Friday, February 01, 2008

My Chinese Drinking Buddy

When we went to China we spent a lot of time in social situations with the administration and staff of the host school. Most were polite and quiet and respectful. One was not. The assistant principal was a loud gregarious man that knew maybe ten words of English, but he used them with gusto. At the final dinner, he was pushing shots of rice wine on his guests.

Chinese rice wine is neither. It is an 80 proof whiskey-like spirit distilled from wheat and sorghum. Most people took a sip, grimaced, and politely declined. I impressed the assistant principal by taking several shots and we spent the evening toasting each other.

I promised that if he ever came to the United States I would take him drinking. A week ago the next group of teachers and students from Beijing Middle School 22 showed up and Chen, my drinking buddy was with them. I told him that we were going to go out drinking, but he had added a new phrase in English to his repertoire, "I like to drink water!" And he said it with enthusiasm. In the past six months some medical crisis had put an end to his shot glass lifting ways.

Still, a promise is a promise. We made arrangements to meet all three of the teachers last night at the most authentically Baltimorean place I could think of that would give the Chinese a good impression and a taste of our seafaring heritage. While crabs are THE regional dish, Bertha's in Fells Point is a landmark unto itself, thanks in no part to the ubiquitous bumper stickers.

Twin sisters of different mothers.
My wife (right) and two teachers from China.

As luck would have it, Bertha's was participating in Restaurant Week with a three course dinner menu for $30.08. The rest of the table ordered Stella Artois, which was on special, but Chen stuck to hot water with lemon. We went over the winelist with him and tried to explain the difference between American wine and Chinese wine.

Chen said he wanted "noodles and tomatos", so we ordered the vegetarian ravioli with marinara sauce. For the other two teachers we chose the pine nut encrusted salmon. And, of course, mussels as appetizers all around. The mussels themselves were nearly enough for a meal and the dinner special included a sampler of all the dipping sauces. By the end of the soup and salad course, the Chinese guests were nearly stuffed.

This made for a good conversation about how in China all the dishes are served at once and that soup, no matter what the weather, is for the end, not the beginning, of the meal. When the ravioli came, we explained that it was like dumplings but Italian style. He was a little disappointed that it wasn't American food, but we explained that Italian food was practically American. Since the ladies were full, he sniggled from their salmon and took the leftovers for breakfast the next day.

After dinner we wandered around the rather cold and deserted waterfront of Fells Point while I tried to explain the significance of the port and the slave trade and Frederick Douglass. We bid the teachers good night and my drinking buddy said that the food was "dee-lish-us" and that he really liked Bertha's cooking. So if some blogger ever posts pictures from Beijing of a car with an "Eat Bertha's Mussels" bumper sticker on it, I'll know that I had done my part for international understanding.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Where would you take a foreign guest with little English to get a taste of your region?

Side note: My neglected stepchild blog, China Sights, has seen an enormous uptick in Google driven traffic recently, so I have uploaded a new batch of pictures to Flickr and I hope to do some more photoblogging soon before I have forgotten all the cute anecdotes about the sights.


Anonymous said...

Adjusting for language, I'm facing this situation when my father visits in May. We've already decided that we have to go to the local schnitzel house, which has something like 20 different versions of schnitzel: normal, with beer sauce, with apple rings, with peanut butter sauce, with cranberries, all sorts of different ways. And the portions are huge.

Mooselet said...

When people come to visit me - leaving out the language barrier, since I'd do the same regardless - I make sure we visit Mt. Coot-tha, the highest point in Brisbane which has incredible views of Brisbane and Moreton Bay, the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary for the (duh) koalas and roos, and South Bank, which is across the river from downtown Brisbane and boasts a lively market on the weekends, lots of dining and the lagoon. If time permitted we'd drive an hour or so up to the Sunshine Coast and hit the beaches.

TBG said...

Great post, yello. Sounds like fun.

Fells Point is also the place my grandfather "landed" in Baltimore. He and his brother spent years working in a shop there to pay off their passage to America.

Elizabeth said...

We'd probably go to The Hanger for some fresh salmon or halibut. Yum!

Carol Ott said...

Hm. Probably Lexington Market for crabcakes at Faidley's, then I'd stuff them full of Berger Cookies and Natty Boh.

Sue T. said...

I saw an EAT BERTHA'S MUSSELS bumper sticker on I-80 in Berkeley a couple weeks ago and was sooo excited! It had been ages since I'd spotted one.