At 6PM, doors are knocked upon, everyone slowly pulls together for the evening of American food. I ask Allen who the mystery man was who came with us to the hotel from Lake Taihu. She explains he worked out there during the week and needed a ride back into town for Saturday night, the Chinese seem to have somewhat of a Deadhead mentality. "Dude, if you're going that way, you can hitch with us. Killer."
We pile into the mini-van. Maureen hops into Coco's car. We drive to the American restaurant which is a ten or fifteen minute drive. We have listened to all the cool teen hits by now; Dad puts in the Chinese Yanni. Cocaine jazz is, was, and will always be a mystery to me.
Today is April Fool's day. No one has pulled pranks. We are walking to the restaurant. We are in a new area with sparsely rented businesses. A few restaurants have symbiotic life. The area looks new but depressed. The starkness of the buildings and courtyards can not hide the economic desperation. As we walk through the courtyards which join several sections of buildings, I see restaurants here and there - some are crowded, others are sadly vacant.
After walking into the depths of the open air mall, Allen points to a restaurant nearby on the second floor. I see Chinese characters and under the characters is the name Rockie's. We climb the stairs to a place that would fit snugly beside Chilli's and Don Pablo's in the suburban sprawl of modern America. Picnic tables with red gingham table cloths, a pool table, a foosball table and a Wal-mart glider greet the patrons. Jinny, a Chinese hostess, sits us. We are seated at a rectangular bar table in the center of the room.
Jinny then tells us we can help ourselves to the food on the bar and the soda on the table along the wall. She offers the adults tap beer. We have arrived during happy hour. Miko, Allen, Max and I go to a table along the wall where 1.5 liter Pepsis are lined up and pour ourselves warm glasses of Pepsi. Allen's dad pours himself a beer from the tap on the bar.
After we get our sodas, we go to the bar and eye the food. Again, I thought we were going to some sort of nice American style restaurant, not the Chinese equivalent - or worse - of Applebee's or TGIF’s. Pizza is really the only bar food that looks appealing. I cannot believe that I am disappointed. I should not be. Normally, I am not one to get excited about food but I was told by Allen about the fat juicy steaks and the baked potatoes drowned in butter at this place. I am disappointed but I try to not let it show. Bar food - no matter what country you reside - is absolutely never good, ever. Once I tasted the pizza, I was a bit happier because it was not bad. It was okay bar pizza, nothing special.
The Dad asks if I would like a beer. I tell him I don’t drink. Disappointed, he says “Oh.” A beer sounds good. I would bond with the Dad if I had one but I know in my heart I must not, so I do not. I am afraid I could not have just one beer. I do not want to be an embarrassment. I am still a small time diplomat in many ways. Getting wasted in front of my well-bred Chinese high school students would probably not be a diplomatically sound decision. I never knew straight edge could be so socially unacceptable.
“Max, you’re a man. Do you want a beer?” he asks Max.
Max declines. I wonder why he does not ask Max in Chinese if he wants a beer.
Coco and the Dad decide to order something for the table to split. They pick out ribs. They ask me to pick out something. I pick out a sirloin. While we wait for our food, I look at the bar decorations. Empty cheap liquor bottles line the walls. I think of what a college bar in Wichita might look. While I am looking around, Coco proposes a toast. I grab my drink and toast and take a drink. My Pepsi tastes strange. Everyone starts laughing.
“Did you put beer in it?” I ask.
“No, Hotta Soos,” Allen says as she bursts out laughing and points to the Tabasco sauce beside my glass. “April-uh-Fool-uh!” she continues quite pleased with the trick she has just pulled. I laugh. The whole table laughs. The steak arrives.
They put the steak in front of me. I decide to cut it up for everyone to share. I stick the steak knife into it and I saw…and I saw…and I saw. This is the toughest steak ever. Bonanza Steakhouse steak is Smith and Wollensky in comparison. About half-way through this chore, I feel as if I am on stage and the crowd expects Lenny Bruce instead of Gallagher. I think to myself I am not cutting it right. I have already turned down a beer. The Dad must think I am a real lunkhead.
I dole the pieces out to everyone. I take a bite and immediately yearn for the days of Western Sizzlen and Sirloin Stockade. I half-heartedly eat a few bites and tell them how delicious it is. No one seems to be enjoying theirs except for Allen, the little piglet. I am trying to act like I am enjoying myself and I am enjoying everyone's company but the steak is on parr with Golden Corral. When it comes to a fine steak, do not listen to the Chinese. That is the lesson I am learning tonight.
We wander around the place after we eat. I get involved in a heated foosball game. I’m the forward, Allen, is the goalie. We kick everyone’s butt which probably has something to do with the fact that I am the only one who has ever played the game. After bending over and kicking butt for forty-five minutes, my back is sore. Gawd, I’m old. I sit down on the glider.
Max wanders over. I ask him if he wants to play pool.
“uh-Pool-uh?” He asks and then shoots back, “uh-Yes-uh-Pool-uh.”
As we are racking the balls, an American walks up. His name is Osa, he is from California but, his grandparents are from Arkansas. He is part Native American which is why his name is Osa. We ask him if he was playing pool, if we barged in on his game. He says no, he was wondering the same thing. I ask him if he would like to play cutthroat with us. He says yes. I explain to Max what cutthroat is. He’s Chinese, he doesn’t understand. I try to explain it several different ways, blank stare. I decide to start the game and explain as we go. Osa breaks.
All of us are magnificently bad players. No balls go in for a good ten minutes. I ask Osa what he does. He is a teacher at a technical school in Wuxi. As he tells me about it, I feel luckier about my own situation. I tell him Max is one of my students. I point out the other students to him. He is amazed and I believe envious that I am out with students.
He teaches what sounds like night classes with no social life attached. He lives off of campus which he likes because there is nothing on campus. I tell him I teach at a public high school which impresses him. I had not thought about it as being something impressive. I like it but it is really not that impressive. We are talking and talking. None of us are hitting anything in. Osa finally hits something in and calls the low numbers as his. Max hits a middle number in next. We explain to Max that he is the high numbers since I have not hit one in. He doesn’t understand. I cannot hit anything. By this time, the Filipino Americana band (which is actually a folk duo) is playing inside the bar. I hear Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” which does not make me miss America. Nor does it make me Miss America. I feel like I am in Edmond Oklahoma in a bar off of the Broadway Extension.
All of my balls are shot. Now, Max has two balls on the table; Osa has one. Osa shoots in his one ball. Max and I are watching. I tell Max he is involved in a close game.
He repeats, “Close game.” I am Shaggy; he is Scooby.
Osa shoots the eight ball and scratches. I grab Max and tell him he won. He looks perplexed. I tell him Osa scratched. He looks perplexed. “So you win.” He looks perplexed. I walk over to a picnic table with the red table cloth and sit by myself to write. In my pocket, I have notepaper from the Angli Hotel that I pull out and start taking notes describing the place and the people but I do not get very far into it before:
Two young Chinese guys come and sit at my table. They I can tell have been enjoying the tap beer for an hour or two. One rubs the Mao buttons on my jean jacket with his hand. He has wire frame glasses. He looks smart. He is nice looking but has smelly liquor breath.As we talk I learn they work for some sort of manufacturing plant that does automotive parts. One of them tells me he had an American boss that he did not like. He likes me I think.
We talk until a fat obnoxious Australian comes over and sits down with us. He works with computers. He is rude and slobbers as he yammers in a snotty slobbery accent how Americans do not speak proper Queens English. He then pulls out a recent picture of his wife who is surprisingly attractive and asks us how old we think she is. The others guess 20 or 21. I say 25. He tells us she will soon celebrate her 40th birthday. She looks fantastic in the photo. I wonder why she is with such an obnoxious slob. He is so obnoxious, in fact, that I decide to get up. One of the Chinese guys writes his number down for me. I say thank you and walk off.
My group is gathering to leave. Maureen and I are walking back to the cars and I tell her about the obnoxious Australian. I tell her I am glad I met her before I met him because you might think they were all like that. She told me some Australians are embarrassing. I told her likewise with Americans.
We go back to the hotel. At the hotel, the usual games of ‘ring and run’ commence. I boil some water for hot tea. I position the tea tester to pee on Max who is deeply involved in a Pokemon television show. He looks up as his leg is being peed upon. He jumps out of the way of the spray and the tea tester gets the edge of his bed. I think it is the funniest thing ever. He lets out a flood of Chinese punctuated with ‘Tyson.’
Miko wanders in and sits in the same place. Max does the same thing to her with the tea tester. At Max, Miko shrieks and yells “Wo sha le ni!” I laugh uncontrollably. Miko picks up a slipper and throws it. The slipper hits me upside the head. I am still laughing. Miko leaves. I am still laughing. Max goes back to watching Pokemon. I have stopped laughing. He sets the alarm on his phone for 8:20. He turns off the light.