Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Banquet

Each year every major Taiwanese institution has an end-of-the-year banquet, called a wei ya. The basic idea is similar to the office Christmas party familiar to every American, with the importance difference that the wei ya is not fun. I have successfully evaded the wei ya every year so far, but this year the Chair, who is a friend, asked me to go, and I couldn't say no. So on warm monday night in January I found myself far from wife and children, and having a cross-cultural experience, which is a polite way of saying bored to death and eating bad food.

The basic format, like that of the American Thanksgiving meal, is fixed. The tables are always round (the number of tables is an important bragging point. If a Taiwanese throws a large wedding they will say "200 tables!" the way we might say "500 guests!") and the tablecloths always pink. The food must be Chinese. Various drinks, alcoholic and not, will be found in the center.

A second rule of these banquets is that the food is always bad and there is never enough of the good stuff. I have often charitably thought that this is due to the fact that a thousand guests must be fed at once, but today I just didn't feel like covering for the cooks. This stuff tasted every bit the el cheapo trash that it was. Here are stacks of plates of fried fish topped in pickled mustard. All I could think was that the we could have BBQed, or had Indian. Heck, I'd be happy to do the cooking myself.....

Steamed shrimp in the shell are hard to mess up, and are a staple of every banquet.

This plate was supposed to be the appetizers for a table of nine. Sure.

Here's the reason everyone comes: the drawing. The big prize this year was a trip for two to the Hong Kong Disneyland. There were dozens of little prizes, too, bits of cash, or a 256 MB memory stick. Needless to say I won nothing.

The festive atmosphere.

Wine was provided. This wine had quite a bounce, all the way from my stomach back up into my throat. It combined the sweetness of antifreeze with the acidity of a car battery.

The impending marriage of our strikingly beautiful and surpassingly competent department secretary, Chiu Hwa, will no doubt lead to a spate of suicides among Taiwan's bachelors.

Here is the fish. This was the closest I wanted to get to it. One good thing about the food at this one was that there was no mayonnaise. At most of these banquets the dishes come with mayo slathered on thick enough to support a small office building.

Our department attacks the food.

Here the announcers hand out the prizes.

Another fixture of the wei ya is crab. It can never be anything but Chinese, and it can never be anything but shrimp and crab. A good bowl of beef noodle beats this stuff any day, but is much too low class to be served at a fancy get together. Lots of locals feel the same way I do, for several people asked why they just didn't serve a buffet. Not only would the food have been good, there would have been some variety too.

Thankfully one of my students came by and invited me to go have coffee with her at a local coffee shop. Welcoming the chance to get decent food, I escaped from the wei ya back into a world where the tables are brown, the waitresses younger than me, and the food good.


Anonymous said...

Ha Ha Ha.....all life is suffering Michael! After viewing the many photos of delicious colourful authentic food on your blog, and causing my suffering, you experience some bad food! Poetic justice!
I guess you made up for it later!
Still my favourite daily read Michael. Cheers buddy

MJ Klein said...

come on Michael, don't hold back - what do you really think about the food? lol

Anonymous said...

Did you photoshop the food pics (colour adjustment) or did the food really look that nasty?

If the latter, then I'll pray for the health of your colleages.

Anonymous said...

Michael, it's a big dinner in Chinese society - it's not about enjoying the food! :)

Red A said...

My company wei ya was at Idee Dim Sum restaurant. Very nice wine, booze, and exactly two meat dishes, the rest was seafood.

I had to make do with a liquid diet.

I also had to dress up as a fairy princess.

Won NT$ 100 in prize money, though.