I didn’t have much time today after church to visit with the congregation or pastor so I’ll save my returning church story for another day.
Instead, it was a quick dash by taxi to Tian Xi Ren He, a well-known restaurant here in Luzhou.
Our former English Departmental dean, Cathy (Li Xiaolian), along with her husband Peter (Peng Tao) were throwing a big to-do for their son, Jack (Peng Mu Yan). The occasion? Jack’s matriculation into one of Beijing’s top universities for computer science and engineering.
In China, parents dream of sending their children to prestigious universities throughout the country. It guarantees their child a higher education with a good job after graduation. The opportunities attending these schools are numerous, including better prospects for overseas’ study and meeting the right people for furthering job security.
Once in school, the students’ life completely changes. The tension, fear, anxiety and sleepless, tedious high school years preparing for this national entrance exam are past. Now they can relax, enjoy the independent life of a young adult student and concentrate only on the subject they’re interested in.
The score which is received on university entrance exams determines where the high school senior can apply. If the score is too low, his top choice universities most likely will not accept him.
Cathy and Peter had very high hopes for Jack, who ranked first and second in his class for a number of subjects, including math, science and English. Because he was attending Number 6 Senior High School, which is the best in the city, they expected his entrance exam scores to be higher than most. For 3 years, he’d studied 7 days a week in school, like all of his classmates, leaving for school at 7:30 a.m. and returning at 10:30 p.m. When studying for the entrance exams, there is no time to rest and no vacation, even during the summer holidays. They are too busy pouring over their textbooks.
Memorization is a must and a skill all Chinese students learn to master as best they can. The university entrance tests they take depend on it. If they don’t do well, they end up in lower ranked universities. If they do extremely poorly, they may wind up at small vocational schools such as ours. Rather depressing when your hopes were set on something better. It’s especially disappointing when your parents were planning on you achieving high marks and you didn’t.
When Jack’s test scores were posted on the Internet in June, Cathy and Peter eagerly went to see what they were. They were crushed. Jack hadn’t done as well as they thought. Jack, too, felt miserable. All that hard work and his scores were only adequate, setting him above some but not high enough to enter the university he had wanted in Beijing.
Yet a miracle occured, which gave us the grand and glorious dinner party today in his honor. He was placed on the waiting list and, out of thousands of others, was chosen to be enrolled in his number one choice school.
When a child is accepted into a prestigious university, it is the custom for parents to throw a dinner party to celebrate their happiness with others. Because Cathy and Peter have so many to thank, I was actually invited to their 3rd big dinner. The first had been for Peter’s circle. As director of a computer company, Peter had a number of colleagues and staff to share his happiness with. The second dinner had been for friends of Cathy, Peter and Jack, those not in the workplace. And this last dinner, most likely the biggest of all, was for Cathy’s colleagues and school leaders: Those from her former employment as the English dean at Luzhou Vocational and Technical College, and those from her current teaching position at Luzhou Police College.
I wasn’t sure of the custom when attending a celebration dinner so I had to ask. Everyone invited should prepare a red envelope (used for celebration purposes) with money inside to give to the parents. This money is congratulations for their child’s success and is used to pay for the dinner.
It was suggested a 100 yuan note ($14.50) would be enough although if you are good friends of the family, you should give more. Cathy and I are much like sisters, being about the same age and also quite close, so I gave 200 yuan in my red envelope.
Upon my arrival at the restaurant, many people were milling about outside as Cathy excitedly greeted them in front of the building. There were many words of congratulations extended, lots of handshakes and smiles, as red envelopes of 100 yuan notes were pressed into her hands. These she quickly crumpled into her purse so as not to make a big deal out of the gifts.
Cathy urged us all to go in while she continued to greet more guests coming to the banquet luncheon.
On the stairwell, there was our tall, handsome Jack busy talking to his friends on his cell phone while at the same time, welcoming his guests. And inside, Peter with his parents (who live with the family) were ushering people to tables or just thanking us for coming.
It was a bit of a madhouse with people calling out to friends or colleagues to sit at their table. There were a lot of shouts, handshakes, and pats on the back between workmates. Young people were present as well, children of the invited guests, so there was a big fuss made over how so-and-so had grown so much or what a cute little girl this one had become. Then we had our school leaders, Mr. Zhou (Party Secretary) and Mr. Ruan (retired Vice-President), along with several other important VIPs stationed at a table. Being the returning foreign teacher, I hadn’t seen them in over a year so I descended upon them (along with quite a few others) to extend my good wishes and just say hello.
The restaurant hall slowly began to fill.
We held the biggest room in the restaurant, with 14 tables of 10 people each. We made quite a showing and quite a ruckus. Lots of banter going on and playful teasing by the entire group. We were all so happy to celebrate in Jack’s success and his parents’ joy. For me, it was especially meaningful as I remember my first invitation to Cathy’s home 7 years ago, when Jack was celebrating his 11th birthday. Now look at him! All grown up, off to college clear across the country and ready to start his new life away from home for the first time.
While we waited, our 14 tables were already filling with appetizers and dishes from the kitchen: blanched peanuts, cold sliced chicken, potato starch noodles in sauce, fish, rabbit, pork with green peppers, Chinese cabbage. . . But our hosts hadn’t yet taken the stage so we could only sit, waiting for them while our stomachs growled in anticipation of the good food that lay before us.
At 12:00, Cathy, Peter and Jack came before us with microphone in hand to do the official greetings and welcome. Cathy spoke first, then her husband and finally, Jack with his hand-written speech. All three expressed their thanks to us for sharing in their happiness. They raised their glasses to toast Jack’s success and our being there. Ours raised in return, and finally, it was time to dig in.
For the guests, the meal was delightful. So many fascinating, special food selections arrived one after another. We spent a great deal of time turning the lazy susan, sampling every dish that went by. The table was stacked with them as the servers whipped them out again and again. During the entire 1 ½ hours we were there, we must have had over 20 different menu items.
While we were filling our stomachs, however, our hosts had little time to enjoy their meal. Banquets such as these demand the hosts rotate from table to table, toasting everyone and thanking them for coming. There are also individual toasts done by the parents to special guests. In a Chinese banquet, there’s a lot of standing up and down as the toasters descend upon you to wish you well while lifting high their glasses. Quickly stuffing in the meal in between these toasts is something Chinese are very adept at doing. I, on the other hand, am a slow eater. Fortunately for me, this particular celebration dinner didn’t require an outrageous number of toasts. Cathy, Peter and Jack were too busy with other tables to toast us more than once.
When it comes to toasting, guests are given a choice of drinks. In order to save money, those who are throwing these banquets bring in their own drinks for guests. Rarely do customers buy from the restaurant as it’s too expensive. Carrying in your own beverages is completely acceptable by Chinese restaurants, unlike America, and no extra fees are charged.
When it comes to what’s selected, fruit juices, colas or coconut juice are the most common among the children and us women. We ladies are not pushed into the hard liquor which the men are often forced to drink along with their buddies.
Among the men, it’s considered rude to refuse guzzling our famous Luzhou baijiu (a strong whiskey), especially when you’re sitting with the leaders who are expected to drink it, whether they want to or not. When you’re a guy, if the leaders drink, you drink. If your friends drink, you drink. Only official school drivers, always invited to the meal as well, are exempt. Since they chauffer around the administrators to and from such dinners, it’s their job to remain sober enough to get everyone home safely.
A cross between the hard stuff and fruit juice is an extremely weak red wine. This has a 2% -3% alcohol level and tastes like sweetened water with a tinge of grape flavor. This kind of wine was invented just for the Chinese banquet. It’s a common substitute for other drinks when someone doesn’t want to get drunk but wants to do his or her duty by drinking spirits of some sort.
During our toasting from our hosts, I noticed all three (Cathy, Peter and Jack) were using the wine. Jack’s job was to carry the bottle and refill their glasses as they walked to every table. At the leaders’ table, however, I did notice that Cathy and Peter both changed to the Luzhou whiskey as a show of respect to the higher ups. And, yes, Cathy was a bit tipsy toward the end of our meal.
The banquet luncheon ended with the final dessert of sliced fruit being placed at every table. After that, people began dispersing on their own.
But this actually wasn’t the end. Cathy enthusiastically grabbed up a number of people to accompany her to a nearby mahjong parlor. This is a common Sichuan custom, to play mahjong (a tile game) for the rest of the afternoon after gathering all your friends together.
Not only that, but a second dinner banquet was arranged that evening at 6:30 p.m. We were all invited back after our afternoon outings (mahjong, shopping, rest at home) to once again participate in the family’s happiness.
While Cathy was keen to have me return, one banquet was enough for me. I also have classes to prepare for tomorrow, and a full day of teaching from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., so I skipped the evening gathering. There’ll be plenty of other chances for me and Cathy to get together during my year back. Now is her time to be attentive to others, not me.
I must admit I was very curious about the price of this huge meal. When the staff whisked Cathy the bill to sign, which she charged to her credit card, I took a peek at the total: 14 tables at 600 yuan ($89) each, plus service and some drinks, brought the total to 9,050 yuan ($1,310). While the amount sounds like a lot, remember that we each gave a gift of at least 100 yuan to celebrate in their happiness. Our gifts covered not only the cost of the banquet but the cost of the beverages Cathy had purchased as well. This same sort of custom is also used for weddings, in which banquet guests present envelopes of money to the happy couple who in return don’t have to go into debt to feed everyone.
It may sound a little strange to us but in my mind, it makes practical sense. We give a gift to the hosts, the hosts in return give a gift to us. No one loses out. Not only that, but we all get to participate in the joyful occasion together.
Now that’s a great celebration in honor of a young person going off to the university of his choice.
Congratulations, Jack! Congratulations, Cathy and Peter!
It was a great banquet which many of us will remember for years to come.
From Luzhou, here’s wishing you a Sunday’s “Ping An” (peace)