Thursday, May 3, 2012

Absolutely the Most

My dinner appointment with Martin, A.K.A. Monkey and his girlfriend was for 7PM. I hastened across campus. Our meeting place was the front gate. I remember thinking that I had to psych myself to get up early the next morning for my 8AM class, and also that I should pack my laptop because I’ll be sharing an article I had copied onto my thumb drive from the news with my second group of sophomores in my 10AM class.

I was feeling camp-damp: that clammy, cold feeling you get when camping during or just after a solid rainfall. Indeed it had rained earlier today, a nice, steady rain that added to the veritable soaking we got last night.

It was dusk and the mosquitoes threatened. I picked up the pace a little. I didn’t want to be dinner before I got to eat dinner. My recalcitrant stomach, on the mend finally, did not give me too much grief. This, fleetingly: ‘maybe one more day and I’ll be 100% again’.

These were my thoughts as I crossed campus.

Meeting up with my former student turned friend was a pleasure. We ‘high-five’d and hugged, stumbling over each other in our eagerness to share news. It had been a while since we’d seen each other. He asked where I’d like to eat. I gestured toward the popular hot-pot establishment. I was in the mood for a nice meal. We side tracked long enough to pick his girlfriend up from work, crossed The Street and entered the restaurant.

I’ve described eating hot-pot before. It is a meal that you essentially cook yourself. You order the raw ingredients: sliced potatoes, lotus root, shredded cabbage, bean curd strips, some beef and lamb. For Martin and his Sweetie: some fish rolls and cubes of pig blood that look like chocolate pudding (which I did taste. They’re not half bad if you don’t take big bites). Everything is brought on a cart while a simmering pot of stew is centered on the hot-plate in the middle of the table. First you eat the stewed chicken with onions and celery, leaving the fragrant broth to cook your vegetables in. Once most of the chicken is gone you start adding your ingredients.  

Eating hotpot correctly entails a minimum 2 hour commitment. First for eating the stewed portion, and then for cooking and eating your vegetables. Fortunately, Monkey and I hadn’t visited in a long time, so we had plenty to talk about.

If you’re not careful, it is easy to overeat. A bite here, some conversation. Some laughter there and look: someone at the table has picked another morsel of food out of the pot and dropped it in your bowl. All the while chatter, chatter, chatter, nibble, nibble, nibble. It really is a most convivial dining experience. 

It was after 9PM when we left the restaurant. We weren’t able to finish all the food we ordered, so we asked for a carry out bag. I ended up taking the beef, lamb and sliced potatoes home. They’ll do for my dinner tomorrow night… or sometime. I found I wanted something sweet to cap our meal off and treated everyone to a rolled crepe. I was too full to eat mine to I took it home, too.

Sated, relaxed, in good company. Monkey and his Sweetheart walked me partway home. By now it was full dark. Mosquito patrol was over. Time to enjoy. We walked past the building that houses my former apartment, circumvented the small park I used to look out on longingly when I first arrived here and was under the ‘instruction’ that women could not go out alone at night. Still in full chatter mode and comfortable as only old, good friends could be, we blathered our way around Teaching Building 1 and ambled past Teaching Building 2.

To our left was another little park; on the right a small nature area filled with brambles and bushes. Further out, from the pond, we could hear the croaking of the bullfrogs. The air was redolent with the fragrance of magnolia and honeysuckle. Cherry blossoms, recently come into flower, carpeted the ground with their petals, fallen during the afternoon’s rain. The evening’s clamminess had given way to crisp, cool night air. Overhead the three quarter moon, shining brightly through a halo of clouds lit our way in the parts of campus not artificially illuminated. 

The scene took my breath away.

I stopped, in awe and wonder. The sights, the smells, the sounds… the very texture of the night wrapping itself around me, including me into its mystery without once giving up its secret spoke directly to my inner poet. I was on sensory overload, enchanted and overcome, all at the same time.

My young friends, unaware, or perhaps unmindful of the silent tableau they were unwittingly a part of, walked a few paces ahead before realizing I had stopped dead in my tracks. Martin, concerned something had befallen me, turned back. He caught the bemused look on my face and suddenly, he too was enmeshed in the lushness of the night. Wordlessly he reached for his girlfriend, wrapped his arm around her and just… opened up and let nature fill him and surround him.

How often do you stop to smell the flowers, really? We always give lip service to that saying but how often does the smell of flowers, the sound of the night, the feel of the air and the sheer joy at being present to live in that moment engulf you?

Martin and I parted ways a few paces later, at the sports grounds. I hugged them both, and went on my way. In no hurry at all, I took in the sculpted garden by the basketball courts. They looked ethereal in the moonlight and they too gave off a gentle blend of floral fragrances. Going through Building 5’s open causeway, I picked up the clamor of bullfrogs once again, their guttural, lustful laments coming in waves as one’s symphony ended and the other’s began.

To my right was a large dirt field, soon to be a paved road. In the ruts, puddles of rain reflected moonglow like polished glass. Here and there, students leaving the library for their dorm hailed me and wished me goodnight. Several from the Over-the-Wall community, their nightly constitutional over, nodded my way and gave me the traditional greeting: wan an – evening peace. I returned in kind.

Evening peace. How right and fitting a way to describe what is, without a doubt, the most beautiful night I’ve experienced since living in Wuhan.       

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