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Nihao from Xinjiang

Posted by , on 28 March 2012

I have sprung up again in China. It’s time for another field collection of jerboa embryos in far northwestern China (Xinjiang), and since this is the reason Eva invited me to contribute to the Node, I figure it is finally time for me to oblige.

The last couple of days were eventful. Friday morning I was met at my hotel and escorted to the main building of the Chinese Academy of Sciences to give a seminar on my research. It went really well. I had a lot of interest and good questions all around even though this is primarily an ecology institute. Most were interested in how to catch and how to raise the animals. There is a lab here that is interested in studying hibernation in the jerboas, so I’ll be doing my best to advise. That same lab is also doing genetic barcoding of a variety of species in Xinjiang, including the rodents, so it looks like I have extra company for at least part of the field collections. Fantastic for me. I could use as much help as people are willing to offer.

After a tour of the lab spaces, including a room with five small aerial surveillance aircraft and another room with a nice new fancy scanning electron microscope, I headed back to my room to rest for a bit before the scheduled tour of the natural history museum. They have a fantastic museum here, a really wonderful educational resource. The animal rooms have mounts of many of the species that are native to Xinjiang, and they were incredibly well prepared. The feathers and fur are in excellent condition with really good eyes and mounted in postures that make them look ready to leap right off their perch and out the door. More importantly, they have about a half dozen jerboas that are all in accurate postures. This is in stark contrast to all of the mounts I’ve seen in the US and in London that are contorted and weirdly posed in ways you just really don’t ever see a live jerboa. So I guess it does make a big difference for the preparator to actually see the animal they’re stuffing while it’s still alive.

After the tour I was whisked away in a black town car to a restaurant on an upper floor of a highrise building and down the hall to a private dining room. Ahhhh, the Chinese banquet. They lulled me into a false sense of comfort with their low key first evening when in fact I was not getting off easy. I know enough by now to linger about the edge of the table while everyone fusses and argues over the seating arrangement. I sit where I’m told to sit, when I’m told to sit. The custom is that the seat furthest from and facing the door is reserved for the host. The seats to the right and left are seats of honor. And then it goes around the table from there. I was second to the right of the host. Not bad. The other, more important seats were reserved for directors of the Xinjiang Normal University. Chinese banquets are lavish affairs with about twenty times more food on the table than the guests could or will ever consume. There is a lazy susan at the center of the table, and you just grab whatever looks appealing as it glides past. Fortunately, I am happy to just eat whatever lands in front of me without asking what it is. One of the first things I picked up was what I thought was some kind of mushroom. The taste and texture was not inconsistent with that inoffensive thought…and then the professor to my right leaned in to tell me I’d just eaten chicken stomach. Delightful. But you really never know what you’re going to get, so it’s best to keep an open mind.

And while I didn’t get the highest seat of honor, I did get the fish. The last dish to hit the table is the whole fish. And the lazy susan gets turned about until the head is pointing straight at the guest of honor. The person who gets the head gets to take the first bite of the fish. I asked to be sure that didn’t mean I had to actually eat the head. But what they failed to tell me until later is that if the honored guest takes a full drink of baiju (I’ll get to that later), he or she can then order the others at the table to take certain parts of the fish – the eyeballs, lower jaw, dorsal fin. Each has some specific symbolism that I can’t remember because by that point I’d had too much baiju.

Ah, the baiju. Chinese for rotgut white lightening. 65% alcohol served in tiny little eyewash glasses. The glasses are deceitful and make you think you aren’t drinking as much as you are. This is also the first time I was introduced to the culture of the three toasts. At past banquets, the host gives a speech and everyone drinks. Then another important person will speak, and everyone drinks. Then the guest gives a speech, and well, you get the picture. This time there were those same kinds of speeches, but the host gives three speeches that can be interspersed with other speeches, but they are all group speeches. Once the host gives the third speech, then the party can move on to the one on one more casual toasts. The foreigner is always the target in curiosity – how much can you drink? And it’s very critical to doing business in China. I heard this time that there is a written law in Beijing that says no business can be conducted without baiju. I think the top politicians in this country must have liver disease by now. It’s a way of showing your strength, your happiness, your honor. I managed to show remarkable strength and made a good impression on my hosts without spilling my “honor” in front of anyone. Business has officially begun.




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