Chapter Three: Native Hospitality
When Trish and Betty entered the downstairs reception room at four-thirty, their fellow delegates were all talking about the condoms.
"Hey, McGrath," Mike called across the room. "Can I have yours?"
Jerome gave him a patient smile. "I already told Rudy he could have it."
Mike turned to the Lutheran pastor, who looked flustered.
"Rudy, you dude," Mike said to him. "Come on, let me have it. I want a few as souvenirs -- they have Chinese on the wrapper. I'll give them to my kid, he's sixteen."
"I think we've gone back to high school," Trish commented to Betty.
Sheldon began to explain the Chinese government's somewhat tardy but now whole-hearted campaign against AIDS, but Henry Ma interrupted, waving his hands.
"Hahaha. Everybody -- our hosts are arriving now!" And he glided swiftly across the room to the doorway where he was absorbed into a growing crowd of dark-suited, lacquer-haired Chinese officials. They were all speaking loud Mandarin at once, and they wore large orange flowers pinned to their lapels, similar to the ones which had been distributed to the Wheat city delegates when they came downstairs. Among the Canadians, many of these flowers now drooped badly, and Mike, not having a lapel, had stuffed his into his sports shirt pocket. Trish had fastened hers to the strap of her shoulder bag, since her blouse was too thin to support the gaudy bloom. Betty held hers in one hand, like an old-fashioned nosegay.
Henry seemed to know the Yutian officials well, but then, Trish reflected, he acted like that with everyone no matter where he was. He was gesturing, talking loudly to three people at once, bobbing his head up and down. The noise level rose and rose, as each official tried to converse with him over the others. There was a lone middle-aged woman in the group, but she stood to one side, listening indulgently to the masculine racket.
The Gu girls in attendance began to urge the hosts and their guests to seat themselves in the large upholstered chairs arranged around the perimeter of the room, with tea tables between them. Tea was poured into lidded cups at each place, and then began a long series of Chinese speeches shouted into the empty space in the middle of the room. These were tediously translated into English by a government translator; then the replies from Mayor Drucker, Jack Goldstein, and Doug Bonokoski were translated into Mandarin by Henry Ma.
Trish kept herself awake (jetlag still dragged at her system) by noting how the long speeches often had short translations but short ones long translations, especially when Henry was in control.
Two chair-groupings to Trish's left, Mike Shasko drummed his fingers on his tea table and muttered something about "ass-licking" loud enough for most of his fellow delegates to hear. Mayor Drucker gave him a sharp look, but no one else looked surprised. They had all been wondering how long it would be before Mike had one of the anti-social outbursts for which he was famous at home. But here in China, Trish realized, no one but his fellow delegates, and maybe the Yutian translator, would understand what he said. Fortunately, the translator looked very young and very circumspect.
The minute Henry finished his summary of Doug's speech about the Wheat Pool's eagerness to help develop Yutian's agricultural sector, and the "powerhouse Chinese economy" as a whole, the Mayor of Yutian popped out of his seat and barked out something very brief in Chinese.
"Now we will eat!" Henry hastened to translate, and with alacrity all the Chinese officials decamped in a tight crowd, following their mayor to the entrance of an adjoining room. Two Gu girls in long embroidered gowns threw open the double doors with a ceremonial flourish. Just at the threshold the Chinese got a grip on themselves, and they stood back to wave their guests in ahead of them with broad smiles.
"Eat, eat!" some of them said in English, as if this were something totally unique and wonderful that only they could offer the foreigners.
"Looks good," Sheldon said appreciatively as they entered a rather splendid red and gold room with two large, round tables set for a feast. Small cold dishes already filled the glass lazy-susan trays at the center of each table.
"I'm ready for a meal," said Mike, rubbing his hands together. "I hope it's as good as Shanghai."
"Me, too," added Betty. "I'm starving -- those noodles on the plane weren't much."
But it took several minutes to sort out the seating, since the Yutian people wanted half Chinese and half Canadians at each table. The Gu girls assisted, pressing elbows and pulling out chairs, until they were all seated, one contingent from Yutian and one from Wheat City facing off at each table like two hockey teams at the center line.
"Hahaha, verrygood," called Henry from his place across from the Chinese mayor. "Now we will have a meal of Yutian specialties: much local produce and some dishes of the Gu people, too. I like this food verrymuch."
"So you've been here before, Henry?" inquired Pastor Riethmeyer.
"Of course. This is where my ancestors are buried."
Sheldon frowned, confused. "But I thought you were from Tai -- "
"Ah well," Henry interjected quickly, with a wave of his chopsticks. "It was very complicated. My parents immigrated for their own reasons, but the others stayed here. I will go to burn offerings at the family graves before we leave." He beamed at the Chinese across the table, and said it all again in Mandarin. The officials nodded in approval.
After further discussion and some selective translation, it emerged that Henry actually had quite a few cousins in town. In fact, the owner of the New Dynasty Rits happened to be one of them. Of course he was a very distant cousin, Henry assured his compatriots. And besides, he said, everyone in Yutian was more or less related.
"But now, these cold dishes!" And he adroitly transferred everyone's attention to the food. "Appetizers, as one would say in Canada. They are very special, very typical."
The Gu girls began rotating the lazy-susans, identifying the cold delicacies. At Trish's table, Sheldon translated:
"These pink things are pickled radish -- they're pretty hot, so watch out. And these are 'long greens' of some sort -- they might be a little hard to handle. That dish she calls 'small pieces of pigeon,' but, ah, I think you might want to pass those up. Here we have roasted bamboo shoots -- they eat a lot of those. Oh, and here we go, the famous local specialty, that's what you're smelling. Fermented bean curd. Just sort of hold your breath when you eat it, it's an acquired taste. And the girls want you to know that each of these is good for some part of the body, or at least that's what they like to think. So ok, dig in, gang."
Their hosts urged them to help themselves, and Trish and all the other Canadians leaned forward with their chopsticks poised. They were famished, they wanted to be polite, but they were all afraid to be the first to choose. The descriptions had given them pause.
"Not quite the Pagoda Gardens, is it?" Betty muttered to Trish. "No egg rolls. That long green vegetable looks like the least of all evils, though." She reached out bravely and snagged a wiry green end. Like everyone else in the group, she had been honing her chopsticks skills over the past few months.
Trish opted for the bamboo shoots because, although they were brown and a little gummy, they were something familiar-sounding. The texture of these roasted ones turned out to be tougher than she'd hoped, and they tasted burnt, but at least it gave her something to work on for a while. The taste wasn't too bad, but she was a little concerned about when she might finally be able to swallow the ball of coarse cud that filled her mouth.
The closer the dish of fermented bean curd came to their side of the table as the tray turned, the more clearly Trish understood Sheldon's advice. She hoped she'd be able to swallow the bamboo shoots soon, because she needed to breathe through her mouth.
"What's that stink?" Mike was demanding. "It smells like there's something dead under the table." But luckily, at the rate the Chinese at both tables were scooping it into their little bowls, it wouldn't be around to offend much longer.
"It's a cultural thing," Sheldon observed philosophically, putting a little on his plate. "Think of it the other way -- they'd be pretty grossed out by gorgonzola."
"Sheldon," called Jerome McGrath from the next table. "What did you say about these pigeon things?" He was examining the tidy little piles of long, narrow, brown morsels that the revolving tray had brought to a halt in front of him. They looked a little like flattened worms. "They can't be offal, can they? Offal with an 'o,' I mean."
"Pigeon tongues," Sheldon informed him, through the mouthful of roasted bamboo shoots he was chewing as a chaser to the bean curd. "Go for it."
There was a universal gasp from the other Canadians, but Jerome plucked a tiny tongue from the top of the pile with his chopsticks.
"Maybe it helps you speak Chinese," he deadpanned, and he popped it in his mouth. They all watched as he chewed thoughtfully. "A little gristly." He extracted a needle-like tendon from his mouth and swallowed the rest.
Trish shuddered. "I don't think I want to be that intimate with a bird," she commented to Betty. But the Chinese at Jerome's table nodded their approval.
"McGrath," Mike complained, "I'll bet you were a real suck-up in school."
"When in Rome," Jerome said with a shrug.
Just then, the waitresses appeared at each of the tables with small bottles of clear liquor and trays of shot glasses.
"Well, hey!" Mike's tone changed to enthusiasm. "Drinks time. Things are looking up. Is that some kind of vodka? Make mine a double, sweetie."
But Trish knew what this was: the dreaded Yutian white liquor they'd been warned about, the blindingly-strong, strange-tasting local brew that was used for important toasts and could easily put foreigners under the table. As the liquor was poured out, the Canadians sniffed at their glasses hopefully, and Trish and Betty watched in dismay as they were each given a healthy portion.
As soon as the bottles had made their rounds, the Yutian officials laid down their chopsticks and stood as one, holding their glasses in front of them, and the Wheat City delegates struggled up to join them.
"A toast!" Henry declared, translating the Chinese mayor's words. "From one twin city to the other, hoping for a long association, with strategic ties of business, industry, culture and friendship with our good neighbor Canada. You are welcome to Yutian -- Gan bei! Bottoms up!"
In unison, the Chinese downed their liquor in one toss and held their empty glasses upside-down as a challenge to the others. Trish wondered if the glass of the grandmotherly-looking lady had been filled all the way.
The Canadians tried to respond with a show of enthusiasm -- they'd been told one had to, for the sake of everyone's "face" -- but their efforts met with varying degrees of success. Mayor Drucker, Henry Ma, and Mike Shasko took manly swigs, although the mayor's was followed by a grimace full of pain, and Mike's by a stifled four-letter word. The rest of the men took more cautious sips, but that only allowed them to more fully experience the sickly-sweet chemical bouquet of the liquor -- and after swallowing came the fiery after-kick.
"Hoo-boy!" exclaimed Sheldon. "Talk about firewater."
"Holy shit," gasped Tony from the steel plant, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin and shaking his head.
Jack Goldstein began a long series of gasping coughs. Doug from the Wheat Pool tried to ask for a soft drink, but he couldn't make his voice work properly. Jerome and Rudy were stoically silent after their swallows, but Jerome's eyes were watering and Rudy looked appalled.
Forewarned by this spectacle, Trish and Betty barely let the liquor touch their lips, but the smell was enough to make Trish want to cry.
"Jesus, Mary, and Joseph," protested Betty fiercely, but under her breath, as she rummaged for a tissue. "What's the point, I'd like to know, of drinking something that tastes and smells so bad? I really wish I'd brought my water bottle."
All of them knew it was necessary for Mayor Drucker to make a toast in reply. The Gu girls were already topping up the glasses. The mayor pulled himself together for the task, and Trish couldn't help but admire his professionalism.
He cleared his throat. "To a long and glorious friendship between Yutian and Wheat City," he said firmly as he raised his glass to their hosts. A few members of the delegation followed up with "Hear, hear!" and, to a man and woman, they all took the smallest sip they could manage.
"And now," declared Henry Ma, heading off any more potentially embarrassing toasts, "here are the main dishes!"
The waitresses swept in with an array of large, steaming earthenware pots, the sort of containers that might be used as patio planters back home, thought Trish. Each was filled to the brim with meat, dark liquid, and a high proportion of bones.
"Ah," said Henry. "Yutian simmered meat! Here we have pork, and chicken, and beef, and even mutton -- everything you could want."
"How about a chef salad?" Betty murmured to Trish. "This looks a little on the meaty side."
"Hearty fare," Sheldon observed.
"I hope nobody's a vegetarian," someone quipped.
"And turnips!" Henry added in reply, eyeing the last pot as it was brought in. "Turnips and bones -- very delicious!"
"What's with all the bones?" Jack wondered aloud.
"It must be a cultural thing," Pastor Rudy suggested, drawing on his reading again. "A diet based on a long history of famine, I'd guess."
"But they have McDonalds now," Mike pointed out irritably, eyeing the row of pots with suspicion.
The Chinese were digging in with gusto, so there was nothing for the Wheat City delegates to do but to pick up their chopsticks and start fishing hopefully among the bones for scraps of meat.
As they messed with their food, trying first to lift the bony hunks from the pots onto their tiny plates, and then separating edible from inedible with only sticks, it was the fastidious Betty who first noticed how their practical hosts were handling the challenge. They were carrying the pieces of bone and meat to their mouths with their chopsticks, sucking and chewing energetically, and then, with supreme insouciance, dropping the cleaned bones directly from their mouths onto the white tablecloth with a bob of the head and a delicate clunk. Each of them was accumulating a neat and not-so-little pile at the side of his plate.
Betty stared, and kept staring until Trish's attention was caught, and then they stared at each other.
"Whatever works, I guess," commented Trish. And she realized then that there would be more than a few interesting aspects of this trip that she would never be able to share with her readers at home. Someone had told her, probably Jerome, that the Chinese press wasn't exactly censored, but it did a lot of "self-censoring." She saw that she might be forced into some of that herself.
Thankfully, the Chinese were quick as well as nimble eaters, and the banquet moved on apace. Soon the Gu girls were distributing wet towels for their hands, removing the large pots, the plates and bowls, and using the sides of some of the small plates to sweep the bony debris from the tabletops into plastic washbasins.
"I won't say what that reminds me of," Mike said to his tablemates as he watched the gathering of the bones.
"Thank you," replied Jerome.
But then, after the tables were cleared and the cloths removed, something entirely different happened, something that Trish knew would have to be part of her first column from the twin city. The Gu girls descended on them with intricately arranged plates of fruit, which they placed in a sinuous line across each tabletop. When the girls stepped back, everyone drew an admiring breath: they had assembled two glistening, multicolored dragons made from the dishes of cleverly cut pieces of fruit.
"Oh, look how they did that," cried Betty, delighted. "The scales are all kiwi and apple slices, with bananas for the horns -- and look at the eyes, what are those? Lychees? How can we possibly eat it?"
But before she'd even finished speaking, the men had already begun attacking the dessert with the little metal forks that had been supplied.
"This really hits the spot," declared Jack.
" We could have used these forks a little earlier," Mike observed.
"Maybe I'll be able to digest all that meat and weird stuff after all," stated Tony hopefully.
A fragrant yellow-green tea was poured into tiny cups, and the delegates began to kick back. The fruit and tea were delicious and they were feeling a bit of post-prandial satisfaction at last. But suddenly the Yutian officials all rose from their chairs as if on strings, followed immediately by Henry Ma.
"We must go now!" he cried to his charges.
The delegates protested. Henry was affable but adamant.
"Hahaha. Our hosts must leave, so we must leave also!"
Mayor Drucker, recalling this inconvenient point of Chinese etiquette, rose in support, although he was still chewing and there was a slice of banana on the fork in his hand. The rest of them swallowed what they'd been eating, gulped down their tea, and then made their way to the door to shake hands again with their hosts who were already lined up and waiting for them. On her way out, Betty quickly wrapped some choice pieces of fruit in a paper napkin and stowed it in her purse.
In the hotel lobby, after the Yutian officials had made their hasty exit and been driven off in their fleet of black Audis with tinted windows, the Canadians stood around irresolutely. It was 6:45 pm.
"They're very, ah, efficient," Jerome observed.
"Yes," agreed Henry. "They have a heavy schedule. We will all come together again at City Hall tomorrow morning. There will be a ceremony and we will be introduced to our local guide, who will take us on a city tour and then to a model village in the afternoon."
"Will the guide be a Gu girl?" Mike asked hopefully.
"I think it will be a university student," said Henry, checking a sheaf of papers he'd drawn from the inside pocket of his jacket. "Maybe a female student, from the name. But not Gu."
"How about if, first thing, she shows us where the McDonalds are?" Mike suggested. " I think I'm going to need some real food. That stuff we just had -- " He jerked a thumb back toward the banquet room. "It was pretty bad."
"Those little pancakes with the duck and onion rolled up inside were pretty good, though," observed Rudy. " I wouldn't mind some more of them ... "
Mike turned on him. "Pancakes? With duck? What pancakes?"
"On the turntable, just behind the turnips and bones," said Jerome. "Henry asked for them. Did you miss that?"
"I never had any -- I never even saw them," replied Mike, getting worked up. "Who ate them all?" He looked accusingly from Henry to Jerome to Rudy. "Hell, I'm going out for a coffee. Henry, where's the nearest Starbucks?"
"I don't believe Starbucks has come to Yutian as yet," Henry informed him. "Regrettably. But you'll find some small tea houses and noodle shops down the street outside, I think. Maybe some coffee. Now I must go -- to make plans for tomorrow." He grinned at them all and made for the revolving door. "Bye-bye!" He waved and was gone.
They watched as he slipped into a cab that was waiting at the curb. "He's supposed to help us," Mike complained to the others. "He can't just leave us like that."
"He just did," said Sheldon. "Come on, Mike. I'll go with you to look for some coffee. There'll be something out there you'll like, I'll bet."
"I doubt it," Mike said glumly. But he went.
Tony and Doug decided to follow them, hoping they might discover something good, and drawn to stay close to Sheldon since he knew Chinese. The rest of them drifted toward the elevators, agreeing that they ought to unpack and that they could wait until the morning, when it would be cooler, to explore. Trish, however, was vacillating between her investigative duties and her jetlag.
"Come on," Betty urged her, whispering. "Let's go back to the room. I've got herbal tea, granola bars, dried apricots, and Belgian chocolate in my carry-on. Every delegate for himself, or herself, I say."
Maybe that would make a good opener for her first column from Yutian, thought Trish. Or maybe not. At any rate, she promised herself she would start writing something before she went to bed.