met in Beijing and they reside in both Cologne, Germany and Seattle, Washington.


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