Thor's China Diary



WTUSM Welcome Dinner

Heavens, I've been here a week already. The only academic staff member I've met in that time is WF, and that was a social occasion involving GX. Nobody  has taken me to the library, or even told me where the graduate school is. So it was a bit of a surprise to get a message that the University President would meet us at 6p.m.. It turned out to be a dinner, of many courses in the Chinese fashion. I wasn't sure whether to actually eat, or just admire the procession of plates.

The Chinese authority style is quite interesting. The most inconspicuous people can turn out to be directors or managers. Men, especially, dress down, seldom wearing a tie for example. There is no question however about the order of deference. When I stated talking to the teachers in the Hubei Foreign Trade School recently, women teachers immediately withdrew on the arrival of a male, and younger males immediately excused themselves when a male teacher in his mid fifties arrived, even though he was least able to contribute to an exchange.

The President of WTUSM is a small, slightly rotund man. There is not a sharp angle in his body, and he fits in easily with every social group. He can maintain a reasonable, courteous conversation in English, a routine no doubt well practised on his many international trips (which he took care to tell us about). There were perhaps a dozen or more people at the circular table, but apart from one or two short comments by other staff members, all conversation was an exchange with the President. I tried to elicit a little discussion from Professor L, head of FAO, on my left, but his responses were cursory - apparently cross-talk is not done - and on a couple of occasions the President took up my queries to L directly, ignoring the other man. As the tribal elder, I had even prepared a little speech, but the format left no scope for that kind of game.

Perhaps a half of the Chinese staff members present at the dinner spoke no English. Since the President decreed at the start of the meal that English was the medium, they were effectively struck dumb. The whole hierarchy of the Foreign Affairs Office was represented, including the man who invariably drives us on visits to shops etc. also had his place at the table. Perhaps he has some kind of security role as well (??).

Whatever else this place teaches, bar tendering skills are not amongst them. On a normal day that dining staff is likely to present dishes in random order at long intervals. Tonight the girl doing the honours promptly spilled wine all over the President's napkin, then repeated the performance several more times around the table. Ah well, who am I to be critical?  My Chinese manners were probably appalling! In Australia this dinner would have gone on and on, or we might have retired to a comfortable spot for some real conversation. But this is China. Once the regulation courses had been served the whole show came to a sudden and abrupt halt... Thank you, goodnight. Duty done!

"WTUSM Welcome Dinner" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved, 1 September 1998