Written by Tai Pan
If you haven’t had yet the chance to read the previous chapters, I suggest you do so by going to the ‘Story of my Life’ section and start from part 1.
CAPTER 22 – CHINESE OFFICIALS IN MILAN
After more than 20 episodes on my business trips to China, I decided I wanted to tell you about the journey that the Chinese traders made to Milan, always in the 1980s.
I was told 3 months in advance that a Chinese delegation would have come to Italy, and this made me really anxious, as I never hosted Chinese in my country before!
Beside, I had only moved to Milan from Naples one year before then, right after I got married, so now you can start to sort of understand why I was anxious…I had no idea of where to take the officials!!
When the time came, while the Chinese delegation was visiting Milan, some bizarre and embarrassing things (unfortunately) happened.
Fist of all, they asked me to help them booking a good hotel that was not too expensive as the government budget was limited.
I naively thought it would be better to look for hotels in the suburbs since places in the city center were too expensive.
Anyway I found a hotel offering affordable rates, so I spoke with the person who was in charge at the reception to book four rooms.
As soon as he heard that I was reserving the place for a Chinese governmental delegation, he started laughing and he replied that the hotel would not have been suitable for them.
As he noticed that I was quite surprised to hear that, he called his brother and asked him to take his place at the reception.
He then led me into his office to explain the reason why his hotel (I found out he was actually the owner) was not suitable for a business delegation: indeed, that was a motel usually used by ‘clandestine’ couples to go have sex! In other words, a sort of brothel.
I immediately thanked the man for being honest with me and preventing me from an embarrassing situation…
During the following days, I found a hotel closer to the city center, more expensive than the previous one, but at least it was a REAL hotel.
Finally the Chinese officials arrived. They landed at Linate airport in Milan and my wife and I went to pick them up to welcomed them to Italy.
My wife was helping me with the negotiations as she had studied languages and she could speak fluent English – unlike me.
Besides, she also offered to organize a dinner to invite the foreign traders in our home.
First I wasn’t too sure about the dinner-plan as I was scared the Chinese would not have liked the Italian cuisine, and because my wife was not really an excellent cook; but then she reassured me saying she would have prepared a delicious meal for the officials, so I agreed to dinner.
As first course she prepared spaghetti since we knew that Chinese usually love this dish.
It was said in China that Marco Polo had imported spaghetti from there to Italy!
We also prepared several appetizers and side dishes to enrich the dinner.
Spaghetti, which was cooked in the wrong way, had no oil and so it were so compact that it looked like an omelet!
My wife then served roasted meat as second course, and – unfortunately – once again the dish was a total disaster… she had forgotten to turn the oven off and the meat was half burnt!
At the end we had ice cream and fruit, which did not need to be cooked or made, so we were able to conclude the dinner without any other problems.
Dinner was certainly not “memorable”, and so as in those days my mother-in-law came to visit us, we proposed the delegation of Chinese to come over to a ‘round two’. My mother-in-law was actually an excellent cook, so this time I was not worried at all!
To help you fully understand the situation I have to make a quick premise: I had learned in my previous trips to China that it is customary in their culture to do “burp” at the end of a meal as a sign of appreciation of the food.
Indeed, during the first dinner they did not burp, so I naively thought that they didn’t do it because they knew that it was rude to do it in Italy. Totally wrong!
Anyway, we started dinner with a vegetable appetizer, and then we had seafood spaghetti – finally the Chinese appreciated the Italian cuisine!
As soon as they finished tasting the food, not one but two of them, burped really loud as a sign of appreciation.
My mother-in-law was astonished and for a second she stayed still.
Then we she realized what just happened she got angry, stood up and said: “This is outrageous! How dare you be so rude to me?!” And she abruptly left the dining room.
I immediately felt bad for not explaining to my mother-in-law about the Chinese burp-ritual after a meal! They were not being rude at all, they were actually being polite!!!
My wife and I followed my mother-in-law in the kitchen to explain what happened, but then I realized I had left the Chinese by themselves, so I went back and I told them that my mother-in-law had suddenly remembered to have left things in the oven, and this is why she rushed to the kitchen!…
My wife explained everything to her mother who, fortunately, returned to the table smiling.
After telling her about the sign of appreciation she was actually proud of the burps!
I heaved a sigh of relief, as my relationships with my business partners were not compromised!
The dinner was a real success, the Chinese didn’t stop thanking my mother-il-law for the delicious dinner and they kept on inviting her to China to taste their delicacies!
So all’s well that ends well, after this episode in Italy I will tell you about my return to China in the year 1984. See you soon!
(All photos are from Google.com, and they all belong to their original owners)