My first night in Hangzhou

I arrived at my second story apartment yesterday afternoon around 3:30pm, 1:30am St. Paul time, and about 37 hours after Matt dropped me off at MSP on Wednesday.  Phew!  I nodded off a few times on the car ride from Pudong (the airport in Shanghai) to Hangzhou, but by the time Bao put the key in my new door,  I was wide awake and crazy with adrenaline.  I’ll put a video up soon of the apartment- for now, suffice it to say that it’s cold, and weird and quirky, and totally awesome.

So I’m here.  And after Bao gets done showing me the particulars of the appliances and fixing my internet, he makes a phone call in Chinese.  “Do you want to have dinner with your student’s relatives?” he asks.  I glance into the pink sun-shaped mirror on the desk at my greasy, smelly self with smudgy makeup and puffy eyes.  “Yeah!  Of course!”

I knew before I came that one of my debaters, DW, had family in Hangzhou.  DW is an amazing kid, responsible and practical and and funny and sort of a genius.  His parents- who are Chinese- have always been really supportive of him, and of debate, and when they found out about my trip, they gave me lots of tips about China as well as their relatives’ contact information.  But being relatives of these wonderful people, DW’s aunt and uncle called Bao first to ask if they could take us out to dinner, without waiting for me to call them.  And Bao was determined yesterday to keep me awake long enough to stave off any lasting jet-lag, so a Welcome to China dinner was the perfect diversion.

They pick us up on the corner about a block away from my apartment, in a brand-new SUV, which DW’s uncle drives through the streets like it’s an ’84 Escort with a two-toned body and no insurance.  We get to the restaurant, and I get big hugs from DW’s aunt, who is teeny-tiny with a cute, frilly, winter parka and expensive-looking leather boots, and from his uncle, DW’s mom’s brother, who bears the family resemblance.  It was clear in the car ride over that they don’t speak any English, so DW’s aunt takes my arm and leads me into the restaurant (whose name I’m still unsure of) and to our table.  It is as cold in the restaurant as it is in my apartment, so we keep our jackets on and sit away from the windows.  Our waitress brings us tea, and just as I am about to take a sip, everyone jumps up and Bao tells me, “In traditional Chinese restaurants, you point at pictures and plates of the food you want.”  We head upstairs, followed by our waitress who has some little PDA-looking device, and here is what we see:

(Can you tell I didn’t ask that guy for permission to take his picture?  Oops.  Bao says that if I’m doing something rude, people will tell me and stop me.  So I just started snapping away.)  There are plates and plates of food lined up, and we start pointing at what we want.  Mostly, I let them choose because I have absolutely no idea what I’m looking at, although I do tell them I like seafood.  We pick a few “cold” plates out here, and then head over to the wall of pictures.

These are the “hot” dishes, served warm, and they will follow our cold plates.  Meanwhile, our server is behind us, clicking our orders into her PDA-thing.  At this point, I’m pretty satisfied, but then DW’s aunt (far left in the picture) tells Bao (centered in the picture) to ask me how I like my shrimp cooked.  “Um,” I say, “pretty much any way at all.”  We turn around, and it’s then that I notice the third food-ordering room, and it’s got 3 walls lined with aquariums and- you guessed it- live seafood.  Shrimp and flounder and who knows what else.  Before I know it, the fish chef has pulled a live fish from the tank, throws it flopping into a shallow dish, and tells us that it’ll be ready soon.

Talk about fresh!  So we head back down to our table, they order a round of coconut milks, and our food starts coming.  (And the people at the next table light up and start puffing away.  So weird!  I think a lot of people here smoke.  Bless you, smoking ban, bless you.)

So there’s Bao, me, DW’s aunt, and DW’s uncle. (I so wish I could spell their names, but I’m not even sure I heard them right!  I have a feeling I’ll see them again, so I’ll let you know then.)  Now, I know I don’t look like my normal ravishing self, but please remember it had been two days since I’d showered and slept in a bed.  I’m lucky DW’s aunt would get that close to me for a picture!
Honestly, they are the greatest people.  We talk a lot about DW, I show them pictures of him debating that happen to be on my camera, they ask lots of questions about Minnetonka, promise me their daughter Daisy will show me around after the New Year, and say (through Bao) “Jennifer, we are afraid you will go hungry!” probably a dozen times before refilling my plate with fish- you know, the one that was alive 20 minutes before we ate him.  (That’s the dish right in front of me, and I seriously think I ate over half of it on my own.)  We also eat shrimp (and you probably can’t see this, but their little eyeballs are still in tact, a testimony to their freshness), squid, these little potato balls, some pan-friend noodles, stir-fried vegetables, pickled bamboo shoots, and sweet lotus roots.  Probably 38948392 new flavors I’d never tasted.  Except for the veggies, nothing was familiar.  It was awesome.
To my surprise, we don’t order rice until after we’d picked at the entrees for a long time.  Here is what I’ve learned about Chinese dining:
1) Start with cold dishes, move onto hot dishes, and finish with rice to “stuff.”  Bao says Chinese people love to feel stuffed since most of their food is pretty low-calorie, low-fat.
2) Everyone shares dishes, but no one passes any.  You just stand up with your arms and elbows in everyone’s faces and grab a bite of what you want.
3) Before last night, I would have given myself a B in Chopsticks Handling.  Now, I see that I need to scrap my old system and start from scratch.  I’ve been doing it wrong for years!
4) Chinese hospitality at the dinner table means the hosts can load up your plate if they think you aren’t eating enough.  Hence, the fish. 🙂

At some point during the meal, DW’s aunt says that I must be very brave to have dinner with 3 strangers. I tell Bao to tell her that I think they’re more kind than I am brave, and after I finally crawl into bed, I truly can’t imagine a better welcome to Hangzhou.

And I think of a comment Bao made at dinner, that he bets 80% of my pictures will be of food.  I can’t say I disagree.  Check out these duck tongues:

I mean, duck tongues?!  China, I already love you.

2 comments

  1. What a great adventure Jenne! And I think you look beautiful in that picture of the four of you. I'd be way more worse for the wear after 37 hours of travel! Can't wait to hear more!

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  2. Diana, you are so kind (and I am way too late in responding to your comment!). 🙂 I hope you and Jim are doing well in Mpls! If I could just transplant all of my great friends and family here, China would really be a perfect place to live!

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