The Dumpling Party (part two)

In which the limits of our hero’s stomach are tested, and he has a nap


Ed: Previously on The Dumpling Party: Our fearless narrator vanquished an unsavoury surprise at breakfast, daringly negotiated conversations with his Chinese host family, and braved the villainous monotony of shopping at The MegaStore. And now, the shocking conclusion you've been waiting for ...

12:10pm Hot Pot

Elyse and Mao have wanted to introduce me to traditional Beijing Hot Pot for a while, so Elyse and I head there for lunch. Mao has a one-hour break from work, and by the time we arrive he’s already ordering. Ai and Ton Ton join us shortly after.

The centre of the table has been removed and filled with a metal basin. Beneath the basin, an enclosed stove heats the water to a boil. Elyse and Ai squabble over how to spice the pot, while I feed Ton Ton diced hot dog and ketchup. Barely three years old, Ton Ton is adorable and precociously aware of it. She suffers from “Little Emperor Syndrome” along with the rest of Chinese young people. It is common in China for grandparents to live with their children. This results in two sets of doting parents, as if one set weren’t enough. The parents endlessly contend with each other for the child’s affection while the child becomes more and more aware of her or his power to control. And so a Little Emperor is born.

The Beijing elderly are a riot. They occupy one third of their time scorning the youth for their paltry work ethic and abandonment of traditional Chinese values. They occupy another third of their time spoiling the youth. And with the last fraction of their time, they play chess and engage in collective aerobics.

Mao and Elyse recently expressed their fear that Ton Ton will join the ranks of Little Emperors. They think a second child will do the trick. Mao plans on attending an American graduate school so that the family can move to America and have a few more kids. But the opportunity to do so is a privilege, and privileges here hang by tenuous threads.

Before arriving in Beijing, I imagined that I would wither away on a diet of rice and street food while attempting to pay off criminal student loans. This image is now a source of mirth for me. I laugh at it with my hands on a tumescent belly that jiggles up and down in an attempt to be one with my laughter. Almost every meal forces me to abandon my walk for a waddle. I’ve tried to practice temperance but when I see the lone dumpling, or the last shrimp in the bowl, the words of my mother return: “There are starving children in China.” And so, the imaginary image of a withering Richie is slowly edged aside by a jollier fellow. The benefit is that I will be in character at my school’s Christmas bazaar, where I have to dress as Santa for two hundred screaming Chinese children.

The Beijing Hot Pot is a smorgasbord of beef, pork, chicken, tofu, congealed blood, mushrooms, vegetables galore, and eight types of noodle. I’m hesitant to try the blood but Mao and Elyse remind me that China is about “new experience”. So I capitulate in the pursuit of new vistas and other clichés. Prepared for the worst, I let a slimy two-inch rectangle of blood slide down my throat.

Cooks prepare the blood with a salt solution that leads to coagulation. A solid tofu-like texture results, which is then sliced into rectangles and served as such. I didn’t like it the first time, but I seem to have acquired the taste. 

Our waiter performs a small trick for the culinary finale. In plain view, he displays a few pounds of uncut noodle dough. He kneads and stretches it into a rope, like a lasso of sorts. He prepares for the act with a certain self-importance, creating a stage of food-stained tiles. Then the dance begins. The ring of noodles circles around him, obeying his every gesture. He creates a wide orbit, moving in between with a deft poise and grace otherwise found only in the Russian ballet.

2:30pm The Market

I feel ethereal and creative after consuming the Dancing Noodle. The very thought that the food in my stomach was once the tool of a master artist is a source of profound inspiration which, unfortunately, withers and dies when Elyse and I reach The Market.

As I go in there is a loud thwack on the concrete floor. To my left, Big Saleswoman advertises the price of bullfrogs at a shrieking pitch. The bullfrogs seem keenly aware of their fate. Their croaking is the croaking of revolutionaries. They are jumping everywhere. Big Saleswoman grabs an escapee by its legs and brings it down onto the concrete with a resounding thwack. Elyse giggles at the expression on my face, and blushes as if she were guilty. This is not the first time she’s shown her “I am highly embarrassed but still sort of proud of my country” face, nor the last.

3:54pm Back at the Flat

Elise tells me to “have a rest” after the groceries are packed away. Beijingers are always telling me one of two things. The first is to “have a rest”. This happens at Elyse’s house, at her sister’s house, when we go to the countryside, and at the school where I now teach. They furrow their brows and usher to the space directly between us, as if a bed should appear at their bidding, and say, “have a rest Lichard”. Do I look famished? Are the bags beneath my eyes that bad? This is engendering a very self-conscious Lichard.

The second thing people always tell me is that I’m losing weight. “You look thinner Lichard, eat more.”  Or, “You’re disappearing, Lichard. Here, have some rice, and then go have a rest.” Three weeks after I settle into my job at the English school, my corpulent female principle, who might be Mao’s doppelganger, looks at me and sighs. “Lichard,” she says. “You are getting fat off the Chinese food.” I return to the Che’s for dinner that very night, and Mao complains that I haven’t been eating enough. This is a freaking logical fallacy. I have apparently turned into a shape shifting and amorphous amoeba.

6:01pm Minnie’s House

Note: Minnie, Elyse’s older sister, chose her English name when she came to terms with her affection for the cartoon mouse of that name. She can be seen smiling with youthful abandon at all hours.

On the way to Minnie’s house, I try to discover the cause of the night’s festivities for the third time. Mao and Elyse finally concede, “It’s a Dumpling Party”.

“But what’s the celebration for?” I ask.

Mao and Elyse look confused. “There will be dumplings there.”

“But whose birthday is it?” I ask.


“Do we have a holiday today?”

They shake their heads back and forth in unison.

“It’s a party just to eat dumplings, thrown for the sake of dumplings?”

“Ahh!” They smile and nod.

A party thrown solely for the sake of dumplings. This could be integral. I think I can learn from these people.

Minnie’s apartment bustles with a crowd of about fifteen. The women have claimed the kitchen for their own, while the men luxuriate in the adjacent common room. Uncle Tony, Minnie’s husband, belts my name when he sees me. He rises from his couch, sending little Ton Ton into a tremulous fit that leaves her clinging to Elyse’s legs. A few tears glide down her cheek. Uncle Tony terrifies Ton Ton. He is large, strong featured and pleasantly gruff. When he encloses my hand in his, I think he has the power to crumple my bones [into dust?]. He walks with a swagger more American than Chinese, and has a predilection for showing off the spoils of his gambling and fishing exploits. Last weekend he came home with thirty fish. He doesn’t care to learn more than a few words of English.

“You,” he says, aiming a sausage of a finger at my chest. “Are my guest tonight.” And with that he pours me a whisky. It is worth noting that for all of Tony’s drinking, gambling and machoistic flair he is a neurosurgeon at one of Beijing’s top hospitals.

After filling our glasses with whisky, Tony clinks his glass against mine, says “Ganbei,” and we empty. People mistakenly think Ganbei is the Chinese equivalent to “cheers”, “prost”, “kanpai” and other lets-get-drunk exclamations. Ganbei literally translates as “empty the glass”. There is no sipping here, no room for the faint of heart. Just pure downage. Before I can protest, Tony refills my glass with militaristic precision, and we ganbei again.

“Cheers Tony,” I say, a steady warmth coursing through my limbs.

“Lichard.” Tony lays a hand on my shoulder. “A friend indeed is a friend in need.” I cannot resist laughing before I correct the mistake.

Fortunately, a stream of female voices saves me from a third Ganbei. The women beckon to me and I go to them. Elyse and Minnie have been promising to teach me the art of dumplings for weeks. Now it’s my chance. I wash my hands, and rub my fingers and palms with flour. Then I observe attentively.

They place a dollop of dumpling mousse in the center of a flattened circle of dough, then raise two sides of the dough and pinch them at the top so that it resembles a taco. Then they slide their fingers over to the two open ends, and raise and pinch them so that it looks like a bag. They progress with a series of pinches along the edge. The process has a veneer of simplicity that is completely effaced by my attempts to copy it. My dumplings are hopeless. They either bulge disgracefully or look malnourished. All around me, female fingers knead the dough at a rapacious speed, churning out dumplings faster than I can write about them churning out dumplings. One of the men dips his finger into the mousse and receives a sharp swat from a female hand. Mao and Tony see the look of despair on my face and have me sit down for a smoke.

I feel much better watching from the sidelines. My only cause of concern is the five gallon glass jug at my left. It’s brimming with a clear liquor. Herbs and peppers float inside, among large torpedo-shaped projectiles. They look like sausage on steroids, that have gradually lost shape due to months of fermentation.

The familiar red flush returns to Elyse’s face when I inquire about the steroid sausages. A few women look up from their dumplings and stare. I feel like I’ve just dropped the f-bomb for the first time in front of my parents (who are, of course, totally unaware that I am only repeating what my first grade classmates had been whispering to each other while in gym class earlier that day). I’m embarrassed. There is a palpable silence in the air.

“Male donkey,” says Mao. “This drink will make you a man.” Everyone is laughing. One of women, Elyse’s cousin, shouts, “Let him try!” Tony is quick on the draw. He fills my glass with the very traditional Chinese wine. Elyse’s cousin asks if I have a girlfriend.

“Nope,” I say.

“You will if you keep drinking that,” she says. More giggles erupt from the dumpling production line.

“Ganbei,” says Tony. Tony, Mao and I gulp it down.

As promised, it’s a feast of dumplings. I have had feasts with Mao and Elyse that boast more than fifteen dishes. Dinner is always an extravagant affair. But today it is only dumplings, hundreds of them, glinting beneath the lights. These suckers are deadly. They glide down your throat with liquid ease. Tony reloads my whisky glass throughout the meal, while I stomach a good thirty dumplings, feeling more and more Roman with each passing minute. When Mao and Tony encourage me to go for a second helping, I eat another ten.

I am immobile. My stomach has tripled in size in order to accommodate the army of dumplings inside. Tony points to the last bowl of dumplings, the stragglers, but I decline. Another bite is physically impossible. Tony nods his head. His guests sit around the table, talking and laughing while their hands rest on satiate bellies. There is still food on the table. The dumpling party is a success.