"Your people like chicken, right?" I did not know the hunched, wrinkled figure before me. This was the first line of our first conversation. I liked it. I told him that we—Americans—did. He seemed relieved as if I had settled some long unresolved bet. He had a worthless resource—three live male chickens—and now, someone stupid enough to pay top dollar for them.
Ordinarily I might have taken issue with "your people;" but lately, I don't mind being pigeonholed from time to time. The more Mongolians tell me that I am one of them, the clearer it is that I am not. Every now and then, you need to be reminded that you are part of something, even if that something is chicken.
My roots are problematic. At age six I watched a Civil War documentary with my grandmother. After several attentive hours of Sesame Street-framed comprehension, I exclaimed in terror, "Gram, we lost." My grandmother, a Jewish woman from New Jersey, assured me with some conviction that we had most certainly won that war.
Raised in the south in a religiously indistinct family from the north always seemed to make me a default Other. In high school, I was a Jewish kid from a liberal family surrounded by good ole' boys. In college, I was a provincial country bumpkin surrounded by affluent Jews. Granted, I came to accept, and even nurture, this otherness.
Today, not much about me says "Georgia Cracker." I keep my southern heritage in safe keeping for opportunistic donning of cowboy boots and uses of the word "y'all." But life in Mongolia has provided me some down-home legitimacy: I ride pretty well; I'm rather handy with both fishing pole and axe; and, off-roadin'/muddin' is a veritable transportational staple. Still, pioneer stock I am not. Unwittingly caught up in the muddle, three chickens sat precariously between pet cluck and potluck.
I asked my Mongolian brother Sanaa if he had ever killed a chicken—in Monoglian, "Have you seen killing a chicken?" He responded that he had never even seen a chicken. (Sheep, goats, cows, yaks, camels, and the occasional marmot: chickens were not suited to the nomadic lifestyle and thus never worked their way onto the Mongolian meat menu.) "No problem," I said. "I do this all the time in America. I just need you to help me." It was the spoken equivalent of vomiting. Immediately, I wanted it back. Sanaa's look of premature excitement and admiration assured me that I would not have it.
Panicked, I asked if he thought that the rest of the family would be interested in the execution of the exotic. I knew that his mother and father would not return from the countryside for two days. He nodded. I had bought myself time, and an audience.
My friend Luke has a similarly rootless persona. He is from the rural plains, but in meeting him, you'd never guess he picked corn in the summers for extra cash. Still, I figured at the very least he could refer me to a poultry-savvy aunt. Stereotypes be damned, there was no aunt Ethel. But by some odd act of chance, Luke had recently read up on all things chicken.
Apparently, chickens, in strange parallel with crocodiles, are brought to a partially comatose state when turned upside down. I presumed that this would be useful information, making things easier for all parties, feathered and not. From there, I clung to the hope that Luke had read some revolutionary methodological text, wherein the "…like a chicken with its head cut off" hypothesis need not be tested. Apparently, even after so many centuries of potpie and salad sandwiches, there has been little innovation in the field. There is still no way around a firm chop.
Having received the information more quickly than expected, I had two full days to contemplate the task before me. Every time I ventured out of my ger I had to walk past the objects of my most foul predicament. It took more effort than expected to avoid giving the little guys names and assign them human personality traits.
Williams' assertion that "so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow… beside the white chickens" started making a different kind of sense, taking on new and ominous tones. I held firmly to a distractive mantra: "delicious soup"—an unholy reversal of transubstantiation.
Two days passed. Everyone returned from the countryside. My Mongolian host-family and a small crowd of curious neighbors came out for the "show." Speculation about appropriate methods and the likelihood of my success began. I half-expected the assembly to start waving bank notes in the air, transporting the event to a South American cockfighting pit.
I had briefed Sanaa on how it would all go down. Though he only had to pull the string that had been fastened around each neck, he was part of the act, and wasted no time giving the crowd a privileged account of what was likely to happen. I wielded a meat-cleaver and a disingenuous look of confidence. I placed the first chicken on the chopping block. Sanaa pulled the string tight, and my stomach followed suit. Delicious soup. Delicious soup. Chop.
A single swipe initiated a surprising set of role reversals. A headless chicken chased my dogs around the yard, evincing shrieks of horror from the women and rapturous laughter from the men. In the faces of the children, I saw the sideways glances and grimaces that I knew I must have worn the first few times I saw a sheep butchered. For me, sheep were cost-effective Ambien. For them, chicken had no experiential referent. This was some bizarre ritual, executed by someone with esoteric knowledge of exotic creatures. As far as my audience was concerned, I was Colonel Robert Sanders of the Kentucky Fried Tribe.
The mythic cult of the chicken killers was an organic construction of group identity. No matter that I got the information from Luke who got the information from a book. No matter that not one of my friends from home has ever killed a chicken. In the local consciousness, I am one of a people—and my people like chicken! And, for now, that is enough.