Friday, September 5, 2008

dinner with Ying Dong

so, we had a work dinner last week, which, considering this is a school, sounds pretty lame. but it turned out to be nothing that you would imagine. except that we are in china, so the unimaginable is exactly what you should expect.

the restaurant itself was...chinese. very very chinese. it was very well-lit, which is common for restaurants, and decorated to the nines in gold, white and pink. it felt like the slightly outdated decor of a very rich old woman's home had magnified itself and exploded all over the building. the place was covered with fake pink flowers, crystal-esque glass, and marble-esque pillars, all topped off by two large golden elephants greeting us as we went up the stairs. it was incredible, really.

we had our own room with a giant table and a waitress that seemed to just hang out by the counter in the corner, waiting for us to ask for something. but the interesting part wasn't the location. it was the company. i ended up sitting next to ying dong (the school's landlord, essentially) and the first thing he does when jenna and i sit down is ask the waitress for a knife and fork. when i refuse them, he holds up his chopsticks and quickly demonstrates their use. so i hold up mine to show him that i can handle it. (did i mention that he doesn't speak english?) thanks, but i've got this one covered. i have been successfully eating here for 2 weeks, i think i'll manage. i'm pretty sure it was all in fun, though.

he then resumes smoking his cigar. after which he lights a cigarette. and then another. and another. and another. all dinner long. i cannot believe how many this man smoked in 2 and a half hours. he went through almost 2 packs, plus a cigar or two. add that to the smoking powers of his 3 friends and we all smelled like a tobacco ad by the end of the night. the only problem would be the red, itchy eyes and sniffling. i think we have all recovered, but when i get lung cancer, i'm blaming ying dong.

amidst the chatting, smoking and waiting for the food to come, ying dong calls to the waitress and orders several tiny glasses and several bottles of baijiu, a chinese grain alcohol with a very high alcohol content. he then proceeds to hand them out to all of the teachers, while pouring himself and his friends large glasses. the returning teachers as well as josh, our boss, all look at him like he is crazy, assuring us that we don't have to drink it if we don't want to, as it is apparently pretty disgusting. so we leave our samples by our place settings and go back to the chatting.

it lasts about 2 seconds before someone performs a toast. apparently, the thing to do at these things is to make toasts to everything and nothing, at any point in the meal, with whomever you choose. sometimes the toast is just a sip, sometimes half the glass and sometimes the whole glass. the whole glass is definitely the favorite, though. of beer, not baijiu, which is lucky for us. although, i did try the little bit they gave me and i didn't think it was terrible. true, it made my mouth a bit numb, but there was a certain sweetness about it that i actually kind of liked. i don't ever need to drink a lot, but i think i've had worse. of course, as soon as i tried the little bit (i was the only american willing to try it), they got excited and wanted me to keep drinking it, which i declined as politely as i could. i'm not big on pouring poison down my throat.

i'm not really certain on the rules of toasting, but i don't think you are supposed to allow the table to go for more than 5 minutes without someone toasting someone. which means that a lot of beer drinking went down in 2 and a half hours. as in, several cases of 1L bottles' worth. one of the chinese men thoroughly enjoyed toasting to jenna with a hearty, "michigan!!," followed by downing a 4 ounce glass. i did my best to refrain from the beer drinking, since it really upsets my stomach (not to mention it is just gross). i still haven't figured out if this was the rudest thing i could have done or just unfun, but the chinese men seemed very disappointed when i insisted on toasting with corn juice.

yes, corn juice. juice (like grape or apple) made from corn. it was actually pretty good and made me kind of happy. i have a soft place in my heart for corn.

the rest of the food was also very good. we managed to cover quite a range of the animal kingdom: duck, ham, chicken, pork, beef, crab, shrimp, jellyfish and oysters; most with the skin and bones still attached. you have to be careful ordering fowl here - you will get much more of the bird than you ever wanted. same with shrimp. they leave all of the work to the consumer. there were also vegetables, dumplings, tortillas, liver and, of course, tofu. no rice or noodles, though. these are cheap fillers and not commonly eaten at classy dinners. my favorites were the dumplings (best we have had so far) and this beef dish that was unlike any beef i've ever had, but good. it was very flat and breaded in something very very pink (sweet and sour sauce?) and crunchy, then i think fried and covered with a sweet mayonaise. it sounds terrible, but it was really good. and the beef was actually decent, which is uncommon.

i think the best thing served at this particular meal, though, were the cucumbers. at some point, ying dong goes to the bathroom and comes back with two very long cucumbers, which he starts breaking into pieces and handing out to the other chinese men present. no one ever figured out exactly why.

the process of eating out here is very different and makes the whole thing feel more like a relaxed get-together with food than just a meal. food is brought out one or two at a time, as it is ready, and put on a lazy susan. then everyone just talks, grabs a little of whatever is new, talks a bit, grabs some more of this, talks, etc. it makes it a much more social gathering. and i love getting to try everything. the end of the meal is commonly signaled by a tray of watermelon slices for everyone, which i personally think is a great way to end a meal. with something sweet and refreshing. especially a meal filled with drinking, cross-cultural banter and heartfelt thanks.

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