IN a little village in China, not too far away from the ancient city of Xian, lives a mayor and his wife in a neat house with a walled garden, around the corner from the wife’s sister.
I don’t remember their names. We were introduced by a Chinese-speaking guide when we visited a few years ago, but the guide only stayed a few minutes before mysteriously vanishing, never to be seen again.
The guide left me and three other people to have dinner with the mayor, his wife, her sister and another couple. The four of us were part of a group of 11 from around the world, travelling by train around China for four weeks.
The mayor was dour and stiff. His wife was formal and quiet. Her smiling sister was more relaxed and we sat side by side at the table. The other couple were sweet and bowed a lot but seemed over-awed – presumably by the mayor and not the overseas visitors.
For a dinner where none of the visitors spoke a word of Chinese, and none of the hosts and other guests spoke a word of English, we managed to communicate a lot over a couple of hours.
I even managed to be controversial.
The food we ate in China differed a lot from the standard menus of Chinese restaurants in Australia. In hotels that cater for tourists, which we tended to avoid, the standout memory is of living things in fish tanks which you had to select for your dinner. As a result I stuck to vegetables and rice. There was something about looking a living thing in the eye and pronouncing a death sentence that put me off.
At the mayor’s house the food was plentiful, light, vegetable-based but spiced and fabulous. It became apparent the mayor’s wife’s sister was the chef.
Our Chinese hosts liked to honour their guests with regular toasts of a home-grown alcohol that literally brought tears to my eyes the first time I tried to raise a glass. I don’t drink alcohol. I waved the glass in the direction of my mouth for the first toast while my three companions – all drinkers – attempted sips. Their eyes watered but they managed to toast the hosts and their home. I couldn’t, put my glass down, picked up a cup of green tea and raised it instead.
The mayor filled my glass with a little more alcohol and motioned for me to toast. I smiled and made it clear I was sorry, but lifted my tea to indicate I was going to have to stick with that. The mayor was not impressed.
The dinner became a silent contest between the mayor and me about the toasts. My travelling companions struggled to contain the drink top-ups by restricting their toasts to sips, but the mayor seemed determined that his guests were going to leave drunk or, as it would have been in my case, throwing up.
I got the impression the mayor’s wife’s sister quite enjoyed my stand-off with her brother-in-law. Certainly she nodded approvingly each time I lifted my cup of tea or accepted a tea top-up.
Despite the language barrier the mayor’s wife’s sister and I worked out we were nearly the same age, her husband was dead and she had lived in the village for most of her life. When I pointed to a photo of a young man on the wall she pointed to her sister, who smiled brightly for the first time to indicate it was her son.
And that’s when everything magically changed.
I pulled a photo of my three adult sons from my wallet.
The mayor’s wife gave a very broad smile, clapped her hands and said a few words which I decided were lavish words of praise for my spectacular fecundity and bountiful endowment with male offspring. The mayor’s wife’s sister was just as delighted, holding the photo in her hand, putting it up beside my head to indicate they looked like me, and raising her arm to indicate how tall and robust they were.
But the biggest change was in the mayor.
His wife handed him the photo. He looked at it, looked at me, and in those looks I changed from the annoying foreign guest who’d been disrespecting his home brew to the Mother of Sons whose wondrous womb suddenly outranked his position as premier male of the village. Or so it seemed.
From giving me sour looks across the table, the mayor was topping up my tea, selecting particular delicacies for me to try and smiling and nodding approvingly every time he looked at the photo in front of him. He eventually gave it back, but only after we stood by the photo of his son and we admired the fruit of each of our loins. He acknowledged my particular fruitfulness by pointing to his son, raising a finger to indicate one, and staring in wonder at my three.
When I raised my tea cup he beamed and shook his head a little. If anyone else had knocked back his brew they would have been in big trouble, that broad smile seemed to indicate, but I had produced three strapping sons so all was forgiven.
A few days later four of us were in beautiful Nanjing, starving after a bike ride.
We walked into a little family restaurant which was empty, apart from a nice woman behind a counter. She gave us a menu with no photos and Chinese script. I was laughing about how we were going to order, given we didn’t have a clue what we were looking at, when a young man with dyed blue hair emerged from the kitchen.
What happened then was one of those lovely experiences you can have when travelling. I laughed and shrugged my shoulders, indicating we didn’t have a clue how to order, and he smiled and motioned to me to follow him.
In the small but cheery kitchen were vegetables and food items which he invited me to select, and then to trust the chef. We did and the meal was spectacular. When we finished we asked for the chef to come out and showed our admiration. The nice woman and the chef were mother and son who made us feel as welcome as family.
That night we ditched plans to eat at a fancier restaurant and all 11 of the group went back to the little family restaurant. When we entered the nice woman gave a beaming smile and cried out and we gave each other a hug. Her son emerged from the kitchen and I was greeted like his long lost aunt. Suddenly other family members appeared and the little restaurant felt more like a family home.
What they didn’t know, and what I was pleased to hear later, was that the tour operator added the little restaurant to their Nanjing eating recommendations from then on.
The actual food you eat during memorable meals can be lost in the mists of time, but it’s people who make it unforgettable.