“Welcome to Nei Mongol”

Streets of Datong

Firecracker residue from the 60th Anniversary of the PRC

That night in Datong a few of us set out into town in search of a good bar or adventure.  Scattered throughout the streets was the reminiscence of what must have been thousands of firecrackers, set off in celebration of the 60th celebration earlier that day.  Walking around Datong, I immediately noticed a difference from life in Beijing in the curiosity people displayed toward me.  In parts of Beijing, people may look at you for an extended time because you are foreign, but for the most part, the city is pretty international.  It seemed in Datong however, foreigners were uncommon—an observation that was reinforced when a crowd began to form around us.   Dozens of Chinese lined up, talking, pointing, laughing, and smiling, until eventually the timidity was broken as one of them started to approach us.  There were just about 7 of us, and the crowd quickly approached and started asking each of us about where we were from and why we were there.  As for me, I received the same initial question to which I had grown accustom in Beijing—what’s your nationality.  I then rattled off the explanation that although I am American, I am half Chinese, and subsequently gave a short family history—one which I had quickly realized I needed to be able to explain after just a few weeks in China.

Encountering Locals on the Streets of Datong

A few of us set out to find some 小吃—literally small eat—a.k.a. street food or a small bite to eat.  After perusing the streets, we decided to order some chuar (food on stick, boiled or grilled and usually meat) outside this small restaurant. (Often a chuar grill is outside a restaurant, on the street, which you just quickly order from and eat on the street or on the go). Without hesitation, the owner came out and ushered us inside, pulling out wooden stools and sitting down next to us.  He introduced his best friend, who joined us, and we started talking.  The owner quickly made it clear that “Inner Mongolia welcomes you,” and that although we had lived in Beijing, Inner Mongolia is the best place and has the best people.  (Inner Mongolia is pronounced Nei Mongol in Chinese)

With a hearty yell and a quick gesture of his hand, glasses were set in front of us and fresh beers were poured.  After everyone had a full glass before them, he prompted everyone to make a toast, and shouted, “Ganbei!”  (Literally meaning empty glass, as you have to finish it).  A tray loaded with fresh chaur was put which seemed to give him enough reason for yet another ganbei.  He diligently made sure everyone had a full glass in front of them and, despite how full we were, we had a chuar in hand.  We would chat about our experience in China for a few minutes and yet another ganbei would erupt.  I began to notice that when he raised his glass against ours, he would overtly push the others above his, making sure he was the lowest.  A friend leaned over and explained that having your glass as the lowest shows respect for those you are “ganbei”ing with and is a sign of humility.

Eating and drinking with our newfound friends

He insisted that the beers and chuar be continuously replaced with yet another round, and soon our rowdiness was the spectacle of all the patrons in the modest restaurant.  Two other men seemed compelled to join us, and pulled over their stools which called for, of course, another cheers.  The owner and his best friend were continuously laughing and trying to communicate with us, telling us about Inner Mongolia and how they welcome us.  He made it clear that this entire thing was his gift to us, which was incredibly generous considering we had already gone through 40 or so beers and chuar to boot.  When the limits of our language were reached, he would raise his glass in the air with a big grin and shout “gaoxing de shihou” (good times) or “ganbei!” and everyone would join in.  As the night wore on, the owners wife came back and was visibly displeased.  I believe he was supposed to close the restaurant over an hour before, and when he did not come home, she came to find him giving us all free beers and chuar.  The owner, with his arm around his best friend and a beaming smile, responded to her admonishments by beckoning her to sit down, relax, and meet his new friends.  At that point there must have been 10 people, 5 of us and 5 Chinese, all huddled around a rickety wooden table boasting used skewers and empty bottles.  He managed to convince her to let him keep the restaurant open for awhile more, but she soon returned with his best friend’s wife as well, and the two guys turned to us with a look that it was time to call it a night.  They closed the night with a final ganbei, and after shaking hands and exchanging thank you’s, we started out into the street.  They walked with us to send us off, and with big smiles and a gestured ganbei, they once again welcomed us to Inner Mongolia.

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