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Fine Dining and a Renaissance Party Man

I don’t drive in China. When I go to or from a golf project a driver is usually provided and today was no different as I left one of my projects that has been dragging on for almost three years. I have picked up enough Mandarin along the way to have basic casual conversations and the one I had today left me not just a little traumatized. It turned out the driver remembered chauffeuring his boss and me a few years ago. Today we were avoiding a traffic jam by taking an alternate route and he asked me if I remember going this way before. I didn’t as then I was only a few weeks in China and chronically disoriented. Undeterred, he said this is where he drove us to have dinner at a locally famous restaurant that specializes in…… dog.

With horrified and sincere apologies to Brownie, Rusty, Razzbo, Bailey, Lassie, Old Blue, Old Yeller, Hooch, Scooch, Butkus, Bunker, Toto, Shorty, and all dogs everywhere past, present, and future.

I just didn’t know.

I am still friends with “Laker” (Chinese often take English names to make it easier on us westerners) and we have had many dinners since. To someone not familiar with a Chinese business dinner some of them can seem pretty surreal. Almost always, there is toasting and a lavish spread far exceeding what can be consumed by the participants.

Tonight was typical as we were picked up in a car and whisked to an unknown location where we would meet and have dinner with a dozen or so of Laker’s acquaintances. Laker is a something of a Chinese Renaissance Man. Coming of age at the apex of the Cultural Revolution, he was sent from the city to a collective farm where he would presumably spend the rest of his days serving the people’s revolutionaries by hoeing his way to glory. Possessing exceptional intellect and huge test scores he caught a break and a chance to earn an advanced degree and to alter his unwelcome destiny with a position as a professor of literature. Happy but unfulfilled, when Deng Xiaoping uttered the famous words that released the economic flood gates, “Let a few people get rich first.”, Laker left academia for the potential riches that a venture into real estate and golf development could bring. Even though he maintains membership in the “Party”, his passion for his culture and curiosity about life all over the world is never far from the surface. Often his dinner guests consist of a captivating blend of enlightened and lively intellects.

Arriving at our destination I tried to remember previous admonishments to myself for being surprised at anything that happens here. Clearly and still firmly self-delusional, I wondered why instead of a fancy restaurant, we pulled into an imposing granite walled compound that turned out to be the government headquarters of the Yunnan Drug Enforcement Agency. Yunnan is the northeastern point of the infamous heroin trafficking region known as the Golden Triangle. Now intensely curious I wrongly guessed we might have a meal in the employee cafeteria, but instead were escorted to a dazzling, in the way only a Chinese decorator can do, formal dining room deep in the interior of the five story monolith.

There are a set of courtesies and subtle rules that go along with a gathering like this. Foreigners are not expected to know or practice them but it is unmistakably appreciated if they do. While you may be told to sit anywhere, it is wise to wait until you are escorted by the host or invited to a particular seat by the guest of honor. It is not always easy to know who is who until everyone is seated so there is kind of a milling around the enormous round table while everyone figures out the pecking order. It turned out Laker was the GOH and the host was none other than the guy who usually sits in the big office on the top floor. Tonight it was a famous Chinese author and her Syrian Surgeon husband visiting from their home in US, a gregarious retired Army General who I met before, some local journalists, my partner Blackie and our translator Lucie. It was evident by the bottles of Baijiu appearing from small shopping bags that they were spoiling for a party. Baijiu literally translates to “White Wine” but is actually a distilled rice spirit containing around 54% alcohol with a pleasant petroleum nose, notes of brimstone on the palette, and an amusing throat searing finish. It is served in tiny stemware and strictly for toasting. The night starts with a group toast lead by the guest of honor and slides downhill from there with individual toasts going on all through dinner. The toasting etiquette is a story in itself but suffice that the main purpose when there is a foreigner present seems to be getting him or her drunk. For some reason Baijiu has little effect on me and I am lucky to survive the favorite game of barrages of individual toasts where the participants gang up on you so that at a table of 10, you end up drinking at a ratio of 9 to1. The dozens of requisite tributes were soon augmented by woozy guests singing traditional folk songs and group renderings of revolutionary hymns. Toward the end, our host treated us to a long operatic style song that lost me completely. It was explained to us that it was a “Hero Song” written by the state run TV network. Interested we asked, “Who is it about?” “Himself,” Lucie replied and translated (loosely) the rest of the lyrics for us to learn that he was the drug enforcement hero of Yunnan and will always protect us because he is smarter than the drug traffickers and rarely sleeps and is the most handsome and dedicated public servant imaginable.

I for one, have been sleeping preeetty well lately.

In addition to writing these missives as a companion piece for show creator Zenta Thomas’, “Breaking Ground”, Sam Sakocius of Project Control International is a golf development executive, entrepreneur, adventurer, lecturer, author, and full time resident of China.

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