Edited slightly upon further reflection.
I have been accused by certain readers of this blog of being obsessed with food. I don’t think of myself that way, but honestly my meals have been the most interesting part of my life on a day to day basis. Aside from meals, I get up in the morning, I go to work, I take part in conference calls, I have lunch, I work some more, I come home, have dinner, and go to bed. Not that different from what I did in Seattle, or from what people do in thousands of cites all over the world every day. But I realize that I am not writing a food column (note to self: possible career move in this direction), so I promise I will someday soon write a blog entry that has nothing about food in it. But not this one.
Before coming to China, I had read about Banquets. It’s a part of doing business here. People who do business together will mark occasions, such as the signing of a contract, with a fancy dinner, usually involving excessive amounts of alcohol. I’ve been in Beijing since October, and tonight turned out to be my first Banquet. I didn’t even know about it until we were getting ready to head home from the office this afternoon. Someone came over and said, “They’re having dinner tonight, and you’re invited.” It was at a restaurant just down the street from our office, one of the fancy places we never go for lunch. They often have cadres of limousines out front and VIPs coming and going. I think the lobby of the building is still in the midst of remodeling, but it had some elaborate displays for the upcoming Chinese New Year, which is generally referred to as Spring Festival around here. We went upstairs to a private room with a very large round table that would seat about sixteen, though there were only twelve attending, so the wait staff discreetly took away the four extra settings and chairs. We knew to be afraid when we saw three different size stem glasses at each setting, including one tiny little glass. I’ve heard horror stories about the traditional Chinese drink, maotai. From my research I also knew that it would be considered rude to not accept hospitality.
Luckily for us, our host was springing for something really special. Instead of maotai, we had baijiu, which translates as basically “white liquor” and is pronounced like “bye, Joe.” I found a link to the exact beverage we had. This is top-of-the-line stuff that has a price tag in the four digit range per bottle when converted to US dollars. I’ve yet to taste maotai, but I’ve heard all sorts of nasty things about it. They said that this baijiu is 68% alcohol (136 proof for comparison to American drinks) – good thing the glasses are really small. The servers brought each of us a little pitcher with an inch or two of clear liquid, and poured one shot into the little stem glass. At the beginning, our host stood, and we all joined him, and he offered a toast to our partnership, and friendship between nations and whatever, and we all downed our glasses. Then the servers came around and replenished our glasses from our pitchers. Meanwhile, they were bringing out a wide array of dishes on the big lazy susan in the center of the table. Over the course of the evening I counted twenty dishes, and I may have missed a couple. Some things I could identify, many I couldn’t. There were a couple of simple vegetable dishes, like elaborately prepared celery with a nice dressing on it. There was a cold dish of the black mushrooms they like so much here. In the largest of our stem glasses, they poured a thick yellow liquid which we Americans called “Corn Julius” – a semi-sweet beverage made from corn that was slightly warm. Very odd tasting, but it was good to take a sip of that after getting a bit of a dish that was really spicy.
One dish was brought around in individual clay pots to each of us. They took away the plates we had been using and set the pots in front of us. The lids of the pots had little Buddhas on them. Then a different woman came into the room, dressed differently than the servers. She explained the story of the dish, which is called something like Monk Jumps over the Wall Soup. It was something about how the soup smelled so good cooking outside a monastery that a monk jumped over the wall to find out what it was. It was a thick broth with many different kinds of what seemed to be sea creatures in it. I have no idea what those chunks were.
There were several different preparations of fish, and one dish that had little tiny octopus in it. Keeping in mind that there would likely be many more toasts, I tried to get some solid food in my stomach, but it was kind of difficult with the selections on offer. And the toasts did come. CL reciprocated and offered an other friendship toast, then someone else stepped up. Then the “challenge toasts” started. Our host came around to each of the Americans individually and said how glad he was to meet us, and if we ever need anything, etc. “Ganbai!” (“Bottoms up!”) And then other members of the Chinese partner came around to do individual toasts. I lost track after five or six, and I know that both CL and JW had more, given their higher positions. As far as I could tell, we polished off two bottles of the WuLiangYe 68%.
In addition to the baijiu and the corn drink, there was also a Chinese sweet red wine, kind of like a port, that the servers kept pouring into our medium-sized glasses. After all those toasts and all that food and all that wine, the evening progressed to the other popular Chinese entertainment: karaoke. Our host had a very strong voice and a very good sense of pitch, and started out the evening with a good rendition of a Chinese song. After a few of the other Chinese present sang, including our PG, the calls for us to sing grew louder. The machine had a huge selection of pop songs in English, and JW started us out with “House of the Rising Sun”, doing a passable job. While I wasn’t paying attention, one of the Chinese guys pulled up “Edelweisse” and dragged me up to duet with him. The screen was only showing the lyrics in Chinese, so it’s lucky I could dredge an approximation out of my brain and fumble through it. At one point, to avoid further solo spots, CL, JW, TG and I did a horrendous four-man take on “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”. I completely cracked up laughing towards the end when I managed to look away from the stream of lyrics to notice that the images behind the letters were something like a tour of a Buddhist monastery. Then four of the Chinese guys did a group song, the title of which apparently means “Friends” – the accompanying video featured a rugby team. The American crew retaliated (nearly killing the evening) with “American Pie” which has way too many verses to be practical for karaoke. Later, after a few more toasts that polished off the last of the baijiu, they started bringing out Heineken to add to our misery. At long last, someone had the bright idea to sing “We Are the World”, which I can now state from personal experience is a monumentally terrible karaoke choice. Everyone joined in on the choruses and everyone mumbled through the rest of it. This is how international business deals are sealed.
I have a conference call early in the morning. I really need to sleep now.