It’s grand. It’s just like a Chinese garden from the Middle Kingdom being transported to the middle of dusty Kabul.
Mr. Yang, Mr. Li, and Mr. Yu were waiting outside the grand embassy building with strong Chinese-style architecture. Mr. Yang is the ambassador, Mr. Li is the counselor, and Mr. Yu is the protocol staff. They have been waiting for about 30 minutes. We came very late, due to jammed Kabul traffic. And we, two women and two men, felt very much embarrassed.
How suddenly an ordinary man like me being invited to have lunch with his Excellency Chinese Ambassador? In a diplomatic function held for the Indonesian National Day, the Chinese Ambassador and his very two staffs paid a visit. A friend of mine, a Chinese Indonesian working in UN, expressed her curiousness on Chinese culture. The hospitable Ambassador then invited her to come to the embassy to have lunch together. A month after it is proved that the invitation was not a mere lip service. She received an email from the protocol staff about the meeting and she was allowed to bring three more friends. She grabbed me along.
The gate of the embassy reminds people to that of medieval Chinese palaces. It’s the only of its kind in Kabul, I bet. A Chinese bodyguard with machine gun and anti-bullet vest guards the inner side of the gate. As we were special guests of the Ambassador, we didn’t need to pass any security check.
The Ambassador already waits with full patience to these belated guests.
“Ni Hao,” said Mr. Yang, shaking our hands one by one. The Chinese Ambassador looks very young for his high rank, smiles very elegantly. Mr. Li also introduced himself. “So, first of all, let’s look around,” said Mr. Yang offering us a guided tour around the embassy compound.
There is a big fountain at the central part of the gate, and to make it Chinese, a stone swan is standing calmly in the middle of water. The stone troops of Monkey King in their journey to the West bring Buddhist sutras, stand under the shade of trees. Mr. Li, with a command of giving guided tour, explained the legend of the monkey king and about his master, Tang Xuanzang. Tang Xuanzang was a real man in history (while his disciples were not) and he made his pilgrimage to Bamiyan and Jalalabad in Afghanistan, and even he went to Wakhan Corridor and Pamir in Tajikistan. Their choosing of putting the Xi You Ji legend at the main gate of its embassy in Afghanistan does really fit the history.
I saw the monkey Wu Kong, the white horse, and the bearded disciple. I think I missed Zhu Bajie, the pig-faced disciples. “Yes, actually there is a pig student of Tang Xuanzang. But in conservative Afghanistan, as you know, putting pig statue here is not, well, appropriate,” explained Mr. Li, “that’s why we move the pig to the garden behind this building. Later you will see.”
This little ‘tour group’ headed by the Ambassador himself, continued the trip. The embassy has its own gas station, tennis court, basket ball field, volley ball yard, badminton court, sets of apartment blocks, and even an underground dried swimming pool turned to be karaoke room. They have about 30 staffs, 6 of them are women, and as they are allowed to bring family members, the embassy turns very big. 15,000 square meters and the Ambassador kept saying, “not too big, not too big.”
The Chinese Embassy is located in a very strategic area. It’s facing the Turkish and Iran embassies, next to UN mission offices, and most importantly, just next door to Karzai’s office. “Just behind this wall, is where Karzai’s sitting,” said Mr. Li while pointing to the wall behind volleyball court, “and here is the car parking of the presidential office,” while pointing to another wall.
Of course being in such location did not always mean good security. “There were some rockets during the war, aimed to the presidential palace. But because of lack of precision, of course it’s not uncommon that the rockets fell here.” It is understandable that China closed its embassy totally during the Taliban occupation. No recognition to the regime, and rockets kept falling down to the embassy compound.
We went back to the main building of which shape resembles those buildings around Tiananmen Square. The strong smell of Chinese dish fills the air. I remembered elegant private rooms (ya zhuo) in high class Chinese restaurants in mainland. Two attendants, one boy and one girl, are ready in the room to serve the guests.
The Ambassador sits at the main side of the square table, according to Chinese sophisticated culture. The guests and hosts sit at both sides of the table, and even the seats are already fixed. I see my name printed on a white paper with Chinese coat-of-arms on it. The menu of the lunch, 10 different stages of food, is also printed on a piece of thick white paper with Chinese emblem of starred Tiananmen, is placed on the right side of every set of dining tools. The plates, the cups, the saucers are all pure white and bears the Chinese coat-of-arms.
The boy attendant starts to pour red wine to every glass. I don’t drink alcohol but I was too embarrassed to refuse in such occasion. The Ambassador also offered the Chinese famous Maotai Jiu, extremely strong liquor which played its important role in Chinese history. “This is brought from China,” said Mr. Li proudly, “and it is very old. From before Taliban time.” One man among us, a Chinese man from Taiyuan who has obtained American nationality, of course didn’t want to neglect this chance. My Indonesian Chinese friend also tried a sip of Maotai, and she cried, “It’s very strong!”
The atmosphere was little bit too formal when we eat the first stage of the dish. It is Chinese salad of meat and vegetables. As guests, we introduce ourselves one by one to the host. But the friendly respond of the Ambassador and the Counselor actually breaks the ice very fast.
When it turned to Indonesia, the Ambassador who had ever been there tells us that he knows the Indonesian word for ‘five hundred’. That is ‘lima ratus’. How this happened to him, when the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta was asked about an address, by accident the house number was 500. The Indonesian said, ‘lima ratus’, but the Chinese misunderstood it as ‘ni ma la du zi (your mother suffers stomachache)’.
This is an effective ice breaking attitude, and in sudden everybody is relaxed. The counselor tells about why the pool is dried up. “It cost 15,000 dollars just to filter the water every month, and we don’t have that budget.” In comparison, says the counselor, the American Embassy in Kabul spends US$100 million every month just on security budget. A hundred million? I cannot imagine how much bread can be bought with that money to feed Afghans nationwide. But considering those Gurkha soldiers, bullet proof vehicles, anti-terror dogs, blocked and sterilized streets around the embassy, staff insurance, etc etc, then 100 million can be wasted easily. And it’s just for the security budget of the embassy.
The food comes one by one, and the attendants are busy of replacing our saucers and plates with a new one with the fresh food. As an Ambassador from a big country, his service to the guests is very much respectable. On this little dining table, we may tastes different types of Chinese food from different localities in China. As we know that China has 8 main branches of food, from east to west and from north to south. The Ambassador has two cooks, one from east and one from west, to make genuine Chinese food. While the owner of Golden Key restaurant, a renowned Chinese restaurant for expatriates in Kabul, once boasted, “we can serve you the best sea food in Kabul,” now I know that it’s subject of objection. “The best food is here, inside Chinese embassy,” said the Chinese American man while eating the mouth shaking deep-fried prawns.
It’s a very pleasant lunch, where the H.E. Ambassador himself serves us a lovely set of Chinese dishes. The young Ambassador also smiles during the talk and we successfully avoid awkward situation due to formality. Even the Chinese American man invited the Ambassador for swimming together, but the diplomats refuse kindly by saying that Moon Festival and the Chinese National Day are coming, and by the time they are free, the weather would be too cold for swimming.
After Wulong tea, it is the time for us leaving. Not being embarrassed of behaving redneck, we all ask the permission to keep the name sign with our names on it under the Chinese emblem, together with the menu of today, as souvenir for such a memorable lunch. I think it’s the first time (or not?) for the counselor to see 4 redneck guests sitting around the Ambassador. They smile.
At the very afternoon, the very Indonesian friend calls me to join her to a meeting. This is the inauguration of Association of Chinese Businessman in Afghanistan. Actually her invitation is valid for one person only, but we can say that I am in relationship with her. So we go together to the Serena Hotel, the luxurious five starred hotel in Kabul. Of course, after the delicious Chinese food in the embassy, stomach is still my main motivation to visit the inauguration of an association I have never heard before. Food is guaranteed, for sure.
The hall is filled by Chinese. It turns to be a ‘Chinese occupied’ area. I have never seen so many Chinese in Kabul. It is said that there are more than 1000 Chinese in Kabul only, and most of them are businessmen. No wonder they have such a big embassy. Mr. Ambassador and his full staffs also arrived. The ladies of Chinese embassy look very young and fashionable. Mr. Li also smiles when meeting us. “We meet again,” says him.
The ballroom, filled by all Chinese speaking genuine Chinese accent and Chinese-accented English, brings very strong mainland atmosphere in Kabul. The program is started by an MC speaking a hard-to-understand speech in English. Then comes a girl with long hair, looks like a very important directress. A sentence of greetings is followed by a sentence, “I declare, the Association of Chinese Businessman in Afghanistan, is inaugurated,” which is then followed by long applause of the audience. The Chinese are really efficient people. Only one simple sentence is needed.
Then she is replaced by an Afghan minister. As expected, the speech is long. Most of people here don’t understand Dari, but translator is not provided. Maybe it is to keep the ceremony short. Then the Chinese Ambassador talks in English, despite of most of the audience are Chinese. But the very important ending is in Chinese, “I wish you all a happy Mid-Autumn Festival!”
Another Afghan speaker talks after him. And the program finished. Even my friends were surprised. “Why it’s so short?” Yes, it is very short, very efficient. I like the Chinese way, which of course don’t delay any minute for dinner.