Thursday, March 11, 2010

you got served

Before you is a bounty; countless dishes handpicked just for you. Each dish seems to have the same question hovering above it: what in the world is this? You hold your chopsticks tentatively in the attack position. You want to look like you can't wait to dive in, like this is the meal of a lifetime, man. Sitting next to you is your Chinese assistant. Although he doesn't speak any English, he is about twice your age and he does touch your leg and laugh in your ear once in a while. The frequency of this increases with each glass of Baijiu he finishes. The bounty spins on its massive, glass lazy susan each time a waitress brings a new dish so that it situates right in front of you, for you to try first and for everyone to else watch. You reach for it, not knowing what it is. As you grab a piece, Ken, the friend you came here to see, translates for you: Pig Kidney. Your assistant, Ken's father, seems to enjoy your reaction after you try it. Later he'll put more on your plate. You don't seem to be too eager about the rest of the new dishes coming out; so Ken's father puts those on your plate too. This is his way of making sure you enjoy yourself, something you resort to chalking up to "cultural differences". These dishes include: duck feet, turtle soup, jellyfish head, sea cucumber (which looks earily similar to a massive slug), and pigeon. The deep-fried Kung Pao Shrimp is what you fill up on, the diamond in the rough.

Ken was excited to introduce Ryan and me to his extended family, but he was his normal quiet self at dinner. He didn't even greet his family members when we arrived, which seemed odd, but later it made sense when Ken explained that he saw his family every weekend for a big meal. His grandparents were over eighty years old, with plenty of energy to spare. Grandpa was proud to ask me, "How old do you think I am?" I played along, "Sixty," I said. He held up his hand to make the symbol for eight with pride, "Ba Shi!" Later I asked them how long they had been married. Again the hand symbol, this time for six, "Leo Shi!" Ryan and I raised our glasses to them and exclaimed, "Gambei!" (drink up!), though Grandpa was drinking Baijiu, a seriously terrible Chinese spirit that tastes like rubbing alcohol smells, and we were drinking Coke. The men at the table kept asking us to drink Baijiu, but were surprisingly acquiesent when we refused. Generally, Chinese men don't take no for an answer, and we're forced to take sips of it at each "Gambei". Though my description of Ken's father might sound like a creepy old man, leg touching is quite normal for Chinese men, and plopping a serving of food onto a guest's plate is considered polite; allowing a guest to serve themselves is nearly unthinkable. There is such an exorbitant amount of food ordered and forced upon guests at a meal with a Chinese family that I've often wondered if I was being fattened up to be eaten later for dessert. Meeting Ken's Grandpa was quite an experience, but he was only my second favorite. Ken's cousins had one of the cutest daughters of all time. She was shy, but later her mother, a nurse in her late-30's, came to sit by me and her daughter followed. I took a picture with her.

The cute little girl was certainly shy, but not about making noise. Throughout the meal she was up and around the room knocking on things and singing, later returning to pull her mom's hair. This is a typical practice for a Chinese child. An American girl would have been yelled at and/or disciplined for such a rukus, but Chinese children generally run the show, which is ironic, considering how strict Chinese teachers are. The other night I was at dinner with another Chinese mother and child, and it was the same routine. Noise and mess caused by the little girl, while the mother sits by, and everyone else watches and smiles. Her mother explained how her daughter will rarely listen to her if she tells her daughter to do something she doesn't want to do, but if her teacher tells her to do the same thing there's an immediate behavior change. Part of this lack of discipline at home is due to the one child policy in China; most people consider the upcoming generation to be extremely spoiled because the parents can't have any other children.


Ken is also an only child, and while his family is not wealthy, Ken is given the bulk of the family's finances to spend during his study. Along with this he's bestowed a high amount of pressure, which results in many arguments with his parents about his future. Ken studies German and English, all on his own, while working hard to get an Bachelor's degree in International Trade. He's a smart kid and often our conversations will lend themselves toward tangents on the many meanings of life. During our visit in Tangshan, we talked about what it means to have a soul, and whether animals have one, which of course led us to a conversation on the 2nd Resurrection... actually, I'm not sure how we got there...

It was a treat to visit his hometown and we were certainly taken care of. All of our meals were paid for and we were put up in a nice hotel. Toward the end of the trip, I was so used to being served that when we were boarding the train together to return to Baoding I noticed Ken was holding a big bag of snacks and groceries. I pointed at it and asked where he got it. "My parents," he said, smiling. Later that day (after a 6 hour train ride), I walked Ken to his dorm and I was holding the bag of groceries.

"Alright, buddy, I'll see you after classes start!" I said, walking away.

"Uh!" he said loudly, "the bag?"

"Oh, of course," I said, handing it to him, confused, "Sorry I forgot." I assumed it was for me.


---------------------------------

Our visit to Tangshan was Ryan and I's second studen-home visit in a week. A week earlier we were in Handan visiting Lee, a student Ryan is close to but who I had only hung out with a few times. He is a little wealthier than most of our students, evidenced by his possession of an Xbox 360, a rare commodity in China. Most students play PC and don't even have their own. Lee's mom was quite the chatty cathy; I'd venture to say that I learned more Chinese during the 3 days I spent with her than during the previous month. As we were leaving, Lee asked me, "Jon, do you have all your stuff?"

"Um, yeah, I just need to get one more thing," I said. I walked over to his Xbox and picked it up, smiling at him.

"You can borrow it," he said.

"What? Are you serious?" I looked at him, searching his face for sincerity. It was there.

"Yeah, my girlfriend told me I need to study more," he said, "and I'll be in Baoding in two weeks. So I can take it back then."

Fastforward two weeks: Lee still isn't here and I've taken the Redskins into the 2013 season in Madden 2010. I've been playing far too much this week, but fortunately, one of the benefits of being single is I have no girlfriend telling me to stop...


Couldn't resist posting this: I took this picture of a picture of Young Ken and his parents. The cuteness continues...

4 comments:

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