Friday, April 23, 2004

In recent weeks I've been moonlighting two nights and one Sunday afternoon a week trying to hone the English conversation skills of a novou riche Shenzhen couple who have hopes of eventually going to England to get MBAs from a university in Leicester.
I'll call them the Yan's, though neither one has that surname and Chinese couples don't go by one surname. Both come from proletarian backgrounds, but have taken advantage of the economic freedom China's experienced in the past decade or so to leverage themselves up to the point that Mrs. Yan quit her old job as an accountant to work fulltime at home playing the stock market while hubs brings home the rest of the fatty, bony pork from his job with China's largest bank.
They own a new four door Honda with brown leather seats and have their sights set on a Beemer for their next car.
Their four bedroom condo is in a gated high rise community buried behind about a mile and a half of palms and foliage on a narrrow winding, well-paved road in an area called Overseas Chinese Town (OCT in local lingo) because it was originally populated by wealthy Chinese who'd made their money overseas. With the palms, the golf course, private security and the reek of money it reminds me little of Boca Raton, but minus the aluminum walkers, 02 tanks, Haitan nurse/attendants and the nearest kosher deli is probably 18,906 or so miles away - unless there's one in Hong Kong.
There's also an additional WASP element to their community's restaurant which is where they invited me for dinner last night as a thank you gesture for what I fear are my fruitless tutoring efforts.
From the outside, the Laurel Restaurant ("Chinese cuisine with the (sic) Friendly Service") is indistinguishable from a swanky counterpart in Boca, L.A., Palm Springs or perhaps Vail or Aspen. There's valet parking with rows of glittering Beemers and Benzes and their ilk and gracious attendants with discrete headphones and in-house mobile units clipped to their trim hips to greet you at the door and ensure your reservation is intact and that you don't trip over the pile carpet or slip on the marble on your way to the dining area.
But whether you've got a candle-lit table by the man-made lake or a leather chair in the well air-conditioned dining room the perspective starts to warp just a little if you were expecting to meet Biff, Buffy and Caldwell Holdridge III for prime rib and Moët.
For starters there was the Chinese and English signboard at the dining room entrance proclaiming the night's specials.
My eye was immediately drawn to: "Braised goose feet with boiled sea urchin."
Please, I prayed as I glanced to my left and saw other succulent special offerings, including a complete pig's head, minus body and sporting two marishino cherry "eyes" under plastic wrap on a heavy, blindingly bright white china plate, please God. If you're here tonight and can spare some time off from Iraq or Israel or maybe that 87 passenger bus plunge going on in Hainan Province right now, please don't let him order the specials. Anything but the specials.
The Yans were gracious hosts. They did ask me if there was anything I didn't normally eat when it came to Chinese food. Since I've arrived, my attitudes have changed a bit from eager-to-please by appearing to enjoy anything through which blood once passed to a few basic no-nos.
"No heads, no feet, no stomachs and no pets," has become my new inflexible dining rule.
But there's something I always forget and this time it was the "no weirdly textured, slimy, spongy, oddly prickly stuff that I can't identify and you don't have an English word for, but it really, really makes me want to hurl." That was in my otherwise delicious cup of beef broth soup. I rolled it round my mouth for a moment, suppessed the gag reflex and then brought the cup up to my mouth and discretely spit it back in.
In doing so, I'd immediately violated one rule of Chinese dining etiquette in order to not commit another dining sin.
Of course, it's not polite to begin eating food and then put it back. That's universal.
In China it's OK to spit out waste like bone or shrimp shells. No problem there. But there's a catch. It's ONLY OK to LITERALLY spit it on to your plate. Like from 6 inches away. Only barbarians discretely deposit the waste in their hand, napkin or by bringing a bowl up to their mouth and slipping it back into the soup. But try as I have, I still haven't been able to bring myself to lustily hock bones, gristle or shrimp shells back onto a plate as Mrs.Yan had just done with a bit of beef bone in her soup. (Meanwhile, the Mr. had his rice bowl almost to his lips as he bent over and shoveling with chop sticks, loudly sucking up the plump grains,)
The Yans had brought their 4-year-old daughter with them and even she knew better than their guest. Observant little tyke that she was, she had caught me in the act with the soup bowl, laughed and said something to her mom in Chinese. Mrs. Yan smiled apologetically, but I had caught the world "monkey."
As I gazed around the room there were some other moments when I felt as if I was dining in a parallel universe - one where a version of the Chinese Beverly Hillbillies ran the world.
To my right was what appeared to be an elderly well-heeled businessman with a much younger and gorgeous female companion - whom, judging from their longing gazes and fingerplay across the table, probably wasn't the woman he'd married 35 years ago who was probably at home in Hong Kong playing high stakes mah jong at that moment.
The mistresses' cell phone chirped and I watched her slide the tiny, sleek silver phone from her Prada bag, slowly withdraw her hand from her partner's liver spotted grasp and, as she chatted away, begin mining her left nostril with a carefully manicured, cherry red nail.
Yes, here it's perfectly acceptable to publicly pick your nose.
He continued to watch her adoringly while I supressed another gag reflex and excused myself to the W.C.
When I returned our first course was ready.
It wasn't a head, a stomach, feet or a pet. Just large cubes of cold beef with requisite half-inch chucks of clear fat - dyed red, of course. Everyone knows Americans love beef and only the finest establishments go to the trouble of dying the fat red.
I thanked the Yans for their thoughtfullness, closed my eyes ever-so-briefly and then reached for the chopsticks.

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