EASTER SEA SHELLS
Ahh, Easter Sunday in China. We worked eight-to-five then ate conches for supper.
In Zac’s adult class, there is a married couple that is only a few years older than us. The husband, Sunny, used to work in the army but now has a job working for the government as the supervisor of corruption (interpret that as you like). The wife, Joan, has a Ph.D. in finance and teaches at a university. They own a car (a sure sign of wealth in China) and were determined to be our friends. They drove us home from school a few times, then invited us to come for supper on Sunday. So we went.
Sunny picked us up at the school after work on Sunday and drove us to their house, which is on the other side of the hill we live on. They live on the rich side. Their garage was nicer than our apartment, and their house was beautiful. (It’s in an apartment building, but here they usually own rather than rent—like a condominium—so they call it a house.) Upon entering, we took off our shoes and put on the slippers. We met their long-time friend Jackie (he named himself after Jackie Chan) whom they had invited over for supper as well.
First, they gave us a tour of the house: their large living room, their large dining room, their large kitchen, their large bedroom and slightly smaller guest bedroom, and their two bathrooms. About the bathroom, they asked, “Is it like yours in America?” We confirmed that their bathroom was indeed very western and they clapped with glee. It had a western toilet (with no squat toilet underneath like ours) and an enclosed shower so that (imagine this!) water doesn’t get all over the floor and toilet (like ours). The house was only two years old so it was in very good condition and had beautiful wooden floors.
We retired to the living room where Joan made real oolong tea for us and served it in the purple clay tea set that is best for oolong. The cups were tiny but bottomless because every time we took a sip, she poured more in. She told Sunny to go cook supper. When we’d toured the kitchen we’d had a preview of what was to come: a pile of bright orange crabs and a bowl with a large beautiful fish in it. While Sunny was cooking, Joan showed us her pirated-DVD collection, consisting of mostly horror flics. She insisted we borrow some, and we were hard pressed to find even a couple that looked good.
Jackie told us he was also taking English classes at Future School, but at one of the other locations in the city. He said, with great disappointment, that he had invited his teacher to come to dinner at his house, but she hadn’t taken him up on the offer. We know his teacher, because she came to Dalian at the same time we did and is also taking Chinese lessons with us, so we assured him that we would tell her he was a nice guy. I think he was a bit jealous because Sunny and Joan had been more successful in inviting foreigners over than him.
Jackie told us all about how they had all been friends since the university, where he and Sunny were roommates for four years. “We get together all the time. Last night, my wife and I stayed here until 1am, playing poker. We drank six beers!” He was quite proud of this accomplishment. “I can’t drink a lot of beer. But Sunny can. He is very good at drinking beer. How do you say that?” So we taught him how to say low/high tolerance. When his wife called on his cell phone later that night, he showed off by speaking to her in English and explaining all about how he had a low tolerance and Sunny had a high tolerance, which was true because by that time Jackie was quite red-faced and groggy.
While we were waiting for supper, Joan kept feeding us: cherry tomatoes, fresh pineapple, mandarin oranges, some fruit we’d never seen before and they didn’t know the name of in English, and hazelnuts. Sunny took a break from cooking to get out his digital video camera and record the foreigners eating hazelnuts in his house. Joan brought out a silver suitcase that contained their wedding photo albums. They didn’t actually have any photos of the wedding (which is held in a restaurant), but rather professional modeling photos taken of the couple before the wedding wearing all sorts of costumes, which they rent. They were shocked to find that Zac and I didn’t have any such photos, and they said we had to get them taken while we were in Dalian.
Finally, supper was ready and we went to the table to see exactly what we were going to eat. There was the fish: tail, head, and eyeballs intact. There were two bowls of crabs threatening us with their pinchers. There was a curry potato and green pepper dish. There was an egg dish. There was a Chinese cabbage and fungus dish. There were bowls of rice. And….what’s that? Are those sea shells? A nice decoration to go with the sea food? Nope, we’re going to eat them. “Conches!” Sunny proudly proclaimed. “The most delicious food. You will love them!” He took a toothpick, stabbed it into the sea shell, twisted out the cooked creature, rolled it around in the chili sauce and handed it to me. “No, no…” I tried to buy time, “you first. I don’t know how to eat it.” “Easy,” he said, and popped the whole thing in his mouth. He picked up another sea shell, repeated, and gave it to Zac. Zac said it was ok, so I follow suit and ate one. The taste was not bad, but it was really chewy. Sunny insisted that after living in Dalian for a year, we would love them. I think eating one in my life is quite enough. I’m a bit squeamish about seafood to begin with.
The crab meat was really good, but extremely difficult to eat. They ate it by essentially eating everything, and spitting out the shell onto the table. This was quite amusing. Zac and I tried to pick off the shell and pick the meat out with our fingers, which didn’t work as well, but involved less spitting. The fish was delicious. We plucked the meat off with our chopsticks and pulled out the bones. “Everything is fresh!” Sunny said. “It was all alive today! In Dalian, you can get fresh seafood. But it is very expensive this time of year.” So then we felt bad, for not fully appreciating the sea shells. I praised the rice, which made Sunny happy. “It’s from my hometown. It is the best rice. We export it—you probably even eat it in America.” It just tasted like rice to me. Zac and I also won favor because we were able to use chopsticks well, although they said I was better at it than Zac, even better than some Chinese.
During the whole meal, there was a drinking competition between Jackie, Sunny and Zac. One the way from the school to the house, Sunny stopped to buy some beer. “Zac,” I whispered, “I read about this. You have to drink a lot or you’ll ‘lose face’.” He raised his eyebrows at me. Sure enough, at the beginning of the meal, Sunny poured Zac half a glass of “white wine” made from rice, that was 35%, so it was really a liquor. Joan and I didn’t have to drink since we were females. But for men in China, according to what I read, drinking is really important and friends will always know their status to each other in terms of alcohol tolerance (hence Jackie’s obsession with having a low tolerance compared to Sunny). So the drinking competition was really between Sunny and Zac since their status to each other had not been determined.
Every time one of the men drank, they all had to drink. This was done in the form of the toasts, and Sunny was quite excited to have foreigners at his house for the first time, so there were toasts every couple of minutes. He would affirm our friendship, say, “cheers”, clink glasses, and down the hatch it went. Sunny led the drinking, since he had a higher status than Jackie, and Zac was the guest of undetermined status. Once the rice wine was finished, they drank beer. Then it emerged that Zac liked red wine, so then they drank a bottle of that. They drank glasses of beer and red wine like they were shots. Jackie got red-faced pretty early on, but Zac was able to hold his own. Every once in a while, Joan would wave some fingers in front of Zac’s face and say, “How many fingers, Zac? How many?” Zac would answer correctly, then Sunny would say how happy he was to have his teacher at his house, cheers, another drink. Joan brought out more rounds of food: cucumbers and cherry tomatoes.
The more they drank, the more fluent their English. We asked Jackie what his Chinese name meant. He thought for a long time, and finally said, “It means I’m not normal– different.”
“Different good or different bad?”
“Ah, then your name means unique.”
“Yes! Yes! Eunuch!”
“No, no, not Eunuch. Don’t tell people your name means Eunuch. That is bad.”
“What does it mean?”
“Uh, a boy who sings like a girl.”
“Oh. So I must say, Eunuch.”
“No, no, you-neek! Not you-nuck. You-neeeeeeek.”
Joan brought out more fruit: bananas, pineapple, oranges. I learned to say “I’m full” in Chinese. Jackie said, “Chinese people are very hospital.”
“Hospital? Ah, that is for sick people. You are hospit-ABLE.” That turned out to be a very difficult word for Jackie to say. They taught us to count in Chinese. That also turned out to be very difficult to say. The red wine was finished, with both Zac and Sunny still soberish (drinking status yet to be determined?). We all agreed to go to Jackie’s house next Sunday and his wife would cook us a chicken in coca-cola. We took off our slippers and went home.
At home I said, “I forgot to tell you Zac. I also read in the book that genetically the Chinese have a really low alcohol tolerance. You had an advantage.”