As the end of my year in China was nearing, the entries in my diary about lunches and dinners start getting longer with more details than before with the beginning of July 1976. While eating out used to be a pleasant variation to our socializing in the school’s dining hall, it now gradually turned into a way to consolidate friendships to make the last beyond the final good bye.
One lunch stands out, both in my diary and my memory.
Saturday, July 3, 1976 + Sunday, July 4, 1976: Torge’s birthday lunch party in the Summer Palace.
I can hear you think: that must have been some lunch that lasted until the following day. It was. Perhaps I need to re-introduce Torge.
I have mentioned in earlier chapters that Torge was a guy you just had to like. He was an open book and would tell no lies, nor beat about the bush. He often struck us as extremely naive, probably simply because that was what he was. . .
His entire sojourn in the Beijing Language Institute had been one trying struggle with the Chinese language. He absolutely gave his utmost to learn it, but new words, Chinese grammar, the four tones and particularly those thousands of little drawings known as Chinese characters, seemed to slide off Torge as if he were made of Teflon. . .
He could make himself understood in English, but also that language did not come natural to him. He would, e.g., talk about the large number ‘porks’ in China. Many of us, definitely including me, would pick that up, and point out that you could also see many ‘muttons’ and ‘beefs’ in the farms around the Chinese capital as well. Torge never understood why that was so hilariously funny. . .
Torge’s naïveté again played up in his choice of the location of his birthday party. The Summer Palace complex included an excellent but expensive restaurant. After having eaten their once, Torge liked it so much, that he decided to book it for his birthday lunch, without considering whether he could afford it. Torge was liberally inviting all fellow students he liked; and he liked many. When we left the campus on bike, we knew that Torge would get into trouble, so we decided that our best birthday gift would that we would go Dutch, which obviously appealed to me.
The main dish during the lunch was the ‘life’ fish that restaurant was so famous for.
The chef’s pièce de resistance was a kind of fish that was prepared so rapidly that the muscles of the creature’s mouth would still move, when the dish was served on the table. That dish’s pitch was that the route between catching the fish and placing it on the dinner table took only four minutes.
The trick was that you would pick up your glass with the strong Chinese liquor and pour a little bit in the fish’s mouth, which would make it move as if the cooked creature was gasping for air. This was always good for a few screams, particularly from the female dinner guests.
That lunch made us so happy, that we spontaneously decided to hire a boat to do some rowing on the lake of the Sumer Palace. Chris and I were not in a mood to row, but luckily there were a few activists who wanted to show off their public spirit, so we had at least two rowers who could take turns in each of the two boats.
We had a good time, and Chris even fooled around by pretending to try to overturn our boat. It was a rare display of clowning that I had never noticed from the first day we met at Amsterdam Central Station, a few months before our departure for China. It was probably the best indication that we were all genuinely in high spirits.
By the time we returned to the Institute, we were in a mood for a real BLI foreign student party.
. . . I tried my luck by proposing to make another bowl of Peter’s Potent Punch, for old time’s sake, but my friends did not fall for that.
We stuck to buying beer and pooled together our private stashes of foreign liquor that some of us had hidden in our closets. Therefore, we still had all the ingredients for a dirty chemical reaction, but it had to happen in our stomachs, instead of in a washing bowl.
What we had so far never succeeded to do suddenly happened that evening: several of our Chinese roommates participated in the drinking. It seems that they as well felt that the end of our shared lives in the Beijing Language Institute was nearing. Even the most revolutionary school leader would not object to their participation in one decadent party. . .
My roommate also turned up.
As I mentioned before, I had a good relationship with him as a roommate, but we had never become friends. He did not seem interested in anything but ‘resting’, and I am still wondering how he got selected to study English in the Beijing Language Institute, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. He seemed to symbolize everything that the Cultural Revolution did not stand for. . .
Our partying was undoubtedly another experience with a high degree of culture shock. Chinese do drink and at times drink a lot, but do so during dinner. . .
We would invite our Chinese roommates to join us with a drink, but they would reject it most of the times. This could have partly been caused by the Chinese face mechanism. They had nothing to offer us in return, so it would be better not to accept too much from us as well, to maintain a proper balance in our relationships. However, that evening several or our roommates did turn up.
. . . Maybe the Chinese also sensed that there was something in the air that day. We felt it during Torge’s birthday lunch and the consecutive boating. This was a feel-good day. We returned from the Summer Palace in a particularly good mood, and without bothering to rest, started to prepare for the party. I guess our Chinese friends simply got infected with that happy virus.
. . . It escaped my attention entirely, as I was engaged in what we always did during parties. And I still did not regard myself as my brother’s keeper. Chris got drunk a few times that year and we let him. We would carry him upstairs; that is what friends are for. It is not a friend’s task to take over the role of parent and berate a peer about his alcohol intake.
Around eleven that evening, without any visible warning, my roommate suddenly fell from the bed he was using as a couch. We helped him get up, and he woke up quickly. However, it was evident that his body and mind had started to separate. He was raving incoherently, and we were afraid that he was showing signs of alcohol poisoning.
We tried to get him back to our room, but for security’s sake, and to spare me the dirty job of having to clean our floor after him, we first took him to the toilet to make him puke. Surprisingly, he never did.
We then dragged him back to our room. It was a job that required four people, as he started to struggle, although he seemed to do so subconsciously. When we had finally put him on his bed, we still had to continue our firm grip, to prevent him from standing up again. . .
After a while, he gradually calmed down. A couple of fellow students stayed with me in our room, to make sure that he would not vomit after all and choke to death, or slip away in a coma.
. . . It was interesting to observe that all these efforts to contain my roommate were made by foreign students. The other Chinese had quietly disappeared back to their rooms. It was obviously not a scene you would want to be seen involved with. The cheerful mood had given way again to a watch your back mode of apprehension. Apparently, none of them discussed the incident with their foreign roommates.
Wang slept for a long time. He slept the entire night without waking up and slept most of the following day. He woke up at 11:30 am. He looked at his watch, believing that it had stopped or something. He had no idea, that it was almost noon the following day. He got up, washed and dressed, but when he returned to our room, he fell back on his bed and continued to sleep.
It probably was his first hangover ever. . .
He was criticized fiercely.
. . . a group of his classmates, interestingly mainly girls, visited our room two days after the event. It was a surprising experience for me. They came in without announcing themselves to me. They actually did not seem to notice that I was there. They positioned themselves on our beds, plural because some of them sat on mine, and started to berate Wang.
That was the first time that my neutral feelings for Wang gave way to an actual liking. I had seen many criticizing meetings in Chinese films, but Wang’s reaction to the scolding was very different from the way the people on the wrong side of the criticizing behaved in films.
Wang was defiant. He did not apologize and even pointed out equally ‘improper’ behavior of other students. So he put himself in the position of criticizer, whilst being criticized. . .
After the criticizing session, Wang immediately fell back into his regular demeanor. The defiant, feisty, and likeable Wang was repressed again behind that familiar emotionless expression. He did not bring up the criticizing meeting.
The next event in my diary was also related to our return home: We arranged our flights back to the Netherlands on Tuesday, July 6, 1976. We would backtrack our route to Beijing. This implied that we had to take a domestic flight from Beijing to Guangzhou, get on the train from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, and fly back from Hong Kong to Amsterdam.
At the Embassy, we learned that we could pick up our tickets to Amsterdam at a travel agency in the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. The Chinese Ministry of Education would see to it that we would be picked up at the Guangzhou Airport. So the only thing left for us to do was to buy our tickets to Guangzhou. We did so that afternoon at the CAAC office.
As very few people would fly around the country that time, and even fewer abroad, we had to line up for only a few minutes to purchase our tickets to Guangzhou for July 29.
That purchase marked the start of the countdown to our departure. The date was set, and a simple subtraction taught us that we had only 23 days left in Beijing. We reckoned that the best part of that time would be spent on saying goodbye, to our teachers, our roommates, the few acquaintances we had gotten to know in town, the restaurants that had been such a source of pleasure, and especially our most intimate friends at the Institute.
We were ready to go. However, the most turbulent event of that year in China was still ahead of us.