It’s just a short taxi ride. We stop before a hotel I have never been to before in Xuchang. We enter, and I can see the “live display” in front. The place is buzzing. In case you are wondering with your dirty mind what the live display is, rest it. Just poor little frogs, eels and the like about to be someone’s dinner. A waitress swoops down and we climb the stairs, reaching a corridor with rooms opening out on each side. Again, dirty minds, many Chinese restaurants I have been to usually have private rooms for larger parties.You would have your own waitress for the course of your meal, and of course you are away from the general noisiness that pervades Chinese restaurants. Free to create your own noise.
Still a bit rattled, we enter a large room designed to seat at least 10. The round table has individual hotpots – a wonderful change from the communal-eating hotpot experience. Here, you have your own DIY experience. Your own little stove, pot, and add whatever you want to it. Perfect for vegetarians! I usually hate going to hotpot restaurants with others because you invariably kill a portion of the fun for them. Sichuan hotpots come divided into two compartments – one, the smaller compartment, for a less fiery broth, and the bigger compartment for the ma la tang or the spicy broth. And those who know me know which broth I would choose! So the poor non-vegetarians are resigned to having their meat dunked in the non-spicy broth. Here, I didn’t have to suffer from such vegetarianism-induced guilt. Zhang You’s friend seats himself a little away. “Is anyone else coming?” we ask, looking around the large room. “A few friends,” he says before ordering a mammoth portion of food for us. It’s not a cheap restaurant – even a simple vegetable costs 14RMB, which is roughly what I pay for an entire day’s meal in Chengdu. Birdy is already searching for her favorite tofu. “Aren’t you worried?” I ask her. “What for?” she replies in between savoring a mile of dofu pi. “Look at him. He is wearing a yellow T-shirt which has the picture of two peanuts dancing together under the motif : be happy. Does he seem like someone with murderous intentions?” she laughs. I laugh too. But I will reserve my judgement about him till the evening ends and we are back in the hotel.
One of Zhang You’s friends enters with a wine bottle. Stays for a moment, and then leaves. After sometime, two men enter. One of them walks with a pronounced limp. He is the nephew of the boss of one of the biggest companies in China, Rebecca Hair Products Company. This is elite company, I think. “Is he your boss?” I ask, slurping on some mushrooms myself. In all that worry, I had forgotten to specify that I want the soup to be made from just hot water. And not blood or bones. To those who are curious, I have tried both. Hated blood, but I think bones broth is fine enough. LOL. Zhang You replies in the negative. He is just a friend. Both of us are a bit disconcerted about the bigwig’s friend, though. A well-built man, he doesn’t talk much, just sits there observing us. “He makes me nervous,” Birdy says, while another mile of dofu pi make their fateful journey. This time, I am relaxed. “He is just the bodyguard/driver,” I say. I had been to banquets before in China where the bodyguards sit sullenly through it. He looks and acts just the same. The rich nephew doesn’t eat anything – apparently, he is unwell, and leaves after sometime. In between, Zhang You keeps our hotpots full. He is courteous to a fault – playing the perfect host all the time.
It’s around 9PM when we finally stop eating. Or so we think. “Would you like to come to another restaurant?” he asks. “To eat?” I ask in disbelief. He laughs and nods yes. Birdy and I decide not to. Yes, even we dim wits know where to draw the line – eat till you are full! Not after that. :-). We walk down to the lobby where I watch some frogs. Zhang You’s chubby friend, we have realized by now, is just chubby. He is not a savage hunk. Instead he loves talking about animals, and now, standing there in the lobby waiting while Zhang You pays what must have been a very expensive bill, he talks about frogs. We again accost Zhang You and tell him we must pay the RMB300. He refuses. “You are my guests, and I am your host,” he smiles. Outside, the air is a bit cold. We hail a taxi, and he gets in too. “We will go by ourselves,” we protest. As we sit inside, I tell him that he is too good a man. “I used to think that in this world there are not too many good people,” I tell him. “Why so?” he asks. “I don’t know. Haven’t met too many good ones of late.” Again the smile. “I think the world is full of good people,” he says, as the taxi stops in front of the hotel. Chubby waves us a goodbye while Zhang You comes with us. Still doubting his intentions, friends? His only intention was to open the door for us – enter the lobby, make sure we are safe inside, and leaves. That’s it. We enter our room, sated and stunned. He really was just a good man. I still don’t think there are too many good ones out there, but he was one of them.
He doesn’t try to call us the next day. No, nothing. Before leaving, I had asked him if he was free on Monday. And his response was “No, but is there anything I can help you with?” There was nothing else for him to help us with but on Monday the hotel gave RMB150 back. It was apparently the deposit he had paid for the room, and we call him. He comes to this restaurant we are sitting in with Lynn, one of our old friends, wearing the same dancing peanuts T-shirt. I just hand over the money with a “you can’t refuse this time,” look. He takes it with a smile that says “finally, you had to!” We shake hands, and I think to myself that I will never see him again. Birdy and I talk about him later. He is the same age as her. 1982. We met him on her birthday. So I tell her that maybe he was just a sign – a sign urging you to really believe in the goodness of people. It’s a new year, best to forget the skeletons of the past, because skeletons are skeletons – they are dead bones that will never come back to life. Zhang You though was just…life.
*I know that some of you think we were a bit daft in agreeing to a stranger’s invite. Yes, it sounds daft sitting in India. I would never ever do that in India. Or any other country. But 3 years here – I am yet to come across people who really meant to harm me. Of course, it just takes one delivery to get the batsman out, so I know, it just takes one bad apple to spoil the whole show. But, generally, crime against foreigners in China is almost unheard of. The Chinese government hates losing face – as do most Chinese – and any foreigner raped/murdered/mugged or otherwise assaulted is guaranteed to attract international headlines. I have heard from other Chinese that if such a thing were to happen – the offending criminal would be just packed away to eternity, no trial, nothing. They take it very very very very seriously, and when a Communist government takes something very very very very seriously, it would take a really stupid criminal to attack foreigners, knowing the consequences. So, memory is a muscle, right? I wasn’t unduly afraid because this muscle was very much active. I was digging into all my previous experiences in China – I have come back alone in a taxi at 2AM through deserted expressways – and never felt threatened. Common sense, of course, should never be cast aside. As indeed, your instincts. And every instinct I had in my body was telling me that Zhang You was harmless. At no point of time, though, did we let down our guard. I didn’t drink, making sure I was completely aware at all times. I noted that he always HAILED a passing taxi. It wasn’t his car, nor a taxi ready and waiting by the hotel. The restaurant he took us to was one of the biggest – not a shady place. And really, sometimes, you have to just take the plunge. Again, I would never do this in India. But then, what is Tee saying, huh? Aren’t we the ones who took a wild jeep ride in the middle of the night through the jungles of Wayanad with two strange men? Ahem. I rest my case. 🙂