The Dance Begins

We were home briefly after our meeting, and then the four of us walked to the teacher’s dining hall down the block for a banquet in honor of the new teachers—a banquet announced only minutes earlier during our meeting with the university president. Chris, presumably because he had already been on campus for two years, did not attend.

It was held in a private dining room, a whitewashed concrete box. Exposed pipes jutted from the wall, and flies lit on the food. The table was covered with a vinyl cloth, stained and pockmarked with cigarette burn holes. Ten places were set with chipped dishes in a variety of patterns. A dumpy woman in a stained white apron brought out a plate of cold meats, lotus root, and preserved eggs, and a bottle of bai jiu (literally translated “white wine,” but “fire water” is more accurate.)

The university president toasted us foreign experts, repeating the afternoon’s flowery statements about the budding friendship between China and the West. Then came a parade of dishes, each comprised of eggs, diced pork or chicken and some kind of vegetable—usually bamboo shoots or onions. Two skinny chickens, one roasted and one boiled, capped the meal. The evening ended abruptly when the dumpy woman removed the dirty plates and the leaders rose to usher us out.

Months later, I realized that the banquet was a step in the dance, perhaps not consciously designed to soften us up before our next round of business meetings, but a deeply ingrained cultural practice of establishing ties and favors that made it more difficult for us to operate with the autonomy we were used to in the West.

Moments after Gauss and I returned to the Foreigners Hotel—and just in time for the hot water—Chris stopped in. The concrete stairs were noisy, and it was hard to come and go without the whole building knowing.

“How was dinner?” he asked mischievously.

We described the dishes.

“That’s the standard banquet,” he quipped. “I’ve been to a ton of them, just didn’t see any reason to go again. You know Hao Keqi is going to be in charge of you guys.”

Gauss gave me a resigned look.

The pipes gurgled in the bathroom.

“Hot water’s here, time to go!” Chris said. “Catch you guys later.”

Hao Keqi’s self-assurance separated her from the other more timid bureaucrats. Although she chose her words carefully, she seemed to speak her mind without trepidation, a hint that she didn’t fear reprisal. Margaret had already told us about Miss Hao’s attempts to control her. Having someone watching what I did and where I went absolutely pushed my hot button, and I saw trouble down the road with her.

Gauss and I expected Hao Keqi to bully us into following her agenda, so as soon as we finished our baths, we sat in the living room to plot out our course for the semester. We figured that the more structure we had in place, the harder it would be for her to push us around.

It was a smart move. When she and the head of the English Department—who spoke almost no English—came to meet with us the next day, Gauss and I immediately presented our detailed plan for the class we would teach. The strategy worked. With only a few minor exceptions, Hao Keqi and the nameless department head accepted our proposal.

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One thought on “The Dance Begins

  1. In the Philippines, this would be an occasion for singing. Nearly every occasion is marked by singing. You wouldn’t believe how much mileage I got out of “Home on the Range.”

    Hao Keqi would be interesting to deal with. Cultures have so many unwritten rules, and what seems perfectly natural in one country can cause great consternation in another. It’s difficult when you have to learn by trial and error.

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