BEIJING, April 22 -- I wonder if Bill Gates agonized over the dinner prepared at his residence for Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Did the richest man in the world ever consider the option of "going Chinese" and playing host as a typical super-rich Chinese guy would?
By that I mean wining and dining with at least two dozen courses. Since Gates' wealth is many times that of the wealthiest Chinese, maybe he would multiple the number of courses by that rate and make it, say, a nice and nifty 100 or an auspicious 99.
The Microsoft chairman took away the pleasure of the onlookers and the commentators by sticking to proper etiquette of Western society, serving wine and appetizers, main entree of three choices and dessert.
That didn't stop Chinese pundits from making a fuss over it.
An author of one circulating opinion piece mistakenly believes that Gates was using the occasion to teach a lesson to China's wealthy who would squander a king's fortune on something as publicized as that dinner.
But it certainly shows that whatever Gates does, in his haloed position, would be endlessly interpreted and imitated.
Thank God he didn't "customize" the dinner for the Chinese way of hospitality. It would have impressed all the Gates-wannabes in this country who will happily play catch-up and throw more lavish banquets than the ones they are already devouring, or more accurately, frittering away.
But Gates did intend to send one message through the meal, which he did by including Granny Smith apples and Walla Walla onions, local state produce. The feast was designed partly as a sampling of unique products from Seattle and the surrounding Pacific Northwest.
Too bad Microsoft Windows and Boeing 747 aircraft cannot be made into edibles. Or maybe they could. A Chinese chef could have carved miniature models of these made-in-Washington state products out of radish.
But I digress. To us Chinese, eating is not just about filling up the stomach. It is an art that we love to overindulge ourselves with. It may be the only art form that remains legal and yet savoured by people across every social stratum.
The main reason we would overdo all these things is because we live in scarcity or constant fear of it. When one barely has enough to eat, he makes sure that once a year he can eat like there's no tomorrow.
There's a reverse correlation between abundance of food and conspicuous consumption of food. In the 1980s, whenever there was a buffet party, there would be people stuffing their pockets left and right. Fat chance you can find that today.
When I was in graduate school, a meal for a table of 10 at the campus restaurant would cost more than my monthly stipend. Yet I would never look at the table full of leftovers, let alone squirm over them.
Then someone who returned from the United States asked for a plastic bag to take them home. We were aghast, and couldn't believe for a single second that it was a custom he had picked up from his overseas experience. We thought he had just found a lame excuse for being a miser.
You'll probably laugh it off as stupid if I say that banquets in China have grown less sumptuous in the past two decades. But in relation with the quantity and quality of food one consumes on a daily basis, it is definitely true. It is very rare today for a restaurant meal to set the epicure back an entire month's earning.
However, at many official functions, a feast still comprises a dozen or more courses. The first three are always the most delicious. Anything beyond the fifth course is increasingly transformed from gastronomic delight to palate and stomach workout.
And not surprisingly, the higher the poverty level of the place, the higher the number of courses.
Maybe Gates should preinstall a Chinese version of his menu along with Windows.
(Source: China Daily)