During midafternoon, the teahouse here is extremely peaceful. It’s off the beaten path, though there’s not much hustle to this small town in the first place. We sit outside, and I imagine writing here for hours on end, sipping a purple sweet potato latte, or buckwheat tea. I wonder if and when the place gets more customers in this old part of town, or if the locals prefer to frequent the more modern part of the city.
Later, the School Director takes us out to dinner on the edge of the island. We are seated outside with a view of the murky ocean, the same color as the sky so that it all blends together in an odd brownish-grey. It’s still a nice view. He shows us how we take out our shrink-wrapped place settings and rinse them with tea before using them. He says it’s the custom here, but not in other provinces; I wonder if that’s because the quality of the water used to wash the dishes here is worse than in other places, or if there is some historical tradition I fail to understand. I don’t really want to know. We open a bottle of wine and it takes a while before I learn the proper drinking custom: Wait for our host to raise his glass, clink our three vessels together, and down their contents in one shot. It’s not great wine, but it doesn’t seem that bad either – totally sip-able, but that’s not what we do. We raise our glasses again, toasting several times during the course of the meals as we drain the bottle among the three of us. We eat tiny spiced shrimp – eyeballs and all – as well as a flat fish that stares at us as we mutilate its body. All were most likely caught that day in the waters upon which we look. Two large fishing nets flank our patio. The white flesh of the fish is mild, but I can’t get myself to eat the gummy black-silver skin, so it remains at the bottom of my bowl, causing me to poke around it as I try to pick out the greens and slimy tofu with my chopsticks. I was full long ago, but the food is good, so I keep eating. Conversation is stilted and simplistic due to the language barrier, but food and wine make the evening smooth and relaxed.
After the meal, Dave and I head into town and soon we are drinking beers like a typical expat. The many bottles that fill up the table come from China, New Zealand, USA. We are too drunk to sample the one from Japan and put it back into the cooler. It’s the last one of its kind in the whole province, and possibly in the country. It will most likely be bought by a young Chinese guy who will come here and order the most expensive thing in order to impress his girlfriend. Jeff, the owner, isn’t fond of having a lot of customers. He just wants a place to hang out, show off his latest brewing successes, and drink with a few paying friends. We are lucky enough to be among them, along with a man from Mongolia. He’s been hired by a French chemical company to study math theory. Why Tangjia, he doesn’t know. Why this company mystifies him as well. He pours himself another locally brewed beer from a tea kettle, as he tells his story of escaping his home country on horseback as a child, only to end up in the Netherlands. His Dutch accent throws me, as I’ve grown more accustomed to the Chinese accents that usually accompany the broken English I hear. I eat the sweet/salty peanuts on the table, and the pile of shells grows as we pass the time together. The evening ends when I can no longer hold my head up. As we look for a cab, we hear someone call out; an “unconventional” driver Dave has used before calls us over and we climb in. Not really an official cabbie, the young man hangs out late near the expat bars, looking to drive teachers home. We climb into his car and make our way back to the apartment. I’m grateful I’m not the one teaching tomorrow.