Water and Tea

It was a blur.

It was a blur that reached out onto our restaurant table and wove itself into the napkins and our glasses of tea and water. It was very clear.

It was very clear that this blur that existed in the space between our sips of water and our vocal chords was what I had tasted on many occasions. I wondered if its opacity was mutually transparent.

I smiled. We’d been friends for the year, my year in China. We’d been friends for this, my first year in China—abroad—and we went to meals together once or twice a week. In typical Chinese fashion, we alternated between who treated whom to dinner. This time it was my treat. The last time it had been his.

We were friends for the extent of a year. A year was a long time. We knew each other well, and this was my treat.

I was not merely taking my friend out to eat spicy chicken with noodles (the chicken came on a big plate with flat white noodles); thestakes were higher: I was taking the possibility for interconnectedness between people from disparate cultures out to dinner as well.

I sat there awkwardly and consumed this heavy serving of clarity—that we had had so many dinners like this very one and that our meals had always come with a side order of the same, dull dinner-table conversations. And then I wanted to leave the table, wanted to escape the haze of in-between and its rich hoisin (hoisin? really? was it?) sauce. It was a dark brown; it was a bright red; it was spicy.

It was spicy and it stung my nose and confused me. It was dark and rich and beautiful indescribable and yet here it was, asking me to describe it.

The best I could do was to say that we weren’t friends—that our year together had been spent playing with our forks, gently pushing the food around our plates without really knowing what it was or why we continued eating it. We were posturing at being full.

And then it appeared that we had continued eating it because we believed that eventually the cultural issues would break away and we would find each other truly interesting. So I kept asking him to lunch, or dinner. We continued eating that chicken with wide noodles and the rich hoisin sauce because there was nothing else to do; because we had forgotten how to order anything else; because Will the intercultural interloper was looking for some savory dish of an experience to bring home with him after his year abroad and serve piping hot to my friends and family and potential colleagues. Internationalism was social currency.

I took another bite; the dish was cold. We put our napkins down, said our goodbyes, and went to our separate apartments where we would listen to different music sung in tones that were linguistically comprehensible but emotionally unintelligible.

We walked out, leaving behind the tea in our glasses; it tasted like water but called itself tea.

14 June, 2012

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