t’s rude to eavesdrop, or so I was always taught. But in Chinese restaurants, it’s also inevitable. When you’re seated cheek-by-jowl with fellow diners, it’s hard to resist overhearing when the gaggle of middle-aged ladies next to you begins to discuss their love lives – or the price of their houses. And you can be sure that there are plenty of eager ears around you when you begin talking about your own private affairs – even in English. (I was once having a hearty discussion with a group of fellow 20-something guys on a train from Shijiazhuang to Beijing, thinking that the shield of language protected us – only to realize that while our fellow travelers might not understand what ‘enormous tracts of land’ signified, they could recognize the hand gestures clearly enough.)
The only protection offered is that your fellow diners are eating and talking so noisily that you can’t make out individual words over the slurp of noodles and the clatter of chopsticks. It’s a vision of dining – even at expensive restaurants – that can be disconcerting to Westerners. After all, when we fork out cash for somewhere with fancy forks, we expert a quiet, civilized atmosphere, complete with deferential waiters and plenty of space between ourselves and our fellow eaters, and with the kitchen safely tucked behind walls – unless it’s one of those fancy organic places where we get to see the kale being plucked ourselves and the chicken lovingly slaughtered after living a long, healthy and happy life.
That’s a far cry from the Chinese restaurant ideal, summed up in one telling word – renao, “hot and noisy.” If you’re used to cool and quiet, it’s a bit of a shock. But it’s not the sweat of the kitchen and the yelps of fellow diners that the word really signifies. It’s the hustle and bustle, the life around you – a delight in being somewhere where others are having a good time. The closest equivalent in the West might be the Irish “craic” – “There’s great craic in here tonight, lads” – the spirit of sociability, gossip, fun, and likely drunkenness that signifies a good time out.
It was in that spirit that I dragged myself out to a friend’s engagement party over Spring Festival. It was on the far side of Beijing from where I live, but the benefit of the city emptying out over the New Year is that taxis positively zip around the roads. Still, it reminded me of a dark time in Chinese restaurant history – when the abundance of group coupons still so thrilled people that they’d arrange dinners miles out of anyone’s way just because they had a good deal there. “Sure, it’s lousy food and it’ll take an hour to get there, but we get 80 percent off!” As I arrived in the desolate wastes of south Beijing, though, I was hoping for some of the conviviality – possibly fuelled by baijiu – that makes for a good night out here.
It turned out to be a little too much fun.
Gifted with an abundance of money, rather than sense, my friend, a local fuerdai – the “second-generation rich” much scorned by their poorer contemporaries – had decided that it would be a good idea to invite not one, not two, but three of his former girlfriends to his engagement party. This came as a surprise to his bride-to-be. Although she could hardly be ignorant of her future husband’s history – his social media accounts were scenes of Roman decadence – she had successfully blanked it out. Seeing his exes there – at least one of whom she’d once stalked on social media herself – brought up some, shall we say, feelings about the marriage.
Thankfully, this was a party for their friends, not relatives. It’s my belief that by the time the aunts and uncles were brought out to meet each other a few days later, things had been patched over and stitched up – or so my friend assured me, nursing a sore head. But it was an educational evening. I learnt, for instance, the Chinese for “cheap whore,” which was one of the lesser insults shouted by the bride’s party at one of the exes. I learnt not to try and stand between quarrelling women, unless you want the full fury of the furies to be turned on you. And I learnt that wine is really very hard to wash out of shirts.
Fortunately, we had a private room. Unfortunately, I’m pretty certain the shouting could be heard throughout the restaurant. Most of the other diners seemed to regard it as positively the best entertainment they’d had in months. I believe some of them were taking bets on the outcome, in fact. Admittedly, they had to duck a thrown bottle or two – plastic, thankfully – but that was a small price for a show.
It wasn’t much of a dinner. For one thing, half the food got swept onto the floor at one point. But it was certainly hot and noisy – maybe a little too much so for my unfortunate friend. “James,” he said to me afterward, counting out notes to compensate for the damage, “you will still come to the wedding, right?”