The scariest moment happened at a Chinese restaurant — or rather, in a back alley behind a Chinese restaurant, past the two metal swinging doors that I pushed through when I started choking on a piece of beef brisket.
Choking is one of those things in life that is way, way, way scarier than it sounds. Choking is like drowning without the water. They are similar, I think, because in both scenarios you have time to contemplate. There is a struggle, and at first, yes, it’s just a mad thrash for air. But the struggle is long; it almost has its own halftime show, and somewhere during this struggle you realize what is happening, and that you are running out of time — the clock is winding down and already the announcers are thanking the production crew and pretty soon “60 Minutes” will begin.
(Except on the West Coast.)
I had never choked before. In fact, before Friday, I had never found eating even the slightest bit distressing. OK, so a few times a bit of food went down the “wrong pipe,” as it is known in health journals. But I like eating so much, I’d probably do it even if the wrong pipe was the only pipe I had.
I already mentioned that the choking incident happened at a Chinese restaurant. This particular Chinese restaurant happened to be located in China, which is where I am traveling at the moment. I went there for lunch with the Washington Post’s two Beijing researchers, Zhang Jie and Liu Liu. We ordered three dishes to share. And in retrospect, perhaps I was a bit out of my element.
Now I have fairly good chopsticks skills. I can pick up individual rice granules with chopsticks and probably play Jenga with them as well. But these chopsticks — well, they were really big, made for a world where men are 9 feet tall. They felt unwieldy. Also, chopsticks are great for bite-size pieces, but when it comes to cutting they are no substitute for a fork and knife. Perhaps if I’d been eating lunch solo, I’d have taken that fist-sized piece of brisket, clamped it down on the plate, and tried to pry it apart with chopsticks, as if using them like cleavers. This, however, is sort of uncouth even by Chinese standards. Plus, there’s always a chance the meat goes sliding off the plate, dragging with it a brownish tail of soy glaze, until it lands in the lap of somebody who probably uses chopsticks at a professional-grade level.
Anyway, what I’m saying is: I just put the whole damn piece of brisket in my mouth.
And that is how the telecast began. Oh god. Within about two seconds, I left the table. Things were about to get ugly, and I didn’t want anybody to see. I pushed through those two doors, past the line cooks and wash boys and their greasy tins of leftover plates. I rushed outside into the alley — ahh, the cold air! — and keeled over a sewer grate. Tears were streaming from my eyes. I started making horrible noises, heaving and hissing; even my internal organs were screaming. At some point, a few employees came outside to watch. (They kept their distance. One actually walked past me and headed to a Porta-John.) I waved them away. It was a wrestling match, truly man versus food, and I figured I needed one cough — one life-sustaining cough — to end the agony and clear my throat. For at least a minute, I tried and failed.
And then it happened. A heave. A life-sustaining gag. A piece of brisket rose from deep within. I’ll hold back on further details, but suffice to say, you wouldn’t want to take a photo of what splattered on the sewer grate, not even with the Instagram app.
I wiped my tears, brushed my shirt and returned to the table. Liu Liu and Zhang Jie were both a little curious about what had happened. I’d been gone about two minutes.
“No, it was 10 minutes,” Zhang Jie said.
“I think it was five,” Liu Liu said.
“I went to look for you, but I couldn’t find you,” Zhang Jie said. “I was ready to call an ambulance.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” I told her.
But of course there’s no pride or manhood left to protect when you just nearly killed yourself because of a piece of stewed meat. The only smart thing to do is look for lessons. And I think I’ve settled on these.
- Take small bites.
- Chew slowly.
- Whenever possible, order non-threatening rice-based dishes that don’t have any chunks. This is one more reason to like bibimbap.