I flinch reflexively from the sharp pain, intense enough to momentarily black out perception of surroundings, a tidal wave which sweeps away all sensory inputs. I blink, as my mind slowly begins to catch up with my body’s reflexes, struggling back, inch by inch, to comprehension. Looking down at my arm I see tiny bits of ash falling and sticking to me, curious. It smells like burning. A chair scrapes harshly on the floor next to me, pushed back in haste, and a friend stands over me, patting my head with a towel. I’m on fire.
It’s a farewell dinner for my American friend. A bitter-sweet occasion with Japanese teppanyaki, dinner with a cooking show. Nine of us seated around the grill and I’m the little brother of the group. These are Chinese survivors, in country for 10-15yrs. They have thrived in the environment I am only beginning to swim in, all potential mentors and new friends.
We share several stories starting with “Isn’t is strange that in China…”, active construction areas on busy sidewalks, slippery when wet tiles in high passage public walkways, local traffic rules which rarely consider threats to life and limb of either passengers or pedestrians. A green walk sign is only a suggestion. We are drinking and laughing like the danger is outside the walls.
The food tastes good, fresh off grill. The bai jiu flows like beer and I am feeling smug with having enough experience to know to sip it. The overt conversation and social/cultural inferences are all comfortably familiar and it’s nice to stretch my atrophied English skills. Talking with them I see the path to surviving here. A path that they have trail blazed and I’m more confidant of being able to endure and even thrive here.
Time for dessert, and the cooking finale. The chef makes a log cabin on the grill with bananas and holds a squirt bottle of oil in one hand and a lighter in the other. He squirts copious amounts of oil into the fruity structure and lights it…to no avail. It does not ignite.
A sigh of disappointment echoes from the group. Undaunted, and undoubtably under pressure to perform, he shoots more fuel onto the grill. And strikes the lighter again. The huge column of fire launches out, not up, lunging straight for me, and engulfs my head. I can do nothing but quickly flinch.
Shock fills the table. I don’t know how to react. My eyebrows and eyelashes are singed, shorter now than before. I feel the heat on parts of my face, a slight burn like a mild sunburn. I expected to be changed by my Chinese experience, but not like this.
A few minutes later the xiao jie brings the bill. I refuse to pay.