Getting to the important things first, I’ll start with meals. During our first meals in Shanghai we made many toasts with new friends. The combination was infectious: cold beer, exhilaration and sleep deprivation. It only seemed right in such situations that we raise our glasses and we raised them high, American-style.
"Gangbei!" everyone cried.
As the air conditioners blew away the superheated summer air into distant memory and the cool liquor warmed my goose-fleshed arms, through the happy light-headedness I dimly registered that our new Chinese friends seemed quiet. They didn't holler, "Gangbei!" as we did and barely seemed to raise their glasses. We, Americans, must seem so loud and overtly expressive to them, I thought to myself. It’s a cultural thing, I surmised. So thinking no more of this disparity in toasting styles I lifted my glass high and enjoyed myself.
None of this mattered until the Banquet. Bill's friend, Mr. Xiao, had invited us to dinner on the last night of our stay in the city. Bill had given us some idea that this would be a special night. The moment we stepped into the restaurant, the serenity of the establishment washed over us. The staff was solicitous but not fawning. Small votives lit the stairwell ascending to our private room. Sino-western classical music played softly, soothing our travel-frayed nerves. Our hosts were already present, waiting for us in the inner chamber of the restaurant. Mr. Xiao stood up to welcome us. Right behind him were Marilyn Chao and Dexter Hu.
Once introductions were made, we took our seats. Mr. Xiao, as the host, took the most strategic seat at the table, facing the door. Bill and I flanked him. Pam, ever fearless, would take the hit for the whole table for she had her back to the door. We joked that should ninjas come, she would be the first to fall, possibly toppling forward into the turtle soup.
We visited for a long while. Hot hand towels arrived, drinks were served, the first course arrived and we kept talking. Perhaps I was worried that the children were hungry, but most likely it was my training as a working mother to get things done quickly. To Bill’s horror, I addressed him past Mr. Xiao, “Should we start?”
“Mr. Xiao is the host, honey,” he replied, sotto voce. Everyone heard him, including Mr. Xiao.
Mortified I sank back into my plush chair, smiling ingratiatingly and completely self-conscious for the rest of the first course.
Mr. Xiao raised his glass. Everyone paused and a hush settled in the room.
“Thank you for coming tonight. It is an honor to have you with us.”
We all raised our glasses and thanked him.
“Gangbei,” we chorused.
This time, to my guilty eyes, I watched everyone, except Bill and our Chinese hosts, raise their glasses heavenward. Obviously they hadn’t gotten the memo, but worse, I had never sent it.
A few hours earlier that afternoon, I had sat next to one of Bill’s numerous friends, Mr. Huang, who spoke very little English. To my surprise, my rusty Mandarin had shaped up miraculously. Not only did I understand ninety percent of what Mr. Huang said but I managed to carry on the conversation without awkward pauses. Somehow in that conversation Mr. Huang and I spoke about culture and making toasts and we had talked about how differently both the Chinese and American cultures handled the same things. To show respect, Americans raised their glasses high. To show respect, Chinese kept their glasses low to acknowledge the superiority of the other holding the higher glass, presumably the guest. I made a note to tell my friends before dinner. In my attempts to improve China-US relations I carried on my mandarin-only conversation and quizzed Mr. Huang about the counterfeit market of which he knew nothing being that he was a member of the Communist party.
When we heard that an involuntary “Really?!” came out as most of us gasped on hearing that revelation.
In that moment every pretension fell away. He was just a guy with a job, political beliefs and daily chores. All we saw was the person before us. We were not the same but we could have a good conversation.
Cut to the Banquet, after the glasses were back on the table, I leaned over and told my side of the table that we were supposed to hold our glasses low. Or better yet tap them on the lazy susan as it was impossible to reach over the 12-foot long table to clink glasses. Moreover it was better not to say, “Gangbei” which implied we had to drain our glasses each time that word was uttered. Again, through the many encounters with our new acquaintances I recalled that not one of our hosts ever said, gangbei.
They just waved vaguely in our direction and smiled, “Ching. Ching.” In other words, “Please. Please.” Please drink.
We all laughed but by now everyone was completely embarrassed. For the rest of the wonderful dinner, we all drank our beers deeply and in determined silence.
Now that we had mastered one custom we ventured forth to many more meals with confidence. However that was not to last.
In Beijing, we were treated to an Emperor’s Banquet one sultry August afternoon. The van dropped us to the entrance of the restaurant. From there we walked on until we met our first costumed attendant. Dressed in Ching dynasty clothes, the attendant bowed us in. Lanterns hung from the eaves of the roofs and the soft flow of falling water heralded more within the walls beyond. The second entrance led to the actual restaurant. Inside, pathways meandered through a large and beautiful garden, connecting shuttered structures and leading back to the entrance. More lanterns, man-made streams and dragon sculptures evoked the closely guarded inner chambers of the royal household. And more attendants appeared, this time dipping on one knee and holding their left hand facing us in a Vulcan-like gesture—thumb and pinkie separated from the three middle fingers held together. Even the bus boy, dressed in royal yellow, on his way to deliver spoons to our room dipped at us. The reaction of the children in our group was mixed: The younger children were somewhat traumatized by the constantly bowing attendants and refused to make eye contact. The older kids checked out the gesture, filed it away and practiced on us after. I nodded back a few times and then ignored the attendants because I couldn’t muster another quasi bow in the thick, damp heat. And I don’t think I was ever expected to respond.
We were seated in a large room and the food began to arrive. Familiar foods prepared in unfamiliar methods flooded our table. Thin strips piled high turned out to be matchstick chicken, shredded tofu skin unrecognizable in a delicate salad, braised beans cooked to melting perfection, spicy shredded beef in a dark heap, and stir-fried mushrooms cooked to a crisp tenderness.
As we made our way after the meal to our next engagement, suddenly from the corner of my eye I saw several attendants approach us from all sides with umbrellas.
“Now this is too much,” I thought to myself as an umbrella opened over me.
Literally seconds after, the skies opened and a cascade of rain slammed down on us in a drenching torrent. The dry street became a large puddle and eddies formed where the drains were last seen. By the time we walked to the gate the van had to repark several times to get to a point where we would not have to walk through the huge body of water in the street.
In time we got used to the bowing. But if it wasn’t one thing, it was another. The dynamics of our group evolved according to local ambience. One night we went out for pizza in Lijiang. Winding through the narrow streets of Old Town we had walked into a stream of humanity thronging the shops and restaurants. Dusk had fallen midway and as the last light of the summer sun had faded, the thousands of lanterns, lights and lamps lit the town. Mr. Wu, our guide, kept walking and we trailed behind him in a long caravan. I was lost in the twists and turns, which they later told me was a single road: I had never been lost. All I had to do was back track and I would be back at the hotel if I caught the turns here and there.
Pizza turned out to be a light dough loaded with mild goat cheese. Fries came quickly alongside the fried yak bacon. There was veggie pizza for the adults and everyone was happy. The kids had unwrapped the chopsticks and were eating fries and bacon with them. I reached over to point that out to the adult table when I saw everyone there eating with chopsticks.
Obviously the chopsticks were there for a reason.
I sank back again in my chair, unwrapped my chopsticks and began eating. As I worked through the fries and pizza I remembered my college friend Beth who who ate everything with chopsticks in our chaotic apartment in Brooklyn. She hasn't been to China but she would fit right in. I haven't spoken to her in years. I made a mental note to give her a call when I returned to catch up about life and travel.