There are only two types of Chinese banquets. The first kind is just an excuse for the school leaders to eat all of their favorite foods while drinking baijiu (quite possibly the worst alcoholic beverage; 54% alcohol and the rest might be paint thinner). The leaders chat with each other in the local dialect and leave you to try to find a meal’s worth of food among the random animal parts.
Luckily this was the second kind of banquet. Millie had ordered all of Kyle’s favorite dishes, so we didn’t get stuck finding excuses as to why we didn’t want a third helping of cow stomach. Instead there was stir-fried broccoli with lots of garlic, a slightly spicy pork dish, and corn with pine nuts. The leaders made their short, obligatory speech in Chinese welcoming us to the school, and then sat quietly as the English department introduced themselves.
There was Mr. Pan, a fun, 50-year-old who had just a hint of crazy in his eyes. Later he would invite me to go shooting with the army and was completely surprised that I wasn’t allowed to go. “I don’t understand why they won’t let you come,” he explained over the phone. I could tell from his voice that he wasn’t just trying to be nice, he really had no idea why a foreigner wouldn’t be allowed onto a Chinese army base.
Dean Deng was also there. For being the head of the department, his English wasn’t as good as you would hope. He was very nice though and made it clear that he was very glad to have both of us there at the school. For the most part he was quiet, which is a surprising characteristic in a Chinese leader.
Finally, there was Betty who introduced herself as Millie’s best friend. She claimed to be 5 feet tall, but her feet swung freely under her chair. I didn’t see her for a month or two after that evening, but she came running up to me after class one day saying, “Tom, your English is so clear, I remember exactly what you said to me when we first met.”
“And what was that?” I asked.
She stared deep into my eyes, and looked as if she was preparing an entire speech, “You said, ‘hello’, I will never forget that.”
After the introductions, we continued to eat quietly until the leaders got bored with listening to small talk in a language they didn’t understand. Before they left however, they felt the need to serenade us with their favorite KTV (Karaoke) song. You can judge the quality for yourself…
That night was just a hint of all the adventures and craziness that would take place in the year I spent in the town so small that few people outside of Guangxi could even find it on a map.