Exotic food machismo

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Expatriates are prone to developing bad habits. One that's hard for many of us long-time expats to avoid is what I'll call 'exotic food machismo', or EFM.

EFM is simply trying to impress others with what you're willing to eat. It takes some time to develop, but it can then last you a lifetime. Sometimes this means showing off for the local people in the country you're living in; more often EFM is practiced with other expatriates, particularly those visiting you for the first time. It's usually -- but not always -- men who are afflicted with it, much like regular machismo.

I caught myself at it recently at a dinner in a private club hosted by a Chinese couple. The food was exquisite high-end Cantonese fare. There were appetizers in little dishes around the table; one of these was a dish of 'thousand year eggs', i.e. eggs that have been preserved in their shells via an unmentionable chemical process. The egg whites turn an odd brownish color, and the yolks go a sick green. They taste of ammonia, but in the best possible way. I really like them. Next to me sat another expat, one who's been in Hong Kong even longer than I have. He was encouraged by our host to try the eggs (I of course needed no such license), but he politely declined. I asked -- with just a touch of condescension -- if he'd ever tried them before, and he said no, not ever.

Now, this gentlemen is a far better man than I -- he's a high-ranking policeman, is raising four lovely children, and would no doubt wipe the floor with my crumpled remains if we ever went mano-a-mano, but I couldn't help, at that moment, thinking I'd somehow bested him by consuming those smelly eggs he couldn't stomach.

If you look closely, you can see similar little scenes being enacted all over Hong Kong. At a Japanese restaurant, you'll see an expat introducing his jet-lagged, greenish-hued friend from back home to 'real' sushi, and goading him to 'just try this one -- it's raw eel pancreas with a splash of scorpion's venom -- it's fantastic!' You may also see the mirror image at a gathering hosted by a 'westernized' Chinese gentleman, who places cream crackers loaded with Stilton cheese before his less-travelled friends, and then beams as they gag quietly into their menthol-scented pocket tissues.

So enjoy the exotic foods of your adopted land, but leave it at that. Just because you can look a steamed fish in the eye, and then eat that eye, it doesn't mean you're so special!