The Dumpling Party (part one)

In which our hero battles a salty egg, and is tortured by Chinese muzak


Ed: Richard wrote this Chinese homestay saga shortly after first coming to live in Beijing. I hope his close encounters with salty eggs, excessive hospitality and mutual unintelligibility will prepare the uninitiated, and remind those jaded old hands that they too had a first time in China

6:47am A Rude Awakening

It’s a sonic boom, rattling the windowpanes and galvanizing my senses into a state of absolute awareness. So maybe its not a sonic boom, but it sure as hell sounds like it.

My immediate impulse is flee. I try to jump from my bed. My limbs are still asleep, unresponsive to mental demands. I begin tumbling from the ledge of my bed in an entanglement of blankets.

Mid fall, I make an effort to detach myself from the current state of affairs.  Amid the pull of gravity I reach a state of clarity and logically arrive at the following explanations:

a) Uncle Evan’s predictions have come true: WWIII has begun.

b) God has taken a leave of absence and left Michael Bay in charge.

b) My 20-30 billion neurons are firing at sub par speeds, allowing me to overlook the logical answer.

We can rule out c. My IQ scores, according to the new Facebook IQ test, are off the charts, like Anakin Skywalker when he took the Jedi examinations. We can rule out b. There’s neither a woman in my bed nor a Transformer in sight. That leaves option a. With that realisation, I hit the floor and a throb of pain pulses through my head. I scramble from the blankets and run from bedroom to kitchen to the wide glass window in the living room.

A cacophony of explosions, drums and shouts continues to rattle the windows but my breath clouds the glass. A sweep of my arm across the cloud reveals all. They’re coming in threes and fours around the corner of the apartment complex. Ear to ear grins seam their faces. It’s a colourful procession, bearing drums of all sizes.  Men on the fringe light fireworks and what-should-be-illegal explosives. These are not firecrackers, mind you, but serious threats to the safety of all. I was watching a program about the danger of these explosives just last night. Didn’t understand a word, but I watched it all the same.  The procession grows in number until a vermillion rickshaw comes into view at the centre of the crowd. The newlyweds cuddle together in the loveseat.

I have been pried from my slumber for nothing. It’s a wedding procession and not Uncle Evan’s (long awaited?) WWIII. It’s nothing more than a crowd of benign Chinese faces, wishing only to spread the happiness of their conjugal bliss to bachelors like me. When I comprehend this, naturally I can summon only two words to convey my thoughts and I utter them through the frost-encrusted windowpane: “the bastards”.

I turn and survey my surroundings. Dora the Explorer waves to me from the TV, muttering, strangely, in neither English nor Spanish. The number of fish per square foot – fish decorations, fish candy, swimming fish and dead fish hanging out to dry – is strikingly high. I detect the scent of my nemesis, the Salty Egg, drifting in the air. And through a crack in the nearby bedroom, I see Ai (my adopted Chinese grandmother) serenely advancing through Tai Chi postures. A second moment of clarity: I am in China.

7:01am The Salty Egg

I sit down at the breakfast table, still perturbed by the conjugal bliss, but fairly awake. The sound of the procession tapers from a debilitating loud to a bearable medium as the it moves on. Ai’s breakfasts are generally dynamic: Chinese pancakes, dumplings, and sometimes she even makes me the sugar-water-rice-soupish thing with the fried egg on top. But today it’s the Salty Egg (S.E.). This is problematic.

I first encountered the S.E. on day two of my stay with the Che’s. (The Che’s are the Chinese family I’m temporarily staying with: Mao, his wife Elyse, their two year old daughter Ton Ton, and Mao’s mother Ai.) The S.E. looked so harmless when I first saw it, like two halves of a large hardboiled duck egg. Actually that’s exactly what it is.

“Ah,” I had said. “A hardboiled egg.” (Dealing with the high volume of linguistically fractured conversations proves difficult. I’m often at a loss for words. My grammar is falling apart. I think there is a squad of men within my head who weekly trim my mental dictionary. They have effectively excised hundreds of words in the span of weeks. I find myself speaking in voices that aren’t my own and stating the banally obvious.)

Having called a hardboiled egg a hardboiled egg, I had sat down to eat. Elyse and Ai looked on with expectation from the sidelines. Ai doesn’t speak a word of English and we communicate in a language of head nods and hand gestures. I dug into the egg, eager to show my gratitude. I may have been a bit over-zealous, because Elyse said “O wow” and burst into laughter. My face flushed red. My throat contracted. I forced the Salty Egg down anyway, sending my gullet into momentary perdition.

“Do you love it?” asked Elyse. I later explained that “love” conveys a strong emotion. “Like” will suffice. But her habits negate the possibility of change. She unfailingly asks “Do you love it?” at every meal. I stuck a thumb in the air and nodded my head. “Howche” (delicious) I said. Ai was very pleased.

I have since gathered a storehouse of information on the Salty Egg. “Know your enemy.” – Sun Tzu. The duck egg is first boiled. Then it is placed in a highly concentrated salt solution and left to soak in and absorb the salt for over a month. I can stomach the hearts, the livers, the kidneys and the chicken feet, even the grubs, the scorpions and the congealed blood.  I can’t do the Salty Egg.

Here I am, facing the S.E. once again. How do you tell an old Chinese woman that you hate her Salty Eggs after you’ve eaten them at least five times? I should have spoken up after that first fateful encounter. But my relationship with the Che’s was young and tender back then.

Fortunately, I’ve recruited an ally in the war on Salt. I make a break for the rice cooker and dump a mound of steamy goodness on a fresh plate. Also from Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”:

"If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected."

I had already tried to feign weakness, hoping that the Salty Egg would grow arrogant. This was a failure. Then I noticed the unity of the S.E. forces. I decided to divide and outnumber him with the aid of my ally: rice. One fistful of rice effectively suffocates one pinch of Salty Egg. I progress as such.

7:14am My Chinese Family

Mao, Elyse and Ton Ton descend from the second floor. I’ve eaten enough to make Middle America proud. I have a bellyful of rice and am victorious over cultural hurdle #73. I keep a running list.

I talk with Mao while he enjoys his own Salty Egg, because frankly I can’t do anything else I’m so full. Mao works in IT and doesn’t like his job. He’s reticent but nice and even funny once you get to know him. A lover of classical music and proud of his ability to eat twice as much as the American. I hate sweeping generalisations but it appears that the Chinese have rubber stomachs. They can eat, for sure. Mao leaves for work but Elyse has called in sick. I’m moving into my own apartment next week and she wants to ensure that I’m prepared to live independently.

I gather that Mao and Elyse have planned a party for the evening, the nature of which remains unknown. I know it’s not for me because they spoke about it in my presence. My questions haven’t gotten me anywhere. All I know is that there’s a lot to do today.

9:33am Tiantongyuan

Elyse and I step outside. The Beijing sky is a grey canvas. The sun, nearly shielded by the smog, is a faint yellow dab amid the grey miasma. Its presence is almost cruel, a painful reminder of what I haven’t seen in days. The deprivation of sunlight and the deplorable air quality might be taxing in the future. I don’t know how Mao and Elyse manage to live here. They deal with more than the smog. They deal with the neighborhood of Tiantongyuan.

Tiantongyuan is an apartment complex and neighbourhood one hour north of central Beijing, but still technically within its confines. Neighbourhood, in this case, refers to a group of 500,000 people living under the same conditions and jurisdiction. Natives of Tiantongyuan will boast that they live in the largest neighbourhood in the world. This is the fringe, the second to last stop on the metro. Move beyond, and you’re off the map.

I’ve strayed from the map only once, accidentally. It was after my first foray into the city – day three of my stay in China – and a Friday night. The crowds on my return home were impenetrable. I was delayed, but managed to catch the last train. Try as I might, I couldn’t exit when we reached Tiantongyuan. I got off at the last stop, and found myself in the midst of a kind of nighttime bazaar. Trash everywhere tumbled across the pavement at the push of the wind. Circles of men, conspicuously gambling, huddled around boards that rested on car tires. Street vendors and taxi drivers called to me as I passed. Mao ordered me to stay put till he arrived. 

People, old and young, were selling generic clothing, plastic watches and other commodities. A mound of unwrapped pink teddy bears, dingy like the street, caught my attention. It was the only colour in sight. I looked for the cause of the gathering. There was no theatre, no event, no locus of interest except the crowd itself, drawn into formation under an indiscernible pretext. I had passed an Apple store and a Starbucks only hours ago. Where was I now?

Shanghai and Hong Kong are modern marvels. The Chinese countryside is largely impoverished. Beijing rests somewhere between the two, occupying a middle ground that is full of juxtapositions and contradictions. It may therefore embody the spirit of China better than any other place.

The thing about Tiantongyuan is that it’s depressing. The neighbourhood was built because of the dire need for living space. High-rise apartment buildings with negligible breathing room between them stretch for miles. The view consists of row upon row of replicated architecture. The small business has been nixed. Everything you might need is under one colossal roof: the MegaStore.

The MegaStore is like a mall, but conceptually different. Malls are convenient, optional, and, for some, pleasurable. Is the MegaStore optional? For lack of a better answer, kind of. There aren’t many other options to choose from. We go to the MegaStore because we don’t have many options. Then we convince ourselves that it’s a pleasurable experience by agreeing on its convenience.

10:05am The MegaStore

Elyse and I enter the MegaStore. Muzak streams from speakers strategically placed so that the volume never weakens or dies. This reminds me of American offices, elevators and department stores. However, Chinese Muzak is less refined. The source is a single violin. The melody is a single bar of sheet music that repeats after a two-second pause.

It’s nothing too distinguished: no Beethoven or Brahms. It’s lighthearted and playful, a pleasant reminder to be at ease about everything: the information overload, the crowds, the store reps who shout their advertisements for all to hear. It implores me to be at ease about the verisimilitude of everything from the apartment complexes outside to the single bar of violin Muzak incessantly repeating itself. Is this what it feels like to go insane? I wish I were kidding, but after an hour in the MegaStore I am breaking down.

Elyse looks at me with a sidelong glance. “Isn’t this convenience?” she asks. Elyse has asked another Leading Question. She wants me to say yes. Doing so will vindicate aspects of a Chinese lifestyle that I might not agree with. The Leading Question is everywhere. Just when you thought someone was outside its influence, they ask it. But I refuse to blame Elyse. She really is fantastic and I have to believe that the question is not her own. Isn’t this convenience? “Yes, its very interesting,” I say. “It’s very large and provides a wide selection of stuff.”

12:00pm Freedom

Elyse and I exit the MegaStore through the rotating doors. The Calming Muzak dwindles behind us and we are once again beneath the pale grey of the canvas overhead. The dab of yellow hangs at its zenith.


Ed: Will our intrepid narrator conquer convenience to emerge triumphant? Isn't he getting hungry by now, after an early breakfast and all that running around? Where is the bloody dumpling party anyway? Find out in part two ...