Chinese Stories in English
An Invitation to Feast
What does "white collar" mean? A new interpretation has emerged recently – it means that on payday, after you cover the rent and utilities and buy the necessities of life, when you reach into your pocket again, you'll sigh because you only have enough left to "bleach your collar."*
Jan Hu is that kind of a "white collar." She's a travel magazine reporter, which sounds beautiful, but her paystub isn't so pretty. Her boyfriend Big River is away in the provincial capital earning money to make the down payment on a home when they get married. In the meantime, Jan shares a small flat with River's cousin Li. The really tough part is that Jan used to be a foodie, but now she has to scrimp and plan her daily menu carefully. She hesitates to have a decent meal.
One day, as Jan was salivating over a gourmet food magazine, someone tapped her on the shoulder. It was her colleague Chen Yong. "C'mon, Jan," he said, let's go have a feast. My treat!"
When she looked suspicious, he laughed and said, "Hey, I just found out that you and I are from the same town. When I run into someone from home, it makes me want to cry for joy, so don't be standoffish!" As he said that, he picked up his camera and led Jan out the door.
Jan couldn't refuse. "So, my great reporter," she said with a smile, "you can't eat a meal without a camera in your hand?"
"You got it. You'll understand in due time," Chen said mysteriously.
Jan never would have guessed that Chen would take her to the Western Gardens Hotel. A white collar worker like her could never afford such a place. But Chen was very nonchalant. "I haven't been here before, either," he said. "Today you have the chance to come here on someone else's dime. It'll be a new experience for you."
Without another word, he ordered six or seven specialty dishes. Jan made a rough count to herself. "This meal can't be any less than two or three thousand Yuan," she figured. Out loud she said, "Don't spend too much." But Chen was cool about it. "As long as we're here, we might as well have a good meal," he said.
The food was served before long. The appearance, aroma and flavor of the meal were all perfect, and Jan praised it profusely. But Chen, before he'd even picked up his chopsticks, took out his camera. "Jan," he said, "I brought you here today to eat, but actually I also want to ask you a favor. I'd like you to be my model."
Jan was surprised. "What do you mean, model?" she asked.
Chen smiled. "There's a competition going on for photos of people. I was thinking about that old documentary series on CCTV, "A Taste of China". Wasn't it hot? So I thought I'd take a set of photos on the theme of people enjoying Chinese gourmet foods. I've been going over the possibilities for a long time, and I feel that your cordial and refined temperament is particularly consistent with the effect I've had in mind. How about it? Will you be my model?"
Jan got bashful as she listened to him. "Won't you help out someone from your hometown?" Chen pleaded. Jan thought about it and finally nodded. Chen turned on his camera right away and took a set of pictures from various angles.
Jan excitedly told River's cousin Li about her experience when she got home that night. Li's jaw dropped open in envy. She sighed over and over, "How could such a wonderful thing happen in this world?"
Turns Out He's a Rich Kid
One day Li, with an air of mystery, handed a fine gift box to Jan. "I went to the provincial capital yesterday," she said, "and cousin River gave me this to give to you." Jan opened the box happily and saw a silk scarf inside. Her heart was pounding as she hurried to put it around her neck. She felt warm inside when she looked at herself in the mirror.
"My cousin really misses you," Li continued. He said the weather's warmed up again the last couple of days, but you should wear this every day anyway, to make sure you don't catch cold."
Jan nodded shyly and did as he asked. She wore the scarf when she went to have dinner with Chen.
When he saw this scarf, Chen told her several times how nice it looked. Jan said with a laugh, "Of course, my boyfriend gave it to me. When you take pictures this evening, take some extra ones for me." Chen was quiet for a moment, then nodded and said, "OK, no problem."
And so it went. In less than two weeks, Chen took Jan to almost all of the best restaurants in town. Every time Jan asked to see the photos, though, Yong always held his camera tightly and wouldn't let her look. He said she'd have to wait until he was finished taking pictures and could pick out the most satisfactory shots to show her."
Before she knew it, the New Year's holiday arrived. Jan was sleeping in when Chen phoned and asked her to come to the Riverside Restaurant for lunch. He said he would be taking the last set of photos there. Jan got ready right away. As she was going out the door, Li came up and asked, "Hey, girl, take me along with you this time." Jan thought a moment and then agreed.
Chen welcomed them both warmly when they got to the restaurant. He didn't forget to shoot a few sets of photos.
The two girls said goodbye to Chen after lunch. Suddenly Li asked Jan in a strange tone of voice, "Why does this guy Chen treat you so good, Jan?"
"I told you, didn't I? I'm working as his model. He takes me out to eat as a way of saying thanks," Jan answered offhandedly.
"I don't think that's necessarily true," Li said out of the side of her mouth. "When somebody looks like that, and spends money so freely, it's because he likes you, isn't it?"
Jan was quick to defend herself. "Why are you talking such nonsense, Li. We just work together!"
But Li didn't agree. "Where can anyone get a free lunch in this world? Does River know about this?"
Jan was about to argue but her phone rang. She looked and saw it was River so she answered it. "Where have you been the last couple of days, River?" she complained. "Why haven't you called me?"
She heard him say, coldly, "I'm right behind you."
She turned around and saw him standing about ten meters away from her. Pleasantly surprised, she ran over and gave him a big hug. "You're really something," she said coquettishly. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming?"
She couldn't believe it when River pushed her away. Scowling, he asked "Where's the scarf I sent you?"
Jan just then realized that she hadn't worn the scarf that day. She hurried to explain, "I was in a hurry when I left and didn't put it on."
River wouldn't listen. "Don't lie to me. I can tell you don't care about me at all." At this point his lips curled into a snarl. "Li told me you've been hanging around with a guy named Chen Yong recently. Haven't you?"
When she heard that, Jan got so mad she almost couldn't talk. "You, you two, what are you doing?" She reached out and grabbed River's arm.
But River shook her hand away. "Don't waste your breath!" he said in a peculiar tone of voice. "Ahh, it's no wonder. You got in with a rich kid, so now what could you see in me?"
Jan wondered what he was talking about. "What rich kid?"
"You can stop playing games, Jan" Li said evilly. "River and I checked him out for ourselves. This guy Chen's family lives in the district next to ours back home. They're in real estate and they've got mega-bucks. No wonder he could spend the money to take you out to fancy restaurants all the time."
Who'll Pick Up the Tab for This Feast?
Jan was speechless. She was inwardly saddened that Li and River had doubted her and had schemed behind her back, but she decided to hold her tongue for the time being. She seemed to think of something all of a sudden and dialed Chen's number.
"Chen Yong, you've been taking pictures of me for several days, and didn't you say that new scarf of mine is pretty? Please send me pictures of it right away."
She couldn't believe it when Chen stuttered and said, "This, this, I didn't take any pictures. I'm with a client right now, Jan. Let's get in touch later. Sorry!"
River looked at her askance but didn't say a word. Jan knew it would be a waste of breath to try to defend herself, so she turned and left, her head held low.
That evening she phoned River and Li. "Both of you come to the Nine Islands Hotel this evening. Chen and I will be there, too, and I'll get him to clear things up for you."
The two of them went to the hotel restaurant and River met Chen. "Brother," he said in a nasty tone of voice, "If you really like Jannie, I wish you both well. But the two of you sneaking around like you did, I got no respect at all for you. Your family's filthy rich, right?"
But Chen smiled. "You really got it wrong, brother. Come on, let me introduce you. This is Feng Zong from Hong Kong." He indicated a refined gentleman sitting off to one side.
The man stood up and bowed slightly. "I really must apologize for creating such a large misunderstanding between you young lovers," he said. I've been listening to Mr. Chen and Ms. Hu talk about what happened. Well, whoever started the trouble should be the one to end it. I'll let Mr. Chen explain it to you."
Chen took a sip of tea. "I really didn't take any pictures of Jan wearing the scarf. You can see for yourself," he said, handing some digital photos to River.
River looked through them one by one and was surprised to see that they were all pictures of plate upon plate of gourmet foods. Jan was absolutely nowhere to be seen. Amazed, he asked, "Didn't you ask Jan to be your model? How come all the pictures are of food?"
"Truth is," Chen explained, "it was these dishes that I wanted to take pictures of. Having Jan as a model was just a pretense." Indicating Feng Zong, he said, "Feng Zong is an investor who's thinking of opening a five-star hotel here. He hired me as a gourmet foods detective so he could get an understanding of the special features of restaurants in our city. I went to eat at the restaurants alone at first, but the managers always kicked me out when I started taking pictures. They said I was stealing their business secrets. Then I thought of having Jan come to eat with me. Without really thinking it through, I pretended to be taking pictures of her while I was really photographing the food."
Then, looking embarrassed, he said to Jan, "Please forgive me, Jan. The reason I wasn't up front with you is that, as a freelancer, I was afraid that the people in our office would gossip. I was even more afraid that if the boss found out, he'd say I was taking time away from my regular duties. But now I have to come clean because of the *** I got you guys into."
He turned to River again. "There's something else I have to tell you, River," he said solemnly. "I haven't taken a penny of my family's money since I graduated. I pay all my expenses with what I earn by my own two hands. So, can you stop calling me a 'rich kid'?"
Hearing that made River feel embarrassed. He lowered his eyes and said, "It's all because I was such a jerk," he said to Jan. "Please don't be mad at me."
Seeing how miserable he looked, Jan's heart melted, but she said, "Pfft, get off it. I'm gonna make you pay for this. Take me out for an abalone dinner!"
River smiled. "Your wish is my command!"
"So we're no longer arguing," Feng Zong said. "Mr. Chen has done his duty, and River and Ms. Hu have resolved their misunderstanding. And as for tonight's banquet, it's on me!"
故事会, 2013, 7 月, 下半月, 第23页 Stories Magazine, July 2013-2, p. 23
Translated from here. Also available at http://www.75010.cn/cqgs/20190423/17721.html
*Pun Alert! In Chinese "bai ling" [白领] can mean either "white collar” or "not worth claiming" -- Fannyi
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