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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Friday, January 25, 2008

We Ate at an Akah Banquet Last Night

Some Cultural Delicacies

I hope my words and later my pictures can capture a fraction of the “adrenal joy” that comes from reflecting Christ's love to people who understand simplicity, whose lives are not buried by "things," and whose attitudes reflect daily dependence on God (or various understandings of the unknown). You can't imagine the thrill of having grateful men, women and children climbing up out of the winding paths and fields of dreams as if God said, "If you build a temporary clinic, they will come."

While this trip is not designed primarily as a"cultural experience," working with people does, in fact, require understanding their culture. Always on the back-burner of my thoughts about posts, is my I desire to provide readers with a taste of these experiences.

Every day immediately after we close up a clinic, we experience a meal in the Akah or Lahu village. These doctors and nurses and "assistants in training" work tirelesssly until the last tearful eyes blink and the last head bows an unspoken "thank you." We then clean off the tables used in the clinic and eat a Thai meal prepared by some missionary helpers who send the “picnic” along with us from Chang Rai each day.

(Chosen hospitality ladies from the village also graciously bring us food, and we accept it, but we cannot partake of food prepared with the water we cannot drink.The doctors and our translators know what they are talking about, and they warned us that succumbing to this culinary gesture of gratitude will cause a prompt dismissal of all social graces as one runs to the “squat hut” in hopes of arriving before being assisted by the jet propulsion of what I’ll discreetly call a “major intestinal evacuation.” I’ll explain no further. These vague words will have to do since it’s my goal not to acquire through experience more vivid terms.

There have been two exceptions to this rule thus far in our time here. When we know the Akah person who cooked the meal, and are confident that they use clean water and understand proper food preparation, we can eat what they present. In this case we know two of our translators very well and have been partnering with them in this ministry to the hill-tribe villages for ten years. One of them presented me with fried grubs. These were not little fat grubs like the kind in my lawn at home. These are “bamboo grubs.” They are about the size of a millipede with no legs. They are “quick-fried to a crackly crunch” and safe for American stomachs. So I grabbed a few and popped them in my mouth. He was right. They were good. If you don’t think about them crawling around like worms moments before they hit the hot oil, they taste sort of like shoestring potatoes. I hope to bring home a bag to share with family and friends.

The other exception is dog. In these villages there are three small animals that seem to enjoy free roaming rights: chickens, pigs, and dogs. In fact they wander in and out of our meetings and clinics with little notice.

I asked our Akah translator (John at right) why the Lahu villages have so many more dogs than the Akah. He smiled and said, “Because both Lahu and Akah likes the dog. Lahu like dog for pet or watch dog… Akah likes dog to eat. Whenever one of my Lahu friends has a dog go missing, they think I took it to eat.” He laughs, and I ask. "So they don't ever ask you to watch their dog when they're out of town. He replies, "No. Dey don't ask me dat." [He laughs again.] "Do you name your dogs?" I ask. "No. Just call dem 'dog' we don't keep dem dat long to get to know dem."

At one Lahu village, I was confronted by several barking dogs as I took pictures of the hut they had been sleeping under. It was the first and only time dogs (and we'd seen hundreds of them) barked at me. John said, "See this is what happens when you don't eat dog. Too many watch dogs--not enough to watch." [He gestured toward the simple village where there was nothing fit to burgal. He laughs when he tells me dog jokes because he is a very educated man and knows Americans struggle with this dietary concept even though we eat many strange things that in the Akah mind are no different than dog.]

I asked John how dog was prepared to eat ( I have this description on video, too). “First pick the dog you want. Not too big, but not a puppy. Then you hit him in head like this with stick—strong stick, hit hard… then you just cut open to pull out the insides and throw it in the fire to burn the hairs off the skin—don’t want the hairs part—that part stinks to Americans but I think it smells good because I know what’s coming after and that smells even better. Den once the hairs part is off, you just turn to roast like pig on coals. Then when it's done like a pig barbeque. We do not eat insides—only pig intestine but not dog. Then pull off the meat and stir fry in pan with the vegetables and spices. It’s my favorite.”

[Commercial break: Do you remember the “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner” commercial (with Aaron Copeland’s “Rodeo” Hoedown playing in the background? If Akah had their own TV audience (they don’t), they could take that idea and combine it with the old Ken-L-Ration commercial from the 70’s. You remember the song: “My dog’s better than your dog. My dog’s better than yours. My dogs better ‘cuz he eats Ken-L-Ration. My dog’s better than yours!” And then at the end the voice over would say, “Dog… it’s what’s for dinner.”]

I should clarify that John is a very “modern” and intelligent leader in this region. I first met him in my office last summer when he was visiting the U.S. He speaks English, Akah, three dialects of Lahu, and Chinese well enough to converse when he crosses the border to visit Akah tribes there. These non-English languages may sound alike to us, but they are completely different. He is amazing to watch at work. He was sharing this conversation with me because I was asking him about the topic. He does understand our American sensitivities. I should also add that these dogs look nothing like the "pets" we keep in America. They are small "wild" looking breed like the dingo in Australia but much smaller. You would not pet these animals if you saw them.

John has a beautiful wife and family who served us a traditional Akah feast last night. It was 20 feet of tabletop covered with exotic fruits and entrées—yes, dog was on the table, and yes, I confess I tried it (even though my daughter Natalie begged me not to last week when she learned about this regional menu item). It tasted a bit like Teriyaki beef jerky except it was in little nuggets rather than strips. It was a bit chewy and felt like the clams in chowder between the teeth. The Thai dinner guests made very positive comments as they scooped it onto their plates. I prefered the egg rolls and cashew chicken.

I'll give you updates on our meetings and clinics later, but thus far am trying to focus on the cultural adjustments. I share this talk of our long days, strange foods, and exhaustion for a purpose…

But I will have to tell you about our Monday Night Miracle--one that left us trembling on the side of a 3-lane highway in Chang Rai--I'll have to tell you about that later.


Anonymous WSL said...

Ah, POI, I just read and am still pondering the differences in culture and foods! DOG!!!! I remember when I first rededicated my life to God (I'd strayed from the faith) and worried that perhaps God would want me to be a missionary. A much more mature person (both in the faith and chronologically) told me God would FIRST put the desire in my heart THEN the "call". I drew a sigh of relief! Since that time, many years ago, I've told my friends that "if" they hear I'm going to a remote part of the world that it will definately be a "GOD THING"!! In reading your experiences, it is a God thing for you!! I have heard from friends who've gone on short-term missions who ate what was set before them so-as not to offend. Was that the case with you...and the dog???
I shudder at the thought of it!
But you say that your Thai friends say we eat strange things too...I wonder at that comment!
Interesting stuff, your trip!!!!

27/1/08 11:53 AM  
Blogger Nancy said...

I'll pass on the grubs and the dog. As I read this, my precious Elmo is curled up next to me... I just can't imagine! Thanks for sharing, stay safe, enjoy, and know that my prayers continue.

27/1/08 9:33 PM  
Blogger Cris said...

You are definitely MUCH braver than I. LOL I think I would have cringed the second I saw "dog" on the table as part of the dinner menu. LOL

I can't wait to hear about the Monday night miracle. :)

28/1/08 1:08 PM  
Blogger Dr.John said...

Thank you for sharing. Its almost like visiting and seeing what the Church is doing.

28/1/08 4:43 PM  
Blogger Julie said...

While I don't feel that I should be the one to explain, I would like to ask all of you who read here to please be praying for Tom and his family. I know that they would truly appreciate it during this time. Thanks so much.

Julie in Muskegon

28/1/08 7:36 PM  

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