Yesterday Bev, a colleague, and I went to tea with the head of a nearby Communist training school. This man’s working on an MPA from Clark University and wanted to polish his English. He sent a car for us at 2pm and we were soon at his school (which is so much cleaner than ours). It’s a school for government workers to deepen their Communist philosophy understanding. They attend for three months at a stretch. No, it didn’t seem to be a re-education center.
We expected a couple hours of chat and perhaps a drive around to see some sights. The afternoon started with tea, cup after cup of tea served by the man who picked us up. The leader, Mr. Xu kept the conversation rolling, though his English I’d say is intermediate. So he could ask and answer questions, but beyond the one sentence response he’d be out of his depth. That wasn’t a problem as both Bev and I are trained to keep the right kinds of questions coming. Who are the famous people in Jinan’s history? How long have you worked her? How many students do you have here at a time? (Twenty-two. I don’t remember the other answers. Some were fairly muddled as far as pronunciation goes.) But the tea was good and we were doing fine with conversation. At one point Mr. Xu asked if we could go to dinner and we agreed. That was before we realized that the conversation would extend for another 2 hours.
The drive turned out to be an adept artist and calligrapher whose work was displayed throughout the room. We got to look through books of Chinese art and Mr. Xu was quite keen on comparing Communism with Christianity because you constantly need to recharge your faith. We both tried to show them that there’s a difference between a belief in a political system and a religion. I think he mulled that over. By 4pm we were running out of topics and satisfied with the afternoon. We tried to get a ride back, but our earlier promise was remembered so we were encouraged to rack our brains for more topics. I will commend Mr. Xu for his English stamina. I’d have been wiped out after two hours of conversation in a foreign language I hadn’t mastered.
Around 5 we left for dinner. He took us clear across town to an elegant hotel, where he was well known. We were escorted to a private room and I was amazed at the level of hospitality we were receiving. We slowly chatted some more and long silences were inevitable. I think the Americans were more nervous about that than Mr. Xu. He didn’t seem to have a need to fill the silence.
After about a dozen dishes including dumplings and rice, we finished dinner. Mr. Xu took us home promising to visit our classes if we liked and encourage our students to study hard. It was a lovely evening, but I think it would have been better to get some new blood at about the 2 hour mark. That’s when the conversation required more heavy lifting.