Saturday, July 15, 2006

I lose count after I smoke six…

At the lake, a row of three story docked floating buildings line the roadside. The neon signs seem to promise luxurious dining. We pull into the parking lot and are guided into a parking spot by an attendant. We park and go into the boat restaurant.

Mylar Graduate looks into all of the private rooms for our party. We walk up to the third floor. The principal and his son and a few others are at tables near the window. The view is nice but not magnificent. The windows are panoramic but not floor to ceiling. The architect did not fully take advantage of the view when he designed the boat. This is very common here. Lots of the places look like 70s remodels

Eric tells me to take a seat. There are two tables. He guides me to the bigger table. They are both along the back wall near the window which is closer to the greater part of the lake. I look out the window and see people swimming. Eric tells me this is not allowed because it is dangerous. These people are not supposed to be swimming in the lake. There are not that many, maybe ten or twelve people total. The lake disappears into the horizon. In the distance I see a few boats.

A schoolmate of Eric’s is standing next to Eric. I motion for him to sit down. He smiles and sits. More people arrive. The smaller table behind does not have the verve that the table has where I am sitting. Eric’s dad gets up and sits with them.

Pesci arrives. I may be imagining this but I think everyone applauds. He sits at our table. He talks to Eric’s dad from across the room - comic delivery, Don Rickles debauchery. I lean over to Eric and tell him I do not know what Pesci is saying but he makes me laugh nevertheless. Eric laughs.

The courses slowly start arriving. We have the silverfish soup first. Eric ladles me out a bowl. Then, fish balls come later. He tells me all of the food is fresh. He points to the lake. I nod my head yes.

The courses do not arrive with the promptness of the other restaurants where we have dined. Eric tells me the restaurant is popular and busy so the staff is having a hard time keeping up with the demand. While we are waiting for our courses, cigarettes are thrown around the table. Smoking in between courses is not unusual. Smoking and eating at the same time, I have found, is not unusual.

Eric’s dad is on the phone pacing the room. He hands the phone to me and says something to Eric. Eric tells me Ms. Chen is on the phone.

The phone breaks up while we talk. She is calling from Australia. I tell her I am having a wonderful time. I have been so involved in the camp that I do not know what day today is. She tells me today is Wednesday. I tell her I thought it might be Tuesday. I tell her the principal and everyone else has been treating me grandly. She asks me when I will be back in Shanghai to pick up my money. I tell her I am not in a hurry to pick it up. She tells me her assistant will be busy the next two days. I tell her I can pick it up on Monday. She tells me to drop by the office at 2 pm.

When I get off the phone, I tell Eric that Ms. Chen is concerned about paying me. I tell him that I am having such a good time that I am not in a hurry to get back. If I was having a bad time, I would want to go back to Shanghai. His father thinks that I need to get back to Shanghai in the morning. I tell Eric there is really no hurry.

His father does not want to upset Ms. Chen which I do not blame him. As a principal, his father is very cautious. He is a very good principal. I really enjoyed working with him. He alleviated many of my principal phobias.

More food arrives; the bowl put on the table is filled with something that resembles salsa. On closer inspection, I see something moving in the bowl. The bowl is full of prawn. The prawns are alive. Eric tells me the bowl is filled with alcohol – wine. I tell him the fish are drunk. He laughs.

He picks up a handful by their tentacles and puts them on my plate. I watch him to see how he eats them. He pops the whole thing in his mouth with the head and tentacles sticking out. He is able to de-shell the prawn with his tongue. I am not that fortunate. I am constantly aware that the sucker could escape at any moment. On top of this, I feel as if everyone at the table is staring at me. I stumble through the pile I have on my plate, eating shell and all at times. When Eric tries to put more on my plate, I tell him that this is a difficult task for foreigners. I will have something else.

Next, a whole fish arrives. Eric cuts up a bit and puts it on my plate. He tells me to be careful of the bones. I tell him I will. A minute or so later, a small needle type bone seems to lodge itself in my throat. I tell Eric. What a way to go, I can see the headlines. ‘Fishbone Lacerates Foreign Teachers Larynx At Restaurant on Lake.’ For the next five or ten minutes, I drink tea and coke to wash it down. Then, I forget about it.

Later, I tell Eric the fishbone has gone down to my stomach. He nods. The schoolmate sitting beside Eric does not say a word during dinner. Occasionally, I look over at him and smile. He smiles back at me, shyly.

Pesci eventually goes over to sit with Eric’s dad at the other table. The life of the party is now at that table. Our table becomes somewhat subdued. Tonight, there are not as many toasts. I look over and see the Principal and Pesci fully engaged in conversation. From their body language, I can tell they are old, good friends.

The sliced watermelon arrives. Everyone takes a few pieces as it twirls around the table. The diners start to disperse. Eric’s dad comes over to our table. He tells Eric something while he is smiling at me. Eric tells me since I do not have to be back until the afternoon tomorrow, hid dad would like to drive us to the countryside where we can have lunch. I tell Eric that this sounds wonderful, lunch in the country. In the country, I suppose they behead chickens right at your table. I must prepare myself. They will pick me up at my hotel at 9 am.

Everyone is milling around in groups. Eric tells me we can walk around outside and look at the lake. He tells me that I am riding back to town in his dad’s car with him. His schoolmate is sitting at a table by himself. I motion for him to come with us to walk around outside.

Outside, Eric tells me the moon is big. He points to it. It is not yet high in the sky but it is full. I tell him where I come from we have folktales about the full moon. I talk of werewolves and silver bullets. I ask him if China has the same sort of folktales. He tells me yes that they learn of these tales through our Hollywood movies.

We walk along the dock that links the floating restaurant to the parking lot. The others in the group are coming out of the restaurant now. His schoolmate walks with a group to a car.

“Is he leaving?” I ask.
“Yes,” Eric answers.
“He didn’t say goodbye,”
“He doesn’t talk much,” Eric replies.

Pesci comes out and points to the moon and says something. I assume he is talking about the moon. Eric tells me that Pesci told me if I ever need anything I am to call him. That is very nice to know. Pesci then hands me two bags of walnuts. I shake his hand and thank him in English and in Chinese. Pesci gets into a mini-van and drives off. He waves as he goes.

Another male teacher that I recognize from the school is riding with us. His wife and daughter are in tow. I wonder how this will be negotiated. Eric’s dad drives. The other teacher’s wife sits in the front seat with her daughter on her lap. The teacher, Eric and I sit in the back seat. I sit on the hump in the middle.

We take a night drive back to Lianshi where I am staying. I am at the Lianshi Hotel. Everyone is tired. Eric’s dad drives in silence.

The time is 8 am. Today, I get on a bus and go home. Home is Songjiang. ‘Home is where the heart is. Home is so remote.’ I leave the hotel and take a walk. I walk a block to the canal and stand on the bridge. The fruit and vegetable sellers are there waiting for customers. Scooters and motorcycles zip through the street. Chickens are hanging out by the milk tea stand. I walk back to the hotel.

On the way to the elevator, I meet the cigarette voiced desk manager. She is carrying my breakfast; coffee in a milk-drink cup and prepackaged muffins. She says ‘coffee.’ I repeat coffee to her. We both laugh. I go up to my room and eat my muffins. I try to drink the coffee but it is scalding hot so I let it cool. I am happy that it is scalding hot. I am not complaining.

After I eat, I quickly throw my stuff together and go back down to the desk. I give the desk manager the key. She sits with me and waits. 9 am comes and goes. 9:15 comes and goes. 9:30 comes and goes. I send a message to Eric. He replies that he slept later. They are on the way now. At 9:45, he and his father pull up to the hotel. We load the stuff into the car and take off.

Eric tells me his father has to stop by the school. We stop by the school. There is a conference there tomorrow. His father has to prepare a few things. Eric tells me I can surf the net at this father’s computer. I surf the net. Approximately twenty minutes later, we are ready to go. Another male teacher comes with us.

I tell Eric I am very excited that we are eating in the country. We leave the school and drive deeper into the country. We come upon a small settlement of buildings. This is very cinematic, post World War II epic movie. Into the center of the buildings, we walk. We walk up a flight of stairs into a large white office with three old wooden desks and two mission style wardrobes. Chinese characters are painted on the wardrobes in white. An overflowing ashtray sits on one of the desks. There is a window on the opposite wall as the door.

Eric tells me we are in the headmaster of this counties office. He gives us all cigarettes, more Chunghua. I smoke and look out the window at the farmers in the rice field. I feel as if I am George C. Scott, Peter O’Toole, Robert Stack. After we smoke the cigarettes, we head back to the car.

In the car, Eric tells me we are going to go back to the hotel to eat. His father has decided the food in the country is not very good. So I will have my last meal in town at the hotel. That is fine. The food is good. The headmaster follows us on his motorcycle.

At the hotel, we are shown into a small dining room with a table that sits eight and a sitting area where the drinks are kept. There are six of us to begin with. I drink cola. Eric and his dad both drink canned tea. The county headmaster drinks the rice wine as do two other people at the table. As we are sitting down, another man shows up, the man with the mole from the first night. He orders a liter of beer. As drinks are poured, the county headmaster starts passing out cigarettes. Neither Eric nor his father smoke at this lunch.

The lunch starts at 11. Food arrives and more food arrives. Two 750 ml bottles of the rice wine are consumed. At one point, something that looks like a character from a cartoon hits the table. It has gills like a fish, wings like a bird, and the middle of it looks like a squishy ball. I am stunned. I tell Eric this is really the first time something has completely caught me off-guard. He laughs. During lunch, there is an empty seat beside me. I ask Eric if someone is joining us. He tells me yes, a government official. He is driving a long distance to meet us. The whole time we eat, cigarettes are passed around the table. I lose count after I smoke six. Once I get back to Songjiang, I am not going to smoke.

Finally, at 1 pm, the mystery guest arrives. The rest of us sit and smoke and drink various beverages while he eats. He smokes in between courses. At 1:30 pm, we start saying our goodbyes. Down in the lobby, I tell the staff goodbye once again. This seems to be becoming a habit. Eric’s dad pulls the car around to the front of the hotel. Eric and I get in. As Eric and I are getting into the car, the other teacher notices that the back passenger side tire is flat. Eric and I get back out of the car. His dad drives off to a garage.

Eric and I just look at each other. Eric tells me maybe God does not want me to go back. I tell him I wish I could stay. We sit in the hotel lobby and wait. Twenty minutes later, Eric’s dad calls and says that he is on his way. A few minutes later, he pulls up. Again, I say goodbye to the hotel staff. They all laugh and say goodbye.

Eric and I ride in the back seat to the bus station. His dad sits in the front seat by himself. We drive to the next town; the town where I arrived in the opposite direction of Huzhou. Eric and I both stare out the window. I am sad to be leaving Eric and his dad. Both of them have made this experience much better than I expected.

Thirty minutes later, we pull into a big new bus station that looks like a small airport terminal. When the bus arrived, ten days ago, I did not know this part was the bus station. We did not go in. Shops line the outside, the terminal is in the middle of the building. Eric’s dad goes to purchase the ticket. I wait with Eric. They walk me to my departure gate and point at the time on my ticket when my bus departs. I tell them thank you. We say our goodbyes. They leave.

As I sit waiting for the bus, I start to appreciate how lucky I am. This conclave of folks has welcomed me into their lives. China could be a very lonely place. The people around me have not let it be such. Everyone smiles, welcomes me, cheers me, loves me. Maybe I fit in here; I still do not know.


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