Meeting Across the River

I have to say I never thought I’d see the day when I’d find myself cruising the streets of Beijing while sitting in the back of a military vehicle. It wasn’t so much a humpity bumpity army truck as a leather upholstered one. I also noticed the driver had a book on Jiang Jieshi (or Chiang Kai Shek if you happened to study O level history with the modern China option back in the late 70s). I seem to recall that old Jiang wasn’t exactly the flavour of the month over here, but given we were weaving back and forth between lanes on the fourth circle in a fitted out Buick, I supposed I couldn’t read too much into the apparent contradiction..

It was the culmination of my years in China. As a teenager I watched movie footage of cheering crowds lining the street that lead to Tiananmen Square as oversized lorries carrying dangerous looking weaponry trundled past, followed by lines of tanks that blew thick exhaust fumes into the sky and left cracks in the roadway. But that was what sparked my interest and was the China I had wanted to see, but I left it too late. By the time I got here there were no more parades or people milling around in army jackets, just a rather bland city sporting a skyline dotted with high rises that were barely visible through the pollution.

But this counted as some kind of compensation. If there is anybody who still has one foot in the past, it’s the military. Sure enough, when we pulled up to the front gate a guard peered in and said “you can’t bring him in here, he/it is a foreigner”; nice to see that all that had training paid off and he wasn’t just a pretty face in a nice uniform. Instead we went around to the back gate where a far more inattentive guard waved us straight through.

The purpose of my trip was a bit vague “we need your help looking at some data” – it sounded like something out of a Michael Caine cold war thriller that would culminate in someone finding me floating face down in a moat three days later and some dishy Chinese woman helping my brother figure out what really happened. In reality, everyone was quite friendly and after a few introductions they took me to a rather nice hotel and said they’d get a student to take me to dinner.

Accompanying me to dindins wasn’t really necessary because I used to live in the city and they had put me up in an area I knew well. By 7pm, when the student had failed to turn up, I gave them a call and found they had cleared off with a friend who was also attending the meeting and told me I could get something to eat in the hotel restaurant.

I think this unusual lack of formality originated from them discovering I could speak the lingo. I wasn’t too bothered, I picked up a book and headed out to a restaurant I knew that was around the corner. I’d just ordered when my phone rang

“where are you?” said the voice at the other end of the line with a Beijing accent so thick it was almost unintelligible “I just knocked on your door and there was no answer”
“I’m a restaurant about to eat dinner. What’s happening?”
“you are supposed to meet us for dinner in the hotel”

One cancelled order later and a brisk walk back to the hotel I found myself seated around a circular table in the company of 9 gents, who were clearly people of significance, but none of whom were familiar to me. A large number of dishes were ordered, complemented with several bottles of strong alcohol. One guy shied off, claiming health issues and then proceeded to only cram down meat dishes, one of which appeared to have been prepared by killing the lamb with salt poisoning, one mouthful and I was nauseous and gasping for a drink. Another bloke popped two large pills that looked like they were some kind of horse medication and then attempted to drink twice as much as everyone else. I’m afraid I put in a rather shabby effort, limiting myself to two glasses of the stuff, excusing myself on the grounds that I had to finish preparing my talk for the first morning session.

The absence of formality continued through to the next day when I realized I had no idea what had been planned. Fortunately, on my arrival, I had noticed a sign in the hotel foyer welcoming participants to the meeting so I headed down there after breakfast. There was the same geezer with the thick Beijing accent who took me to meeting room at the back of the hotel.
“How many people attending this meeting?” I asked by way of conversation
“about 20 or so” he estimated with confidence.
As we walked into a meeting room packed to capacity, he revised his estimate
“20ish, 200ish” he offered as I was guided to a seat in the front row.

I thought I was attending a meeting on the upcoming 12th 5 year plan but it was only when I stood up to give my presentation at the beginning of the meeting that I noticed the sign at the back of the hall said something like “working towards completion of the 11th 5 year plan”. Shit. Fortunately there was no specific mention to which plan I was referring in my presentation so I was able to modify my opening comments accordingly and sound like I had some idea what I was talking about.

I gave my opening comments in Chinese and then switched to English
“can you give the speech in Chinese” shouted someone in the audience
I thought about it
“if I speak Mandarin I guarantee there is no way you will understand me”
“It was fine at dinner last night”
“yeah, and you were all pissed out of your minds thirty minutes after I arrived” I thought to myself

I settled for English while someone periodically interrupted to explain a particular concept, and I in turn would interrupt them if they translated it incorrectly. In this way, we dragged out a 90 minute presentation into something closer to two and a half hours and by the end the audience was utterly bewildered. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing since it meant there were no tricky questions I couldn’t answer.

The continued absence of formality was refreshing. The organizers forgot to tell me where lunch was being held, so after I had finished dealing with the students circling around for a copy of my presentation, everyone had cleared off. I was about to clear off back to the restaurant around the corner when a couple of minders were sent out to retrieve me. bugger.


3 Responses to “Meeting Across the River”

  1. Jan Says:

    Those pills were probably Vit C. Good stuff CB. 🙂

  2. Royal Hotel Says:

    Thank you been looking for this information.

  3. IsobelandCat Says:

    I don’t follow your blog regularly, but when I do visit, I am always struck by the quality of your writing. I love your understated humour.

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