Monday, February 4, 2013

When is a gift a bribe?

Swiss-Germans are not renown for gift giving. Chinese are renown for gift giving. So a bit of confusion ensues when the two cultures merge and my husband Andy returns home from work bearing decorative boxes and bags filled with lovely treats from his Chinese clients. At times the gifts are impractical and I wonder what I am meant to do with a set of commemorative coins issued by the Communist government? Throwing away a gift would be unkind but displaying it in the living room, along with the crystal replica of the Taj Mahal he received from a client in India, would be unacceptable. The clients will never know that, ultimately, their gifts are stored in the kitchen cupboard between the blender and raclette cheese machine. The conundrum is when the maid, who comes to your home every day, presents you with a gift of a cross-stitch mural replete with hearts, champagne flutes and “I love you” stitched across the middle. The gesture is lovely and generous but where - other than in the back of the closet - could I hang up this visual atrocity?

Gifts that were clearly bribes were returned to their respective senders with a polite card. This was inclusive of jewelry, bars of gold, and vouchers for call girls. One friend argues that the local interpretation of ‘morality’ in a business context simply differs from the Western interpretation and that I should be more flexible. She cites the example of her employee who was collecting two checks - one from her and one from his last company, from which he had supposedly resigned – and laughs at his ingenuity. Another friend argues that each country is rife with corruption and that the Chinese practice of social persuasion (Quanxi) is comparable to the Italian practice of engagement (Mafia). With perhaps more tea and fewer bullets.

Other than gifts, Chinese clients and suppliers welcome dinners with their counterparts. The first dinner to which I was invited was fascinating. Andy and I arrived before the clients and flipped through the menu, simultaneously drawn to, and repulsed by, the photographs. Other than innocuous photos of stir-fry and green vegetables, on offer was the following: a bird adorned with a lovely Asian flower, some roasted potatoes and its decapitated head placed by its wings; a rat roasted on a stick with its head fully intact; a plate of slithering snakes; a bowl of bouncing frogs; tongues layered, one on top of the next; and bowls of duck blood. In fact, the piles of fried chicken feet and pig ears sold by street corner vendors began to look less offensive.   

The host took charge of ordering the food and the guest of honor was expected to help himself with the first serving of every dish placed on the Lazy Susan. Since all the other guests observed, it was impossible to reject certain dishes. The plan had been to camouflage unwanted morsels with rice, forgetting that rice - considered a poor man’s food - was only offered after all the main dishes had been tasted. So the urchins had to be swallowed down with great gulps of beer. Warm beer, no less. Guttural sounds of appreciation (read: slurping and belching) were abundant, and talking with a mouth full of food was standard. I watched in amazement as pieces of food flew from people’s mouths and landed on shirt collars of their colleagues, and small bones were spit onto the table, creating small mountains that cascaded onto the floor. I had ordered hot and sour soup but rather, was given a bowl of muddied water. Rather than make a fuss, I delicately removed all the floating pieces of green-vegetable-like-twigs-cocooned in yellow colored slime. 
One another occasion, we were invited to have dinner with a colleague and his wife. The colleague was a French man who had left his wife and two teenage children to marry a Chinese woman. Having had sacrificed everything for the love of another, we expected her to be impressive. Perhaps she was extremely beautiful, maybe she was very intelligent, or one could imagine that she was a combination of the two with a sprinkle of added charm?

A stout woman wearing an extremely short knit dress that accentuated her rolls of belly fat and bowed legs stomped into the restaurant. She wore open toed plastic shoes with stockings, the seam of her nude stockings exposed. Most of the nail polish color had chipped away on her sausage like fingers, and she was tugging on her bra strap. Her hair had been chopped into a Rod Stewart meets Princess Diana type of experiment and one could make out vestiges of a perm on her orange roots. We were eating Sushi and we were expected to sit on floor cushions. Such acrobatics are challenging for women, especially one wearing a dress, but she brazenly sat with her legs folded Indian style until her husband pushed them together.

Her teeth were yellowed and chipped and as she ate, her lipstick congealed, leaving her lips sloppily drawn with loud pink liner. She talked nonstop while eating and I watched as small bits of food stuck to her congealed lipstick wiggled about, some escaping and falling onto the tablecloth. Her English was poor and her French almost non-existent and I wondered how she communicated with her husband, who spoke no Chinese. She compensated for her linguistic limitations by shouting and waving her arms about wildly, knocking things off the table and then snapping for the waitress to come and clean up her mess.

She did make one amusing observation however: Bonjour (hello in French) is similar to Ben zhu (stupid pig) and Salut (Cheers) is similar to Sha Lu (kill the donkey). 

Despite the sign in the door that claimed the restaurant each and every credit card produced in Asia, North America, Europe and otherwise, the machine did not work. The waitress returned to the table three times giggling while covering her mouth with her hand to return each attempted credit card. Someone finally understood that they would only accept an under the table cash payment. Note to self - never believe that the signs on the doors are truthful and never believe that the meat advertised is chicken is indeed chicken. 

My friend Caroline, however, invited us to her work dinner a few evenings later and the contrast was startling. Dinner was at T-8 in Xintiandi, a pricey developmental area seemingly modeled after the San Francisco wharf or downtown Boston, where people neither spat nor shouted. Deemed Asian fusion, it was a gorgeous-to-be-seen-wear-only-Prada restaurant that boasts a sexy dining room where fashion and food collide in an environment of subtle Asian touches.  However, while the food was divine, the portions were tiny and the prices exorbitant. After dinner we met our friend Guillaume for a drink at a restaurant called People 7. After ascending the imposing staircase we could no longer continue - panels were to the left and right of us and in front of us a lumbering wall. Guillaume had given me the code but, since there were no numbers, figuring out how to gain entry was another matter. Our failure to do this resulted in sirens sounding and a door sliding open to reveal a mirror emblazoned with the message 'you have failed'. We were certainly not the coll kids this evening and flashbacks from high-school made my head spin. Luckily, another couple arrived at the same timeand we snuck in behind them befor the massive sliding doors closed on us.

On design terms alone, this bar and restaurant was impressive with raw concrete walls, a bar that seemed to glow and an open second floor with bamboo trees tickling the ceiling. But, despite the high concept gloss, it was quite relaxed and unpretentious, with a warm ambience and serving up an excellent fusion of Chinese, Japanese and continental influence. I was frustrated, I must admit, by the bathroom since the entrance to each door is quirky, illogical and as a result, difficult to maneuver. Really, what was their obsession with locking people out? Luckily, a friendly French woman opened the door for me when she saw me bouncing about in desperation.

Eager to venture to an Asian restaurant on our own without colleagues or clients, we tried a lovely Korean place in our neighborhood a few days later. Not accustomed to serving Westerners, none of the Chinese staff spoke English aside from ‘hello’ and ‘beer.’ The menu had photographs and, like buffoons, we pointed to what we wanted and slightly grunted. The other patrons were not at all abashed to stare at us and even occasionally point.  We wanted rice but there was no photo of rice anywhere to be found. We mimed, we spoke slowly and we drew a photo but to no avail. I finally stood and found plain white rice on another patron’s plate and pointed to the rice and to my stomach, resorting to the miming game in the hopes that symbolism (read: finger pointing) was fairly universal. 
The waiter served us stir-fried rice with cashews as well as a bowl of soup. 

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