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Drinking Tiger Soup

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Guest Save the Tigers

Once the great habitat of the tiger, East Asia is now teeming with megacities and double-decker freeways. Fewer than 6,500 tigers are left -- their numbers dwindling precisely because of the grip they continue to have on the human imagination. PNS associate editor Andrew Lam, born in Vietnam in the year of the cat, has a special reason to mourn their loss. Lam is a San Francisco-based short-story writer and journalist.


When I was six or seven, my mother's aunt gave me a broth made of tiger bone. She promised it would cure my asthma and turn me into a robust child. My mother, a great believer in ancient remedies, readily consented.


"You are lucky," Great Aunt told me, as she poured the steaming black broth into a bowl. "With all the bombings, there aren't that many tigers left in our country. You, boy, might be drinking the bones of the last one." Our country was Vietnam.


I watched the soup billowing smoke in front of me, and felt as if I was about to swallow poison. To make things worse, the tiger was my favorite animal and I was certain I was wholly unworthy to receive such a sacrifice. But a Vietnamese child is obedient; I wept, but I drank.


The broth was full of herbal smell, its bitter taste suggested a thousand wiggly jungle things. Half a dozen bowls of tiger bone soup followed over the next few weeks, but I continued to wheeze and heave and cough. Then Great Aunt ran out of tiger bone powder and the treatment mercifully ended.


My asthma went away a few months after I reached puberty -- soon after we arrived in America, at the end of the Vietnam war. But a different kind of malady remains to this day, made up of guilt and the feeling that my fate is somehow intertwined with the fate of the tiger.


There are only about 6,500 tigers still living in the wild worldwide -- most of them in Asia -- and I have this premonition that when the last one goes, so will I.


Perhaps it came the moment the dark broth passed my lips; or because I was born in the year of the cat. Perhaps it had to do with the hundreds of stories I heard as a child about long ago, when the Vietnamese people lived at the edge of an immense jungle, where a tiger ruled. Country people in fact often call the tiger "Grandfather," rather than using its proper name, for many believe their ancestors' spirits sometimes take residence in wild animals.


Our old houseman, Uncle Cam, claimed the peculiar bald spot on the side of his head was a "gift from Grandfather." As a teenager, he told us, he was foraging in the forest near Hue one day when he crossed paths with a fierce tiger. Uncle Cam dropped to his knees and begged for his life. Moved by his eloquence, the tiger spared him and marked him as a relative (not to be eaten) by licking the side of his head. Uncle Cam's hair promptly fell off, and never grew back.


Even if I doubted his story a little, I nevertheless felt a sense of camaraderie with the old man. Both of us, I felt, were deeply marked by the ruler of the dark jungle, and would live beholden to its generosity.


Of course this sentiment is neither rational or logical, but neither is the human relationship with wild beasts. Indeed, it is primitive and full of superstition -- we burden wild animals with all sorts of human characteristics and fantasies, and slay them because we covet or fear what we think they represent. The lion is courageous, the snake is evil, the owl wise, the fox cunning and the tiger -- the tiger, above all, is majestic, elegant, full of prowess and grace. It inspires awe.


Alas, the tiger's grip on our imagination is precisely the force that drives towards its extinction.


East Asia, where the great cats once roamed, is no longer a region of dark jungles and steppes and folklore. Soon there will be nothing to fear "in the wild" anymore -- in fact, there will be no more "in the wild" anywhere, except perhaps within: human beings have conquered everything but themselves. And so, while Asians no longer call the tiger "grandfather," demand for its bones as a cure is at an all-time high.


Indeed, the way things are going, I doubt I will ever run across a tiger as Uncle Cam did, except in its many parts: skin, bones, dried penis, made into balms, wines, and pills and sold at special shops in Hong Kong, Saigon, Bangkok and Taipei.


My Great Aunt was a good-hearted woman but she was not sentimental about tigers -- if the last one goes, well, it was a matter of good fortune that its bones should help her precious nephew. Most people in the region feel that way.


At a Buddhist temple in Hong Kong, I saw a little boy tracing a bas relief full of exquisitely carved dragons and tigers with his fingers. He looked perplexed.


"Mama," he asked, "does the tiger really exist, or is it just like the dragon?"


His mother shrugged. "It is still real, but not for very long. Soon it will be like the dragon."


I could almost taste the bitterness of the tiger soup.

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