Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since my Christmas dinner in Dali. Here’s one I never posted…
As an American Jew in China celebrating Christmas at a Muslim restaurant I’m confused enough already when the highest-ranking party member in attendance offers me a cigarette. The purpose of the Christmas dinner varies depending on which of the fifteen diners you ask. I’m here for the food. We’re seated around one round table decked out with the largest lazy Susan I’ve ever seen. My dining mates say they don’t have a word for lazy Susan, even though it makes an appearance in every upscale restaurant in China.
I’ve no explanation for my hosts as to how the dining carousel it got its unusual English name. Without it though, this dinner would be impossible. The table takes up the entire room, and this Susan’s anything but lazy. She’s in constant motion, clockwise and counter, as fifteen individuals armed with chopsticks grab bite size portions of the dishes zooming by.
It’s one of the best meals I’ve eaten all year. And you can tell it’s a business meal because the food’s endless. It’s more than twice our number could devour. And more important, the wine is bottomless. Waiters continuously circle the table to refill our glasses of red wine. This is mandatory because the theme of the evening is toasts.
In China you don’t have one big toast. Toasts are individual. One on one. One on two. Maybe you could get away with toasting three. But do the math. Even if each diner toasted every other diner only once, you’d have—carry the one—225 toasts. But we don’t toast each other once. We toast each other two or three or five or ten times. Many of the toast involve me and Sammy—that’s right, THE Sammy. Director and owner of Sammy English Language Schools. I’m seated between him and his pretty, young wife, also a teacher at the school. But the bulk of the toasts are reserved for the three Party members to Sammy’s right. As the sole representative of Western culture, I’ve taken on the role of Santa again. Fortunately, this time, without the beard. Tonight I’ve already gone around the table pulling gifts out of a bag, courtesy of the school.
“Merry Christmas! We wish you health and happiness in the New Year!” I say, or something to that effect as Mars assists me, holding the bag. My co-worker Mars has chosen one of the more unusual English names I’ve heard during my year. He chose it not for the Red Planet but for the Roman God of War. There’s nothing particularly warlike about Mars, other than the fact he’s quite tall for a Chinese man. To the contrary, Mars is refined, well dressed and immaculately groomed. He speaks with a tinge of British accent. And even though he majored in engineering, his English is better than any teacher at the school other than myself, the only native speaker. But he holds himself well in any language and that’s one of the reasons why Sammy has chosen Mars to be Master of Ceremonies tonight.
“I’m very nervous,” Mars confides to me before the dinner, double-checking his eyebrows in the handheld mirror the female teachers always use to touch up. A lot is riding on tonight’s dinner. What exactly is riding on it, I don’t know. By this point in my journey I’ve surrendered to the fact I’m oblivious to 90% of what’s going on around me at all times. At first I chalked it up to the language barrier, but now I know it’s deeper than that. I could write a book about how appearances are everything in a China. And a sequel about how appearances don’t mean a thing. One on how rules and regulations choke even the bureaucracy and another on how no one follows them. Except when they do. The magic formula’s anyone’s guess. The human brain is hardwired to find patterns, and China has defied my brain’s ability to do so. When I think I see a pattern, when I make a prediction, when I assume anything about China, I’m generally wrong. Still, I refuse to believe China is a land without patterns. There has to be some underlying rhythm. I’m convinced there’s a code, buried beneath the surface, so far back in history, encrypted and re-encrypted, like layers of the Enigma machine, but if you could go back and decode all those layers, one after another, you’d find a message.
The main purpose of tonight’s dinner is to build up guanxi with the party members and local government officials. Sammy English Language School has no guanxi. If we did, it wouldn’t have taken six months, three trips to Hong Kong, and even more treks to Kunming, the provincial capital, to get my work visa. Hopefully the next foreign teacher will benefit from tonight’s endeavors. But more than that, Sammy hopes to open a school in Kunming. Sammy English is going big-time. And to do so will require more than just the proper paperwork.
“I don’t smoke,” I apologize to the party member holding the cigarette.
By virtue of the fact I haven’t smoked a thing—be it tobacco, marijuana, or anything else—during my year in China, I have also set the world record as American to have lived in Dali the longest without getting stoned. Dali gained an international reputation in the ’90s as a smoker’s Garden of Eden, a pothead’s Shangri-La, due to legends of marijuana growing freely in the hills. But every few years the government institutes a crackdown and the foreign riffraff leave for greener pastures. We’re in post-crackdown mode now. Still, plenty of foreigners partake in herb, just not openly on the streets. As for regular cigarettes, Yunnan Province is also home to the best tobacco in the country, and from what I’ve seen, virtually all men here smoke tobacco cigarettes.
“You should,” nudges Sammy, “Really, you should.” It’s a gentle nudge. Sammy is never forceful. His managerial style is a velvet slide rather than steel push. Despite his reputation, Sammy seemed alright to me, especially in the beginning. Over time I’ve come to recognize—and accept—the existence of a wide chasm between what Sammy says will occur and that which comes to be. And, for reasons I can’t put my finger on, when we talk I get the sensation of a slippery eel slithering round my shoulder blades. But other than that, and our frequent miscommunications, and his unholy obsession with Britney Spears, he seems okay. [In retrospect, that last quirk should have clued me in to rapids swirling downstream, but hey, it’s China. ]
“I didn’t like that,” Mars later tells me. Sammy’s nudge caused a mild brouhaha among the teachers behind the scenes. “You don’t smoke, he shouldn’t have made you.” It wasn’t a big deal to me. So I puff on the cigarette that the happy, intoxicated man lit for me. The party member is happy. Sammy is happy. And I really don’t care one way or the other. In fact, maybe that’ll be my New Year’s resolution. This is the year I take up smoking, to better fit in with my Chinese colleagues.
The rest of the night goes smoothly. A big success. A thousand toasts later, we all head our separate ways. Mars has performed flawlessly. Later, Sammy will open his Kunming school.
Looking back, maybe that cigarette was the moment things started to go downhill. No, I didn’t get addicted to nicotine, or get lung cancer, or any type of physical ailment. But some troubles metastasize slowly.
That night I get a ride in the passenger seat of Sammy’s new BMW SUV. His wife rides in back while Sammy points out to me the accouterments of the vehicle.
Though salaries are lower in China, cars are more expensive. This BMW costs 700,000 rmb. Roughly what the average teacher at his school will make over the course of twenty-five years. Not that the average teacher survives more than one. Sammy pops in a video CD. Britney Spears music booms across the interior. And when the car’s not in motion, Britney’s videos play on a video screen above the dash. Oops. She did it again.
Sammy asks if I like Britney Spears. I tell him I’m not familiar with her music. He finds this unbelievable, as if perhaps I am not truly American. I start to explain I don’t fit the demographic, “I’m too old for—” but I realize the director’s older than myself. I tell him I like what I’ve heard, but I listen to alternative music. Like jazz? Uh, yes, like jazz.
Sammy bids me and his wife goodbye at the school. He has to take care of some business with one of the teachers. The school’s driver drives Mrs. Sammy and me back to Dali. I tell them to drop me off in the middle of Old Town. A mistake. I’ve forgotten how the Dali people celebrate Christmas. That’s right, even in Southwestern China, the locals celebrate the nativity. It’s not a particularly religious festival. The preferred tradition is to spray anything and everything moving with silly string. Especially any moving thing that is white and foreign and dressed to the nines. I am the best Christmas present these teens and tweens have seen all night. Trudging up Renmin Lu I’m surprised by the amount of silly string each of these spray containers holds. By the time I reach Highway 214, I look like a multicolored snow man. Blues and pinks and purples and greens, as if I’ve grown a Barnum and Bailey clown afro all over my body.
Back at the Roo they don’t bat an eye. They’ve seen stranger things this evening. One of the other guests, an older man from the U.S., made the mistake of trying to avoid the spray of the laughing, terrorizing boys. He ended up slipping into one of the drainage ditches that parallels Renmin Lu and cracked a rib.
Niki, tonight’s desk clerk, is more concerned about her murals. She looks at them through her thick framed glasses. She’s supervising the painting of large murals adorning the stairwell, one for each continent. I pass Africa and the great pyramids, Australia and the Opera House. I feel like I’m back at Windows of the World in Shenzhen, where every continent and country is neatly summed up in an architectural feat. The problem tonight is Europe. She stares at the mural pensively, worried. The painting of Europe is beautiful. She asks me a question. I have the sad duty of confirming her suspicion that, no, the Parthenon is not in Spain. But then, before you came to China, did you know that Emeishan was not in Henan? Didn’t think so.
I make my way to my room and reflect that, all told, it was a successful night. I’m only sorry my friend Michael couldn’t be at the dinner. Along with Mars, Michael is one of my closest friends in China. He’s a local teacher like Mars, but with a more conventional name. He chose it in homage to Michael Jordan. Michael was supposed to join us tonight, but was called away at the last minute. Michael’s English is second only to Mars and for that reason Sammy lends Michael to the police now and again at no charge in an attempt to improve the school’s guanxi. Tonight Michael’s translating during an interrogation with a Nigerian man. The Nigerian has been arrested for staying three years in China on an expired visa and conspiring to steal credit card numbers. And though I’m sorry Michael couldn’t be with us, in retrospect I’m thankful he spent Christmas Eve at the police station, making friends with the officers, developing his own guanxi. Because in a few short weeks he’ll find himself back at the station, in the interrogation room, interpreting for another foreign criminal.
(*Sigh) I miss Dali.