Sometime back, Birdy was casually walking in the campus, feeling good after a nice meal, when she saw some birds. Birdy being Birdy being bird-lover, she stopped a while to stare at the birds. I, having little else to do, also stopped. The air was crisp and spring was in the air with the birds welcoming it. The casual onlooker though would not understand what we were looking at unless he/she too stopped a while to stand and stare. One such casual onlooker brushed past me, neck craning to see just what Birdy was peering at.
Since I have a habit of talking to strangers, I told him she is looking for…and Birdy supplied the Chinese word for birds that I was fumbling for. The onlooker’s face burst into nirvanic revelation, and he uttered an enlightening “ah.” After that, since we didn’t have much else to do walked alongside the onlooker. “Are you a teacher?” asked Birdy. The man blushed. He was slightly balding, a bespectacled man who looked almost our age.”I am a student,” he replies. “Oh! What are you studying?” “Accountancy,” he replied. This was all in Chinese, the man doesn’t know too much of English. Slowly, as we walk we reveal that we are students too. Questions follow from him, many beyond our limited Chinese vocabulary. But I think he was asking how long we are studying here, or how long we have been here (both of which confuse me greatly). We part in front of our dormitory, exchanging phone numbers, and names.
Zhang Ke messages us early on Sunday morning, inviting us for dinner. We accept, and meet him in the evening. A rather awkward few moments ensues. Once we go through our finite Chinese stock phrases, we are left groping for words. “What kind of food would you like?” he asks. “Oh! Chinese food,” I reply, probably the dumbest answer ever. “Hotpot?” asks he. “Sure,” we say. Except that we are thinking it’s going to be a very silent hotpot considering the limited vernacular abilities of both parties. I desperately ask Xiao Feng if she is free. No, she isn’t. She is working. As we turn the corner, we meet Xiao Chung, another Chinese friend. He is a miracle! He knows Chinese! He knows English! Enough to translate. Zhang Ke asks him if Chung is our friend…and then once we reply yes, immediately asks him for dinner. Chung too comes along and the four of us then spend the next 3 hours beside a simmering cauldron of spicy oil into which vegetables are dunked.
To the uninitiated, hot-pot actually is supposed to have originated in Chongqing, but Chengdu is pretty famous for it yet. I sometimes think I should open a hot-pot restaurant in India. I ask Zhang Ke about it. By now, I know that he isn’t a student, well not entirely, he has a rather thriving business of his own. Zhang Ke dismisses the idea. “India is too hot,” he laughs. “But we Indians love spicy food,” Birdy counters. The idea simmers still in my head. These hot-pot restaurants serve just hot-pot. Nothing else. I am not sure how you can distinguish one hot-pot restaurant’s quality from another – maybe the spicy oil is different? It’s also fairly pricey considering that you are paying the restaurant for the privilege of cooking! And that’s what you. Plates of vegetables are placed next to you on a tray. Once the oil/broth starts simmering (this has already been doused with a 1000 red chillies and spices), you dunk your veggies inside the broth and watch it stew. In the meantime, prepare your own plate with some garlic sauce, or soy sauce or any other mixture that you would want your veggies to be flavored with. Ok, meat also. Dip the veggies into the sauce on your plate, and munch away. Munch away is what I did for much of the time. In between, the conversation flowed from cars – how expensive are cars in India compared to China – to beer and rent and cost of a house. The Chinese love to know the price of everything – currency conversions don’t matter – is it really cheaper or more expensive there?
In between, I eat a lot. Mushrooms, all kinds of fungi (gross as that sounds), potatoes, cauliflower. Birdy doesn’t stop eating dofu – she usually is restrained from having it much as I really dislike the chewy taste of dofu. Slowly, the chatter around our tables draws to a lull. Everyone is too full and it is almost 9PM when we make our way back. Sometimes, it is amazing what happens when you sight a bird. The most unexpected friendships begin…