I’m on the mailing list for the The London Review of Books and every now and then their Diverted Traffic anti-news newsletter catches me with an appetite for a morsel from their archives.
While I enjoy these essays, reviews and stories, I savour the memories that they invoke. I’m living a lot of my life in my head at the moment and remembering unusual experiences gives me food for thought and a recipe for journaling.
Long Ling wrote Death at the Banquet in 2017 and it’s an eye-opener for those of who have not spent much time in China. In a country that for decades used denouncement to extract the denials that were considered as evidence of guilt, a death from a heart-attack was recently turned to an imaginary event. It was decided that had not been a banquet so there could not have been excess alcohol consumption so there was never any involvement of the police so the guy whose name is forgotten must have died from overwork.
I had an interesting few months in the mid-eighties teaching geophysics classes to a delegation of Chinese geoscientists. This happened in Texas and the visitors came from a Chinese company that had bought computer and software from my employer. The training was a part of the contract and I was one of the teacher/trainers.
I approached the preparation as if I’d know only a fraction more than the people I’d be teaching. The group that came to us were from a very different world than they found on arrival in Houston, Texas. They were as alien to me as the Fremen from Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune or any other imaginary exoplanetary peoples that my devotion to science fiction had brought to my attention. I recall how amazed these visitors were that they could and did visit and see actual space vehicles on public display down the road at NASA in Clear Lake.
There were a couple of people in the group whose maths and physics knowledge were eons ahead of mine but in a reverse lesson that lasted me a career, they didn’t always understand the value nor the best application for their skills. And the spectrum of talent and roles in the group was all the harder to fathom because they were so guarded in what little they said to me.
My first class started well. The topic was migration. Not birds or people but time migration using the double-square root solution written by Gustav Kirchhoff a century before computers could apply it to geophysical data from technology that was being invented on a beach where I live here in Ireland.
There were about a dozen students, most in their 30’s I guessed and they sat around a woman who was going to translate everything I said. She introduced herself by role not name and told me that she was the only one who spoke English. And she spoke it well. It couldn’t be simultaneous translation so we had to quickly establish how she’d know when I’d pause and she’s translate. She seemed to translate everything I said but how could I know how accurate she was?
There was a sense of fear and trepidation in the room. I was nervous as any teacher who knows barely enough to get by. They seemed slightly nervous among the capitalist demons and decidedly scared of each other. We knew there had to be were some political watchers in the group and perhaps some espionage specialists too but we had no skills in making such assessments.
As the first week went by, the Translator encouraged me to talk in longer sentences before she translated. I noticed that her translations were getting faster and faster. That is to say, I began to worry that she was translating less and less. Surely she was becoming less accurate so I resolved to try to address it the following week by using more hand drawn graphics on the overheads that pre-dated Powerpoint or other modern presentation technologies.
In the second week, there was a man was sitting in the middle of the group. He told me he was the Translator. We smilingly agreed that last week he hadn’t spoken English but this week, he had been appointed as the sole English speaker. The displaced translator stared at me from the back of the group with steely, defiant eyes and she did not speak to me much ever again.
Then Translator 2 was fired and went all but socially mute for months. It turned out that the whole group spoke English. Whether they rotated the translator on purpose, I can’t say. What I can say is what I was told. They liked my accent and wanted me to teach more of the classes because I was easier to understand than some of my colleagues. At the final banquet, one of them finally told me the first translator had started treating the classes as if she was the only student. By the second month, we had dispensed with translators for my classes though the masquerade persisted in some of the other classes taught by colleagues.
We had a good rapport after a few months which sounds odd since they spoke so little. I can say they seemed happy. They said hello and goodbye with genuine enthusiasm. They tabled good questions through the official Translator, questions that didn’t expose them to being considered slow to learn. This was peer fear. Being afraid of their colleagues was a normal part of their existence.
There was one who talked at the coffee machine and he told me they were buying sacks of rice and cooking the simplest of foods to minimise their expenditures. This was at a time when it was permitted for my company to provide per diems for business travellers. They were on some $7 per day and managing to save more than half. Their hard saving deprivations would pay dividends back in China where any American goods had very high value. The Chinese government would sell them American washing machines and the prized microwave ovens on their arrival in Beijing Airport in exchange for the folding version of US currency which was illegal to possess inside the country. Then they’d be sold on for Chinese coin and so my students would have made some bonus money from their trip. It struck me that the government was somehow involved not just in controlling their citizens but perhaps they were managing the black market and money laundering too.
The final banquet was the only banquet I had to attend. It was in a nearby Chinese restaurant in Sharpstown, which doubled as Houston’s Chinatown and unrelatedly, it was Houston’s gun crime hot-spot. Houston had recently displaced LA as the most murderous city in the US so Sharpstown was not the greatest of places to have our office.
Dinner was bizarre for several reasons. First and foremost was that I was the guest of honour. That meant sitting beside their most senior team member. The person to my right was not the leader I expected. Several months and I had never known who was the most senior person in the group. The second bizarre thing was the continuous Maotai toasting. Toast after toast, a dining ritual more widely known now than it was in 1984. At one point, their leader was toasting and on refill, I noticed he was getting his Maotai from a different bottle than the rest of us. The waiter skipped away when I tried to charge my glass from the same bottle. Suspicious, I swapped our glasses before the next toast.
I noticed that several of the others noticed what I did. To be clear, we were all utterly inebriated at this point. Some of the group were puce coloured from the volume and toxicity of the alcohol. I’ll say my hangover was so bad that I imagined the Maotai had coated my sinuses because I could smell and taste it for several days afterwards.
The food was really good, every one of the ten courses or more. One memorable course was chicken cooked inside a brick of salt. The Peking Duck was excellent and my students, who had lived on rice for months, thoroughly enjoyed every gorged morsel.
‘To Mr Simon, we have learned so much’ or something like this.
‘Gānbēi’ and we drank, the clinking of glasses across the circular table dispensed with after round three or four.
I honoured the toast by paying him the maximum respect by draining my glass in one action. Yet again.
Splutter. Cough, splutter. I was surprised how tasteless his drink was. He was surprised by the alcohol in my glass. The group had been watching intently and went utterly silent until the man to my right laughed. He managed to turn his potentially devastating loss of face into a joke. Which meant another toast and this time, and the for the rest of the evening, he was drinking Maotai rather than water. And of course, he was getting increasingly enthusiastic as his first Maotais were kicking in. I had inadvertently earned myself more toasts by swapping those glasses.
This banquet happened. I know it happened perhaps because no one died.
Here’s a link to a blog that I enjoyed and not just because it includes a couple of my photos.