[rerun] Forget it, Babe, it's CHINATOWN!

Today I was unexpectedly cheered by a truckload of dead pigs.

I needed cheering up. I was not designed to wrangle two cranky toddlers to two day care centers in the rain on a day in which I am trying to give up the demon caffeine again. Danger girl hit howling boy with some train track (one of the 8″ lengths, which lets you get more leverage into it) and was enraged to be sent to time out for two minutes. Howling boy demanded a bagel with cream cheese, refused to eat it, and then went all China Syndrome when it was taken away from him upon leaving the house. Daddy’s Lexus is a toddler-wielded-cream-cheese-free zone, thankyouverymuch. Jackets were thrust upon struggling arms like said toddlers were the Joker being dragged back to Arkham in a straightjacket, the protection of umbrellas was ignored, puddles were jumped upon, and other atrocities against Daddy’s morning equilibrium were committed.

So by the time I fought rainy-day L.A. traffic, wondering if there is a patch or gum for caffeine addicts, I was a little on edge. I cut off the freeway on San Fernando to take a short cut through Lincoln Heights and the north edge of the city, which eventually takes me on Broadway through Chinatown.

And there, on Broadway in the heart of Chinatown, in front of Sam Woo’s BBQ and just a few doors from the unmatched Yang Chow, I saw the truck. It was a big, dirty panel truck painted some long forgotten color turned muddy brown in the rain. The rear door was open, and very nearly spilling from the truck was a cornucopia of dead pigs. A stocky Chinese man was carrying a dead pig matter-of-factly over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes into Sam Woo’s. The pigs had all been prepared for display or consumption, intact but for their insides scooped neatly out from the chest and belly, making them look like a hollow child’s toy. There must have been at least 50 of them piled unceremoniously in the back of the truck, limbs splayed, tongues protruding. Some will hang in the window of Sam Woo’s, others will be visibly chopped apart in the open kitchen for the various pork dishes on Sam’s tempting menu.

Why did this cheer me up? It’s hard to explain, but it made me think about how it is a good thing that we are different, and that we have a chance to interact with people who are different. As a rule, mainstream American society is squeamish about food and death. We’ve drifted far from what frontier roots we had, and now expect our food packaged, rendered mostly unidentifiable and therefore (to our minds) sanitary. Many of us would be freaked out by seeing the pig we are about to eat in recognizable pig form; some of us freak out at the notion of choosing a fish or lobster from a tank at a restaurant. Aside from rural cultures where eating what you shoot is still celebrated, we seem to prefer to think that the flesh we eat is carved from some immense sanitary and inanimate block processed in a factory.

Is this an inherently bad thing? Not necessarily. Ironically, it may move us away from tolerance for unnecessary cruelty to food animals; as we move further away from the reality of how our food is prepared, we may lose familiarity and therefore acceptance of its unpleasant side.

But I like that we can find easy access to cultures that take a completely different approach. In Chinatown I can see the dead animals my food comes from hanging in windows. I can eat crispy shrimp with heads and legs still on, looking like actual sea creatures and not like undifferentiated lumps of protein. I can talk to people who see food, and its preparation, and its cultural significance, completely differently than I do. I can take my kids and show them that the way they and their friends live day to day life is not the only way to live, and that there are endless possibilities. That’s why the pigs cheered me up.

Also, I find live pigs irritating.

Last 5 posts by Ken White