I love lunching as much as the next lady who is lucky to have some leisure time. It is a great way to connect with friends, talk about what’s been going on, compare notes about this crazy lifestyle, and exchange a few practical tips about living in Shunyi and in Beijing. Lunch is the most convenient time for a trailing wife to meet up with other women (or men) with the same job description, keeping house and learning all about this city we now call home.
Over the last two years, I’ve sat down with people from the same compound, same school, same company our spouses work for, same home country. I’ve met with people of different persuasions, religions, nationalities, and together we’ve enjoyed a wide range of cuisine, some of which we enjoyed and some we would never want to try again. The food itself is never as important as the conversation that takes place around or because of it. They’ve all been great experiences that leave me counting my blessings.
But the most memorable lunches I have had here are two specific gatherings that happened quite by accident and were not calendared in from several weeks before.
You see, I have forgotten on more than one occasion how important a well-timed lunch is to the Chinese. Because of their belief in the role their food plays in their health and well-being, the Chinese like to have lunch at 12 noon, or within a reasonable 15-minute window on either side. Unless there is a special occasion to celebrate, lunch for the locals is usually a matter-of-fact affair: get the most nutrition appropriate for the season, with the best possible ingredients, at the lowest possible price. Have your meal, have a conversation if you feel like it, and have time left over during your lunch break for a short stroll that will help you digest your meal. It’s all very efficient.
I, on the other hand, if there is no lunch scheduled with someone else, will sometimes have a long slow breakfast that takes me dangerously close to 11am, therefore pushing lunch to 3pm. And on two such days that this was what my schedule was like, I mindlessly headed off to see some people past 11am.
The first instance was when we went to visit my ayi two months after she had given birth to her second child. She and her husband really wanted a son, and since their daughter was already four years old, they decided to try for a boy. Of course there are ramifications to this decision, a story we will reserve for another time. The baby was born, a cutie roly-poly Chinese boy who slept through most of our visit. My boys giggled at every baby coo he emitted while dreaming. We chatted with Sun Ayi and her husband, seated on the edge of their bed and feeling quite embarrassed to be taking up most of their living space in the process. After what felt like a substantial visit, we began to take our leave. No, they would not hear of it. Not Ayi, not her husband, nor his father, nor their two neighbors, all of whom had been aware of our visit and had come in to say hello to us. It was nearly lunchtime, and since we had come all the way to see them, it was only right for them to serve us lunch. We couldn’t possibly imagine where we would do this, seeing as there was no space in their room.
Mister Sun insisted that we should all go to a local restaurant together. I refused, out of a niggling fear that they would later insist on footing the bill. There were two of them, Ayi and her husband. And there were four of us, myself, my boys and our driver. My pleas fell on deaf ears, and we all headed to a restaurant. Thankfully, of the rest of the audience, only the father-in-law joined us. The neighbors stayed behind.
So there we were, seven of us plus one baby. And the list of the food they ordered grew longer and longer, it was bordering on ridiculous. I prevailed upon Ayi and our driver to ask for less food than all that. Finally we were down to ten dishes. I whispered to my boys, seated on either side of me at the big round table, to take a bite out of each and every single dish that was to be served. They gamely tucked into the first few, but started to falter by the seventh dish. “Smile and pick up one or two bites worth,” I instructed quietly. We were being watched with eagle eyes by the two Mister Suns. Not out of a desire to see whether we would actually eat, but out of sheer awe that they were actually sitting across from waiguoren. What they didn’t know is that we were just as taken aback by the fact that this all was happening. Old Mister Sun would lean over to our driver, all the while looking at us saying, “How come they know how to use chopsticks?” “Oh, it’s good that the children are eating everything on the table.” “Is that English that they’re speaking? Why does it sound so different from Chinese?” “Do you think they have enough to eat, should we order more?”
Yes, the food was good, as we have come to expect of local restaurants. What little confidence I had in speaking Mandarin disappeared as I ate with people I had never met before. I am comfortable around Ayi and our driver, but most of my interactions with them have been in our home, on my turf. This was new territory. It wasn’t unpleasant but it was surreal. Old Mister Sun kept ordering drinks like there was no tomorrow. There was water and red wine and juice and two softdrinks. None of that was good enough for him, who had to have his own bottle of bai jiu. He stood up once to offer me a toast. Both Ayi and our driver had to tell me to stand up. Old Mister Sun reached over to pour me some wine, and since I couldn’t reach across the table for twelve, I stood up to be served, resulting in every single adult at the table standing up as well, thinking I was about to offer my own toast. Ayi whispered to me “You have to say something,” and I stammered, “Thank you, it’s very nice to be here.”
(To be continued)
Photo by Dana Cosio-Mercado
Dana is the beijingkids Shunyi Correspondent. Originally from the Philippines, she moved to Beijing in 2011 (via Europe) with her husband, two sons and Rusty the dog. She enjoys writing, photography, theater, visual arts, and trying new food. In her free time, she can be found exploring the city and driving along the mountain roads of Huairou, Miyun and Pinggu.