Yesterday was a bit surreal. In the middle of the workday, after lunch, I get called into the general manager’s office. I didn’t know at the time, but I am to begin teaching the GM’s daughter on Monday. But that wasn’t what I was called into the office to discuss. I have mentioned this already, but my company is run with a management style that takes aspects of Chinese and Western techniques. I can’t explain exactly why, but I absolutely love working in a Chinese company. Perhaps I would struggle in a totally Chinese company, where I would not be welcomed as openly for being a foreigner, or where creativity and initiative were not rewarded. But that’s what makes my company different.
When I was called in, my boss began to speak Chinese. When we were introduced the day before, she had established that our relationship would be, for the most part, built in English. So this was the first hint as to what the meeting was going to be about. She started off by asking me what my long-term plans were, whether I wanted to stay in China or return. I answered truthfully, in Chinese: “I want to stay in China. I am interested in Chinese culture, and I believe in the importance of cultural exchange. I would like to stay in China doing this kind of work.” She said that was good to hear, as someone with Chinese language skills like mine was rare, and after my yearlong internship I should have a better indication if staying in China, working for this company was something I would be interested in. Day 3 and my post-contract plans are already being discussed! I must have impressed, I thought.
She mentions getting me a work permit after my internship (I’m currently on a Business Visitor Visa, which is technically just for “business trips” and internships). Chinese companies only are authorised to apply for a certain number of work permits per year, so this is a great offer. After the flowery language about future opportunities etc., she segues into her true purpose: tonight she is going to dinner with a very important friend, who is interested in studying English, and would I like to join. Well I didn’t do a degree in Chinese Studies to let it go to waste: this is an opportunity that I cannot turn down. These sorts of “round table” dinners are your “in” to Chinese society. I am nervous, as anyone would be when thrown into things like this without getting much time to think about them, but I am also thrilled.
I have permission to leave work a little early to go home and put away my laptop, and am collected a few minutes past six in front of my apartment. In the car, my boss chats animatedly in English about her daughter, and I feel a bit like a therapist (a recurring theme: in my English speaking lessons I find myself asking personal questions to get students to express themselves, and they’ll talk about pressures their parents give them, complaints about society, etc.), but I can’t really say my true opinion, because after all she’s my boss, and a mother, so she knows best! I do truly look forward to meeting this daughter, who is 13 and been sent off to boarding school in the UK, and totally resistant to her mother’s entreaties to work hard and study English, maths and science. She excels in arts and music however.
We arrive at the restaurant, called Noble House, a high-end Shanghainese restaurant. The restaurant is most definitely the finest Chinese restaurant I have ever been to in my life. We dined on some of the most exquisite tasting dishes I’ve ever had the pleasure of putting into my mouth. Most memorable to me was an appetizer of mu er, a black fungus that is usually just a bit rubbery, a bit crunchy, and one of my favourite things to eat. Somehow, the mu er had been infused with an explosion of flavour, from garlic to coriander and probably about three or four other flavours that would have taken me all night to figure out. Needless to say, they were delicious. Every dish was expertly presented, one of my favourite being a dish of large beans that looked for all the world like an aquarium, like it ought to have a turtle swimming around in it. The beans were sunk to the bottom like the stones, a stick of cinnamon was placed to look like a little log for the turtle to climb on. On the side was a sprig of ivy that had been cultivated to the most beautiful and delicate stage of its life, with large, mature, dark green leaves as well as tiny, baby, spring green ones, the vine curving just right. Bear with me as I describe the food first, I will get to the people in a moment!
The main attraction were the pangxie, or hairy crabs. These creatures are a delicacy in Hong Kong and Shanghai, their peak season usually September to November. They go for 600RMB per crab. We each got one. In the middle of our appetizers, a large, well-dressed woman enters the room. In her hand is an inconvenienced crab on a plate. She commands our attention when she begins to wax poetic about the crab’s unique attributes and illustrious history. I didn’t understand all that was said (I have to keep reminding myself that I have only been in China for 3 days and haven’t spent a long time being exposed to Chinese recently. Not to mention I’m in Sichuan. That’s like being a French student and moving to Switzerland. Any of the three language regions), but I got the gist. This crab in particular represents 1% of all the hairy crab population because of the oil that is produced in its body (I think that’s what was said). I think the oil is what makes them so delicious. She tells us about how this crab can survive being chilled to extreme temperatures, which is how it was transported from Shenzhen. But it wouldn’t survive being taken home in a doggy bag. It would die on the journey, and not be as tasty. I feel like I misunderstood quite a lot of the speech, so please forgive me any inaccuracies! We took pictures with our phones of the little fighter wiggling away on her plate (I believe we only eat the females because they’re the ones with the tasty yellow stuff on the inside). The crab then disappears, probably to do repeat performances across the restaurant. I don’t believe she was one of the ones on our platter, although I can’t be sure.
So now that you’re all drooling for Shanghai cuisine, I’ll tell you about the dinner party. The important host is a high-ranking official in the Commerce Bureau. I guess that the reason I was invited to the dinner was because he wanted to assess my Chinese, for he required an English tutor whose Chinese was good enough to provide explanations. After the dinner I didn’t feel like my Chinese was very good, for I really only understood about 50% of what was discussed around the table. The topics all seemed to focus on the travesty of fraud in Chinese culture: prank ransom calls, dating agencies that take advantage of applicants, and the inhumanity of the media. One guest, a renowned doctor at one of the best hospitals in Chengdu, joked that tricking people was a Chinese invention, and something that they did incredibly well. The general consensus was that all of these methods of fooling people out of their money were not to be applauded, and that it indicated something lacking in society.
The conversation mostly took place amongst (those who I assumed to be) the higher ranking persons sitting around the table. These included the government official, the doctor, a successful businessman who is the leading shipper of vegetables in China (or Sichuan, I don’t know which), a woman who I believe was a lecturer of some sort, and another woman whose background I was unclear of, but I believe she was an old university classmate of our host. The lecturer’s husband sat to her left, next to our host, and on the host’s right was a young woman from Shandong who looked very Korean to me. She worked in a Chengdu company. Next to her was a woman who was introduced as “a German” because her husband is German. Then came my boss and me, and next to me were two postgraduates, one who would be graduating soon, the other who had finished and found a job. Very late in the meal we were encouraged to speak to each other by the doctor, who (believes he) has very good English. My table companion, at first embarrassed by being put on the spot to speak English in front of the whole table, was encouraged when I assured her in Chinese that I hated being put in a similar position when out to dinner with my English friends. We began to chat, and exchanged mobile numbers with the promise of getting together at the weekend to play badminton or go swimming. She struck me as not your normal girl, as her major was Traffic and Transportation Management and Design (I remember this clearly because we talked about the Chinese and English translation of the title), and she loved watching TV shows about horror and real-life action situations, rather than rom-coms. She spoke about wanting to be able to “pack a bag and travel” (背着包走beizhe bao zou), but lacking the physical strength to climb and hike.
The night ended quite late, by which point I was mentally exhausted. I could barely process what had happened, but knew that it was an important event, and the start of many good things. In these situations, there is a requirement to reciprocate and maintain contact. I have my work cut out for me, and much to discover ahead!
I have to get ready to move today, as this flat is being returned to Jeff, my English colleague. I will be put up in a hotel until “mid-August,” when the company apartments in the city centre will be ready. Not looking forward to leaving here! Although the hotel will still be just as close to work, it won’t have such a lovely kitchen or this much space for dancing around to Amanda Palmer and Pulp…