Saturday, June 26, 2010

Working Hard at Lunch in Wujiang

I've made it through the first days here in China. I'm taking my time to relax this morning before going outside on my own to explore. Thursday I worked hard all day in the office on fixing print artwork for the line of swim boardshorts that I design. Friday was less about formal work, and more about nurturing relationships with the agents who control the printing processes here in China. This kind of work somehow drained me more than sitting at a desk.

Friday morning I waited in the hotel lobby for the driver to pick me up to drive to the print factories in Jiangsu Province. I watched as boatloads of young 20-something loud Americans poured out of taxis to check into the hotel, probably for the World Expo. Although I look like one of them, in my casual clothes and Northface backpack, I am here for some serious work. I hoped they didn't get all loud and spring-breaky up in this piece. I need my rest!

Before long, I was packed into a car with our English-speaking agent Dream, the driver (Mr. Xu?), and the "Fabric Guy" (whose name they don't tell me because it doesn't translate - they just call him Fabric Guy). He's tall, wears T-shirts and jersey shorts, talks on his fake Iphone, and you can tell he's probably a pretty cool guy. Mr. Xu is a very talented and smart driver. Otherwise we might have died on the highway, considering people drive in an "S" pattern here, weaving in and out without blinkers - large trucks driving wherever they wander without signals. People just cut other people off and turn in front of on-coming traffic. The horn blasting is constant, as well as light flashing - since no one uses their mirrors. Road signs try to warn motorists to leave space between to avoid rear-end collisions, and other signs encourage caution not to crash in certain areas with "very important water bodies" probably used for crops or other money-bearing purposes.

We arrived at the printing offices in Wujiang (a town almost entirely made up of Textile mills) after about an hour and half of chatting and near-death experiences. I didn't see any machines here, just some offices. Fabric Guy and Mr. Xu lit up a cig with the Printing Boss. Dream and I sat in the Boss's office, waiting and eating nuts. I think we spent about 40 minutes there on the couch, hammering nutshells on the coffee table. I couldn't manage to scrape the nuts out very well with my teeth, so Dream kept picking pieces of nuts out and putting them in my palm. I'm not sure the kind of nut, but it reminded me of breakfast cereal because it was kind of crunchy like a Cheerio. They kind of look like a black walnut, but crunchier, and taste like chocolate and hazelnut. As we ate and ate from the nuts, I prayed I wouldn't develop some allergy to the strange new food.

And then it was lunch time. Printing Boss, his wirey and stylish Sidekick, and the rest of my colleagues piled into cars and drove to a restaurant to have a traditional lunch. On the way there, I explained to the agent that I like to take photos of foods that I cook and eat, and showed her some pictures on my camera screen. So it was only natural for me to pull out the camera to photograph the live aquariums from which we chose our lunch. After eating so much vegetarian food lately, choosing which animal would die for our lunch kind of bothered me. Those 3 little crabs lined up in a perfectly spaced "V" with their claws resting in defense position did not look like they wanted to be eaten. That skinny fish with the pointy snout didn't look ready to leave his friends. But this is the very important part of relationship building in Chinese culture - acceptance of, and participation in, the local customs. So I picked some fish and felt a little guilty inside.

We were taken to a higher floor and seated in one of several private dining rooms with its own tv, couch, bathroom and kitchen. As the waitress loaded up the giant glass turntable with foods, the real work began. Luckily I am a seasoned wine drinker - the skill proved helpful this day. The Chinese take offense if you do not participate in the wine drinking with the rest of the table, raising your glass to the others. And they have a kind of saying for bottoms-up, when told this you must finish your glass. I'm not a wine-chugger by habit, but the Printing Boss was very pleased with my participation.

My appetite has not been large here, and those around me have seemed quite disappointed in me for leaving food untouched. A phrase I have come to use at every traditional meal here is "too much work!". I can negotiate sampling deadlines and reject color strike-offs day-in and day-out, but eating here in Shanghai is the REAL WORK.  I'm quite good at using chopsticks, which Printing Boss was complimenting me for. He said I am very good at using the chopsticks. Thank goodness! Because there are so many things you must eat with your hands, and use your mouth to navigate shells and bones. It's kind of a dance between your mouth and the food - manipulating odd seafoods into your mouth, moving and twisting with your tongue and spitting the unchewable parts back onto your food plate. All this to get very tiny morsels of flesh in the end. So much work for so little food - eating takes forever. I think this may be one part to the secret of this thin and small-bodied culture (aside from walking and biking to work each day). After 20 minutes of working on eating, you start to feel full - yet have actual eaten very little. But I am getting better at this eating dance. I was only scrutinized for spitting out fish bones - they actually gave me the bones of the fish we chose. Printing Boss wanted me to eat the bones, a very special privilege. I just couldn't do it - I tried one bite and feared the chewed up crunchy bits would perforate my intestine somehow, leaving me crippled that evening on my modern, cold, stone bathroom floor - all alone.

Overall, I think Printing Boss was very happy with my lunch performance. I really took one for the team today. I think they were trying to get me drunk so I would be more agreeable. I told them this, awaited translation, and they laughed. Thank goodness they get my humor. And thank goodness I can hold my wine like a champ and be perfectly coherent for an afternoon of negotiating my printing priorities be rushed to me by Tuesday. However clever I think I was in my negotiations, the real triumph of the day was when I spun the prize wheel in the restaurant and won some crabs for the Printing Boss. It's my first time giving someone crabs (insert winky smiley face here ;) ), but he seemed extremely pleased to receive them.



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