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Gareth is an Australian who has lived in JiangSu, SuZhou (Heaven on Earth) for a few years - he is a keen observer of the Chinese people, Chinese culture and the changes that are occurring in China at break-neck speed. He can often be found on his a nightly 'perch' in front of his bar in the famous Bar Street in Suzhou, talking to the locals in his bad Mandarin, teaching the 'flower-selling girls' English, eating street food and smiling at the local chengguan (neighbourhood police). Gareth also has several other businesses in China around Business and English training. His experiences have been varied and interesting and his years in China have taught him to be wary of promises but excited about prospects, not a bad situation to be in!
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Testing Times - How to Make Friends and Influence People    

By Garreth Humphris
2556 Views | 2 Comments | 6/15/2011 11:40:57 AM

For me personally, one of the 'best' times to be around Chinese people is during a meal - not because I am a big fat guy who loves food - but this is the time you actually see the true generosity of Chinese people and the true nature of their business and social links.

In fact, who they choose to eat with and the 'seating arrangement' of these people tells you a lot about the person and the 'display' they perform shows you their personal status, deference to higher status individuals and linkages to power. So this sounds 'highly technical' I know, but if you don't speak so well, then watching 'body language' is a remarkable way to learn about people.

So I was in this type of occasion last night - I have been tutoring a businessman for the past week on overseas travel. He wasn't feeling confident about meeting foreigners on 'home turf' so I was assisting him with 'instances for English speaking', in scenarios and situations he might expect.

We have been sparring a little - he was interested in my 'time in China' and what I had done and experienced! I will add, I have been pretty lucky, meeting many people and having lots of fun!

He also wanted lots of overseas cultural and local knowledge which I tried to give him in my very broken Chinese! So lots of laughing and dead-end sentences and strange grammatical conjunctions as I fought to translate my ideas into 'logical Chinese'!

He collected me at work, and we met his friend, a bank manager before going to his favorite restaurant, a well-known fairly exclusive local eatery that is hidden from view of the main street and only has a small sign down a darkened alley - always packed, I notice the staff greeted him by name so he went there a lot.

We met his other friend, a senior manager from a supermarket chain, one of his customers and a rival from a competitive company. Also some staff, his partner and an old school friend. This is a typical mix in China - people who help you succeed, people who assist you daily, a person you want to keep an eye on!!

The meal started as usual, the jostling of chairs and positions - you should never immediately sit down until directed by the host. He needs to 'manage' his pecking order so having an immovable person in it is a slight issue!

Next is green tea, with the host away selecting baijiu, Chinese White Spirit. A rice wine that is somewhat like kerosene. A very strong aseptic taste with an oily aftertaste - highly alcoholic and warming all the way to the toes, it is used as a 'strength tester' for skolling rather than sipping.

My host then whispered to me if there was anything 'special' I wanted to eat - I told him I was happy with whatever he wanted to order... and almost immediately regretted this sentence because his eyes lit up with mischief and he told me he would 'test' me to see if I truly was a local person!!!

The initial cold dishes came out onto the table and I got my first inkling of what the meal might entail! A salad with a strange thin diamond-patterned film between the lettuce leaves and green herbs - snake skin!

The drinking started early, with toasts rolling around the table as people established their 'strengths'. The rival chose me as a 'baijiu' partner so I featured heavily in his toasting rounds. They became more boisterous and liberal by the time we finished the second bottle together.

As a going-away meal, it had to be truly impressive - so about 20 courses made their way onto the table - soups of fish and pig stomach lining, roasted meats, vegetables in chilli, small whole fish, shrimp, crawfish, chicken feet, abalone - a sumptuous meal.

And of course, the snake!!! In Suzhou, they like to eat snake by opening the belly cavity and pushing the ribs back to form a flat shape like butterfly wings. It is then cooked quickly in hot oil and eaten while 'crunchy'. The meat itself is sweet and a little stringy - you chew it off the long slender bones a little like eating fish.

Next was the critical part of the evening - the strength test!!! The eating of the body parts that are good for health but horrible in thought and look! Once you've munched snake skin and sucked it's flesh off the bones, there isn't much left of a snake - is there? Wrong again!

Snake blood is an iridescent red swirling mixture - and must be swallowed - being goaded by my host I was 'coerced' into sharing a glass with him - to a roar of appreciation from the table.

Next is the snake bile - a grape sized sac soaking in baijiu - all the poison a snake can inject into you and kill you with!!! Not something a sane person would contemplate putting in their mouth! But 2 bottles of baijiu makes you very insane - and, I was advised, snake bile is good for the eyesight and, I had no way out! So I took the plunge and swallowed! The roar from the crowd was deafening - I was truly bendiren (local person).

Needless to say, my host was impressed with my ability, and so were his friends... my task was complete and I had performed admirably!

This morning, I was expecting a hangover... but none has materialized. The snake bile has made my eyes brighter and my host has invited me to his family dinner tonight where we get to eat all his 'favorite dishes' in his mother's home... I am dreading to see what this will be! But it will no doubt be interesting!

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#2011-06-15 15:52:11 by abi513 @abi513

Nice article Garreth! It mirrors my own experiences to some degree.

Many Chinese now are experienced enough with foreigners and their cultures to understand we often have no taste or desire to eat certain foods, so they do not try to force this on us. However, the drinking aspect has been slow to change.

I’ve had numerous dinners with some Chengdu police officials and they have their own little rule of only three ganbei, or bottoms-up, in the usual small child-like glasses. Then you’re on your own. Other dinner experiences vary, like yours to uncontrolled drinking testing my stamina until they give-up or you’re on your own.

One of my memorable meal experiences was with a 40+ student in Chengdu two years ago who ask me to join him for lunch at his Uncles restaurant. When I arrived, about eight men were there all of whom former university classmates. It was a most enjoyable time and I was somewhat envious they had been able to maintain contact for so many years like this.

This was when I truly began to grasp what relations were in China and how not only university, but middle school classmates were an integral part of the average Chinese person throughout their life.

#2011-06-16 09:55:09 by victoriaspirit @victoriaspirit

Eating snakes? Yikes! I thought only Cantonese eat crazy stuff.
I hate Chinese eating and drinking socializing culture. People always are pushed to drink to death and in the end everybody is drunk and messy. To me it's not enjoyable.

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