Editors' Choice

Death by Toasting in Beijing

by Larry R. Moffitt

You can fly from Washington to Beijing on a United flight leaving Dulles at 10:00 a.m. and arriving at 3:30 in the afternoon the next day, without the sun ever setting across your bow. You will make a pit stop in Chicago to take on fuel and honey roasted peanuts, and sometimes another stop in Anchorage if you have strong headwinds over Canada.

Sixteen and a half hours will have elapsed and you will have crossed the International Dateline, which adds the extra day, but you will have been hugging the trailing skirt of the sun as ardently as a love-struck stalker. Your so-called mind will tell you it's still the same day. However, you will have flown a total of 7,162 miles and will arrive a grubby, foul-tempered basket case. You will feel the way a desiccated king found in an unearthed Egyptian pyramid looks.

If you want to take the scenic route, Northwest will get you there in just under 24 hours with stops and waits in Detroit and Tokyo. The mileage is 8,202, an ideal flight for people who have a thing for airport transit lounges. Do it economy class, in the middle seat of a jam-packed 747 and you have a real travel experience. Ah, but you'll have to pay extra for the pleasure. This flight is $300 more than the other one. I've done it before in a pinch, but never without drugs.

Trans-global flight may be man's most unnatural act. For example, if you take off from Tokyo to DC on a Tuesday morning, you experience a series of 4-hour days, arriving on the very same Tuesday you left — a half-hour earlier than when you took off. You will have traveled backward in time.

I have a theory, lightly held, that if you could fly against the sun, around and around the world without stopping, you would continue to travel back in time and would grow ever younger all the way down through infancy until you curl into a fetal position in your seat, shrink into an embryo, a zygote, a sperm cell and then…poof. As soon as I get enough frequent flyer miles I'm going to do just that.

On this particular occasion, we were on Thai Airlines, flying with the sun to Beijing. Thai Air is not a natural fit for a China destination but was necessitated by our schedule and the availability of 20 seats. The "we" in this trip was a delegation of high-profile policy wonks and former assistant secretaries of state, now in private practice. We were going over for a look-see and meetings with counterparts in the foreign ministry and Chinese think tanks.

My traveling companion was the late Ambassador Douglas MacArthur II, namesake and nephew of the famous General, a dear friend and mentor for many years. In his 80th year, he was spry. He had been a U.S. ambassador to four countries and the lifelong husband of Laura Barkley, daughter of Truman's vice president. A student of the old school of gallantry, his retinue included the diplomat's twin muses — dignity entwined around one arm and charm, hanging on his every word, around the other. When he unsheathed his wit, it did the work of a demon barber's straight razor.

We left Washington on American to connect with Thai at Dallas/Fort Worth. From there we went to Tokyo and overnighted in an airport hotel, but got very little sleep due to jet lag. From Tokyo we went to Bangkok where we hung out for two hours in a transit lounge featuring a malfunctioning air conditioner in a land of perpetual August, windows that wouldn't open and a hundred passengers from an Indonesia flight, all of whom were apparently on their way to a chain-smokers convention.

By the time we touched down in Beijing, to be greeted by deputy ministers in dark suits and one ribbon-spangled military official, we were blithering. Greetings were exchanged. A skinny interpreter was shoulder surfing beside and slightly behind his boss, hovering like a hummingbird, moving when the boss moved, all the while seamlessly transforming one language into another for our conversation. He had been well chosen. He was Gao and his English was colloquial which meant schooling in the U.S. Gao asked us to call him Chuck. He had chosen his western name in honor of karate master and actor Chuck Norris. A couple days later he mentioned he had attended the University of Texas at Austin. I gave him the high sign of our shared alma mater, a raised fist with the index and little fingers extended, and uttered the requisite "hook 'em horns." Chuck beamed. His days at UT were obviously a golden time for him, too.

The assistants handed us typed itineraries for our meetings and activities. They asked if the schedule was to our liking, and it seemed to be so, but then again our critical faculties weren't engaged at the moment. A group of lesser assistants solicitously requested our luggage tags and went off to gather our bags and put them on a separate truck to the hotel. We would find them waiting for us in our rooms when we got there, one of them said. Only then did someone absorb the itinerary sufficiently to realize we would not be going directly to our hotel.

I think if they had pushed back the welcoming reception a couple hours and had taken us to our hotel first so we could freshen up, then maybe what happened could have been avoided. I'm certain of it in fact. But even the sinewy legions of Sparta never had marching orders as inviolable as a Chinese Foreign Ministry's visiting delegation schedule, set in type. Just our luck to arrive at the cocktail hour.

The bus pulled up to a large gated compound and we offloaded in front of an expansive building with a marble front. Two flag poles stood on a landing halfway up a set of wide, ceremonial steps. The flags of the Peoples' Republic of China and the United States flew next to one another. We were at a friendship hall, a facility used by government ministries to host receptions and dinners for foreign delegations. The plan was to have a drink with a few high-ranking diplomats and Foreign Ministry leaders, exchange toasts to our continuing friendship, to make what Ambassador MacArthur liked to call "agreeable noises."

We filed into the room trying to look brighter and more spirited than we felt. We had worn suits and ties on the flight from Japan because that's the kind of delegation we were, and we had shaved that morning so we probably looked okay. There were around 150 people in the room, men and women of officialdom. No out-of-the-ordinary rancor existed between our two countries at this time and they were pleasant and genuinely welcoming. The space was like a large hotel ballroom, only better. It had a high ceiling, three robust crystal chandeliers and plush carpet where a large Chinese character for "friendship" dominated the center of the pattern. Running half the length of one wall was an enormous and exquisitely done tapestry of maybe 30 feet in length, depicting a mountain valley and a flight of cranes. Except for the portrait of Chairman Mao at one end of the room, of a tasteful size and location, there was nothing political about any of the decor.

Plush couches and doilied chairs ringed the walls, and at one end two large yellow chairs sat side-by-side with a low table of beautiful hardwood in front, inlaid with ivory carvings. A small interpreter's chair sat between and behind the two larger chairs. This is where presidents and prime ministers sit for photo ops and pleasantries before the real back-room stuff begins. We could see they had laid on their best room for us, and in a culture where courtesies are carefully weighed and extended according to stature, this meant something.

Waiters in bowties and red blazers circulated with trays of drinks, and a light buffet of dim sum (steamed buns filled with seasoned pork) was set off to the side. They smelled good and, contrary to what some say, the best dim sum, or bao zhi in Mandarin, are not found in Hong Kong or New York, but in Beijing at state receptions. But that would have to wait.

The ambassador, as the delegation leader and myself as the organizing daibiao misu, were lead to an open space directly in front of the presidential chairs. All the kings men and their shoulder surfers stood in cheery expectation. I could see that the honor of meeting the nephew and spitting image of General Douglas MacArthur, in addition to the ambassador's own distinguished diplomatic accomplishments, was something to write home about. Hands were shaken. How is everyone feeling? We're all fine, and you? Excellent, and how was your flight? Just splendid, thank you.

The room grew quiet and conversations stopped as everyone turned toward the center in amicable silence. Our host from the Foreign Ministry said something in Chinese. His surfer interpreted his thanks for our having traveled such a prodigious distance and that it was a distinct honor and great pleasure to have this distinguished group as their guests. Our host informed us that his formative years in diplomatic service had been spent at the embassy in Washington and seeing us made him nostalgic for those days. He invoked pleasant memories of Washington, the cherry blossoms around the Jefferson Memorial in the springtime, the good-hearted people of America. He complimented Ambassador MacArthur on his youthful vigor. And he meant it too. China is one place where 80 years old isn't thought of as "old" as much as it's thought of as venerable. Anyone able to outlast his enemies long enough to arrive at age 80 is given due credit for his wisdom and cunning. He looked forward to the meetings of the next few days, which would be joined by U.S. Ambassador Winston Lord. He made nice all over the place and concluded in English, "welcome, dear friends" and raised his glass. We raised ours and drank.

It was Ambassador MacArthur's turn to render a responding toast for our team. He stepped up to the plate as he has done maybe ten-thousand times in his career. "Gentlemen, ladies," he said, "it's wonderful to be here in the Republic of China."

Nice beginning. The only problem is that the Republic of China is Taiwan, a China that officially doesn't exist in the place we were in now, which was the People's Republic of China. A silence bigger than The Great Wall fell over the room. The ambassador caught himself immediately, adding, "the People's Republic of China." Okay not perfect, but neither was it fatal. The ambassador continued unflustered, "…here in Taipei."

Ah yes, now that was fatal.

The cadre of shoulder surfers was immobilized, but even officials who didn't understand a lick of English, heard Republic of China and then Taipei. The earlier silence had grown to the size of the unwashed Mongol horde. He caught himself again and said, "…uh, rather Beijing." But now it didn't help.

In the People's Republic of China it is required of anyone attending a conference or public function, whether inside the country or abroad, that they stand up and walk out if Taiwan is ever referred to as the Republic of China or if the Taiwan flag is displayed. In fact it's the law. On the other hand, abandoning your own reception, which you are hosting, especially when feting an international delegation of this caliber, is not easily done. Virtually impossible in fact. They just don't cover this one in protocol class. We were in uncharted territory and nobody knew what to do or say.

A telepathic intellectual arrangement circulated among the Chinese. Remain calm, it said. Nobody make any sudden moves. We are an ancient people and this too shall pass…we hope. Our hosts stood as immobile as the terracotta warriors of Xian. No one spoke or moved, even to sip their drink. The void was total. All sound, air, and light had been sucked from the room by the sheer power of the worst possible sin one can commit in that place and time. It was a singular occurrence as one judges such things, rather like an untouchable work of art in its own way. The perfect faux pas.

What was amazing was that the ambassador was able to maintain a posture of benign gentility, his glass held slightly higher than waist level with the other hand cupped lightly under it. Still smiling as pleasant as Mary Poppins having tea with the Queen, he spoke to me out the corner of his mouth, almost without moving his lips. "Goddammit," he said quietly, emphatically. Surveying the wreckage around us, I thought that pretty well summed it up.

Just when I thought the ambassador was down for the count, the gentleman who had negotiated the postwar mutual defense treaty that still exists between the U.S. and Japan, wasn't finished yet. The man who, when he was ambassador to Iran, had kept his cool as his car was ambushed and machine-gunned to smithereens around him and saved the lives of his chauffer, his wife, and himself by getting everyone to the floor — still held cards he hadn't played. The diplomat who had been a POW for two years in France during the war ("Hitler's house guest," he said) — marshaled his reserves. The nephew of "I shall return" was about to kick into action.

He spoke in a voice infused with statesmanship, so sonorous and warm the ice sculpture on the buffet table began to melt. "Larry," he said in a grand voice that could have been followed by "someday all this will be yours." Instead it was followed by "why don't you offer a toast?" Big smile. The voice in my head screamed a deafening "noooooooo" that only I heard. The room was so quiet I could follow the sound of my own blood rushing in my ears. I thought, That's it?! That's your plan?!

But I knew it was. I even thought I could see it, although it wasn't a plan as much as it was an awareness of a shortage of options, a very small number of diverging paths of lesser evils to choose from. Like maybe one. The ball was in our court because there was nothing our Chinese hosts could say. Not if their lives depended on it. They had seized up like a brigade of collective farm tractors without oil. Also, the ambassador could not say another word because at this point, just clearing his throat would set off a panic. I looked out over a roomful of bureaucrats frozen in the headlights.

I would like to say that my toasting strategy, forged in the fires of adversity and honed to a keen edge in that moment, was to ramble incoherently. It wasn't, but that's what I did. Mainly I was thinking just don't screw up. Keep it harmless and maybe this reception can get back on track. Every man, woman, and child in the room sure as hell wanted it back on track, that was clear.

Harmless? I can do that. Lightly amusing? I can do that too. I resolved to make agreeable noises and began to babble about hands across the sea and international good vibes and such. I segued into the unrivaled beauty of China, the art, the culture, the Han Dynasty, the symbols in the carpet. I was starting to mellow a bit and I realized the great truth of proposing toasts: as long as you do no harm, it doesn't matter jack what you say. I know I violated the two-minute rule for toast proposing but it seemed not to matter because, more than brevity, what everyone wanted was the healing of time and distance. The expressions on our hosts and the ambassador told me if I stayed clear of the minefields and well away from a certain island, they were content to let me rhetorically wander the whole Middle Kingdom if that suited my fancy. The Chinese invented patience.

I didn't really get traction though, until I got onto some historical references. History, being mostly lies written by the winners, offers enough vague refuge to comfort any well-educated group. I proposed we all recognize and appreciate past serendipities that have conspired to bring the worlds of the East and West into mutual awareness and ultimately, cooperation and friendship. "Cooperation" and "friendship" conjure up a most-favored-nation, duty-free coziness and are always good to include in a toast.

Important safety tip: When toasting in a communist country, if you choose to invoke history, go as far into the past as you can without bumping into the dinosaurs. Definitely avoid the recent century. For example, a quote from Confucius is safe anywhere, but not always Chairman Mao. There are still too many exposed nerve endings lying around.

Nobody would have mistaken the remarks for eloquence, but they weren't too shabby either. I concluded, "…and so, fellow citizens of the world, here's to Marco Polo." As clever as I like to think I am, I have to say that last part was inspired by some benevolent force outside myself. The gods of smoothness had been with me when it counted. We got a bemused chuckle from the multitude and the gaffe meter was reset to zero. And me, I got one of those not-bad nods and a half smile from MacArthur. It felt like getting a medal must feel.

I sauntered over to the buffet feeling pretty good about everything, having helped save the planet and all. As I piled dim sum onto my infinitesimally petite cocktail party saucer with "made in Hong Kong" stamped on the bottom, I recalled other memorable slips of the tongue, some quite high-profile. There was Jimmy Carter telling the people of Poland he understood their hopes, a sentiment repackaged by his State Department interpreter and submitted to the gathered dignitaries as the American President telling them he understood their carnal lust. And of course President Kennedy's Ich bin ein Berliner, I am a jelly donut.

In the process of organizing international conferences and media fact-finding trips, Larry R. Moffitt has visited more than sixty countries in the past two decades. From the Amazon River to North Korea, from Angola and the Mayan jungles of Guatemala to Soviet and post-Soviet Russia, he has mispronounced his way around the world and eaten the unidentifiable. His checkered past has included work as a farmer and beekeeper, short story writer, newsletter editor, stand-up comedian, and bad poet.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For an archive of these stories go to the Editors' Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.


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