Iforce myself to leave my computer and walk down for lunch. I have been writing all morning after my little jaunt down at the artificial-turfed playground for my run and exercise. Its been a late start and breakfast,a simple meal consisting of whole-wheat biscuits and a tetra pack of sweet strawberry flavored milk,was delayed,too. To lunch or not to lunch is a question.
To lunch,I decide,is a better option... This evening I have to eat pizzas for dinner and though theyre a tasty enough repast,theyre not quite what my body thrives on. A university official has invested in a new pizza joint in downtown Huainan and I have been asked to “grace” the opening ceremony along with the other two foreign teachers here. Theyre Americans,and,therefore,high-profile. I am Indian,therefore,tolerated. Indias rapid economic progress,of late,makes me less of a pariah than I might have been some years ago. A man is known by the country he “keeps”,to rephrase an old proverb,and a touch inappropriately at that. I,sometimes, lie and sometimes joke about where I come from. I dont want to be identified with merely my origins. Theres more to me than where I was born and raised. In any case,I dont see my lies as lies as I neither hope nor expect to gain from the lies in any way. Its just a momentary thing.
I walk past my favorite eating place, Xiawu Fandian (Afternoon Restaurant). Of late,the fare served there has failed to tickle my palate or inspire my intestines. They have changed the oil they use in their cooking. It has an unpleasant flavor and leaves a strange aftertaste. I informed the laoban niang (bosss wife) and pointed out my unfinished plate on a couple of occasions. She looked stoic and unmoved so I decided it was time for me to move, instead. Past the Afternoon Restaurant and then the Friendship Restaurant across the street,where I sometimes eat. They serve cabbage with pre-fried tofu (the Chinese pronunciation is doufu) in medium spicy,sweetish style that tickles my taste buds but leaves me bloated.
The sky is overcast but the temperature is comfortable at about ten above. I notice the open door of a neighboring opticians and decide to have a word with the boss as I ask for a little tinkering with my spectacles. I hand him my metal-rimmed, plastic-lens glasses and he notices the problem. We chat briefly as he tightens the screw on my spectacle arm. Its done in seconds and he hands them back to me. I notice that the lens have the oily fogginess that fingers leave on glasses and ask for a spectacle cleaning cloth, demonstrating the act of cleaning to tell him what I want. He opens a drawer and hands me a shiny new cleaning cloth. I ask him how much. He motions, nothing. I feel a little guilty accepting it for free but he refuses to accept payment. I thank him as I leave, wondering what makes the people in China so generous. I head slowly away from the dongmen (east gate) as the main gate of the university is commonly called.
I find myself at the door of Yidapan (One Big Pan),the restaurant that kept me alive when all of Huainan and most of China had shut shop for the Spring Festival barely a month ago. All the little eateries near my school,including Xiawu Fandian and Friendship Restaurant had closed shop then,leaving those without culinary skills and the handicapped to survive on universal love and firecracker-affected not-so-fresh-air. Yidapan was about the only restaurant then that opened its doors to welcome the hungry and homeless.
Laoban (boss) welcomes me with a warm smile. Laoban niang and xiao laoban (little boss), the wife and daughter are equally warm. “Da baicai (cabbage)?” the boss asks as he turns towards the kitchen. I nod as I return his smile.
The plate of stir-fried da baicai, as it is spelt in Pinyin (Chinese written/spelt in the Roman script), arrives a short wait later. The Chinese language has thousands of characters and no one can tell for certain how many there really are. Pinyin is the script they use to work on computers or they would have needed a keyboard the size of a mini. Pinyin uses a phonetic system quite different from English or other Romance languages. The sounds used in the Chinese language are different from English and other European languages. Therefore,they needed to devise a system that included their phonemes. The “da” in da baicai is pronounced with a soft “d” and a long vowel sound while the “cai” in baicai is an aspirated “chai”. The “ch” sound is also different than the one used in English and has a little “s” ring to it. Enough of my linguistics!
The boss emerges from the kitchen a few moments later. He is the chef of his restaurant while his wife doubles as the cashier and waitress. The little boss, the daughter, has her own double role. She plays usher and waitress. The three of them run the restaurant without outside help. I suspect they hire help in peak season or when there is a sudden rush of diners. There are eight table-clothed,glass-topped tables that seat four each on the ground floor and a couple of those hideaways, round-tabled,private dining rooms that all “respectable” restaurants in China have, on the first floor. They would certainly need extra help when all those tables are occupied. A television is mounted atop a raised shelf and I turn my eyes in its direction. Theres a family drama being played there and I dont understand too much. “My Chinese is too poor,”I mimic some students‘my English is too poor in my mind as I watch the drama unfold. A middle-aged woman scolds her husband who leaves her, apparently for good,while her pretty daughter alternates between scolding hers and giving the most beatific of smiles.
Today,I am the sole customer. Others have come and gone or will come and go. The boss comes over with a bottle of baijiu (white wine) and offers me a glass. I ask him to make it small, “yi diandian” (a little). The baijiu makes me drowsy and takes me away from my writing, as does the beer. My afternoon naps last longer than intended and I add an extra, unwanted layer to my “pijiu duzi” (beer belly). The boss smiles as he pours me a drink. I thank him and begin to sip leisurely while the da baicai waits. The boss has disappeared into the kitchen and arrives a little later,dish in hand, following his wife carrying another. They place their lunch on a table across from mine.
Chen Taicao,the boss,goes over to a stack of brightly colored plastic beer crates and picks out a bottle of un-refrigerated beer. He opens one and looks at me. Picking up a plastic glass,he heads in my direction as I protest. He insists and pours me a glassful. Like so many of his countrymen,a “no” to Chen means a “yes”. Its polite to say no when one means yes and a no can rarely dissuade a determined host. He, then, sits down to lunch with his small family, pours himself a full glass of baijiu while the remaining beer in the bottle isaligned with the dishes.
Chen and his family are soon absorbed in their meal and pay no more attention to me. His sips of the fiery baijiu are large and soon his glass half-empty. Theyre halfway into their meal and a pair of diners arrives. Chen leaves his seat without a moments hesitation,takes the order and disappears into the kitchen once again. The little boss also leaves the table to set the table for the new arrivals. Laoban niang continues with her meal. Her turn to leave will come later.
I watch the goings-on and eat quickly,having finished my baijiu and most of the beer.
Soon,I am done with my lunch and walk over the counter to pay for my lunch. Chen has come out and pushes my hand with the proffered money resolutely away.
“Wo bu hui lai” (I cant come) I say in my inadequate Chinese,threatening him with never visiting his restaurant again. Chen pushes my hand away again. I pretend exasperation,repeating “wo bu...” This time Chen looks uncertain and says something to his wife who takes the money and gives me the change. All she takes is san kuai qian (three yuan) for my lunch and that after much no-noing.
I walk out, feeling a sense of elation that one feels when one sees man display his finer qualities. I think about the optician and Chen and his family and marvel at how some people can be generous though theyre themselves relatively poor. I wonder what it is in China that endows some people with large hearts. I wonder why some people are so accepting and endearing. I wonder why the rich often want more while the poor are happy with the little they have. I wonder why more men cannot be like Chen and the optician. I wonder who is happier—the rich or the poor. I wonder why the rich scowl behind their dark sunshades while the poor smile in the sun.
I smile as I think of the name Chen has chosen for his restaurant. “Yidapan” can so safely be changed to “Yidaxin” (One Big Heart—or three—or more, perhaps!)