几年以后，我确实亲身体验了很多苏南的风土人情， 并期待有更多的发现。在常州的第二年，一个颇具讽刺意味的事情出现了。 一次我和一位中国朋友出去吃晚餐，这是一个美食广场，没有服务员，客人自助下单。 不一会，我的朋友就在我面前摆了一大碗汤。
我拿起筷子，指着那个暗红色的东西说， “我知道，这就是——鸭血粉丝汤？”在那一刻，我突然想起和父亲的那次谈话， 想起他那难受的表情，想起我胃部的反应。好吧那确实是我最初的反应。那时在美国，而此时此刻，我在中国！我拿起汤勺，以一种开放的态度，我尝了一小口。天哪，我有生一来第一次吃鸭子的血！对我来说，有点腥气。但再品下去，口感竟像豆腐般细嫩柔滑。 我又试着喝了一口汤，吃了鸭肠和其它鸭杂。我有些惊喜，没想到南京的鸭血汤，竟然这么好吃！连汤带水，我把整碗鸭血汤全吃光了。
当我再次审视这件事情的时候，我真没想到事情会是这样的。我突然觉得，那个曾把鸭血汤配料告诉父亲以至父亲受到惊吓的人，和真正尝试过鸭血汤的那个人，是两个不同的人。 我曾经是一个只懂抽象的中国文化的人——我满脑子都是我在书本和互联网上读到的东西，以及我在李连杰和成龙电影中看到的东西，那个“我”被费城芝士牛排，三明治，比萨饼，汉堡包等等所包围。在美国很少有人吃动物内脏，我并不想以此进行比较。 到了中国，我渐渐意识到，要想在常州或苏南任何地方生活，就要诚实地去尝试，抛开任何先入为主的固有观念。
“哦，还是算了吧。”我的中国朋友又看了一眼菜单，摇了摇头。 “本想吓吓你们，”他笑了起来， “这把戏对很多外国人有效，但显然不是你们两个。”长长吸了一口气，他说，“对不起，我真的不想吃蛇。”
在坐公交车回去的路上，父亲和我谈到我们一起吃过的那些美食。 他发现，这里的中餐与美国中餐馆的中餐完全不一样。 要了解中国文化，你必须入乡随俗， 品尝当地特色美食是了解当地的最佳方式。况且各地美食林立，即使每天尝试，都不一定能了解中国美食文化的精髓。
Acquiring a Taste for Jiangsu
“This soup,” I read aloud, “is a Nanjing delicacy.” I squinted at my tablet. Then, I glanced up at my father. He paused the science fiction movie he was watching and eyed me intently. I wanted to make sure I could see his facial reaction as I started to read. “It’s made from cubes of congealed duck blood in a light broth. Mixed in with vermicelli noodles are duck intestines, gizzards, livers, and possible other organs.” I shot my dad a look. His face was white, and his mouth was slightly agape with a frown.
“That sounds utterly revolting,” he said.
“Yeah.” I put the computer tablet on a nearby table. “When I move to China, I will try lots of things. Just, I will never, ever eat something that sounds as disgusting as that.”
This conversation happened roughly three to four months before actually boarding a flight to China. At the time, I had told my recruiter to look for university positions in Nanjing. In the meantime, I was doing as much research about the city as I could. If I was prepared to call historic Nanjing my home, it seemed important that I learn something about its local customs. As an American who was born in a country like Germany, I was taught showing an honest interest in your host’s culture was the best way to demonstrate respect.
In the meantime, while my recruiter had been setting up Skype interviews, an offer came from a vocational school in Changzhou. The recruiter shared the potential salary number, and I realized it was actually more than what universities in Nanjing were offering. I changed targets and started reading up on Changzhou. In the end, the higher pay, lower cost of living, and slower pace of life seemed much more appealing, and I chose to take that position in Changzhou over the much more cosmopolitan Nanjing. Besides, I reasoned, Changzhou was close to not only Nanjing, but also Shanghai. Changzhou is in a really convenient location if you want to travel all over Jiangnan, and that was something I really wanted to do.
Years later, I have certainly seen and learned a lot about southern Jiangsu. I look forward to learning more, but a real irony popped up during my second year in Changzhou. I was out to dinner with a Chinese friend. It was in a food court, so there were no waiters. It’s mostly placing an order followed by self service. This friend set a huge bowl of soup in front of me.
“Oh, what’s that?”
“Try it,” my friend said. “If you like it, I’ll tell you what it is.” He grinned slyly. “If you don’t like it, we’ll forget about it, I’ll eat it, and then I’ll order you something else.” I looked at the soup’s golden broth. I saw purple cubes floating around, and I laughed. “Um, I know what that is.”
My Chinese friend appeared slightly confused. “Really, you do?”
I picked up my chopsticks and pointed at one of the purple blobs. “Yeah, this is Nanjing duck blood soup.” For a moment, I thought about the conversation with my father. I remembered his look of disgust and how my stomach turned while reading the ingredients to him. Oh well, I thought. That was America, and this is China. I picked up the ladle and served myself. Then, with an open mind, I tried it. Duck’s blood, to me, tasted like a coppery, slightly metallic tofu. It had the same slippery consistency as bean curd, as well. I sipped the broth and sampled the intestines and organs. Smiling, I felt slightly shocked. Nanjing duck blood soup turned out to be delicious and not revolting. I finished my dinner without a second thought and left the bowl empty.
But then again, I should put that into perspective. Of course it was not what I was expecting. The guy who read the soup recipe to his horrified father and the guy that actually tried it are two different people. I was once a person who only knew Chinese culture in the abstract – what I read in books and on the Internet and what I saw in Jet Li and Jacky Chan Films. That version of me was surrounded by Philadelphia cheese steak hoagies, pizza, hamburgers of multiple variations, and more. Of course duck intestines would sound utterly weird. Nobody in America eats that stuff, and I had nothing to compare it to. Once I moved to China, I realized I had to throw my preconceived notions out if I was going to make an honest attempt at living day to day life in Changzhou and southern Jiangsu in general.
I have a rule, and I live by it. If I am dining with a Chinese friend, I am not allowed refuse something if I think it sounds or looks disgusting. Doing that would be a slap in the face of my friend’s hospitality. I am the guest here. China and Jiangsu have warmly welcomed me and provides with me a living wage, as it does to all other foreigners who are legally employed in cities like Changzhou, Wuxi, Nanjing, and elsewhere. This is not America or Europe, and it never will be. Foreigners who expect any different are deluding themselves and should go home. Honestly, they would be happier and more at peace with themselves if they did. Sometimes, you need to live outside your comfort zone to make living in China work. Also, some tasty things – cow stomach, duck gizzard, fish heads, and more – I would have never eaten if I was belligerent about food not being like “back in the west.”
Incidentally, my father has also come around to this line of thinking. As of this writing, he has visited Changzhou twice. The first time, a teaching colleague took the both of us to a restaurant in the Yancheng historic area of Wujin. We dined on a local specialty – zai qiao old goose -- that consisted of breast meat and congealed slabs of deeply purple blood. “This is actually good,” my father said. There was no hint of his earlier revulsion.
A few nights later, the friend that first introduced me to Nanjing duck blood soup took us both out to supper. He glanced at the menu, looked at me and then my dad. A slightly sly, devilish smirk came over his face. “Hey, do you guys want to try snake meat?”
“Sure,” my dad said.
“Absolutely,” I said. “Bring out the snake, and we will eat it!”
“Oh, no.” My Chinese friend looked at the menu again, slightly confused. “I was just trying to shock you.” He shook his head and laughed a little. “That trick works on most foreigners, but apparently not you two.” He breathed a long moment. “Sorry, I really don’t want to eat snake.”
During the 45 minute bus ride back to Wujin’s College Town, my dad and I discussed the different foods we’d tried together during his visit. He remarked that Chinese food in Jiangsu hardly resembles what Chinese-American restaurants back in the United States. We agreed on a few things, specifically. To get to know a culture, you have to eat locally. Also, cities in Jiangsu and all across China have so many specialties, you could try a new dish everyday and still not get even close to all the good things this country has to offer.
“It’s still worth a try,” I said.
“Yes,” my father said. “Yes, it is.”
Rich Ristow teaches English at Hohai University's Changzhou Campus. In 2017, he was named an honorary citizen of Changzhou.