May 26, 2009
I’m writing this entry from the IBS Bar—a coffee house operated by students in the International Business School at CTBU. The Bar sits perched on the upper slopes of one of the hills overlooking the campus, and its multiple outdoor decks jut out over lush green tree tops, still dripping from this morning’s rain. From the outdoor terraces, decorated with container gardens, one can look, leaning against chest-high metal rails, at misty views of the city below. The inside of the coffee house is an equally chic and modern venue. Natural light streams through tall windows, adding luster to polished wood tables. The dove-grey walls are trimmed in white, and potted palms sit on stone-tile floors.
I walked in here at 12:30 pm, ready to work, after schlepping up a long hill with my computer and extension cord, my head cloudy with a long list of tasks. I slept in this morning until 9:00 a.m., my first post-6:00 a.m. sleep-in since arriving in Chongqing, finally awakened by the loud ring of the red phone on my nightstand. It was Jason calling, breathless with details of my little family’s Memorial Day Weekend stateside. After hearing of all their playing and splashing, I was ready to get on the move myself.
But when I walked into the IBS Bar I came to a stop. The place was utterly still, not bustling the way one might expect a campus café to buzz shortly after the noon hour. It wasn’t empty, just eerily silent, as if someone had cast a spell over this corner of the universe. A young woman sat at her open laptop, her head nodding to the glow of a screen saver flashing nature scenes. Two other female students sat across from one another, their heads touching on the table top, pillowed by crossed arms, books open next to a box of cigarettes and a set of keys. One of the girls still clutched a cell phone. The two female counter staff leaned into one another, perched on stools, one’s head resting on the counter, the other’s head resting on her co-worker’s back. They looked oddly uniform in matching yellow head-kerchiefs, crisp white blouses, and navy blue aprons, both of their eyes curtained in bangs. Everyone was fast asleep, and I felt like an intruder in the dead of night, stepping into somewhere I did not belong. One of the staff startled as I plugged my extension cord into the outlet near the counter, but I was able to reassure her with a wave of my hand. “You rest a bit,” I said, and she nodded, her mouth still-slack, as she set her head back down and resumed her sleep. I typed lightly, conscious of every click of the keyboard echoing off the tiled floors.
It’s 1:30 p.m. now, and apparently the rest period is over and the place is finally buzzing. The international business school students have smoothed their bangs and righted their crooked head-kerchiefs, and one is now grinding coffee while the other runs water in the sink. Three classmates have met up with the girl with the nature-scene screen saver, and now there are four open laptops on that table, all connected to the wireless internet. The girls with the cigarettes have stepped outside on the terrace to smoke. Amber Buddhist prayer beads flash on one girl’s wrist as she taps ashes over the rail to the foliage below. I alternate sipping a frothy warm latte and a cool glass of lemon water. And I turn to my blog topic at hand: guest turned host; host turned guest.
I’ve been wanting to write on the topic of hosting since arriving in Chongqing, but I haven’t quite known how to express what it is like to be feasted and feted non-stop. I’ve marveled at the way in which our hosts have mastered the art of helping their guests feel welcomed, appreciated, honored, valued. What they practice is not just the art of hosting, but of creating the foundation for fruitful and meaningful relationships. Generosity creates good feeling; good feeling creates invested relationships; invested relationships ensure people’s needs are met; when people’s needs are met, things get done. There is no comparable frame of reference for many Americans. It is not that we are not generous, but our generosity seems to be contained in singular acts and specific events. It’s not necessarily habitual. We give birthday gifts and holiday gifts, invite friends for dinner, watch a friend’s children or mow a neighbor’s lawn, give to charities and churches, and buy candy bars to support Little League teams. We recognize generosity when we see it, and we have a rather clear sense of how to reciprocate and how to say thank you. But it can be strangely unsettling to be the recipient of generosity in China, partly because, although it seems to come without limits, we are sometimes skeptical of the price. What might we owe for the gifts we’ve been given? It is hard, at times, in the well-spring of generosity, to move past this caution to allow genuine connections to be forged.
My experience as a guest this time in China has been somewhat less ambivalent for me than in previous visits, due largely, I think, to the fact that very genuine friendships have already been formed in past years here between Widener and CTBU faculty. I’ve seen the fruits of this investment in the experiences our students have been given, and in the access faculty has been given to their research. We’ve been riding a wave of generosity since we arrived. My days are peppered with sudden invitations that I never decline: at a lunch with the students, I’m pulled away by the director of foreign exchange, “We will sneak away from English corner this evening and take you and the other faculty for a massage.” In the middle of a lesson on Chinese papercuts, a staff person from the foreign exchange office enters the classroom and whispers to me in Mandarin, “Tomorrow night, we are taking you and the other foreign teachers to dinner. We will pick you up at 6:00 p.m.” Our Dean of Social Work reaches me on my cell phone as I’m walking cross-campus with students, “The Dean of Social Work will host all of us at his home on Sunday morning.”
Sunday morning we met at 10:30 at the gates of the University to be escorted across the street to Dean Xu’s home. We were laden with gifts: a bottle of red wine; a cake; a gift bag of Widener University trinkets. “We” were Paula (Widener Dean of Social Work), John (Widener Social work faculty and former Dean), Robin (Widener social work faculty), Lin (a CTBU social work undergraduate who will be coming to Widener this fall), Professor Deng (CTBU social work faculty), Professor Yu (CTBU social work faculty), Professor You (political officer at CTBU) and several other CTBU social work faculty and students. Lin escorted us all across the road and into the faculty housing gardens, where we were met by Dean Xu. We rode an elevator up to what must have been about the 23rd floor of a tall, skinny apartment tower, and we were ushered into Dean Xu’s home and greeted by his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. Their apartment was modest by American standards (two bedrooms, two baths, one study), but modern and with a spectacular view. The Nuggets and Lakers raced, fourth quarter, across a large flat-screen T.V. centered in the living room. We foreign guests were invited to sit around a coffee table laden with fruit and nuts, and cups of tea were placed in front of us. We chatted and nibbled, the game still broadcast against the living room wall, as the Xu family bustled about in the kitchen. Professor Deng showed Paula and John how to cool their tea by waving the lid across the cup, then using the lid to strain the loose green leaves as they sipped. Soon it was time to roll dumplings. We gathered around the table and Mrs. Xu instructed us in how to flour the wooden roller and spread the corners of the dough thin. Our dumplings really weren’t very pretty, but everyone oohed and ahhed over them regardless. Time passed slowly in that space as Lin and I translated jokes and reassurances, the Xus poured glass after glass of juice, tea and beer; and the mother-daughter-son-in-law-trio moved in and out of the kitchen.
When we finally sat down to eat, the dumplings were nowhere in sight. Mrs. Xu and her daughter carried an endless chain of dishes to and from the table, while the son-in-law kept busy in the kitchen. There were countless meat dishes, and more varieties of mushroom than I have ever seen served at one meal. There was a whole fish, a bowl of yak meat from Western Sichuan, and a delicious plate of caramelized fava beans. I have no idea how many different dishes were served, but many of them contained Sichuan pepper corns and hot red peppers and were described as “local specialties.” At least five dishes were placed in my corner of the table and introduced to me as, “Vegetarian, cooked especially for you.”
Chinese banquets are typically peppered with toasts. The hosts and guests will take turns, suddenly standing up with a full glass and everyone else will rise to their feet, even though they are told to remain seated. The toasts are made, glasses are clinked, then emptied. There is a game made of trying to lower your glass at the point of contact in deference to the one you are toasting. The sentiments at this meal ranged from, “You are our most honored guests coming from far away, and it is a great privilege having you in our home,” to “Thank you for giving our students this wonderful opportunity to visit your community center and learn about Chinese culture.” Paula and I drank small amounts of beer, but there was no pressure to get drunk, as there sometimes is at Chinese banquets. Still, John did a fine job as a gracious guest, willingly drinking with his male counterparts (including bai jiu, a rough white liquor that Paula and I declined). He was a bit red-cheeked, but surprisingly sober after many rounds of toasts. The dumplings were finally served at the end of the meal, and the business started, as John introduced the topic of future collaborations. We discussed the Social Work faculty and graduate students continuing to collaborate with CTBU to conduct surveys at the community center of elders; we discussed a possible future international conference to be held at CTBU, Widener graduate students of Human Sexuality continuing to conduct surveys of CTBU undergraduates, and Robin and I continuing to collect life stories and oral histories in collaboration with social work and translation students. Everyone was smiling, more toasts were initiated. We left the table and sat around the coffee table again, as Dean Xu’s daughter shyly gave us copies of a cooking magazine she edits, blushing at our request for her to sign these. She and Dean Xu retreated to his study as he helped her find the appropriate words to sign her gifts. It was nearly 3:00 p.m. when we parted at the gate of the apartment complex, smiling, waving, bellies full, future prospects brewing. I noticed the lateness of the hour, and was surprisingly unannoyed at the need to modify my afternoon plans.
The student manager at IBS Bar has just appeared at my side, startling me out of my writing. It’s 3:30 p.m. now and I’m feeling pulled to return to the dorm, to meet up with my student and begin our transcription of yesterday’s oral history. I turn to the manager, reluctantly, as he hands me a white plate embossed with the IBS Bar logo. There is a Chinese snack on the plate called a “Zongzi”—a mixture of white glutinous rice and pork, wrapped in bamboo leaves and folded into a neat triangle, tied off with white string. “It’s a gift for you,” he says in English, “It’s called ‘zongzi.’ This week is our traditional dragon boat festival, and it is tradition to eat these.” I’m tempted to decline his offer: I’m feeling pushed for time; the drizzle has let up and my student is waiting; I’m vegetarian and it may be hard to pick around the pork. But I take the plate from him, forcing myself to slow down, seeking and welcoming that good feeling. “Thank you,” I say, moved by his gesture. We smile at one another: the generous host, the gracious guest, both of us feeling good.