Shopping for one’s underwear isn’t normally particularly exciting–except when you do it during a Beijing night in the middle of a raucous meal after drinking plenty of Chine beer and wine.
The same Chinese friend, Zhonyu, who’d taken me to breakfast after the pre-dawn visit to Tiananmen Square, took me out for dinner with his father and a group of friends whose visit to Beijing coincided with our own.
Hence I found myself on the third floor a restaurant which sounded like it was in the midst of armed rebellion–which is actually the Chinese just enjoying themselves; they get pretty animated at meal times–and sitting at a table in the centre of which steamed a hot pot–the Chinese version of fondue.
My friend’s father sat next to me and took it upon himself to select the choice bits of food, drop them in the hot pot and then transfer them to my plate. He couldn’t speak any English, I couldn’t speak any Mandarin: we got on like a house on fire, thanks to a mix of Zhongyu’s translations, lots of gesticulating, nodding, smiling and multiple toasts of Chinese wine.
At some point we managed to get onto a discussion of the possibilities of an afterlife, or something like that, the focus might have been more to do with the problem of evil–it was hard to keep track amid the riot of noise.
I happened to ask about where would be the best place to buy a pair of boxer shorts–having made a critical error during packing preparations and dropped below the required minimum of three pairs for travel–with a view to finding where ever was recommended the next day.
After a quick translation from Zhongyu and a blast of Mandarin from his father I suddenly found myself being taken by one of the friends down the restaurant’s flight of stairs, out into the teeming street and before I knew it I was standing in an aisle of Uniqlo, a popular Japanese chain, blinking in the bright light at rows of boxer shots.
My guide advised me to buy a size larger than usual, the Western frame typically being larger than the Chinese male’s, he pointed out. Then, in a flash, I was back at the table, with more food being transferred from the hot pot to my plate, Zhonyu’s father shouting for more Chinese wine and me soon feeling like I was about to topple off my chair.
I still have the pair of boxer shorts–they’re a most satisfyingly good fit and the elastic shows no sign of failing, ever the peril with boxer shorts (you’ve got to give it to Japanese boxer short engineering).
Every time I put them on at the start of a day, for a moment I hear an uproar of Mandarin and remember one hell of a zany and fun meal in Beijing (the night ended at about 5 a.m., after watching a Manchester United match on a television in the father’s hotel room, and me trudging off to find a bus to get me back to my hotel, ready for a days’ reporting).