October 29, 2006 - Guyuan, China
Ouch - four days and nothing - I swore I’d be more diligent than that.
The weather wasn’t so great and the 10 minute walk to restaurant row didn’t really appeal. No problem.
I walked out my front gate, swung a right and hit my favorite noodle joint.
The restaurant is a genuine 7-day a week place. Certainly more upscale than one of the carts or a tin shed - but it isn’t much to look at.
Pushing past the heavy, yellowed curtain in the doorway is a small dining area - certainly not bigger than an bedroom. Blue cloth covered chairs, waiting to screech their way across the chipped concrete floor, sit around four well-worn tables. The whitewashed walls undergo a gradation from mop-splattered brown near the floor to finger smudged off-white and finally to a hazy gray stain from years of coal-fired cooking near the ceiling. In one corner a short doorway - half-concealed with a rather grubby curtail - leads to the even smaller kitchen.
It’s got charm. It’s close. The chowmien piar is tasty.
Three women run the place - I have no idea if they are sisters, friends or daughters - and have a grand time doing it.
One, the quiet boss, is married. She toils over her stove, beimaozi perched on her head. The other two could be her daughters - or sisters - and, honestly, 16 or 25. Talking to them is difficult - my adolescent Chinese and their rapid-fire Guyuanhuaaccount for that - but the little we can understand from each other is usually pretty funny. At least to them. I usually walk away quite full and, most likely, the butt of a few jokes.
I’ve tried learning their names, but I can’t seem to say them right - that or they just think it’s damn funny when I say them. Even had one of them write all three names in my notebook - which promptly lead to a fight in the kitchen as the married woman didn’t like something the younger one wrote. Rolling-pin in hand hilarity ensued, much to the delight of the third, but the writing suffered for it.
My ordering usually consists of me popping my head under the dirty cloth veil to the kitchen, getting half-way into the order and having one of them decide what I will have instead. This is usually for the best as I get the daily specials - be it a new vegetable, special soup or fresh noodle.
But I digress.
Rainy day dinner. 7:00PM.
I sit and take a look around the small room. Sitting at the table opposite are three men.
One of the men is swaying in his seat.
He lights a cigarette, a deep breath, a forceful exhale and, without warning, his head plummets - as though a string was cut - toward the tabletop.
I cringe. Waiting for the dull smack of forehead on wood.
The head - it barely seems his - comes to a sudden stop on a his forearm.
His buddies howl. Poor guy.
For the next few minutes the drunk guy teeters in his seat and blows through cigarettes. His eyes lazily swing around the room - a glazed look - until his gaze lands on something strange.
Something’s off again.
Tables have turned. We look at each other for a second. I’ve seen this look before.
He kicks his chair back - it skitters across the floor until it hits the wall behind him - and starts toward me. Uncertain at first, but gaining speed - rather Frankensteinish.
The friends go silent. I ready myself. The guy’s small but he’s got two friends - thankfully they’re small too.
Covering the short distance to my table surprisingly fast, I can smell the baijiu seeping from him.
For my hand.
Forget that I was eating, holding chopsticks, enjoying my bowl of noodles - shaking my hand is now of utmost importance. Afterwards he stands, salutes sharply and stumbles out of the restaurant. Hearing a commotion outside his compatriots go to have a look. They return in stitches and he returns in his uniform. Although crooked and unbuttoned I can see his PLA bars. His friends, still doubled over by laughter, are enjoying the show.
“LAO PENGYOU!” he shouts.
A new friend in the Peoples Liberation Army.
The meal continues with more salutes, loud yelling - of which I catch parts about America and Mao Zedong - and a few more handshakes. Soon his wife shows up - I get a full introduction - and takes the poor guy home.
But not before I get a big man-hug.
Do I have a sign taped on my back? “If drunk, hug me!” Or am I just a magnet for this sort of thing?
Don’t answer that.
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