Yesterday evening had me celebrating my Luzhou birthday dinner surrounded by Chinese friends and Peace Corp colleagues, Angela and Geoff. It was such a unique, wonderful evening that I felt I should give you all the details.
As mentioned in the last post, I had a gathering in Chengdu with the young folk eating hotpot and was awaiting a more upscale, posh dinner in Luzhou the next Friday. That took place last night and it certainly was an amazing event.
Cathy (Li Xiaolian, my former departmental dean at this college) has been my best friend for 12 years now and she was the one to arrange the gathering for my 50th.
When I turned 40, Cathy was also in charge of my birthday banquet here in Luzhou. She booked a restaurant for me so I could share my celebrations with not only a few friends, but the entire English language department and the leaders as well. It was a huge affair, with 4 tables of 12 people each. I remember loyal Cathy as a constant presence next to me. She’d poke me when it was time to toast this leader or that, encourage me to keep the conversation flowing with my pitiful Chinese small talk, and nudge me to pay attention to the other tables so I could adequately include all in my birthday invite. My dear Cathy was the one ushering me into the tricky world of banquet etiquette which I was ineptly stumbling along to perform.
Yes, for my 40th, it was a bit of a stressful evening on my part, one that I hadn’t expected due to my unfamiliarity with being the hostess in a formal Chinese dining affair.
Make It Simple
10 years later, I am certainly better skilled to handle such a situation with more poise and dignity but I decided to scale down my party for a couple of reasons.
At present, everyone at our school is too busy with wrapping up the end of the year. Students are still having final exams and teachers are scrambling to get grades finished. Administrators are also rushing about, dealing with all that needs dealt with before holidays begin.
Yet another reason is that I’ve been gone so much from this area for the past 5 years that I am just starting up relationships that had been firmly established 10 years ago. Leaving Sichuan, being in Guangxi for 3 years, returning to Luzhou for 1 year, and then having to leave again last year due to the work visa business strained most of my ties formed before. I am now having to re-establish those, meaning the closeness I once felt to my school staff here is not quite as strong as it was in the past.
Cathy and I decided that a small gathering of her special friends who are now my special friends would be better. And I must say, we were both right. No stiff, formal leaders to impress or tons of colleagues to manage as a hostess. It was just one table of 12, jovial, easy banter, private one-on-one toasting and a warm feeling of friendship.
Yes, there was cake which we ate first because Cathy insisted we’d have no room to stuff it in if we waited for all the dishes to arrive.
Having dessert first was not something I wanted for my 50th but I bowed to Cathy’s decision. And, as always, that was a wise move on my part. We managed to down only half of the light, whipped-cream sponge cake before over 20 stir-fried dishes started to fill our table. No way could we have dug into cake after such a full-course, meat-and-vegetable fanfare.
Thus we began with lighting the candles, the Happy Birthday song, me serving cake pieces to everyone and then my thank you toast to all before digging into the feast set before us.
“好吃! 好吃!” Good Eats! Good Eats!
I must say, that was the best dinner I’ve ever had in my 20 years in China.
Ms. Liu, Cathy’s elementary school classmate and one of our attendees, had selected the dishes from the restaurant’s menu. This is always a challenge when ordering for foreigners because we can get pretty picky. We are not guts-and-gore type of folk who delight in fatty meats, strange animal innards and odd flavors invading our delicate stomachs. These are what Chinese enjoy for their palates but far from anything foreigners such as myself care for. This difference often makes it difficult for Chinese to understand a foreigner’s tastebuds, thus we overseas folk usually find ourselves hungry after leaving a fully-loaded Chinese table.
But Ms. Liu did an outstanding job. Everything was perfectly catered to this American’s food preferences and I left nothing untouched. Not only that but we 12 actually finished off everything! That is quite unusual when so much food is set before us.
The only thing I just absolutely couldn’t bring to eat was my bowl of noodles and an egg, courtesy of the hotel. This was placed before me at the tail end of our dinner.
Noodles with a fried egg on top are to bring long life to the birthday individual. It’s a tradition in China to have this on your birthday but one which I just couldn’t bring myself to eat, not because it was unwanted or unappreciated but because I just couldn’t stuff anything more in! I just hope my disregard for this custom doesn’t cause the Chinese gods to snap off a extra few years from my hoped-for age of 100.
Leaving for the States on Tuesday
Now that my Luzhou dinner is finished, today is all about getting ready for my visit to the States. I leave on Monday for Shanghai, straight from our tiny Luzhou airport, and then head off to Illinois on Tuesday. This will therefore most likely be the last post until then.
I finish off this post with the visuals of my birthday celebrations for you to also enjoy. Thank you again for making my 50th so very special with your website visits, cards and notes. Ping An (Peace!)