the silence of the crab readyclickandgo travel

Sitting at the long table in the busy restaurant on the outskirts of the capital city of Shandong Province, Qingdao, irritated by constantly hitting the gas bottle every time I tried to stretch my legs, and desperate to see Stella on the list of beers, but disappointed at finding only Qingdao, annoyingly listed as can, two sizes of draft and two different sizes of bottled beer, I opted for a bottled water much to the horror of my hosts.

The lunch party which consisted of a very polite guide and five members of the different bodies at the local council, were disappointed. After all it was a business lunch paid by someone else which meant free rein on the food and drinks. The finest bottle of snake wine was placed in the middle of the table with the usual question – have you tried it before. Of course, I have. And of course, I hated it. It leaves you with an oily, sweet taste in the mouth which doesn’t make you drunk, just sick. But then Qingdao beer is the same, sweet and no matter the quantity you take the only thing it’s good for is your kidney stones which you may pass with the amount of pointless liquid drunk. It’s pointless because it doesn’t make you drunk!  I politely smiled at my 6 boys, my 6 hosts for lunch, and stuck to the water. The Chinese cannot handle their drink except for hard core military serviceman coyly dressed in suit and tie, and they are easily recognisable as the soul of the party, going around calling on everybody to drink the large glasses of snake wine in one go. To refuse is a grave offence, even if you are Chinese. The first person to pass out is usually some naive underage girl employed as a secretary but brought in as a body for one of the big bosses who, after free food and immense hectolitres of alcohol, would like some personal company too.

I wondered what they were thinking of me, the foreigner, a woman, without make up but with worn out trousers, who they have to entertain for next few hours, even though they don’t speak any English or me any Chinese. There is only a certain amount of staring and nodding you can do at these business lunches without coming across as a weirdo.

The food was Mongolian hot pot. I had been hoping for a nice plate of rice and some soy sauce mixed with garlic on top, but that would have caused grave offence. Imagine going to a Michelin starred restaurant and asking for a fried egg on toast.  The number of people around us, mainly families, put me at ease and I started to concentrate on the conversation which I didn’t understand but with my over 40 visits to the country, I had learned how to look engaged.

We swapped business cards. We bowed to each other, holding the cards with both hands, showing respect, reading them, scanning the letters on the cards, pretending that we understood what was printed on each side of the card, then put them on the table. Not in the pocket. You have to show respect. The families around us stopped for a moment, thinking they were witnessing some kind of star presence in their local restaurant, but my peroxide hair, done meticulously at home before the trip, would make them think that. You are in the world of people with dark hair. Of course, anyone with a little bit of bleach would be a star to them.

silence of the crab readyclickandgo travel

While we were doing all the businessy things hordes of waiters brought bundles of delicious, live food and laid it all on our long table covered in a plastic sheet. The excitement began. Or the game. Without any rules. You just throw food in the boiling water whose bubbles are bursting on the table and wait until vegetables, fruits and meats change colour, structure or until it disintegrates. In the meantime, you drink. And you nod a lot. You don’t talk about business.

The main eating etiquette around hot pot is patience. Sometimes there is not enough butane gas hissing from the bottle under the table to the bucket filled with the water on the table. Or the water in the bucket is too cold and takes a long time to come to the boil. Sometimes there is too much water and when its boiled its starts overflowing on the table. Or the bucket is too small to accommodate the food needs of 4 people, and then order has to established like a queue for a bus. You would take first place in the queue as a foreigner and as a guest.

Felling hungry I loaded hot water with everything laid on the table, ignoring the needs of the guide, local council guy in charge of the tourism in his area and his assistant whose only job was to make sure the bosses glass was never empty. He didn’t speak or drink. He would occasionally get up, with more grace than the Queen, and with his right hand pick up the bottle, fill the bosses glass and then triumphantly sit down. He just won the battle of a very long and prolonged war for the best service, determination and loyalty. He wanted a tap on the shoulder, some recognition but what he got was only a request for matches from his boss.  The Chinese love their cigarettes and a ban on smoking similar to the one brought out across Europe would bring the government down. Not freedom of speech, the one party system or any lack of democracy.

My bacon, mushroom and bok choy were stubbornly circling in the water refusing to be boiled. I turned them upside down hoping for some quicker results only to be sneered at by a waiter who mentioned something about patience and salvation.  Nothing about hunger.

As guest of honour, I was sitting at the middle of the table enjoying a wide view and witnessing the progress of the cooking. The left side of the table was happily tucking into beef while the right was in the process of dropping a live crab into the boiling water. The creature, tied up like a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, dressed in a similar colour, was still moving his whiskers hoping for escape. Not able to watch the execution I turned to my guide to ask about our next stop, at Mt Taishan. While he was explaining the time difference between taking a cable car to the top and walking, a huge commotion broke out on the right side of our table. The guide jumped quickly up, pulling me with him while the rest of the group was already standing on the chairs. The whole restaurant was staring at us in bewilderment. Then I saw him, a little creature, not orange anymore but red, running across the restaurant, trying to save his life. He had escaped from the cauldron, jumped from the table, frightening all my hosts, and now was heading to freedom. I smiled and quietly cheered him on, under my breath, “Go, go, go”. Where to I didn’t know.

The quest for freedom didn’t last long. The finishing line was somewhere between the end of the restaurant and entrance to the kitchen when one of the slimmest chefs I have ever seen who looked like he had never eaten anything in his life, come out with a big metal tray. Coolly,as if he had been in the same situation before, he lifted the tray high and dropped it heavily onto the crab. The small creature made another two side steps and then stopped. The restaurant started to applaud and the skinny chief bowed with pride hiding the murder weapon behind his back.  The waiter became a professional cleaner, picked up the crab carefully, making sure he was dead and took him back to the kitchen.  Order resumed.

I requested a big bottle of Qingdao Beer.




About the author: Tara


The travel professional with years of experience in the travel industry – in guiding, reservations, operations, contracting, customer service and product development – and have travelled extensively in Asia and Eastern Europe not just on holiday but also for work, inspecting hotels, visiting attractions and seeing exactly what each destination has to offer. The only way I could do this properly was with my own guide, car and driver and this inspired me to create my own range of customised private day tours for other people to be able to explore in-depth and learn to love their destination as much as I do.