How to Eat a Fried Prawn in Hong Kong

bird cages hanging from ceiling in hong kong restaurantMy feet were swollen and it felt like there were hot coals stuffed in my shoes between my toes, after having spent the day traipsing around Hong Kong City searching for silk. Our dinner companion said we couldn’t take a taxi because the driver would get mad at us for such a short trip. “It’s just around the corner,” she said.

Fresh out of the shower and dressed, already my clothes were sticking to my sweaty body. My companions took off ahead and left me limping along behind. I tried to keep them in my sights, even as the busy world around did its best to distract me. I moved along the current of people who were free after a day of work, now off to socialize with friends or run errands on their way home to cook dinner. I tried not to get swept away in the riptide. Around me, visual chaos, neon signs with Chinese characters, here and there splattered with English words. Color everywhere, lots of red and pink. Advertising surrounded me with huge billboards plastering the sides of buildings, brand logos some recognizable and some not. We travelled up one street, dashed down another. turned this way and that. At a corner our leader paused, finger in the air, deciding, then pointed, “this way.” and off we went again.

To the relief of my burning feet, we finally arrived at our destination, her favorite seafood spot. The door opened and welcome air conditioning hit my face. We were soon seated in one of the close packed tables filled with families and large groups out for the night. The discordant clamor and clang of stacked china, and chairs scraping the floor was trapped in the small space, and the riotous babble of conversation bubbled up around us.

Perusing the menu, we salivated over each delicious looking offering. Our companion and soon-to-be etiquette teacher suggested favorites and morsels she thought we’d enjoy. One of the first items to land on the table were deep fried prawns in the shell. Huge, whole prawns, dipped in batter and fried in a vat. My husband pinched one with his chopsticks (he’s quite adept) and placed it in the center of his plate. When he then picked it up with his fingers and started to peel it, she tut-tutted, mildly appalled at this uncouth behavior. She explained that it just wasn’t done to eat with your fingers, and besides, you don’t want to miss all that yummy, crispy coating he was peeling off.

She demonstrated the proper way to eat a prawn. Pick it up with your chopsticks, suck and nibble at the batter first. When that’s done, stick the head in your mouth and bite it off. Now drop it from your mouth, onto that side plate. Now, use your teeth to peel off the skin and legs. Spit it onto the plate.

I found myself in awe, not only of the amazing dexterity this takes, but of how widely different proper etiquette is viewed across cultures. By the time the meal was finished, my fingers were cramping and bumbling as I dropped food from my chopsticks. This eating lesson had pushed all kinds of buttons for me about how to behave at the table. It’s ok in the US and Australia to use your fingers in certain circumstances: pizza, chicken wings, french fries. You do not spit food out of your mouth. If you absolutely have to because of a bit of unchewable gristle, you delicately spit it into a napkin – excuse me, serviette – hopefully without anyone seeing you do this.

While the server poured the tea, our teacher inconspicuously tapped her fingers on the table. When my husband refilled the tea, she did it again. Another learning experience! During the Qing Dynasty, the emperor liked to travel the countryside in the guise of a common man. One time, he was in a tea house with his accompanying officials. When he took his turn to pour the tea, the officials didn’t know how to act; they needed to show their respect without giving him away. What they chose to do was to tap three fingers on the table; one signified the bowed head, the other two the prostrate arms. Today, when someone pours your tea, say ‘thank you’ by tapping your fingers on the table top.

Well fed and feeling full of knowledge and a new glimpse of the world, we readied to go. Our companion caught the eye of a server and mimed writing in the air – the signal for the bill. I won’t be spitting in my plate, but this is a dining tradition I’ve brought home. It’s quite handy. I don’t know if it will work in the US. “What? What do you want? Why are you writing in the air? Do I need to call the police?”

Homeground

Homeground (3 of 6)After ten months with an Antipodean address, it feels like I’ve finally landed in Australia. Sydney is a city similar to so many other cities in the world. Much like airports, cities each have their flavor, but apart from the predominate language you hear, it’s hard to tell where you are in the world. All the cities have tall buildings, people rushing in a swift current down the sidewalks, bumper to bumper traffic honking like so many geese. For the moment, I am able to block out all that and focus on the mud stripes, the pale handprints on brown skin, and be transported to a time when what mattered was a people’s connection to the Earth, to nature and her rhythms.

Homeground (1 of 6)A line of men striped with mud paint, the colors of Earth, skin and soil (we all make up Earth in our varied palettes of brown) stand like a held breath, ready to leap into the sand circle. They are followed by the women draped in fur cloaks. Is that kangaroo? The low vibrating sounds of the didgeridoo call the Waang Djarii dancers forth, to dance the memories of the elders passed down over thousands of years. I’m at Homeground, a celebration of First Nations music and dance, taking place outside the Sydney Opera House. Five troupes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers have come to compete for a grand prize of $15,000.

At the start I am distracted, held back from flowing into the dance, by the negativity surrounding me in the present. To my left, a man is annoyed at being asked to move back from the circle, and by the invasion of his personal space by others who are stepping past him. To my right, a woman is angry at another who sat in front of her in the space where we were told not to sit. She is shooting nasty epithets under her breath and making threats. I want to reach over and wrap my arms around this woman, pull her close to me and coo in her ear, “there, there. It’s ok. Let it go.” I’m afraid of having her vitriol turned on me.

I imagine how the woman in front may feel. She’s thrilled to have scored a front row seat for herself and her daughter. Then, hearing the hate being spewed from behind her, she fills with doubt and unease, wondering if she’s committed a social faux pas but not exactly sure. If she were to get up now, that would create a commotion in itself, and she’d have to go to the far back, behind the crowd, where her little daughter would have no chance of seeing the dancers. Maybe there is a thread of ancestry there, an inheritance she wants to share with the girl, and so she chooses to block out the nastiness.

Homeground (2 of 6)As the Waang Djarii dance, the woman beside me quiets, turning her focus to the dancers. The women are waving branches of gum leaves, cleansing the space. As women it seems this is our sacred role through the ages. I’m not talking about housework, but of creating sacred space, in whatever form that may take. We do it as we nest and create homes and care for our families.

Homeground (1 of 7)The next group are the Djaadjawan dancers from Yuin Country. As these eight women dance their dance of healing, I continue to think of the connectedness of all humankind. I imagine their healing being channeled out to the wide world, to Paris, Beirut, and Nigeria, to the Syrian refugees and all those people so full of fear that they want to block their borders, and to the angry people on either side of me, afraid of people invading their space and taking what they believe is rightfully theirs.

Homeground (2 of 7)The women are beautiful, their faces, arms and legs, even their hair, striped in terra cotta and white mud. They are dancing the sacred feminine, they are the Wild Witch, the Blessed Mother, that same image that came to me on a mountain top in Utah, as we danced the Autumn Equinox, that petroglyph from the Fremont People, of the woman holding the spiral wheel. There was a time when all of our ancestors danced the spiral. The women before me now are dancing a continuous thread woven across the fabric of fifty thousand years. Me, I’m picking up dropped threads of an unraveled tapestry.

Homeground (3 of 7)Now Yuin Ghoodjarga from Koomurri Nation slither into the circle. Their bodies painted with red and white stripes snaking over their chests and circling their forearms and calves, the young men send their electric current into the crowd.

Homeground (5 of 7)The chanting voice at the microphone sings them through the metamorphosis from death adder, to kangaroo, to black duck.

Homeground (4 of 6)Thika Billa from the Wiradjuri region, with their scarified chests painted in traditional orange symbols leap into the circle. They become kangaroos, jumping, scratching, frolicking, and nibbling on gum leaves.

Homeground (6 of 7)The final group, Naygayiw Gigi from the Torres Strait Islands are a force of nature themselves.

Homeground (5 of 6)Grass skirted warriors blowing on conch shells, flourishing sticks and bows and arrows dominate the space with a sharp flick of their white feathered headdresses.

Homeground (6 of 6)The women then fill the circle with a joyous exuberance, wearing the same grass skirts, cowrie shells circling their heads, and carrying woven baskets that look like a summer handbag. This group steals the show with their spectacular performance, taking away the big check.

Watching these groups perform, even as my mind follows many threads of what our world is enduring today, I’m filled with hope for all of humanity. I feel a sense of awe at the power of human culture to endure. These people here today sharing their culture with us have held on to ancient traditions. They represent the oldest continuing, adaptive culture on earth. That is such an amazing and glorious thing! They have refused and still refuse to let their culture be killed off. They have survived the great white scourge. If they can do that, can’t we all together survive a handful of terrorists? I just keep thinking about how in the big scheme of things, we’re all in this together. We all belong to the human tribe. I wish we could all join the dance.