When you go on a hosted visit to Shanghai, as we did on August 29, be prepared for lavish attention. This was something I did not expect and therefore had not quite prepared for. My expectation was that by routine we would be brought from the airport to our billeting quarters, freshen up, and then proceed to the dinner scheduled in the evening. Our plane touched down at about 2:45 p.m. (there’s hardly a difference between Shanghai and Manila times), and with the travel to Shanghai city proper taking one hour and a half, we would be in the city at around four o’clock, plenty of time to take a shower and do the rest of the rigmarole for getting prim and proper for dinner.
But one thing about Shanghai visit hosts, they go strictly by the schedule. And when they say dinner, they mean six o’clock, so that reaching Shanghai city proper a good many a minute past four o’clock leaves you with not enough time to get ready for the, what I would term, “regal reception.” So after passing the Ximin Evening News executives, who were already waiting at the entrance of the imposing building housing the newspaper’s offices, we were conducted to the dinner site in what attires we had on during the travel from Manila.
Imagine the discomfiture I had being made to sit next to Ximin Editor-in-Chief Chen Qi Wei, who was suave and dapper in fresh afternoon casual, and me garbed in denim pants topped by cheap, gamin cotton shirt under a checkered polyester jacket that already bore the stench accumulated in the travel from my Antipolo home as early as four o’clock in the morning that day. Complete that look with a red Dupont cap and you get the picture of someone just gone from viewing a basketball game and stopping for snack at a sidewalk hamburger stand.
I’d had sufficient advice on the protocol observed in such hosted occasions, and when I was told early on that there would be at least two formal occasions to attend, I made sure I had two coats in my luggage. The problem turned out to be that one such formal event was already the dinner set at six o’clock in the evening that day.
I did have the decency to take off my cap and put it aside on the counter behind me, but having lost my comb, which I had tucked in the back pocket of my pants, I had nothing by which to smoothen out my top, and so in self-consolation I asked, “How’s my hairdo?”
One of the girls in our group jested, “No hair.”
The dinner was marked with rigid formality so that the joke about my top sort of lightened up the occasion. And after Chen offered a toast for us — the visiting Philippine media delegation and Fil Sionil of Manila Bulletin delivered the brief response — the atmosphere turned into a cordial one.
Chen called the occasion a significant development in bettering the friendly relations between China and Philippine media practitioners, citing an earlier visit to the Philippines by a similar media delegation from Shanghai. He lauded our group for the reciprocal gesture, calling it a positive step that will help ensure improved friendly relations between China and the Philippines.
I thought I had an opening in sharing in the discussion, and I said that on a personal note our visit afforded me a long-cherished wish to see the world, and I said I was particularly lucky that in seeing the world for the first time, I was seeing it through the window of China. I wondered if the feeling that I had would be the same if I had seen the world for the first time instead through the window of the United States.
Our Chinese hosts were visibly surprised by my declaration. Our group, which consisted of a comparably young journalist and me (who was obviously the older one), was supposedly the most experienced in world travel. So one of our hosts promptly asked if it was true that that was the first time I was traveling outside of the Philippines. And when I confirmed it, Chen asked if I had traveled around the Philippines. I revealed that I have been a film director and in that job I had gone around my country to shoot my movies with beautiful Philippine scenery as background.
The restaurant in which the dinner was held is not like what we find in the Philippine five-star restaurant industry. It has no single dining area, but it is rather made up of large suites that contain amenities of a dining hall fit for royalty. I observed that as a film director I would rate the dining hall as an excellent showcase of production design and, in such a design, partakers should be in appropriate attires, which I was not. So I apologized for not standing up to the occasion with the way I was garbed. Early on in my preparation for the trip I had made sure to include in my luggage the proper outfit for the occasion. It was just that we were given no time to change attires, and so we sat at the elegant dining in the not-so-presentable travel outfits that we had on.
Ming did not consider it a big offense. He assured us that what was important in our trip was to bring back to the Philippines an honest picture of China.
In that regard, I was particularly interested in knowing whether or not the drug menace was still existent in Shanghai. I knew that the city was at one time a hub of the narco trade in the Far East. And so I asked if the subject matter could be part of the concerns of our visit. In an earlier article in this column, I cited the Mao Tse-tung approach to solving the illegal drug problem that afflicted China at the start of the socialist takeover. According to reports, that method resulted in the complete eradication of the drug problem in China, i.e., from 20 million, the drug users were down to zero. I was thinking of getting further information that might help clarify issues in the Duterte illegal drugs campaign. However, somebody from the Shanghai public information office advised that questions similar to mine be raised in succeeding occasions.
I thought maybe I was getting out of bounds, and so what other social concerns I intended to be addressed in the visit had to be shelved for later.
Anyway the flow of food in the luxuriant dinner was ceaseless, and this took much of our attention at the moment. Though I was having a hard time using my chopsticks, I still managed to have a good fill of the seemingly endless lauriat.
I had some difficulty in exchanging views with our hosts due to the language barrier, but I was lucky to be seated next to the pretty petite girl interpreter, Qi Xu, World News Copy Editor of Xi Min Evening News, who had a good grasp of English. When she spoke to me, she would draw her face so close that I would be reminded of a song, “Just A Breath Away,” the soft, sweetly-sounding Chinese accent of her English uttered in near-whispers, coming through her mouth like love moans of Cristina Gonzales in “Bad Girl” or Stella Strada in “Kirot.” For a good part of the dinner, I ended up exchanging cordiality with the interpreter rather than with the interpreted. And when I succeeded in picking a peanut from my plate with the chopsticks and brought it into my mouth, she raised a thumb up to me, smiling girlishly.
That made my night.