When Kingful Ding of Shanghai, China (no, I am not making that name up) asked me to be the guest of honor at a lunch in his villa I accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. It’s not everyday I get asked to lunch at a villa in Shanghai, and there wasn’t really a polite way for me to get out of it anyway. So off I went, head full of optimism, suppressing that inner voice that nagged about this being CHINA, and my palate being about as refined as a four-year-old’s.
Throughout the meetings preceding this invitation I was suppressing a giggle every time I called him “Mr. Ding” with his bulbous face and puffy hair he looked a bit like a fat penis head, so I thought “Ding” was particularly fitting.
Yeah, about that palate … now would be a great time to mention that I don’t eat anything that lives in the water, and really prefer not to even look at the ugly little critters, especially shrimp, the cockroaches of the ocean. I’ll make an exception for steamed crab legs on occasion, only as legs, but that’s really just a vehicle for melted butter.
I walked into the King’s “villa,” which was really just a private upstairs dining room at the clubhouse for his gated housing complex, and discovered a room full of dark heads – none of which were ever introduced to me. I was the only woman in the place except for the lovely serving girls in their skin-tight cheongsam, but that comes up often enough as a woman doing business in Asia, so I was amused but not intimidated.
The table was pre-set in typical Chinese style with small plates on a Lazy Susan in the center and water goblets and wine glasses at every seat. I was ushered to a seat next to my generous host Mr. Ding.
Now, I am traveled enough to know there are a lot of customs and expectations when dining in China (there are social mores for everything) but I am NOT traveled enough to know what those customs and expectations are … but I do know one thing: when the host is drinking, one is expected to drink as well.
But does this apply to women, at 11:30 in the afternoon?
Unsure of what would be required of me, I took my seat, set my napkin on my lap, and smiled and nodded through the first round of toasts, taking small sips between each speech that were translated for me to basically mean, “We’re excited to work together. Mr. Ding is basically awesome, and we like your yellow hair.”
All was going well until my host began the dining portion of the meal. The sheer number of plates sitting before us was a bit staggering, and the fish eye that was winking at me from across the table kept creeping precariously closer than I’d like him to be.
“Kindly” Ding picked a few morsels on the plates closest to us and placed them before me: vegetables, pickled cabbage of some sort, and a beef-ish looking thing, all fairly innocuous even for my childish finickiness. I somehow got the first bite to my mouth just as another toast started, took a sip of the worst red wine I’d ever tried, and looked down in horror just in time to see Ding place the fish head on my plate.
The King of Ding seemed a fairly traveled fellow, or at least his translator had told me that the big Ding had visited Hawaii a few times, so I had to wonder, “Is he having a laugh at my expense, surely he knows Americans don’t eat fish heads!”
The rest of the food on my plate was fairly inoffensive, so, undeterred by my American girl in the foreign city (pretending that everyone in the room wasn’t watching me) I dug in, “accidentally” moving my food around the plate to cover up my gill-breathing dining companion and contemplated spilling my wine on my plate.
Lunch continued for a few moments, and then another batch of serving plates came out, another round of toasts, and the small rice bowl beside me was filled with a gelatinous stew of hairy crab.
I resisted the urge to Snapchat a quick “Help!” when I looked down at the ugly little fellas and was relieved that it was time for another toast, which by this point the translator had stopped explaining to me, having decided to fill his mouth with every manner of imperial cuisine presented.
I discovered a great benefit to chopsticks … dropping. Anything I didn’t want to put in my mouth accidentally got “dropped” a little at a time, and my serving girl swept it away before Ding noticed I had disposed of it.
But, the wine was trickier. The toasts and resulting gulps that followed them were getting more frequent, and lasted longer. We toasted the crab, we toasted the lunch, another toast to my yellow hair, if all this celebratory drinking didn’t stop soon I was at serious risk of falling off my chair – or taking off my top.
Then my sister’s wise counsel from a night of too many margaritas came to mind, “If you start feeling drunk, just go boot and then you’ll be ready to rally.” Sweet, solution found! But, I was not going to waste a trip to the ladies just to rid myself of too much wine, this was too great an opportunity.
I began taking lusty bites of the items on my plate then palming them into my napkin. By the time I excused myself to the bathroom I’d nearly emptied my plate into my emerald-green cloth serviette, and I surreptitiously dropped it into my handbag.
In the bathroom (which thankfully was NOT a squat toilet) I purged like a sorority girl, then unloaded the contents of my napkin into the toilet, cleaned up, and sashayed back into the dining room, feeling rather proud of my quick thinking.
In my absence an entirely new round of toasting liquids had been brought forth, beer. Chinese beer. Served luke warm. Shit! And, another round of who-knows-what had been placed on the Lazy Susan – more food than thirty people could eat, and we were only ten.
More toasts, more helpful servings from Mr. Ding, and the greasiest soup known to man slithered down my throat: sautéed eel was swallowed without a bite, abalone was accidentally dropped onto the ground, followed by more beer, white fish, stewed spinach, more beer, until I looked over at the Big Dinger and saw that he was even more phallic now. His face had turned a bright red, and a glossy sheen of sweat was dribbling from his temples down his face, reminding me a bit of … sorry, I won’t go there, we’re eating here (though the gelatinous salty consistency of our lunch also reminded me of that a bit).
The lyrics to hotel California started to play on repeat in my head, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
Here I was, surrounded by men who were not really speaking to me, all of them starting to look a little intoxicated, pretending to eat/drop ridiculous amounts of food I didn’t even want to look at, and there was no end in sight. And then, the laughter could no longer be suppressed. I put my napkin to my mouth and pretended to cough as I regained my composure, and focused my eyes completely on the Lazy Susan in front of me, did that fish eye just wink?
I reached out toward a plate of what in the U.S. I would call Beef with Broccoli and set it on my plate. I took a bite and it was good! Really! Tender, really, rich, deliciously good, what joy!
Then, from three seats down I heard it, “Meow.” quiet at first, so quietly I thought I must have mis-heard, so I took another bite, and now it was louder, “Meow!”
I looked around and caught the eye of one of the nameless young men who had not been introduced to me and saw a twinkle in his eye, at which point the laughter could no longer be contained. I tried so hard to hold it back I snotted cat/beef up through my sinuses and a tiny little piece flew out, onto the Ding’s plate. Before I could say anything (what would I say?) he lifted the piece, along with the gelatinous detritus surrounding it, to his mouth and swallowed, impervious to what had transpired.
My second trip to the ladies for a boot and rally went down (or should I say “came up” much more smoothly having watched Ding swallow my eruption). Three hours later I made my way out of the villa and the young man who’d meowed at me rode back to the hotel with me, where he apologized in perfect English for teasing me, and explained that what I had eaten was “probably” not cat, but definitely not pork or beef.
Business travel is just so glamorous!