CHINA JOURNALSaturday, March 2 and Sunday, March 3
This is a tale of three very different eating experiences.
First, a bit of Saturday. I worked at home while Fu Ling went to work at the office and had a very long day. In the afternoon, Zhang Jie, Ding Bai and I walked to the Post Office because I wanted to buy 120 envelopes to use with my school children. (They ended up costing only about a penny a piece.) In the Post Office was a news stand that carries the China Daily in English. I¹m delighted to find a source. Up until then I was beginning to wonder if the United States was still on the world map. Supposedly there is a TV station in English but it wasn¹t broadcasting the only time I tried to find it. The China Daily is quite interesting in spite of the fact that the news in it is controlled. My favorite was the political cartoon showing a man labeled Enron stuffing Enron papers into a super shredder 3000x with Bush in line behind holding the papers of the Geneva Convention and saying, ³Have you finished with the shredder?² There was also an article on the Creeping independence¹ of Taiwan being dangerous. The editorial on the ³US eager to embrace Saudi overture² in relation to Middle East peace was my first news of that, and it is good newsthough from what I could tell it was only what the Palestine¹s have been asking for all along. For those of you who know my penny penchant, on that walk to the Post Office I picked up my first coin, the equivalent of an American penny. A good sign!
Saturday evening, since Fu Ling would be home late, Zhang Jie, Ding Bai and I went to the neighborhood restaurant to eat. Right next to us the owner family with several siblings and their parents were having dinner. It was the grandfather¹s 70th birthday celebration. During the dinner the little girl (whom I referred to as a little boy previouslyvery short hair) read to me, but another child (her cousin) and her aunt came to listen. The aunt is actively interested in learning English and we all spent quite a bit of time talking with the people at that table. There was no one else in the restaurant. When we heard that it was the grandfather¹s birthday, I stood up and sang Happy Birthday to him which they all enjoyed. We arranged for Shen Yuan, the aunt, to join us in our pre-Tai Chi morning walk from 7:00 to 7:30 to practice English. The next morning, Sunday, came a telephone call from the family with an invitation for dinner that night for Zhang Jie, Ding Bai and myself. We accepted.
Sunday morning I had my own quiet little meditation in my room. Lunch was to be with David Bo of the Sun Wing Energy Company, a subsidiary of Ivanhoe Energy out of Bakersfield. They are working at the Dagang Oilfield which is right outside of Tianjin. Our Bakersfield friend John Carver is with Ivanhoe and gave me David¹s name as a possible English speaking contact. And what a wonderful contact it is. The contact was really funny however. These people here are all so protective of me. After David called the office to connect with me, they made several calls to David for various reasons. We figured they were running a criminal check on him to be sure he was okay. Cui Hua looked at me very seriously and asked if he was an old friend. She said if I were at all worried, she and Zhang Jie would go with me. It was hard to reassure her that, even though I had never met him, I knew it was fine (and he sounded like loads of fun over the phone.) He did his part laughingly, calling when they approached in the car, calling when we took a detour after lunch, and coming upstairs to meet them (even though he had to wade through the barking dogs.)
When we got to the car, he had with him Laura Li, a lovely 31 year old who spent 18 months in Australia and now works in the office in Dagang where she lives with her parents. One of Sun Zhi Hong¹s calls to David was to tell him I was a vegetarian and how to handle that. Sun Zhi Hong recommended a restaurant which we never found, but David and Laura chose a lovely place that we passed. Their driver dropped us at the door. This is my first experience in what would be similar to a hotel dining room or nice restaurantlarge room, white table cloths, and cotton, not paper, napkins in the water glasses. David said that the rinsing-your-dishes routine is something that is often done in small restaurants, but not necessary in large ones. It was such fun to be able to speak a paragraph and have a real give and take conversation. This journal is about the only other place I get to do thatat least outputting the paragraph part. It was at lunch that I learned that all news in the country is controlled by the Party, the exception being if you are staying in a three star or four star hotel where they receive uncensored foreign TV. The room as usual was filled with primarily mensmoking men. The same everybody-dip-in approach to the central food plates was followed just as at home. The restroom was clean and western style, except for the toilets themselves. I¹ve finally caught on to the fact that you carry your own toilet paper wherever you go. Even at school, every student and every teacher has his or her own supply of toilet paper in the desk. Once in awhile in a fancy place you will find toilet paper already provided for free.
After lunch we dropped David at the train station for his trip back to Beijing where he is in the central office now. (His family is still in Dagang.) Laura, who was headed back to Dagang with the driver, took me by the Carro Ferre (sp?), which is a French department store. It is fancy, but the same principle holds true that individual owners each have their own department within the store. There may be five cosmetic counters all clustered together, each owned and run by a different personin this case, all upscale.
To fill in some background, before I came to China I was concerned about whether I should or should not wear the large silver cross pendant that I wear daily at home. The final call came from a friend living in Taiwan who advised that I not have it on going through customs but it was okay to wear after that. As a result I have worn it daily here. Only one person has made any sign of recognitionthe headmaster, who is a dear. She is not a Christian but recognized the cross. In the car I began to find out that Laura recognized the cross and thinks of herself as ³a believer even though she has not been baptized² (her words). Several years ago she had asked an American friend who was working here what his family was going to do on Sunday. That began their conversation about Christianity. She goes to a gathering when there is a chance. There is a church (an old stone one that I passed near the Peace Hotel) in Beijing. In Dagang there are some house meetings. In Tianjin there is a group that meets in a hotel downtowna long way from here. She doesn¹t know if there is an English speaking group. So, in two weeks here, I have finally met one Christian and one who recognized the cross. Slim pickin¹s. After shopping, Laura and the driver dropped me back home. She was too afraid of the barking dogs to come up, so she sent her business card up to Fu Ling.
That night at 6:30 was our dinner date with the family at the restaurant. Zhang Jie, Ding Bai, and I walked over. The family was seated in the upper dining area awaiting our arrivaland smoking. As we walked in, three tables made into one long table greeted us. This was a ³banquet² in our honor. The owners and their daughter, the sister Shen Yuan with her lawyer husband and daughter, ³Chris² who speaks quite good English and was there as an interpreter (a good way for them to find out the answers to their curiosity questions about me) and his parents, and another man that I never did figure out. This was a banquet in the people¹s style, I¹m certain. When we entered there were ten identical round dessert size plates placed in a straight line down the center of the table. They held such things as whole radishes with their leaves (and you eat the whole thing), very small round tomatoes, some cooked greens with tiny blanched almonds, jellyfish sticks, sliced meat, and sautéed potato sticks. These are the appetizers. While one could make a meal on that, experience says to take it easythere is more to come. Just as at Noriega¹s in Bakersfield where you know that all the food has been put on the table when the blue cheese arrives, in China you know that all the food has been put on the table when the soup arrives. I was placed in the middle on one side with Chris, the interpreter, across from me. The sister Shen Yuan sat next to me. As the dinner went on, a real feast appeared until the table was absolutely full and as dishes got low they were removed. They had prawns, and crayfish, and small crabs, and small pancake size fish, and a large flat fish with a stuffing mixture on top, and a whole steamed fish. There were several types of meats in thin slices. There were ³lettuces² with mushrooms especially for me along with several other vegetable dishes. Kiwi juice, tea, and beer were the drinks. At most gatherings the men seem to cluster at one end of the table and drink and smoke together. The beer came in bottles which weren¹t thought of as individual bottles but were used to serve the glasses. I lost count of the number of beers because the used bottles were removed and new ones brought on regularly. Much toasting occurred between the men, raising glasses but rarely touching them. In the middle of the banquet, Chris explained that a toast is always given to the guest and so they toasted me. It is a very leisurely affair due to the nature of just reaching out with your chopsticks for a bite of whatever you want. It is rather like sitting around nibbling on snacksbut what a variety of snacks. There is virtually no passing of plates. This means that one is somewhat limited to what you can get to in a long arm¹s reach. Long after I would have thought that eating would cease, the hostess owner started putting some dishes from one end at the other and people started nibbling at what appeared new in front of them. And eventually the rice and the soup came in. It lasted two and a half hours and probably went on after we left.
Both of the little girls read their English lesson in front of the group, and both came around to read a page for me. I tried to show them that inflection was more important than speed. I was flabbergasted when one girl read from her 4th grade state textbook a dialogue between two girls about how they were sure they had flunked the intelligence test because they were so dumb. The whole family seems delighted to have the occasional services of this Meiguo tutor.