Last night was Calvin’s farewell dinner because he’s leaving to go home to Wales. We went to eat with our boss, her husband, some of their family, some parents of our students and their assorted family.
Once we’re all gathered, everyone stands around the table for a little while. It’s kind of like MeatFest when Mama Hoffmann’s almost done cooking…. There is a hierarchy of seating arrangements, but Chinese modesty and my rather limited Mandarin vocabulary doesn’t tell me if I’m being honored or insulted. Once everyone is seated, we unfold our napkins from the Bishop’s Hat (Ok, so there aren’t any bishops in China. Maybe it’s the Defective Pagoda here) and place them under our plates. Next, we take our chopsticks out of a decorated case. (Why would a culture who makes such gorgeous silks glue rhinestones, little bows and applicae flowers to make a chopstick bag look like a summer camp project? And then, why put these cases next to thin, painted china on a crysanthemum-print silk tablecloth? WHY?!?!) A waitress walks around the table, collecting these cases, and I have to wonder if she’s the one who put the chopsticks out in the first place.
The first dishes are cold, usully some kind of pickles. The pickled innards take a little adjustment, but cold radish and cucumber pickles are a refreshing appetizer. As soon as the first dish is on the table, the fellow next to me slowly asks me in English if I wanna f*ck. Now that I’ve been to a few formal dinners, I’m ready for this. I respond with “No, thank you, I don’t need a fork,” and try not to make eye contact with Calvin. (The abilty to be snarky in a secret language has not been good to either of us) The information that the American is going to use chopsticks is repeated around the table, and when the first dishes make their way to me, all conversation and movement stops so everyone can stare.
Before anyone has a chance to eat much, the drinking begins. The waitress fills sherry-sized glasses with rice wine. I take a sip on the first toast, and wonder if I accidentally ordered paint thinner.Every person at the table raises a toast to someone or something, taps his or her glass on against the lazy-Susan and says “gambai!” when means “drain your glass!” but after a few of them, I am able to switch to red wine. Yantai produces more that one-third of the red wine in China, so far I’ve found that it all tastes like decent table wine.
Stick asked if I think the food is gross because I can’t get over my Western mindset about what’s food. I don’t know if this is true, since I’ve eaten pickled heart, chicken necks and boiled abalones (Not together! That would be gross!). Some of the hot dishes just smell revolting and I can’t bring myself to eat them, regardless of what’s actually in them. Others fool me, I think something is a simple stir-fry but it turns out to be chopped vegetables in vinegar. You reach for the bites you want in the serving dishes with your own chopsticks, and eat them with a bowl of rice. (It’s rude to ask for more rice or to empty your bowl, which is annoying when the rice is the best part of the meal. Still, one can get surprisingly full just trying each dish.
One dish is a whole fish, fins and tails and head, just like in Dinner With Trimalchio. Calvin, as the honored guest, receives the fish head, and must eat the cheeks, a valuable delicacy. Again, we don’t make eye contact, but personally, I think it’s what he deserves. I mean, he could have caused some kind of distraction while everyone was watching my chopstick preformance!
More and more dishes come out, more than our group could possibly eat. As we eat, the waitstaff stands nearby refilling glasses and replacing dirty plates with clean ones. It’s a little disconcerting to be watched so closely as I eat, but it’s very Roman! Chinese people don’t often eat desert, since some sweet dishes are served throughout dinner along with the salty and hot and just plain weird dishes. And there’s no lingering and chatting after the meal, once everyone’s eaten, we get up and leave immediately!
Since you asked: When you eat a Chinese meal in China, you’re not hungry a few hours later.
Chinese dinners have been described over and over again, but I have narrated this one, as I think few have given an idea of their tediousness and the absence of all that we deem comfort. — Archibald Little, Through the Yangtse Gorges, 1887