After I had disembarked the Hainan Airlines Boeing 737 at Hangzhou airport and grabbed my suitcase from the carousel, I passed through the doorway into the meeting area and a young, skinny, well dressed (not as in a suit and tie but more like not wearing the shitty sorts of casual clothes in which a Chinese 28-year-old might be liable to show up) guy called my name. It took a second to realize that my boss had asked me to send her a photo last week–I hadn’t thought it was so that L. could recognize me when I arrived. It’s a much better method than the usual tacky sign that I’d expected. L.’s boss had made him bring one of those anyway, in case he didn’t recognize me, but he showed me how he’d folded it up and stuffed it in his back pocket. He’d only gotten his driver’s license two months ago, so, since my plane landed at night, he had been uncertain of his ability to drive the long distance to the airport on the highway; instead, he had a company driver, Mr. Chang, as he was introduced to me shuttle us both in a white minivan. The ride into town took about a half hour, and we passed some of the futuristic houses the wealthy farmers of Zhejiang province like to build, though it was too dark to get a decent photo.
We went first to my hotel, so I could check in and drop off my bags, and then the three of us headed toward a Korean barbecue place, since L. was excited about the chance to eat there. He promised that we’d have plenty of chances to eat Hangzhou food together, and I think he was even a bit disappointed that his chosen cuisine wasn’t new to me. I told him how I eat at a Korean barbecue restaurant in New York whenever my brother can convince us to shell out the cash (at home it’s really overpriced, which I guess it tends to be in China too, although the “prices” are so low here that “over” is hard to calculate), which usually happens only on or around his birthday. On our way over to the restaurant, L. called ahead to reserve a table and found out that the kitchen was out of lettuce with which to wrap the barbecued meat. He and Mr. Chang were so disappointed that they asked me if it would be alright to stop at the supermarket before dinner so we could buy our own! Of course I said okay. That moment marked a most auspicious beginning for this journey. Dinner was delicious, we had lamb, beef, and squid to cook on our table-top grill, as well as scallion pancake, shiguo banfan (better known to Americans by its wonderful Korean name: bibimbap), and my first taste of Hangzhou’s favorite beer: Siwo, which seems to be an attempt at non-pinyin transliteration of its Chinese name, which is, unsurprisingly, Xihu Pijiu, or West Lake Beer. It was at that very lake that I would end up spending most of today.