A Tale of Two Hotpots

Last Thursday and Friday evenings were hotpot evenings. Katzka from the Czech Republic invited Birdy and I for a hotpot dinner. I was a bit unsure whether to accept or not – I don’t mind going for hotpot with classmates like Julie and Jorg. They are quite willing to conform to our vegetarian specifications. Usually, we just take a yin yang hotpot. This kind of hotpot comes with two sections, and we just separate the inner and outer sections. Going with a bunch of other people though would mean asking them to do the same…and that ruins the essential hotpot experience for them. What is the essential hotpot experience? Meat, of course! From every animal you can think of. Every part of every animal you can think of. So, I thought that it wouldn’t be fair to ask people who were not really friends, but more acquaintances to comply with our stipulations.

After class on Thursday though, Ian really badgered us into going. He was leaving for Beijing, and he promised that there would be 2 hotpots, and he would mostly eat vegetables himself as there was the alluring prospect of a 40-hour train journey to Beijing. There are 12-hour trains to Beijing, of course. He just chose the slowest option as it was the cheapest. Come Thursday evening, I stood outside the dorm, waiting for the others to come. Katzka and George, fellow citizens of the Czech Republic, Ian, a girl from Italy whose name I always forgot, and Jorg as well as Dawei. We walked to my favorite hotpot restaurant, just near the main campus gate. There were two more guys already there – one was this guy who we had first ‘met’ almost 4 months ago, and the other was a guy who refused to introduce himself, and who generally gave the impression that he is Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather. Such was his demeanor. The classic look-through-you. The classic I-cannot-interact-with-such-earthlings attitude. Thankfully there were 2 hotpots at the same table, which meant that we could sit with Dawei, Jorg and Ian, and order the same mix-vegetarian hotpot. The rest of the group sat the same table, but it could have been a group of strangers. No one from that table addressed the ones here. Ian though was in his elements. The lad can be a talker when he wants to and a very good one at that. He regaled us for a while with tales of a former Turkmenistan dictator, Turk Bashir. I was fascinated too – Turkmenistan under that despot was pretty much like North Korea, yet the Western world seems not to have been as worried about Turkmenistan as they are about North Korea. Perhaps, with reason. A nuclear-armed country is always more dangerous than a country led by a man who says that we shall have a national melon day, just because he loves melons.

I was around half-way through some lotus roots when catastrophe struck. The hotpot is just a boiling cauldron of spicy oil. Occasionally though they top the oil with broth. It took just a second or so, but one of the roving attenders chanced upon our half-empty pot and poured some fresh broth into it. I was aghast. There! There! There goes the rest of the dinner! I have been in China long enough to know that it wasn’t plain water – it was broth, and definitely not vegetable broth. I stopped eating immediately, much to Dawei’s consternation who tenderly offered me raw cucumber as compensation. Birdy was having her tofu and nothing would deter her from continuing. I was a bit surprised when she continued to eat. “It’s already mixed in there,” she said, in a vague drunken manner even though the only thing we had drunk was tea. Ah well, it’s one thing to have non-vegetarian food not knowing it was meat, but quite another thing to willingly have it. That I cannot. The group broke up shortly afterwards, no one from the other table said bye to each other, and I went back feeling that the RMB35 spent was definitely not worth it. Not even the broth. He he.

Friday though was a different story. Our Spoken Chinese teacher invited us for hotpot, or perhaps we invited her. Either way, Julie, Jorg, Birdy, Dawei and I took Bus 19, getting off once we spotted Miss Tang at the bus stop. She had bought each one of us herbal tea and Pepsi. Quite strangely, it was Diet Pepsi. I found that pretty cute, she had remembered that I drink only Diet Coke or Pepsi. Yeah, I know that isn’t the greatest health drink, but it’s my only weekly indulgence. There has to be some caffeine in life! Somewhere! A short walk later we found ourselves at Running Pepper. That was the name of the restaurant! The decor was remarkably similar to Weidao, the hotpot restaurant we went to just the previous night. But the company was so different! It was wild, hilarious, and fun. As these photos would show. ;-). And really, that’s what makes a hotpot special. It’s not about the food, delicious as it is. It’s just a social gathering. And if you don’t have the right people around you, then it’s just not hotpot. Friday evening, I felt that the hotpot was a simmering hotpot of different cultures – it was just the way hotpot should be. A tribute to fun and friendship. So what do you do at a hotpot?

You can lie down and take group photos...
You can play with your tea-cup
You can pretend to be bored...
This is what you should NOT do with chopsticks
You can play the fool. Tang Laoshi demonstrates how
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