Thursday, January 22, 2009

Baijiu and Obama back to back

Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) has arrived. Heavy duty fireworks and firecrackers are exploding everywhere day and night. The university through which I ride my bicycle to work every day is eerily devoid of students, with only broken suitcase handles and wheels littering the ground as evidence of their mass holiday exodus home. And, restaurants everywhere are hosting Spring Festival banquets for companies and institutes all over Beijing. The need for these events can be compared with the obligatory company Christmas parties in the US. In the US, these company parties are awkward. People are forced to dress up and talk to each other about non-work related things, drink, but not indulge. The whole thing is a tightrope walk between business and pleasure. However, with all the lines of “professional” behavior slightly skewed in China, I got the feeling that these banquets in China are actually enjoyed!

Our institute’s celebration was a family affair that began in a banquet room filled with balloons, confetti, and plates of sunflower seeds and candy on the tables for munching. Staff members brought their wives/husbands and children to watch performances of our institutes’ own employees in a kind of talent show. One researcher joined his daughter in a magic show complete with a release of a parakeet (which then took 10 minutes to catch). A five year old boy showed the crowd of 100 his Taekwondo moves. A group of male post-docs performed a skit with jabs about how little money they made. Their female counterparts performed a dance routine in cut off jean shorts and tall black boots. Others sang Chinese pop songs on a Karaoke screen or performed a more traditional poetic story in the style of San Ju Ban (Three and a half sentences). The top prize went to the administrative and research staff that performed a Spanish conquistador partner dance with costumes and recorded blaring brass music. After the performances we were invited to play Chinese chess and word puzzles and then make our way to a nearby restaurant where the real party began.

Our group occupied about 20 round tables, which amounted to half the restaurant’s open first floor dining room. I sat with some of the researchers' wives and their children. The kids continued their song, dance, and martial arts performances throughout dinner despite reprimands from the adults! After a half hour of eating, the higher-ups began circulating the tables toasting their colleagues with “baijiu” (white rice alcohol that tastes like paint thinner ) and things started to get rowdy. You see a toast in China is not a sweet speech followed by a sip of champagne. Rather, it is a boisterous demonstration of thanks or good luck followed by a shot of 60 proof alcohol.

Lets again picture the stuffy holiday parties in the US where everyone is holding it all in. If someone does accidentally loosen up after a few trips to the bar, stories of their rowdiness and dirty dancing will float around the office in whispers for weeks. Now, imagine a party with no pesky Puritan roots to hold you back! Chinese drinking culture is such that one loses more face by turning down a challenge to drink than by getting completely blitzed and making a fool of himself/herself. (I say herself, but actually I do not fully understand how women fit into drinking culture in modern China.) In his book Rivertown, Peter Hessler recalled (hazily I am sure) a similar banquet with his English department where he and a friend felt no regrets about diving over tables and shooting each other with rubber band guns!

When my boss and another important staff member circled round to my chair and poured me a glass, I found myself caught in a tangle of tacit cultural expectations. I knew that it is disrespectful and even condescending to turn down a drink. Yet, I also knew that it is common for Chinese women to shy away from alcohol and toast with tea or soda instead. And finally, my Midwest roots were telling me that I should probably not be taking shots with my boss, period. I made a split second decision to file myself into a totally different category of “only foreign girl in the room” and threw one back. In the after burn I caught a thumbs up from my boss as he moved on to the next table. Whew.

The waiters brought bottle after bottle of baijiu and the noise level of our side of the room rose. I sat uncomfortably as I thought about how much we must have been disturbing the other customers sitting a mere ten feet way. Just when I thought about asking my friend if we were being too loud, the director picked up a bullhorn to announce the top prize winners of the raffle! The other customers seemed neither surprised nor offended. I guess by now I should know that hot, loud, jovial places are just where Chinese people would choose to be for the holidays.

A few students and staff stopped by my seat to chat in a mix of slurred English and Chinese. Whether it was the alcohol or the freedom that comes with speaking an opinion in a foreign language, one man felt free enough to explain the significance of this night to me. He claimed that one could “lose” oneself for the night. He described this as the one time a year when all is forgotten and forgiven. “You can say anything!” And most importantly, by drinking with his staff, the boss shows a bit of humility allowing him to reconnect with his employees.

Slightly buzzed from the cultural overload and the baijiu, I looked at my watch and remembered that the 44th US Presidential Inauguration was to take place in two hours. Being an hour's subway trip away from where I said I would meet my friends to watch, I excused myself from the party, which I later learned had continued on to a Karaoke bar. As our group walked to a bar promising a CNN live feed, we realized that while we all shared excited feelings about the big event, I was actually the only American in the group.

The bar was packed and just as loud as the Chinese banquet. But, instead of bullhorns and toasts, it was Beijing x-pats competing with each other and the CNN commentators for a bit of air time. An old Chinese man in a Mao cap circulated through the crowd selling his handicrafts and took a moment to watch the screen himself then confirming with those around him that the event was somehow connected to “ow – ba – ma.” The crowd quieted a bit at the sight of Carter, booed at George W. Bush, and cheered with the emergence of Michelle Obama. I stood beside Italians and English during the oath, an American for Aretha Franklin’s song, and Canadians during Obama’s speech. It is not until one spends an election or an inauguration abroad that one realizes how closely the rest of the world follows US politics.

I fell asleep at 4AM trying to process it all.

Here is a video just to give you a taste of the political and social vibe of the (mostly young) Beijing x-pat crowd. The second video is just proof that not everything is censored in China. This was the bit of the speech that was edited out on the Chinese stations but came through clearly on CNN.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Latest language gaffe/near miss with humiliation

As an intern, anywhere really, one is constantly anxious about how to slip into the social scene at the office/company. If you have an intern, know that he/she is over thinking every action so as to avoid being both completely overlooked or in the spotlight. This internal tension (no pun intended) increases when the job lands the intern squarely in a foreign culture where he/she cannot even rely on gut social instincts. While I am constantly strategizing about how to ease into the social scene here, I am never actually confident about how my actions are being interpreted. With such deliberation to say and do just the right thing, you can imagine what affect one major gaffe might have on my psyche.

While my Chinese vocabulary continues to grow, I am still very capable of making grave and humiliating mistakes. I had a close call during a series of email exchanges with a PhD student here at the institute. We bumped into each other outside the institute and he invited me to the public oral defense session of his thesis. There is a specific word for oral defense of one's thesis, "da bian" (
答辩) which was new to me when he spoke it. I attended the session and managed to comprehend only the gist and not a single detail of his extremely technical presentation. Afterward I confidently typed up an e-mail thanking him for including me and asked him how he thought his "da bian" had gone.

However, due to my dearth of Chinese character recognition, I used the characters "
大便," which is also pronounced "da bian" but with slightly different tones and unfortunately means..well... excrement (to put it gently)! I was one mouse click away from thanking him for inviting me to his defecating session and asking him how he felt about it had gone.

I swear Chinese is a code not a language!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Beijing Roast Duck (all of it)

A visit from important foreign guests to the institute warranted a trip to eat the all famous, “Beijing kao ya,” or Peking Roast Duck. Our group of ten headed to a famous roast duck restaurant near the Olympic village. The place was packed with waitresses in Qing Dynasty costumes with walki-talkies and headphones. The walls were covered in pictures of foreign guests and dignitaries that had dined there during the Olympics. I noted that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo represented the Philippines as well as one could with a whole naked duck in the foreground. We were ushered to the private “Putin room,” complete with Chinese and Russian flags as the table centerpiece and pictures of Vladimir Putin and his entourage enjoying roast duck. We ordered two entire ducks prepared with the “Putin” menu.

This restaurant was obviously still riding the Olympic theme. First to arrive on our table was a small plate of fried duck skin intricately woven into the shape of the neighboring Olympic bird nest. Next was a simulacrum of the Olympic aquatic center which took the form of duck skin chunks suspended in a rectangular mass of translucent gelatin. The jiggling mound was set atop a base with a blue twinkling light bulb making it glow aquamarine. I tried a cube as it glided past me on the rotating glass Lazy Susan. It tasted exactly like what you might expect if you ate a big spoon full of the semi-hardened grease that pools around your turkey a few days after Thanksgiving.

The waitress announced the name of each in Chinese as she placed them on the table. First was the usual, duck meat served with sweet hoisin (thick dark and sweet) sauce and spring onions all to be rolled up in thin crepe-like pancakes and eaten like tiny burritos. Undeniably delicious! Then, a plate of fleshy floppy “duck feet” arrived. With a little encouragement from my boss, the other American at the table and I lifted the wilted webbed bits of flesh from the plate with chop sticks, dipped them into mustard sauce, and plunged them into your mouths with a cringe. We both reached for our beer and gulped to forget the soft crunch of flavorless cartilage. I understood the next few dishes as announced, “duck liver,” “duck hearts cooked in Chinese white liquor,” “duck neck,” “boiled duck head,” (which was split in two for ease of eating I suppose). But then there was one dish announced that was beyond my vocabulary and visual identification. I turned to my boss and said, “I don’t’ know that one.” He laughed out loud and said, “And nor can I tell you.” There was an awkward silence as he thought for a moment and then said in English, “The Chinese have a special word for this too, “Duck Precious!”

I tried everything and at the same time tried not to think about what effect the layering of such new cuisine in my stomach might have later.