In typical Chinese fashion, the hospitality entailed an onslaught of alcohol-fueled feeding frenzies with intermittent sightseeing, during which times we were corralled to take group and one-on-one photos with every combination of individuals present. Then whisked to the next meal.
One morning we awoke in a recovering haze at a hot springs outside of Liaoyang. The day before we had been drinking since noon. That afternoon in a private dining room in Anshan, we took turns toasting our 10-odd hosts for over four hours. The liver damage comprised three bottles of 110-proof local liquor and a crate of half-liter bottles of beer. In the lobby of the restaurant there was a tank off in a corner and underneath a spiraling marble stairwell, where inside two live seals flapped about and sniffed up with doughy glass eyes. Around the banquet table, however, the three of us were the creatures from the sea.
We were then carted off to make a two-hour dash to Liaoyang for a repeat of lunch. The trip was not unlike an ambulance plunging towards the ER. Dinner, however, inevitably proved abridged when after two more hours of booze guzzling Rich and I began to see double with near clarity. Coupled with my head whirling in my ears, I leaped from the table and bolted to the hotel. The last thing I remember was being on my back and half-dressed under blankets. I squinted up to eight-to-ten dim faces surrounding my bed and peering down. Lights out.
We left the hot springs without so much as seeing it or getting our toes wet, being catapulted across Liaoning Province into the border City of Dandong, which is wedged up the Yalu River across from North Korea. After a tamer, red-wine only North Korean lunch, we hopped onto a boat that putted us within a stone’s throw of the peninsula’s riverbanks. Along the shoreline was a shipyard with rundown industrial boats all bearing the North Korean flag. On shore, a scattering of men performed innocuous takes around oil drums from behind barbed wire. A couple of lone solders bearing machine guns dotted the embankment, none seeming to take notice of our boat or of us waving idiotically at them with cellphone cameras as we scudded passed.
And once again nothing seemed more obvious to us. It was that same thing we had known throughout the day, and every day, at that, and throughout the whole trip. The world of our youth was so very far away. But our lives had someone again unforeseeably converged. It was hard to process, and we knew it would be impossible to convey. It’s hard to feel and accept the transcendent yet succinct passage of time. It’s why I still haven’t gotten used to being sentimental. I think I must have held back tears when their airport bus finally drove off.
Toba Beta wrote, “Reunion reveals friendship potential that haven’t yet been emerged in the past.” When I searched on the Internet for “quotes about reunions” I hoped Google would return an author I had read or at least one whom was famous. This missive, however, seemed somehow fitting, if even accidentally so, or so I justified. And so an unfamiliar muse sets the tone for a tale as arbitrary as that which spawns childhood friendships in the first place: the happenchance of circumstance and a sustained daily presence of each other’s company throughout one’s most formative years. From a late Bayside, Queens summer in 1977 to as an unlikely reuniting 35 years later one winter in Liaoning Province, China.
Dr. Cui was struck with over-zealous, bordering on feigned, marvel upon first hearing I was Jewish. His near-jubilation seemed about as genuine as his own self-proclaimed devotion to the Christian faith, or even the very doctoral degree that comprised his name itself. His chosen English name, a gratuitous yet common practice amongst Chinese, he proudly professed was “Moses.”
Over the two years plus that followed, we spent enough time together to be able to get to know each other, or at least have the opportunity to do so, which I suppose isn’t the same thing. Like so many instantly wealthy Chinese, the combination of sudden and extreme money and power had rendered Moses overly guarded and comically arrogant. This unfortunate amalgam was bolstered by his Chinese education and cultural upbringing, which achieves in its citizens a general lack of interest in the world, and therefore little more than a surface knowledge of it, apart from a near-compulsion to validate stereotypes about, say, India or Africa, and compare and compartmentalize cultures like the Chinese versus the Japanese. Like so many nouveau riche Chinese, little seemed to genuinely enthuse Moses apart from the identification and quantification of luxury material items, i.e., the prices of Louis Vuitton luggage, the newest BMW convertible and Ferragamo ties. The result of such uni-dimensional vapidity has rendered most of China’s elite to boring, juvenile narcissists.
So, I was naturally reluctant when Moses proposed two “successful” Jewish friends of mine make the time to fly to China and deliver a lecture series on on the “the Secrets of Jews in Business” to Christian EMBA “students.” I was hesitant for several reasons, not the least of which was how fake the entire thing was. It was futile that I tried to make it abundantly clear how my friends and I were mere secular Jews. And I also had deep reservations that his purported Christian business leaders were little more than brain-washees into a faith about which no one had the foggiest clue.
I was also genuinely and justifiably skeptical that such a trip could even be pulled off in the first place and was never convinced (even while it occurred) that plans would be carried out as promised. In living nearly 12 years in China, I had experienced so much big talk with absolutely no follow through that I had come to reasonably expect discussion of doing literally anything to basically be meaningless. Someone I had once met best summed up working with Chinese: “they think one thing, say something else, and do a third thing entirely.” I had explained to Moses that professional Americans, in general, and especially busy/successful people, took pride and invested their reputations in committing to plans and then sticking to them. This would take some demonstrating, however, and over the course of the next year I arranged two trips for him, his friends and daughter to the US, which included prepaying international and domestic flights, Amtrak tickets, appointments for him and his daughter to tour various boarding schools, prepaid hotels, and Broadway tickets. This gained me in Moses’ eyes, and rightfully so, that I did not bullshit about what I said I would do. And I was eventually instrumental in his daughter’s attending a reputable prep school in Virginia. So, Moses had now forced himself to reciprocate in his own hair-brained plan less he endure the shame in the knowledge that he had been upstaged by a foreigner.
But I was also loath to the whole idea on simple grounds of prejudice. While it is arguably true that Jews have been successful given their relative numbers, I also didn’t feel the need to propagate such a platitude. It just so happens I am on the right side of convention at this juncture in time, but I am under no illusions that stereotyping, even when to positive ends, is the very seed that has been unfavorably sewn against Jews and all others whom have been persecuted. But at the same time, the idealist in me felt I could use the lectures to address this notion of positive racism and point out the dangers of stereotyping regardless of how favorable the preconceived notions were. But another side of me felt that this was also just a rationalization for wanting to go through with the trip.
Lastly, I was aware that my friends and I would have to spend ample time with Moses and his Christian cronies, a fact which genuinely concerned me given that were committing to 10-days on the road together. I was not sure there wouldn’t be a clash of cultures, and that in all of their seemingly well-intentioned hospitality and generous gestures that the Chinese wouldn’t somehow manage to overstep boundaries and completely fuck everything up.