We met at a dinner that was given by his mother. He arrived a bit late. The other guests were already seated, but some of them didn’t have their drinks yet. His mother was a great talker, and this came in the way of her hosting duties, as it generally came in the way of many of her duties, tasks, and goals.
He was charming, discretely filling in for his mother, discretely filling and refilling glasses. I remembered how, almost seventeen years ago, I had witnessed a loud fight between him and his mother on the staircase of a large suburban mansion. They ran up and down fighting. The one fled the other, then the other fled the one. Both were shouting, but she was louder.
We were seated next to each other at the dining table. He answered questions politely, self-assuredly, always taking care to refill glasses in the meantime. He was now living in this large Western capital, working for an investment company. He used to live in Shanghai, where he had also worked for some banking firm.
The conversation turned to China. Profitable? Yes. Stable? Difficult. Patent violations, and so forth. Society? Loud, chaotic, exciting.
At some point, I turned sour. I had the vision of all these Western investment guys in Shanghai, young, rarely bearded, striped shirts, chatting away in bars, younger, beautiful Chinese women by their sides, chatting to each other in Cantonese or whatever. Two clouds of chatting adrift in the air, the one English and male, the other Chinese and female. No, it was not fair, I had never witnessed such situations in China. I haven’t been to China for ages, and have never even set foot to Shanghai. But I lived through many such evenings in Japanese towns, not with investment guys, but with English teachers. It made me bitter, sour, astringent, and I couldn’t help it, which increased my sense of despair. The silent rules, never to be uttered, never to be broken, never to be as much as ignored.
He talked about amusement in China, mentioning how the Chinese word for having a good time consisted of the characters for “heat” and “enjoyment”. As if that meant anything. I challenged him, threw Inuit snow hoaxes at him, culture and language, Sapir and Whorf, and so forth. I used words like “nonsense” and sentences like “the logic is flawed”.
His first reaction was astonishment, his second reaction was to ask for my linguistics credentials and offering his (studied linguistics at such-and-such, and may I ask where you …?). He used phrases like ”... but this theory went out already in the Sixties.” We went on for a while. I remember I tried to restrain myself for the sake of the other guests, but it might not have worked. We agreed in the end; I don’t remember on what.
For the rest of the evening, we politely engaged in conversations with other guests. We shook hands when we parted.