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Published: August 26th 2010
Why China always surprises me
Right now I am reading "The Member of the Wedding," courtesy of the care-package of books my Mom brought for me when she visited China. So far the book is exceedingly odd, but it's one of those books you can't put down. The protagonist desperately wants to be part of something, to be a member somewhere, in some club of life; to belong. I often have that longing too, as I am living abroad; perhaps it is a longing we always have in some degree, but being a foreigner obviously would heighten the feeling.
Today I went out in the morning with the modest plan of some shopping and lunch with my friend Lulu. When we met at the mall downtown, she told me that her Dad had invited me to eat with her family for lunch, so there was no need for me to 请客 (be the host and pay the lunch bill, which I had offered to do originally). We shopped for some basics like chapstick and moisturizer (did I ever mention how dry it is here?), then looked around in the bargain market next to the mall. I found some earrings and a hat; I will have to force myself to wear it since I haven't worn hats since grade school.
When we had done with window shopping, we hailed a cab and went to meet Lulu's family at a five-star hotel's buffet restaurant. Only then did Lulu tell me that the meal was in honor of her Dad's best friend's daughter, who had brought her boyfriend home from Beijing to meet her family (serious, n'cest pas?). I instantly felt way out of place and nervous. When we arrived we met the cute couple, the father and mother and two cousins, making up the party in addition to Lulu, her parents and me. I was once again flummoxed by kinship terms; Lulu called the girl her "jiejie" (elder sister), but they are not blood relations. And I was instructed to call the cousins "younger brother" and "older sister," and was never given their formal names; this was much stranger to me than calling Lulu's "sister's" parents "Auntie" and "Uncle," which I have been doing with Lulu's parents for a while.
The buffet was excellent, and though I started smaller than I usually do at my own cafeteria, the food situation snowballed beyond what I had intended eating, as everyone plied me with food saying, "Come on Sam, let's go get some more salmon" and so on. Actually we didn't really over-eat: first-rate sashimi and sushi featured heavily, and I had some excellent dry-curry chicken and tofu. I put my foot down at sheep-entrail soup; Lulu really thought I should try some as it is very local, but I didn't eat haggis in Scotland, and I don't even eat my Mom's pate at home. I draw the line at internal organs. I blame the anatomy course I took at one point in my education.
This was not your American-style buffet restaurant excursion; we didn't pile our plates high, we just kind of went back and forth and sampled most everything on offer. And of course, since le boyfriend
was meeting his girl's folks for the first time, this qualified as a special occasion; and what special occasion in China ever goes by without baijiu
, I wonder? The poor guy had to toast everyone at the table multiple times. I admired his "jiu liang" (alcohol tolerance), but he was still bright red within thirty minutes of the banquet starting.
People here often admire my "jiu liang," but I think it's only because I don't turn tomato red after a few shots. One of the warning signs I look for in the hotel is if a guest has been drinking too much, their face is usually crimson. The other warning signs are: "Wants to shake my hand and/or salute me;" "Barely qualifies as ambulatory;" and "Solidly asleep or attempting to sleep on pal's shoulder - while walking." The crimson-faced and the still-ambulatory but loud-and-rowdy usually send me fleeing to the nearest desk, where I pretend to be doing computer work.
However, this was not your falling-down-drunk banquet, either. Everything was done slowly and in moderation. All told, a full three hours was spent eating, drinking, and making merry; including a round of mandatory singing by everyone present. I kept my embarrassing contribution as short as possible, especially after listening in awe as Lulu's Dad let loose with a "grassland song;" I had no idea he was a singer, and his voice was in a pleasant tenor range with powerful expression. Even more powerful was the boyfriend's girl's father, a poet, who took up my request for "Father's grasslands, Mother's rivers" with appreciation and gusto. We all joined in after the refrain, and he sang the last stanza alone. It was show-stopping quality; Inner Mongolians seem born to sing. Before we left father and daughter sang together, the girl was a high alto with good expression, and her father finished the song with a phrase of Mongolian "Chang diao," a trembling of the voice through several syllables that requires, it seems to me, a special control and tonal awareness.
We emerged from the hotel restaurant and I was sent home with another invitation for dinner. I felt a bit like I should decline, as I was afraid I would be intruding, but the invitation was given so warmly that I accepted. I spent an hour or so at home cleaning up and then resting; the wine caught up with me and I got tremendously sleepy, but I still headed out at six p.m. to meet the families.
This time, there was yet another family added to our party: a married couple, their son, and their nephew. We went to a fashionable seafood restaurant that had an unbelievable number of private rooms and halls with different decor. The hall we walked into on the way to the private dining room literally stopped me in my tracks and caused my jaw to drop. The room was done in mahogany-color woods and gray stone, with a reflecting pool and Buddhist statuary, in addition to red retro Chinese lamps. The thing that made it spectacular was the soft overhead lighting - coming through suspended upside-down Asian parasols of orange and red cloth, far above us. I have never seen anything like it. I nearly kicked myself for not bringing a camera.
Dinner was not lengthy, but it was excellent, and though I started out once again very shy, eventually I warmed up again, and I was even called on to give a speech. All day Lulu's Dad had been calling me his 干女儿 (gan nu'er), which doesn't really translate but which means something akin to "adopted daughter" or "like one's own daughter." I was moved by this, and by the whole day's events: by how included I felt. Accordingly my speech was one of thanks to Lulu and her family for their kindness and hospitality in making me more comfortable so far from home, and a brief "glad to meet you all" to the friends of this wonderful family. Everyone heartily agreed and drank deeply to my toast. After dinner, more singing took place, and then a very pleasant day came to a close.
I returned home to prepare for a quiet day of packing and grocery shopping for a work retreat on Monday. That will be the subject of my next blog; I thought I was a curiosity in Hushi, but Beidahe proved yet more eye-opening and paradoxical. From the "gan nu'er" one day to "the Other" just a short day later: as a foreigner, one's status in China is always in flux and highly dependent on context. Regardless, I am constantly surprised by how alien and absurd this foreigner's experience can be one moment, and how familiar and transcendent the next.
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