“Okay. Sam. Tonight we will eat at a mutton restaurant!” my Chinese host father Mr. Xu said as we drove through the city of Guang’an (my SST service location). Mr. Xu (pronounced like “shoe”) is a character. He is a forceful, strongly opinionated high school English teacher and he begins all addresses to me with “Okay. Sam,” as if preparing to bestow great wisdom. Prolonged habitation of China has caused him to develop a periodic, airway-clearing snort that sounds a bit like a whinny.
As he steered us in the direction of the mutton restaurant, Mr. Xu decided to teach me about Chinese traffic laws. “Okay. Sam. In China, you see, it is forbidden to blow the horn in your car.”
“Oh really?” I said, enthralled; Mr. Xu likes an audience.
“Oh yes, it makes too much noise, so it is forbidden.”
I told him that I thought Chinese driving was very chaotic.
“Oh yes. Another problem is that Chinese drivers do not stop the car for people who are walking in the street!” he said, honking madly as pedestrians scattered in front of us.
We made it safely to the restaurant and it soon became clear that this was no mere family dinner. Mr. Xu had invited about ten other high school teachers and their families to the meal and as they filed into our private room at the back of the restaurant, the noise level steadily grew.
Mr. Xu, being a good host, toasted all of the guests multiple times (a common practice at Chinese dinners). At one point he took a break to sit back down with me and explain all of the food at the table. He pondered a piece of pumpkin very seriously for a moment and then said, “Okay. Sam. I think maybe in English you call this… a concubine.”
“Yes, maybe,” I nodded wisely. “But usually we just say ‘pumpkin’.”
After the meal had gone on for a good two hours or so it was decided by mutual, silent agreement that it was time to go home. Everyone staggered to their feet and a new problem presented itself. After all of his toasting Mr. Xu was in no fit state to drive, so he asked the owner of the restaurant to drive us home. We all piled into the car and it quickly became clear that the restaurant owner had never driven a day in her life. It took several minutes for her to negotiate the gearshift, and when she finally got it in drive we began a slow, tortuous ride home. She was not accustomed to the gas pedal so we lurched and staggered forward, crawling down city streets at about five miles per hour, her soused passengers giggling all the while in the backseat.
Against all odds, we made it home safely that night. This is the kind of experience that SST orientation doesn’t prepare you for. My advice for future SSTers is to keep your wits about you and whatever you do, don’t forget the difference between a pumpkin and a concubine.