Balanced Subtleties of a Chinese Banquet

Writing by: Chris

Editing by: Lance Crayon

I recently went to a party, well, it was more like a house warming event of sorts, that turned into a marathon drinking session.

My third uncle on my father’s had driven back from Nanjing with his wife and mother (my grandmother).

Zhigong (Strive for Achievements) invited our family to his son Dale’s (Big Happiness) newly decorated home located at Hongze county.

We – my mother, wife, daughter and me drove to the party held at the county from Huai’an city, but missed the first procedure for such a celebration – seeing the new house.

Being phoned and urged for times, we finally reached the restaurant for the lunch and entered a large and obscure hall filled with noisy strangers.

Coming up to us first was a smiling thin girl, I could hardly recognize her as Dale’s wife – Wang since I hadn’t saw her for about a year, and she looked smaller now.

I nodded at Wang who passed by us and then we met my grandma coming with Uncle Three from Nanjing, and joined her in waiting for the host to find enough seats for us. But Zhigong and Dale seem to be busy with other things.

One of Dale’s uncles shouted to me and invited me to drink together with them, but I politely refused him. Most of them on the table were strange elders and I didn’t want to leave my family alone.

My daughter was very excited to see her great grandma, but she would be upset in a few minutes.

Finally my grandma was arranged to an empty seat close to another old woman, and my daughter whispered that she wants to sit by her great grandma. Greeting my grandma, the old lady in the next seat looked up to my daughter but habitually neglected her desire – elders from the countryside would never pay genuine attention to what children need.

I felt very awkward standing there helplessly and decided to take a risk. My wife and me carried our daughter and walked fast to our car. We were about to leave but was unfortunately caught by Uncle Zhigong. We had to surrender and get off the car because it’s very unpolite to leave away without eating anything.

I had to make my daughter’s desire as an excuse for escaping, and the most powerful man in the hall Zhigong soon vacated several seats on another table so that all of us could sit together.

But that didn’t change the tediousness of the dinner, the dishes were far from good and we were surrounded by strangers.

We soon finished eating, but had to wait for other family members to leave together. Uncle Three invited his “brothers” – who were actually my aunt’s brothers.

On the dusk, when Uncle Three is about to leave, he asked my family to go too.

“There’s plenty of food for everybody. Why not all go together!” he said.

I was more than happy to leave. I needed a drink.

And before we left for the restaurant, Uncle Zhigong also came to us.

“Where is Dale?” I asked.

“He went home,” he said.

By home, he meant that they went to Yancheng, his wife’s hometown, a city adjacent to Huai’an. They had been living there for years.

Dale spent a lot of time alone at hometown this year, to monitor decoration of their new house at Hongze county.

Sometimes when I got back to hometown at weekends, I would see him strolling with his arms bared in the front of his old house at countryside.

Our houses at countryside are less than 100 meters away and we visited each other for several times but had few topics, just like when we were children. But the difference is we could play games together then while now we have nothing to do together.

Now Dale has obviously finished his mission of decorating their new house at Hongze county, so he went back to work in Yancheng. But what about his new house, no one knows.

When we got to the restaurant, Uncle Three’s “brothers” were yet to arrive – they had gone somewhere else to eat and drink.

“It’s a good thing we’re here, otherwise this party would be dead,” said Uncle Zhigong.

He was right. either my family or he was not deemed as the main guests at first.

“I didn’t drink enough this afternoon. It’s time we fix that,” said Uncle Zhigong.

Such frankness is rare at a Chinese dinner party.

I’ve heard people announce they better not drink too much because they have something important to do the next day. And then as the evening progresses they wind up drinking and then everybody likes them better.

As I prepared to make my fourth toast to Uncle Zhigong, he suggested I show a little restraint, because one of Uncle Three’s so-called “brothers” – Uncle Robust was on his way.

Uncle Robust owns that small restaurant where we were eating and drinking and he was also the only cook there. And he and Uncle Three were both approaching 50.

His only daughter had “succeeded” – an old metaphor that means “married.” He was relieved that she wasn’t going to be a left-over woman.

His son-in-law quit his job at the county after they got married and started an express delivery service close to Uncle Robust’s restaurant. The restaurant frequently attracted close relatives help charring.

Nearly an hour after the dinner began came Uncle Robust from another table he served, he was heavier and had more gray hair than when I last saw him. His eyes were smaller, and his right eye was swollen shut, I’m not sure if this is because he drinks too much alcohol.

I realized that the drink actually began then, as Uncle Robust prepared to drink much with us – more than we had drunk before he came, and the atmosphere became much warmer.

If this was a banquet scene in a traditional Chinese play, there would at least one good joker and a teaser. Uncle Three was a joker. But with the main guest present, he couldn’t take the room over.

When they greeted each other, Uncle Three praised Robust’s cooking skills and the conversation started warming up.

Uncle Robust revealed that he sometimes helps his son-in-law deliver packages to the homes that have dogs.

“He’s afraid of dogs, and yet he has a few dogs,” he said. Everyone burst out laughing.

“One of his dogs is a big beautiful black Labrador that he keeps locked in a cage,” said Robust.

Supposedly the dog had bitten a child. The victim’s parents demanded compensation, 300 RMB to be exact, which Robust paid.

Several rounds later, Uncle Three started getting louder. He was warming himself up. This party served a greater purpose.

He told Robust he needed to borrow some money.

His son Ming (Bright) was a computer programmer and so was his fiancé. Their plan was to buy a house in Nanjing so they’d have something to settle into after their wedding. It wasn’t going to be cheap.

Familial obligations meant Uncle Three would need to provide half of the down payment expense within a few months.

To make it easier on Uncle Robust, he had calculated the total amount.

“The girl’s family said they’d cover half of the down payment, 600,000 yuan (nearly 100,000 USD), which I definitely don’t have. And know that we wouldn’t lose any sleep if we didn’t throw in 1 dollar. But if we didn’t cover the other half of downpayment, that would be humiliating for my son to handle.”

“Allow me to get right to it. I need $15,000 (USD), and am I going to need you to not want that back within a year.”

Two years ago, Uncle Three bought an old home in on the outskirts of Nanjing. He spent 20 years working as a cab driver and security guard. His monthly mortgage was covered through a bank loan. Other than his home, he didn’t have much.

Uncle Robust didn’t refuse. But he did start to complain about some of his regular customers who owed him several hundred thousand yuan. Apparently they were nowhere to be found.

Robust also went on about how his business was sinking as fewer and fewer people live in the town. And there are much fewer orders from nearby schools due to the “eight-point austerity rules” in recent years.

And Uncle Three said his current job as head of a residential security team in Nanjing is good and stable enough before getting retired, but my aunt is suffering slipped discs and could fall down anytime, so he is thinking about other options. One is opening a restaurant in our county – he always thinks himself a good cook (I have reservations about that but he is a good food critic), but he also talked about a lot of difficulties.

Uncle Robust also talked about the difficulties he faces when he tries to expand his restaurant. When his wife came in the room and asked him to cook a dish for another table, Uncle Robust waved his hands and said, “you cook it.”

“No, I cannot.”

“Just do it, do it casually, no big deal.”

Nevertheless, Uncle Robust was very hospitable towards Uncle Three – they’ve been keeping a nice relationship, and he was very positive in drinking – he drank a lot even though he admitted that his body is “too high in all aspects except stature”, such uncommon attitude indicates that he would surely provide the money, or he doesn’t really have a choice. The amount should be endurable for him and he cannot just see his nephew cannot afford to marry.

After three or four saucers, when Uncle Three pour alcohol for me and asked how much I’d like, I answered “feel free” because I knew I could still drink a lot.

My answered caused laughs from the uncles. “My nephew is too honest,” said Uncle Three.

Well, “honesty” is usually not a virtue under many Chinese contexts. It even has an implication of being “stupid” or “coward” sometimes.

When it came out of my uncle’s mouth under that harmonious atmosphere, I chose to smile it off.

But under this judgement, there was a common contradiction on a Chinese drink. On one hand, people try their best to show honesty – that’s also an important reason to drink as people believe that “when wine is in, truth is out.” But on the other hand, if you are too frank, people would think you “too honest”.

It’s true that people become more relaxed and true after drinking alcohol. But under the logic of this conflict, everyone is like an actor/actress – you can act as honest but cannot really be; in other words, you need to hold the sense of propriety even when you drink. Uncle Three used to tell me that one would be despised if he gets drunk on a banquet outside – outside means not with family members on a family banquet.

So together with the contradiction lies with some kind of subtle balance. Under this balance, everyone has to control himself/herself, or help others to control himself/herself. Everyone has to play his/her role well.

Apart from bumming a meal off, my role is accompanying them to eat, drink and chat – acting as one of the teasers (I’m not a joker myself).

When the drink was coming to the end, wives of the uncles would come in back one after another – they went to another room to chat after they had enough, sternly trying to persuade we drinkers to stop.

One of them questions why Uncle Three could still drink so much alcohol as he has a liver problem.

“I haven’t drunk any alcohol in half a year…once at a banquet of our company, even when the chairman asked me to drink a cup, I refused!”

Uncle Three used to be an everyday drinker. Some ten years ago, he once told me that the reason he drank is not he was an alcoholic, but because he felt miserable. Drunk driving was not strictly inspected in China then, and finally a car accident after drinking finished his taxi career of 16 years.

After receiving firmer words of “only less than half a bottle is left” from the uncles, women would go out judiciously. This is a mutual confirmation of not drinking too much or not getting drunk; meanwhile, this is a performance – the wives act like an alarm clock for the drinkers, and the drinkers would thereby reach a consensus that the drink is to be ended soon.

If anyone doesn’t play his/her own role well, things would get bad. For example, if a wife repeats her requirements over and over again, her husband would feel shamed and everyone would be embarrassing; and if a husband fails to control himself and gets drunk, he would lose trust from his wife and all the people in the room, and other drinkers are to be blamed.

The “Doctrine of the Mean” advocated by Confucius over 2,000 years ago is still everywhere in China, and the subtle balance on a Chinese banquet is a typical example.

At the end of the meal, my aunt delivered his due amount for the meal – 600 yuan to Uncle Robust – her younger brother, but was refused. After some back and forth, Uncle Robust accepted half of it.

Among many meals Uncle Three had in in the restaurant of Uncle Robust, this was the only one paid by Uncle Three. He vowed to become the host this time and only succeeded half. But this is a good meal.