The Ordinary Life of a Marine Student
We were warned that winters in North China were extremely cold and often vicious. But during the month of October 1945, he weather in Tsingtao was delightful. We had changed from summer khaki to winter greens, and we all wished we hadn’t. Often after my Chinese classes-with my field jacket over my shoulder and my schoolbooks under my arm-I walked into town along the terraced walkways that followed the ocean. It was a long walk, several miles, but I enjoyed it. The pathway followed the curvature of the sweeping bay and passed small hillside shrines and pagodas that stood on rocky precipices. I would miss evening chow at the barracks and have dinner at a Chinese restaurant in town. The guys often joined me. We had special restaurants that we favored. These were real Chinese where only the Chinese ate. You didn’t find them at street level, like the restaurants that catered to foreigners. These were usually on floors above, and to find them you had to know where you were going. Signs were in Chinese and unless you knew where they were, you missed out. They were noisy places, all very much alike-divided into cubicles, with green walls.
I liked to meet the guys at a Chinese eatery near the dock area. Not everyone would have agreed with our choice. But the food was extraordinary. We had to climb a narrow staircase, with broken steps that creaked with each step, and with walls that were dirty and black with age. At the top of the stairs was a counter with two scrolls of Chinese characters, one hanging at each side. Paper lanterns suspended from the ceiling cast a reddish glow upon the scene. Behind the counter sat a Chinese gentleman in a high-neck robe. He looked more like a scholar than a cashier, but the way he handled money, we assumed he was the owner. We had gone to the restaurant a dozen times, and not once did he even smile at us. But then, he never smiled at anyone. On the wall behind the counter was a board with pegs, like the one in the bathhouses, and here waiters on their way from the kitchen to the dining rooms would hang tabs with numbers on them. The old man gathered the tabs when customers were leaving and with an abacus added up the bills. The sound of the clicking abacus beads echoed through the restaurant. Whenever the man saw us coming, he would hit a bell on the counter and instantly a waiter appeared, a Chinese version of a French maitre d’. He carried menus and a towel over one arm. He would lead us to our dining area, always the same one.
The restaurant was a labyrinth of cubicles, some only large enough to seat two people, while others could host a banquet. The entrances to the individual dining rooms all had curtains but rarely were they drawn closed. As we walked to our dining area, it was amusing to watch the Chinese engaged in dining. They ate course after course, which you could tell by the dishes stacked up outside the entrances. Entire family clans grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles and aunts, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and all the clan kids from tottlers to teenagers-sat around circular tables with center pieces that rotated with the swish of a hand. These were family affairs. Those rooms where there were men only-business men most likely feasting their clients and associates-had hostesses in silk dresses who sat with the men, making sure their wine glasses were filled, feeding them with chopsticks-a morsel of this, a morsel of that. Their drinking games were loud and boisterous. One game they all played-scissors, paper, and stone. Two men played at a time. Each would throw out his right hand, with either his fist closed, or flat open, or else shaped like a pair of scissors. Scissors could cut paper; paper could cover stone; stone could break scissors. With each thrust of the hand they simultaneously called out as loud as they could in Chinese. Those who won roared with laughter while the loser had to down a small cup of local wine. The wine, which came in colorfully painted bottles of every size and design, was actually distilled rice whiskey, and very strong.
In time we could name all the dishes. Shui dj ouses and youmen sun, muxu rou and so many more. We learned the names of their whiskies, but regardless of the name, they all were nasty tasting. With the Chinese, the saying goes, the worse it tastes, the better it is for you. We discovered the Chinese drink not because they like the taste, but they drink to get the other person drunk.
The mechanics of eating with chopsticks didn’t come easy. They played havoc in the beginning, but there was no other choice. It bothered us to see little kids eat noodles and rice with chopsticks, and not drop a noodle or grain of rice. In time we became proficient and boasted among one another who was the best.
When we took any new guys to our hangouts, we made sure we ordered Wuja Pee. It was the worst tasting of all the local whiskies, and the most powerful. We learned to play the games, and in time we were louder than the Chinese. Often as they passed by, they poked their heads into our cubical and gave us thumbs up.
I loved those hidden restaurants, but I always suffered from guilt when I came out of a restaurant, picking my teeth with a toothpick, feeling contented and over stuffed, and then entered the real world of Tsingtao. I felt guilty that I could eat so well while people were literally starving to death on the streets. I felt this way, but it didn’t seem to have any affect on all those Chinese who had dined so well in restaurants.