Thursday, August 21, 2008

Now There's Something You Don't See Everyday

No, I'm not talking about me hanging out in a tea house. I've been known to whittle away an afternoon at Ching Ching Cha, sipping orchid oolong and eating jiaozi. It's the thing that's in my hand that was, shall we say, an unexpected development.

The scene is Huxinting Teahouse, which is located in the heart of the old Chinese quarter of Shanghai (tucked away amidst a seemingly endless offering of alien-looking skyscrapers). To get to Huxinting, you have to walk past blocks of vendors hawking mostly modern wares in Imperial style buildings and then cross a bridge to the middle of a small lake. (The bridge is built in a crooked zig-zag pattern, a feng shui device to ward off bad spirits, which can only travel in straight lines.)

Once inside, the environment is totally laid back, thanks not only to the idyllic surroundings, but also to the middle-aged guys who bring out and refill your pots of tea. (We had some nice green and jasmine teas.) When they are not sauntering slowly about, these fuwuyuan are chilling out on stools, smoking and carrying on amongst themselves.

There was one guy in particular who I was bantering with off and on while were pouring and sipping. He was happy to see that Huxinting is featured in this tour book that I was carrying around. And he was happy to show me pictures of some of the famous people who have been to the tea house, including Margeret Thatcher, Jiang Zemin, and Gerhard Schroeder. (Apparently, Bill Clinton has been there as well, but they didn't get a picture.)

Our bonding culminated with fuwuyuan offering me a smoke from his pack of Shanghai brand cigarettes. I politely declined, but he was very persistent (luckily this wasn't baijiu we were talking about). The next thing I knew, I had a cigarette in my mouth and he was lighting me up. As my amused and horrified family looked on, fuwuyuan and I blew some smoke and chatted a bit more until, eventually, we decided to head back out into the muggy Shanghai air.

Never did I imagine that learning Chinese would turn out to be such a dangerous habit!



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