Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Sunday Brunch

Because we are not allowed to drive in China we have to rely on our drivers for just about everything related to travel. While it’s nice to be chauffeured around it does mean sacrificing a great deal of personal freedom. This is the reason I chose a house so close to services - I didn’t want to have to get in the car and drive somewhere to do a small shopping or to buy a cup of coffee. I really wanted to maintain at least the tiniest fantasy that I was capable of doing things on my own.

Making this level of dependency work to your advantage comes at a high cost – developing and maintaining a relationship with another person with whom you can barely communicate. Not someone who you might pick as a friend, rather more like a family member that doesn’t speak your native tongue. Some take the path of sitting in the back seat and keeping the wall up between employee and boss with no intention of moving beyond “Take me here, take me there, and go pay my phone bill.” Others dive in head first and become socially acquainted with their driver. I’ve tried to walk the middle line because while I am aware of the potential risk of getting too close (“My dog needs a liver transfer boss, would you pay for it?”). I also think I stand to gain something by trying a bit more. Like a great opportunity to work on my Chinese twice every day and to understand a person from a different culture. And so I sit in the front seat and I try to relate.

Ten days ago our relationship took a turn when he asked me out to lunch. This is a tough one as it may represent that next step towards the canine liver transplant. It can also mean that you now have a new friend with unforeseen expectations. And it definitely means at some point you’re going to have to reset your mutual expectations. But it also might be not much more than someone being kind. That’s the tricky part, because you do not want a mad or unhappy driver.

He explained that his wife wanted to meet me and that we would go to a good Sichuan restaurant because she had the same affection for spicy food that I have. There were two plusses here, he wanted me to meet his wife and we weren’t going to his house; neutral ground is always good. I thought about this for a bit knowing just where we might be heading and decided that I would agree - if things become dicey in the future, I’ll deal with it then. I only have one chance to stick my neck out a bit in this country, so why not? We agreed to Sunday.

Over the course of our many daily commutes Jiang and I have had a couple of conversations about Buddhism. It’s tricky because while it is officially overlooked, the memories of repression are still fresh especially among the older people and so it tends to be a relatively private matter. You can usually tell where your Chinese associate stands by how they react to your desire to visit a temple or whether they manifest of the signs of someone’s association with the philosophy. Here, men were bracelets of beads – tiger’s eye, carnelian, garnet, or jade – or perhaps a simple necklace with a jade Buddha or Guanyin pendant as a token of their faith. I’ve looked at these items many times in the markets thinking that perhaps one would be nice to own but I’ve never jumped because they are typically quite expensive and I would honestly be incapable of making a good choice. Last week while driving our talk turned to the bracelets and the necklace that Jiang wears and I said that I would like to get one of each. He told me that I should not make the purchase – being an American I would get ripped off. Rather, he suggested that he go looking on my behalf. I told him that I was very particular and we left it that we would go together, get an idea of what I liked and that he would go back and get them at a reasonable price. His idea was that we do this as part of our Sunday lunch outing and I agreed.

Saturday rolled around and I had an evening date at Brooklyn Bar for a stag party honoring one of the guys who would be heading home to get hitched in a couple of weeks. I met Jiang downstairs at 3 for the drive into town and once I was settled in my seat he handed me two jewelry boxes. In one was a beautiful jade pendant, the other a bracelet made of large black and green tiger’s eyes. Like a complete klutz I told him I thought the beads were too large and he struggled for a few moments to explain that the small beads were fakes and that these were of the highest quality. I’m thinking “exchange” and I asked him “how much?” and his reply floored me, “No, these are gifts from my wife.” I refused and he insisted. I refused again and he insisted again. While doing this back and forth routine he tried to get me to put on the pendant, but my American head was too big and he was too flustered to adjust the necklace. We pulled out of my parking lot with me feeling as though I was at the heart of an international incident and him feeling who knows what. I put on the beads, tucked the pendant in my pack and we drove on. Eventually I figured out a way to ask him if his wife liked jewelry (thinking Navaho) and what the lucky animals are in Chinese culture (turtle, thinking Hopi) and I made a resolution to think of a graceful way out of this mess.

After spending my Sunday morning cycling around getting misted by the insecticide sprayers I got cleaned up and met Jiang downstairs for our lunch date. The moment I sat down he reached over and checked under my collar to see the necklace in its expected place. He was happy to see it and I was happier that I had figured out the double slip know mechanism. We were good to go and spent the drive talking about why there were so many weddings in Kai Fa Qu that morning (1st day of the 6th month of the traditional Chinese calendar), who pays for the wedding (groom’s family), what they have to buy (house, car, cigarettes) and how the family name carries on with the grandchildren (just like ours.) I like these kinds of talks because they really stretch my Chinese beyond Juan and Pedro ordering café au lait at the Beijing Airport.

The restaurant was called 巴蜀人家, Bā Shǔ Rén Jiā or loosely “Home of the Sichuan People.” It was located on an obscure side street in a city district that was unknown to me. We parked and walked in past his wife’s blue Volkswagen; he pointed it out with obvious pride.

I liked the looks of the place the moment we got inside – it was not fancy, pretty average looking and reasonably full with regular looking people. Some of the local restaurants are ornate to the point of glam, and you often feel like you’re dining at a funeral home. This felt like a place where I could feel at home.

But one of the problems with dining out here is that you are often given the honor of a separate room. They are common, and any time you have a party of 4 or more you are offered the privilege. As we were shown to ours I had the sinking feeling that it was going to be really awkward sitting in a tiny hot room with two people with whom I would only be able to speak the tiniest bit. But these were the cards I was dealt and so I walked on knowing I’d be eating without the benefit of being able to stare into space while everyone else was talking.

Jiang’s wife was simply put, beautiful. I mean refined-features-upper-class-educated-long-black-hair-pale-blue-cheongsam-wearing-mysterious-owner-of-the-finest-candlelit-patronizing-only-to -foreigners-casino-on-a-silky-spring-evening-in-the-1930’s-Shanghai-French-Concession-beautiful. I hoped that my mouth was not hanging open but my face was so numb that I was unsure of its location.

I tried to sit down, or rather fall into my chair but was shown to the traditional place of honor in the far corner, facing the door. Jiang stepped out to smoke a cigarette leaving me to struggle to concoct the sentences to thank her for the beautiful and gracious gifts. I know I was able to throw in a lot instances of “grateful” and “heartfelt” and “unworthy” and while she did politely nod, I suspect she thought I sounded like I had suffered minor damage to by brain’s speech center. Jiang returned and we got down to the business of ordering (again the expectation of the guest of honor) when another woman showed up – his wife’s best friend. This made it interesting, it was either a case of everyone getting to meet the boss or some sort of double date. Whatever it was, it was nice to have another person to break up the tension. I ordered a couple of my favorites – roasted lamb, tàn péi yang, 碳碚羊 and 四季豆, sìjìdòu, “four season beans” dry fried with peppers. Failing to come up with anything else I handed the menu to Jiang and the ordering went on for some time.

After a confusing discussion about what we wanted to drink a bottle of wine showed up and the waiter poured tiny glasses for each of us. We toasted to new friends and continued to try to talk until the food started to show up; the beans and the lamb arrived first and we began sampling. The food here is served family style and you pick a couple of pieces up and place them on your tea cup saucer on their way to your mouth. A small plate of lemon slices also arrived and Jiang opened up a new pair of chopsticks to use to place a thin piece in everyone’s wine glass.

The topic turned to beer and it was decided that we would get a couple of bottles to complement the wine; it seems that the ladies liked a beer or two with dinner. The best thing about drinking in China is that the glasses are about the size of our smallest juice glass. The worst thing is that every time someone clinks glasses with you and says “Cheers”, you are expected to drain yours. This was a genuine problem for me as it was only 11:45 in the morning and I had visions of surviving the day. So after Jiang tried to get me to chug my first one I politely declined and decided that no matter how bad it made me look, I was somehow going to avoid getting trashed in the first hour of the dinner.

One of the headwaiters came in with a big black fish flopping in a plastic bucket – the next main course and here for its final review. In the meantime the plates continued to show up – bullfrog (青蛙, qīng wā), rabbit legs (兔子腿tùzi tuǐ), a big bamboo steamer full of chopped unidentifiable generic mammal material and prawns in the shell, duck tongues (鴨舌頭yā shétóu), and an interesting concoction of what seemed to be oddly shaped pieces of multi-colored rubber swimming in a bowl of brown vinegar and dotted with chopped up pieces of Napalm Peppers. I had a couple of pieces from this dish including one that looked like chemistry lab rubber tubing crafted out of Boiled Ham. I asked Jiang what this was and he told me “hǎixiān”, seafood. He pantomimed it being really long and being chopped up into pieces. I suspect it was some kind of sea worm and the rest was a mix of sea slug and sea cucumber. The rabbit legs were served with tiny aluminum foil socks to keep your hands free from the red chile paste that covered them. Everything else was delectable, especially the frog - small translucent cubes of white frog meat with little hidden frog bones. Very spicy.

The ladies kept toasting each other; it seemed that no matter what was being said it was worth honoring. The first two bottles of beer disappeared and two more appeared and these didn’t last long either. Even though I was able to handle the peer pressure to down each glass, I was unable to keep my glasses from filling up. The moment ¾ of an inch was empty, it was replaced and the expected buzz was building. The women kept toasting and laughing. More beers arrived.

The big fish showed up - hacked into fist-sized pieces and boiling in a giant vat of hot chile oil; I was served the prime pieces. The customary way of conducting a meal here is to take it slowly, eat a bit, talk a bit, eat some more. During our little breaks we had a conversation about my age, and that at 55 I was not considered “old” by Chinese standards. Rather, I was “venerated.” The ladies were laughing on some other age related manner when I broke in with our standard American joke about women’s ages. By now my iPhone was getting pretty greasy due to the constant translation I was doing but I somehow I crafted the sentence that all American women stop aging at 29. No 30, no 40, and so on. The girlfriend thought about this for about 15 seconds and announced that from this day forward, she would always be 29! Everyone laughed.

Jiang stepped out for another smoke and I took the opportunity to tell his wife that I was very happy with him as a driver, noting that my first two had been unacceptable but that he was very capable at meeting my wishes. She told me that he really liked me and that she had hope that we could be good friends.

The conversation moved to women and how they treat their husbands. Jiang related that his wife was his 最爱人, zuì àiren, “his very favorite,” even when she was a 母老虎, mǔ lǎohǔ or “mother tiger.” I suspect that description does not require and explanation. His wife asked me if My Lovely Wife was ever that way and I deftly replied “Only when she’s right and I am stupid” which they thought was hysterical. Jiang’s wife went on to say that it must be a great hardship to be here alone and I agreed, though perhaps not a hardship, simply not ideal.

A fruit plate was served and I grabbed a piece of watermelon. Jiang asked me what it was called in my country and I told him, translating it into Chinese. Their word, “xǐ guǎ” literally translates as “west melon” and if it was named the same as ours, it would be “shuǐ guǎ”, water melon. He thought that was very interesting. Sensing that we were getting to the end of the real eating, Jiang insisted that I eat a couple of those nasty little pepper slices that were floating in the vinegar dish. I thought this was a bit cheeky as he had not gone anywhere near them but he pointed out that his wife had done so and therefore I must comply. To say that it was spicy would be like saying that the Sun is hot. I earnestly began to wish for a mouthful of that white rice he had offered earlier. I took another slice of "west melon" instead.

A waitress showed up bearing a bowl with a white blob bathing in some sort of sugar syrup – a glutinous rice ball for the venerated guest. Everyone watched as I figured out how to eat it with chopsticks, it was very sweet and the center was filled with something black and grainy. Some kind of seed I think. The girl disappeared and returned with some more balls, these rolled in sesame seeds and served in a tiny green cupcake wrapper. Jiang showed me how to poke a hole in the top to vent the steam; it appeared to be about 1100 degrees inside. We chatted a bit about this dish and I named it “sesame balls” which they again found quite amusing. It seemed that perhaps I had made the proper impression, but who really knows.

Two or three hours had probably passed - I was not sure due to the food, wine, beer and conversation. When the last attempt to fill my glass came I put my hand over it explaining that any more meant sleep. The waitress relented. Jiang asked if it was time to go, aware that I wanted to stop at Metro on the way home for a quick shopping. We sat for a few more minutes and I finally said, “Let’s go.”

On the way out I passed the line of servers and managers and thanked them for the great food and excellent service. Jiang told me that the manager really liked foreigners and so I took a handful of business cards and promised to give them to my friends.

Outside it was early afternoon; the bane of all who do not regularly drink at late morning and yet are forced to have a few with an early meal. I made my farewells, thanking everyone graciously, shaking their hands and telling Jiang’s wife in Chinese that her car was very blue, doubting that this made any sense at all. I got in the car and Jiang backed up. Rolling down the window I waved to the ladies who returned the gesture as we drove down the street. It was hard to tell by the looks on their faces if this had been a wonderful afternoon outing or if they were glad it was over and that I was a putz who couldn’t drain his glass. I went away wondering how they could possibly be standing upright.

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