Culture clashes :: The time Reuben wanted to talk about Chinese animal cruelty.

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You might well have seen the viral videos, released in 2009, going around again of the restaurant in Shanghai that aims to serve fish still alive, despite them being de-scaled, gutted, basted and deep fried. Well, if you haven’t (and you have the stomach) you can google it, because I’m not going to put it on the blog. The reason I’m bringing it up is because it sparked off a bit of a discussion in this house over the weekend, which got me thinking. Adam came across the video on Facebook and was absolutely appalled, and he’s not usually one to freak out over that stuff, but he really was shocked. I wasn’t. I love cooking, and I love learning about other cultures too, so I’m not stranger to the traditional cultural cooking in certain Chinese provinces… It didn’t shock me, it turns my stomach but it doesn’t shock me, the practice even has a name ‘Yin Yang fish’. Traditional ‘Chinese’ food culture is generally something we would consider barbaric, in some practices there is a total disregard for the suffering of the animal in question, in fact it’s often considered important that the animal suffered because adrenaline changes the flavour of the meat. What is also interesting is how little people know about ‘Chinese’ food culture, or culture in general and how vastly it varies throughout different provinces. You often hear people talking about ‘Chinese’ people eating dogs or cats, but that isn’t strictly true for every province – think Haggis in Devon, it’s still the UK but it’s not really something that is eaten down south as much as it is a staple in bonny Scotland.

When we were discussing this, Reuben’s little ears pricked up. “What’s sick Daddy? I want to see”. I’ve mentioned before that Adam and I differ on how we think it’s best to tackle the sensitive issues with kids, I’m very honest and straightforward, whereas Adam strives to sugar coat and protect. He immediately said, nope, you can’t see it, it’s not nice etc. “It’s something not very nice little man, it’s just a nasty video of bad people hurting a fish”… But that doesn’t cover it does it? I don’t undermine my hubster, so I took his lead on this one and let it slide. To us, the practice of keeping a fish alive by wrapping a wet towel around its head is… Barbaric. It is purely torturing an animal for no good reason, it’s just wicked. However in a culture where this is the norm, where ‘fresh’ takes on a different meaning, this isn’t a big thing. Reuben being a child was quite perplexed and wanted to ask why? Why are they mean to the fish?

It’s tough one to explain isn’t it? I tried to explain it as best I could, to us it’s very bad, but to the people living in that region of that country it’s just normal, it’s a cultural difference. Now, cultural difference is a really hard thing to explain, because culture is something that you can almost pick or choose. Take for example our own culture, rife with gender discrimination and inequality – something I, as a British woman, don’t approve of and fight back against. I don’t want to mislead Roo and give him the impression that ‘Chinese people are cruel to animals’ because that is totally inaccurate. There are many Chinese activists who are working hard to ban these practices because they feel it is a violation of animal rights, and they have succeeded in various places such as Taiwan (many chefs now refuse to prepare the dish). It is still popular in Mainland China, and that is something that won’t change over night, because the practice of serving something still alive or ‘flavoured’ by adrenaline is steeped in tradition and culture.

I think it’s important when we talk to children about something like this to stick to the facts, China currently has no animal welfare laws, which is one of the things that makes living in our country very different – we have those laws in place to protect our animals and to stop people from doing things that would harm them unnecessarily or in a way that we deem ‘wrong’. In China, however, that isn’t the case and as there is no law to prevent people from doing these things, despite several attempts to push animal welfare laws through, animals are not seen as sentient beings and therefore do not have rights. I try to talk to Reuben about cultural differences as something matter of fact, it is a ‘tradition’ where people’s grandma’s grandma’s grandma has done the same thing and they have just never changed. This conversation also opened up a chat about animal welfare, animal cruelty and why that isn’t ok and we fight against it. As the proud owner of a nervous system I can’t imagine being eaten alive or skinned alive, the agony of those animals doesn’t bare thinking about, but when we talk about this kind of thing, I don’t think we can just leave it at the animal cruelty chat, I believe we need to explain why this happens and talk to children about culture.

Chinese animal cruelty is certainly something that I want Roo to stand up against in the future, it’s something I want to stand up against, however I do believe that without a fundamental understanding of why people in these provinces of China see nothing wrong with their food culture, I don’t think that we can really help children to grow up and change the world.

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