It’s been a week since I volunteered at a local high school to help teach English. It was a very poor school and unlikely to receive any outside help from native speakers or even Chinese who have gone abroad. Our superintendent/grad student/English teacher friend Dragon asked Nicki and I if we’d like to come along, and we accepted. When we arrived at the school, there were a lot of (not unpleasant) formalities, such as tea with the principal and meeting the staff. As our tea cooled and we introduced ourselves, we were forced to keep the class waiting, the principal offering us some strong black tea and grapes, small pea-sized green ones and thick, plum-like purple ones.
Hot tea with the principal.
When we finally entered the classroom, it was simply unreal: merely walking into the room spurred a thunderous round of applause; just the presence of these two young foreigners (my lord, they’re also teachers! At the university!) was deemed an honor. Nicki and I tried (in vain) to hide in the back, sitting quietly so that Dragon could do his thing and get the class started (the kids were much more comfortable speaking to him in Chinese). We snapped pictures of the class as other teachers darted into the room to snap pictures of us. The students really got into Dragon’s teaching, mimicking the rhythm and tones of the English phrases we were teaching with their arms. Dragon abruptly asked Nicki to take over the class, and she went to the front and did quite well; I followed, awkwardly at first, and helped with some tricky “th” sounds, like “thank you,” “this” or “that,” and "weather/whether."
Up front, teachin'.
Dragon finished the class by translating any questions the students had for us; I learned that everyone was a big fan of basketball, and that I was welcome in China (many times over). As we were leaving, the kids wanted pictures: pictures they would likely never see, but pictures that nonetheless offered some kind of photographic proof, somewhere in the world, that this had happened, that they really had met these two foreigners. The boys were particularly taken with Nicki, and they actually asked her for autographs in their textbooks.
We left after another brief tea with the administrators. Nicki and I were given gifts, small matching girl and boy Buddha piggy banks and cards signed by the staff. I complemented the principal on his excellent tea, and before we got in our cab, he forced a giant bag of it into my arms, refusing to let me leave without it. Quite generous people, those Chinese. I almost feel like putting an “emoticon” smiley face at the end of this paragraph. Almost.
Later that night, I was invited to enjoy some durian fruit (liu lian) with Father Bobby, the senior Maryknoll priest here on the mainland. He invited Nicki, Steve, and myself into his room, and on his balcony, we destroyed the spiked ball of death (imagine one of these falling from a tree and hitting someone!) in search of its delicious, foul-smelling fruit. (Durian the Deathless, a fitting allusion for this fruit: it certainly has Dwarven features, such as its stone-hard surface and ability to withstand a helluva lot of damage from a butcher knife.) Durian fruit is quite possibly the most bizarre fruit in the world: a watermelon-sized oval covered in spikes that would make a cactus blush, it smells awful (not just odd, but really bad; if you didn’t know the smell’s source, you’d swear someone had left spam out in the sun for a few days) and you really have to work to get at the good bits. You hack away at this thing (and if you’re having it for the first time, you go all-out Lizzy Borden, without mercy), hopefully cutting it into quadrants or fifths.
Durian fruit, courtesy of Google Image Search.
Only the truly fearless attempt a frontal assault on a full grown durian!
Beneath the needled husk, you encounter flesh of a melon-esque consistency. But wait, you’re not done yet: that stuff barely has any taste. For the true prize, you have to dig deeper. Within each quadrant or fifth are two pockets of spongy, rotten-smelling mush, surrounding a large inedible pit, or seed. You want to scrape (hack) away the protective melon, plunge your fingers deep into the foul yolky pockets, anchor them on the pit, and pull. If you’re lucky, and your durian fruit is ripe (that is, the mush is nice, slimy, and wet), you’ll rip out a seed covered in the awful-smelling creamy yellow yolk. And that yolk is exactly what you want to eat. The taste is simply unlike any other food I’ve ever had. I’ve since had durian fruit pastries, and they simply can’t compare. It’s a food you’ll never see canned or dried or on the shelf: the only way to enjoy it is right off the tree and freshly cut. It’s an odd taste, and the smell hardly helps it go down smoothly (after a while, though, the smell of the edible bits has an edge of unqiue ripeness), but if you eat the really good stuff, right up around the pit, it’s absolutely delicious.
Steve and the savaged durian.
Sadly, Nicki was brutally mauled by the durian mere seconds after this photo was taken.
We cleaned up the crime scene, disposed of the durian corpse, washed the oily yellow blood from our hands and put away the dulled knives. We sat around a small glass table on Bobby’s back porch, savoring the lasting flavor of the durian, mementos of inaudible and internal burps slipping silently up through my mouth. But the evening was far from over. Bobby had even more prizes hidden in his larders: a fresh bottle of Coke, and (dearest of all!) some sharp white aged cheddar, smuggled in from Hong Kong. Comfortable in the cool dim evening, we sat talking, eating small wedges of forgotten cheese and cracked parmesan on small crackers pockmarked with black pits of sesame seeds. Bobby talked of his time in the Philippines (he’s got two lifetime’s worth of stories), I munched contentedly on the cheese and crackers, sipped my Coke, and was happy.