Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Me and A-Kei

"Where shall we meet?"
"Let's eat Shunde raw fish, haha, and if you're brave, we could drink deer blood."
Who's that making outrageous suggestions? That's A-Kei, probably the person I was always meaning to meet when I came to China. I remember when I arrived my ideal was to make friends where the natural language of conversation was Chinese, that they were friends I could socialise with not as a teacher but as a person. It didn't happen in the first four years but my in-laws and my wife's friends had that role to an extent.
My meeting A-Kei was yet another hidden benefit of my broken knee saga. I'd gotten my hands on my first really smartphone just a week before my fateful stumble and being stuck at home got me trying one hundred and one different apps, installing them, trying them and, most often, deleting them if they didn't meet my needs. One app was HelloTalk, a language exchange app, which I used most during my rehabilitation phase.
Language exchange, for the uninitiated, is when two people meet each usually a native speaker of the language the other is learning. I'd had e-mail penfriends back at high school for Japanese, and flesh-and-blood language exchange partners in university for Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese. (I even tried to get a Maori exchange partner, but I had nothing to exchange with them and they weren't that proficient. It ended after one attempt.) The app filled this need for me in finding people to exchange with anywhere and also had the technology to send short recordings (no more than a minute) to your partners. So you could have a conversation recording by recording in different parts of China. This also allowed each person to rehearse what they were going to say – a very helpful thing for working on pronunciation or trying new language. In a word, it was the perfect tool for practicing spoken language provided you could find the right person to converse with.
A-Kei was probably my third partner and one of the more enduring ones. We exchanged Cantonese and English with my Cantonese better than his English, so it became the interlanguage for explanations if they were needed. There were a couple of nice coincidences: We were around the same age; I liked baijiu (Chinese grain spirits) and so did he and in fact his family had a factory; and also he lived less than 100 metres from our apartment. Soon as I was more mobile with my leg we met in a nearby bar, where I met his wife and best friend. He got promoted in his job a while later and the extra stress and work killed of the energy and desire to speak English but we still meet once every one or two months for drinking and food.
And the drinking and foods is what makes him an interesting person to be with. His father is a gourmet and he takes after him with his taste for exotic food and wine. I'm not much of a shrinking violet when it comes to food, as long as I can stomach it I'll eat anything. (This applied before and after I was vegetarian, of course.) Last year we ate Shunde-style raw fish, which was pretty good although soon after I ate it I was inundated by friends' warnings that it was loaded with parasites and I should give them a wide berth.
His suggestion last night of deer blood I took seriously even though others thought he was joking and I said I was keen. And as expected he brought in a plastic bottle of red liquid. We drank it mixed with spirits (he mixed it to about 1:4) and the taste was more wine than blood. I can imagine most people reading this will have some disgust reading this. Anyway, it was an interesting experience but one that I probably won't repeat.
But this kind of experience is the kind that I'd only be able to have with someone odd but genuine like A-Kei and I'm quite lucky to have met him. (Interesting note: The photo of course is the blood wine shot; the food is actually manuka smoked mussels, also brought by A-Kei!) 

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A Chinese wedding

The sauces came out of the kitchen and were put on all the tables. The sesame flatbread strips came out shortly after, and cutely bunched spring onions were plated out later; they were bound with a small ring of capsicum. It was beautiful. All this waited for the suckling pig.
I'd arranged my glasses in a diamond formation, perfectly brewed pu-erh tea on the right, cognac in front, red wine on the left and a soy-sauce fragrance baijiu hiding at the back. The conversation to my right was of past years, school days and where people had gone, the geography of their respective lives and the children produced on the way. On the left, talk was a bit barren, punctuating stretches of smartphone amusements: familiar people hadn't arrived yet. Far from us on a poorly chosen wall, marriage photos were projected, each capturing an idealisation of marriage, choreographed, posed and photoshopped into a couple's future.
And then the celebrant host grabbed the microphone. The hall was designed for eating, without any acoustic considerations and the garbled voice announced the arrival of the couple, who'd already arrived long before, because all weddings start a long time before the feast began.
David, the groom, was a classmate of my wife. I'd seen him a few times at reunions but only really talked with him earlier in the week. Reunions and weddings are never good times for me to get to know people. They're too noisy. And mostly I just try to catch the drift of other conversations than make my own. So it was good that before his wedding I had the chance to chat with him in the quiet of his office. He was a nice guy, just a little younger than me; he'd started his own business since I'd last seen him and was happy with his next step in life.
His day started so much earlier at the wedding. He'd driven back to the family home in the rural outskirts of Qingyuan, stayed overnight and had a breakfast of three bowls of noodles. This was the family tradition for a male marrying. It says: You're a man now! (He was almost 35 but in China, marriage is the cultural standard for becoming a full adult.) After some other rituals he has to get his groomsmen together and drive all the way to her family home in Guangzhou to receive the bride. This is more easily said than done. First, the family are symbolically reluctant to welcome the groom into the house and challenge him at every step. So he must give do challenges and give red packets to members of the wife's family along the way, as he gets passed the building door, then up the stairs, the into the family home. Often in the bride's bedroom he'll have to find a hidden pair of shoes. There may be a meal there before everyone can leave in cars back to groom's family home back in Qingyuan (sometimes for modern practical purposes, it might be just to the lucky couple's newly bought home). Once they arrive in Qingyuan, they must do rituals such as serving tea to the ancestors and the older members of the family. The rituals complete it would be time for the banquet… which in David's case was all the way back in Guangzhou. Often the bride and groom welcome everyone into the restaurant, and in this case took a Polaroid photo with them. So you can imagine by the time the host in the banquet called him and his bride onto the stage to the sound of recorded organ music, they had the tiredest eyes and a smile permanently fixed on their faces. The flower petals in their hair, so recently thrown, didn't make them seem any more refreshed.
They both made speeches which was nice. I'm a fan of public speaking but the acoustics rendered it into undecipherable airport announcements mwaa-waa-waa (for my level of Cantonese). And then they did on-stage set pieces: vows, the kiss that had to go on for a particular length of time, cutting the massive cake (it's there for cutting purposes; I've never had the chance to eat it), pouring wine into a pyramid of wine glasses, which the father of the groom drinks from in a toast with the whole room. Finally to cap it all off the bride throws a bouquet.
Fortunately the lucky couple get a little sit down now as the food arrives, led by an impressively roasted whole pig to each table. The food, I have to say, was the best wedding food I'd had in China. It was all very delicious. One interesting cultural side-note was that every person was given two sets of chopsticks. Apparently this is fairly rare and even some locals were unfamiliar with their purpose. Through the power of wechat (Chinese twitter), I eventually learned that the pair on the right is a public pair for bringing food to your dish and the pair closest to the bowl on the left is to bring the food from the bowl to your mouth. A BBC colleague of mine (BBC as in British-born Chinese) said his family has done that as a habit for as long as he'd known.
The bride and groom having rested for about 20 minutes have to get up to do the rounds of the table and drink with everyone, often on multiple times. Being Chinese, the groom is expected to knock back pretty much every drink that comes his way. His groomsmen do rounds as well a bit later to thank people and make sure they're drinking enough. There is of course heroic drinking without the couple, one table almost having a fight where relatives struggled to hold back one completely intoxicated man from another. The bride at some point brings around tea to share with each table as well.
And then the banquet is over and the bride and groom bid each guest farewell. (We'd left by then but I know how it works.) This procedure is something that almost happened to me but we through circumstance we sidestepped. One of my in-laws still chides us for not having it done, saying she hasn't drunk my xijiu (wine at a banquet, the drinking of which is synonymous with getting married) and challenging me to drink with her.

I've been to two weddings in one month (attached photos represent two different occasions) and I'll go to another next month. It's something that definitely is part of the beat of my life and the beat of life. Amid the festivities, I was sad to hear a former Chinese colleague's marriage is hanging by a thread. I can only hope things can be happy once more.