Nov 3, 2011

Dinner with our new friends

Introducing Hank and Summer

We went to dinner the other night with our brand new friends: Summer, the English teacher; Mr. Han, the manager of the music store; Lan Lan, one of the store’s employees; and Sugar and Jenny, English teachers who work with Summer.

It was a lot of fun. We went for hot pot, a local specialty. It works like this: There’s a big bowl of broth (usually very spicy) in the center of the table that’s heated to a boil. You order a bunch of things and then throw them in the broth to cook. When things have cooked, you fish them out with your chopsticks and dunk it in your personal bowl, which usually has some kind of additional flavor.

We had told our friends that Peter was a vegetarian, and they were super accommodating. We got a bifurcated bowl — on one side, there was a spicy chicken broth, and on the other we got a less spicy vegetable broth. I didn’t even know that vegetable broth was an option in this country. They were also really careful to use one set of utensils for the meat side and one for the non-meat (which Peter isn’t actually that strict about, but definitely appreciated). It was super considerate of them, and the first time in this country that anyone fully grasped the whole concept of “vegetarian.” (By contrast, at another hot pot meal, our coworker’s husband offered Peter an egg, which Peter does eat - but in the ladle he had also scooped up the chicken head that was flavoring the broth. Peter declined.)

It’s tough to guess anyone’s age here, but I’d estimate that Summer and her husband are in their mid- to late-thirties, and her colleagues were maybe a little younger. Lan Lan was a mystery. She’s finished school, but she looks like she could be as young as 19. However old they are, they’re a lot of fun. We talked about the differences between China and New York, things to do in Luzhou; they toasted us, we toasted them … it was basically a party. Mr. Han doesn’t really speak any English, but he didn’t let that stop him from a good time; he had lots of questions for us, and well-wishes, and everyone translated for him.

Toward the end of the night, one of the girls mentioned KTV (karaoke). Maybe we’d go with them one night. Now Peter and I hate karaoke. But it’s a huge social event here … and our new friends were so much fun, we were like, “Of course we want to go to KTV with you!”

I also accidentally bestowed an English name on Mr. Han. He was telling us his full name, which we dutifully repeated, but had a hard time making stick. Because Chinese names are made up of phonemes we’ve never used/heard before, they’re really difficult for us to remember. But “Mr. Han” was too formal. So Summer told us that we could call him Han-gu, which is “brother Han” - a designation that is much more friendly. I said, “Oh, that sounds like an American name: Hank.” They loved it! And everyone decided right then and there that his American name would be Hank. Later in the night, Lan Lan asked for an American name, too. I couldn’t think of anything right on the spot, so I said next time I see her, I’ll have one. I’ve thought of something, but I want to see if she likes it before I broadcast it to the internet.

We ate and ate and ate. Everything was so delicious, and the food just kept coming. Our new favorites include lotus root (which we’ve been seeing everywhere) and this tofu that almost tasted like fresh mozzarella cheese. At what we thought was toward the end of the meal, the servers brought in plates and plates of leafy greens to throw in the soup (did I mention that we were eating in a private room?). In China, it seems like they end a meal with the greens, rather than starting with a salad or something. I remarked on such, and our friends just shrugged and said, “yeah, we don’t eat salad.” I don’t know what I was hoping for them to say.

To end the meal, we had little bowls of melon-flavored ice cream. Like everything else, it was sooooo good. There were enough for everyone to have two, but mostly everyone tried to foist their second bowl on us. We were just as full, however, so we had to refuse.

So many of the people we’ve met here are so generous and gracious with us. It’s really been an honor to spend time in this city and feel so welcomed. Definitely part of it is that we’re so exotic - that’s why we get hollered at in the streets - but the people we’ve spent time with are genuinely kind to us. We’re definitely having a great time.