Leaving China: A Weekend at Uncle Li’s by Laura Grace Tarpley

My husband and I were nervous about this weekend.

We work at a lovely Primary School together in Shenzhen. Our principal, Mr. Li, is friendly but doesn’t speak much English. One day at lunch he said, “Daniel! Lola!” (How he pronounces Laura.) “You. Me. Hometown. Saturday.” At first, I was impressed, because I didn’t know he could say “hometown” or “Saturday.” Nice job, Mr. Li!

Then it sunk in that he was inviting Daniel and me to his hometown this weekend.

Oh.

In my world, Friday nights are for being lazy and watching TV. Saturdays are for seeing friends, then going out. Sundays are for sleeping in and going to private Chinese lessons. Bing, bam, boom. My weekend routine matters to me.

We weren’t in the position to decline his invitation, though. Some of my Western friends don’t even know who their principal is. Mr. Li, on the other hand, says hello to us every morning, occasionally sits at our lunch table, and once got us drunk after a faculty hike. His hospitality is touching, and we understood that his inviting us to his hometown was an honor. So we got over ourselves.

Our contact teacher, Fiona, went with us. Her husband, their four-year-old son, and a fellow teacher hopped in the car with us, as well.

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I’d expected a Saturday reflective of the dinner party between Jim, Pam, Michael, and Jan on the American version of The Office. A little forced. A tad awkward. A smidgen more of your boss’s world than you want to see.

When we walked in the door, though, Daniel and I were surprised by seeing Mr. Li’s entire extended family in the gorgeous, spacious apartment. His parents welcomed us. His brothers and sisters-in-law crammed into the kitchen to cook an elaborate meal. After an hour or so, four nieces and nephews came over to say hello and timidly practice their English.

 

We sipped tea and watched the NBA, which I felt was the ultimate way to spend a Saturday in China. If there are two things I know Chinese people love, it’s tea and the NBA. We snacked on grapefruit and peanuts. I found myself enjoying the afternoon. There’s something beautiful about being in the home of a family who speaks a different language. Rather than focusing on people’s words, you notice the loving way they look at the other members of the family.

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Principle Li’s family downing baijiu. ‘Cheers’ in Chinese is ‘ganbei’ which directly translates to “dry cup”.

At lunch, the family served us numerous dishes. Cabbage, seafood, and mysterious (but tasty) Chinese mystery meat. More importantly, they served us alcohol. They started with the red wine, then bái jiǔ (translating to white, clear alcohol in English), then white wine.

Nothing says “afternoon with my boss” like taking shots of liquor at lunch.

“You call me…Uncle Li! Not Mr. Li. Uncle Li.” Mr. Li repeated several times.

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Baijiu, typically fermented from sorghum with a usual alcohol content of 52%. It is the most widely consumed spirit in the world.

I thought his gesture was a little too personal until Fiona reassured me, “My husband and I call him Uncle Li, too.” I understood that employees close with Mr. Li are given the privilege of calling him “uncle.” My heart turned to mush.

Near the end of the meal, Mr. Li talked more than usual, and Fiona translated. “He wants to know if you will re-sign to teach with us again next year,” she explained.

We’d suspected this might be the real reason behind the weekend at Uncle Li’s. We like our school, and they seem to like us back. The past five months, we’d come to look forward to our Tuesday afternoon badminton games with our Chinese co-teachers. We’d found a group to sit with at lunch. The school had bought Daniel flowers and a cake for his birthday. We like working at our school more than we ever expected.

But we had a secret we’d been keeping for a few weeks.

Daniel had been accepted to graduate school in America, so we would move back home in July.

We broke the news to our principal over a glass of wine, while also expressing our gratefulness that they wanted us to come back.

“We will give you a wonderful recommendation!” I promised. “Then SDE will send you the best teachers possible next year.”

“No,” Uncle Li retorted. “You. We want you.” But he smiled, and we all seemed comforted by our mutual affection.

When Daniel and I returned home, we agreed that we were surprised by how much we had enjoyed our day in the countryside. It was more than that, though. It hit me that we would really be leaving China this summer. After saying goodbye to Uncle Li that evening, for the first time, the prospect of leaving made me sad.

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