"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!)