My friend Mark admonished me to always use a direct voice when communicating with Chinese speakers.
“Close to everyone you’ll meet under the age of 30 in China has studied English in school, but they get confused when we use the passive voice or speak with complex verb tenses. Just try to speak in the simplest, most direct way you can.”
This advice came on the heels of a communication breakdown with one of Mark’s friends. The friend had asked the simple question, “When did you come to China?”
I had given the complex response, “I will have been here one week next Tuesday.”
Mark’s friend nodded his head affirmatively — but he had a perplexed look on his face that told us he didn’t understand what I’d said. Before I could take another shot at it, Mark intervened with, “Bill arrived last week.”
Later, Mark lectured me further.
“The Chinese language places much greater emphasis on context rather than on verb tense,” he said. “In fact, they don’t really have tenses in the same sense as we use them in English. Yesterday suffices in most conversation to indicate a past event. Any finer meanings are likely to be provided by context. This is why it is better to speak English with the fewest qualifiers and using the active voice.”
It’s good to have someone with me that knows the ropes, I thought. But I didn’t want to feel like a wayward student the whole trip either.
This exchange transpired just before Mark and I were set to take a two-month trip across inland China. Mark was a friend of mine who had been living in Beijing for almost five years. When he left the United States, he told everyone he would never return. His intent was to remain in China the rest of his life. Except for a few short trips home for business, he has remained true to his word.
He is a short, skinny fellow in his late fifties with wiry, Bob-Dylanesque hair. He is just a few years younger than me. I previously visited him in China for three weeks. On that trip, we stayed in Beijing the whole time. But we made plans for a longer trip once I retired.
Mark had been living with a Chinese woman for six months — and that was a long-term relationship for him. As we were preparing for our trip, I stayed with them in their 20th floor apartment. Maio, his girlfriend, had a good job and spoke near perfect English. She was intelligent, easy to talk with, beautiful, and about 26 years old.
During my first week in Beijing we arrived at a plan for the trip. We both wanted to visit some villages that were populated by ethnic minorities. China recognizes 55 official ethnic minorities other than Han. They often live in semi-autonomous, rural areas where they still follow the ancient ways of community and agriculture. Our path would take us diagonally across the country from Beijing in the northeast to Yunnan Province in the extreme southwest, a distance of about 1,500 miles.
Our first leg was a flight from Beijing to Chongqing, a major city in the middle of China. It is one of four city-state provinces in China, relatively small in geographical size, with a population of about 7 million. It is in the center of China at the confluence of the Jialing and Yangtze rivers. It’s a stunning city of some affluence.
Maio dropped us off at the Beijing airport in the morning. While waiting for the flight, Mark turned to me and said, “I know a Mongolian woman, an old girlfriend, who lives in Chongqing. I’m going to text her to see if she’s still there.”
I’d known Mark for about 10 years and had learned over that decade not to be surprised or to pass judgment on his antics regarding women. To be honest, I’d never met any man more focused on women than Mark. Still, I also had to admit, that it sounded good to me. It’s always good to have a friend when you’re heading somewhere for the first time.
It was a three-hour flight. As we were departing the plane into the Chongqing Airport arrivals area, Mark’s phone binged.
“Great,” he said. “Kushi is coming to pick us up. And she’s bringing a friend!”
“OOOKay,” I said. I’m sure we both had the same thought. We’re in the money now; a couple of women to hang out with in a big, modern city.
When we walked out of the airport, there she was. She was tall, and was dressed in western clothing like so many Chinese women now. But she was a little more hip. She was wearing jeans, with a nice top. Sophisticated casual, I thought. She looked good.
She called out to Mark and waved, then we noticed that her friend was . . . a guy.
Oh! Our plans suddenly deflated.
Kushi ran up to Mark, and gave him a big hug. I glanced at the guy. He looked slightly nonplussed about the hug. But then, Mongolian women are more outgoing and less formal than Han.
His name was Wu Fe and she introduced him to us as her boyfriend. He was Han, dressed well, spoke no English, and was about 2 inches shorter than Kushi. He was friendly, but said little. He had a car, not a common possession in China, so we assumed that he was relatively well off. She said they would take us to a hotel. Then, after we were settled, we would all go out to dinner.
Oh, well, I thought. It’s not exactly what we expected; but it’s not too shabby either.
We were driving into the city from the airport on a six-lane divided highway. We were doing about 40 miles per hour. I was looking ahead from the back seat and saw that the traffic immediately in front of us, on an uphill stretch, was rapidly splitting to both outside lanes. Suddenly, Wu Fe swerved to the right to avoid hitting a guy on foot pulling a wooden wagon loaded with straw. It was ancient, with wooden wheels. He was struggling uphill, pulling the long arms of the wagon, the weight of which was attached to his forehead by a leather strap. He was right in the middle lane.
Something about the nature of his conveyance should have served as a reminder to both Mark and I that we were in a new world, with different rules in so many ways.
After making it into the city-proper, they dropped us off at a hotel they had recommended. It was a nice place. Not too expensive.
Kushi said they would come back to pick us up around seven to go to dinner.
They took us to a very nice Hot Pot restaurant. Hot Pot is Chongqing’s specialty. The restaurant tables all have a gas burner set in a cut-out in the middle. The menu is lengthy with every imaginable food — meats, seafood, vegetables — to select. There were many unimaginable things too. You order whatever you want and it then comes, uncooked, to the table with a big pot of boiling stock.
Wu Fe and Kushi did most of the ordering, during which Kushi asked, “Mark, what kind of meat do you and Bill like?”
Mark, ignoring his previous advice to me about simplicity in language being important, answered, “Well, you know, in most cases many Americans usually prefer muscle meat as opposed to organ meat.”
I wondered to myself why he didn’t just say, “We like steak.”
When the waiter brought out the order, we got three kinds of cow stomach, fish stomach, and duck stomach.
I thought, “Who but the Chinese would even conceive of a way to cook fish stomach?” More to the point, there was no “muscle meat” to be found anywhere around our Hot Pot.
Mark and I looked at each other, but decided it was too late to correct the error.
There were plenty of exciting vegetables, and other exotic foods to cook and eat. Wu Fe and Kushi took charge, deciding on the order and the cooking of everything. They seemed particularly excited about the stomachs. I’m not sure I’d ever seen stomach before. It certainly didn’t look appetizing. They were small pieces about an inch square with a smooth outside surface and rubbery protuberances on the inside.
It was apparent that the cow stomach was a specialty. Kushi made sure that we always had one on our plate — me in particular. As soon as I got one down she gave me another. It was like chewing a large eraser. Out of courtesy I kept on eating them, hoping it was the last.
The next day Mark told me what was going on. I was the oldest at the table, so I was the honored guest. That’s why she kept giving me more. Mark said that the proper thing to do was to leave a piece uneaten, thereby signaling I’d had enough. Instead, I kept on eating it. We laughed when we realized they were probably thinking, “What a pig, he’s going to eat every last one!”
When the check came, Wu Fe would not let us pay. We tried to dissuade him, but it was apparent that we were obliged to let him get the tab. It took us three days of restaurants before we could win the argument and pick up a bill. And that required us to be rather forceful before he would allow us that honor.
After lunch on the third day, they dropped us off at the hotel around six in the afternoon with the possibility of them coming around later to take us out to a club. Mark and I got pretty wasted that afternoon on baijiu, China’s version of moonshine — a clear, white, potent alcohol. It’s purported to have been distilled in China for 5,000 years.
After the drinking session, we took a much-needed nap at the hotel.
A few hours later, I woke up groggily to Mark exclaiming, “Oh, shit! We’ve got to get out of this hotel!”
He was looking at his phone with alarm.
“What’s up,” I asked?
“The Chinese are very serious about revenge,” he said.
“Revenge? What the hell are you talking about?”
“We got to get out of here,” Mark repeated. “Once a man in this culture decides to get revenge, they never forget it. Even if it takes years.”
He handed me his phone. There was a text message from Kushi.
WU FE SEE MESSAGE. VERY ANGRY. REVENGE.
“What the hell did you do?” I asked.
“I sent her a text message telling her I wanted to have sex with her again.”
“YOU DIDN’T!” I exclaimed. “What were you thinking?”
“I was drunk . . . and we’d been making eyes at each other for three days!” he exclaimed defensively.
I stared at him in disbelief.
“Look, it’s done,” he said with finality. “But we’ve got to get out of here. He could be on his way right now. Or be sending some friends to do the deed.”
“Well, we can hardly pack our bags and change hotels at this short notice,” I replied.
“Okay, you’re probably right about that. Let’s get out of here right now, though. We’ll go buy some tickets for an early morning train to Guizhou Province, then we’ll stay out of the room until well after midnight!”
And that’s how it went, having learned another lesson about China. We stayed out bar-hopping until two in the morning. Mark was nervous the whole time, and not at all enjoying himself. We checked-out the next morning by seven.
Our train was leaving in the early afternoon, so just past midday we found ourselves sitting in the train station nursing our significant hangovers with a couple liters of beer. We were quiet.
I broke the silence, feeling kind of lighthearted, “Well, you sure have to give Kushi credit,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” scowled Mark.
“She sure knows how to convey a direct message!”
And then I laughed.