Just one day older than I was yesterday, but somehow I feel so very different.
Like the stereotype of the head-in-the-clouds academic, I turned out to be quite mistaken about both the order of events and the dress-code. The informal dinner was last night, the embassy dinner tonight. The dress-code in general--even for daytime--is supposed to be "business casual," which I wish I had known when I packed since "business casual" (whatever that means) excludes jeans.
Fortunately, I did show up in jeans to the dinner last night. First, since we were all meeting in the lobby of the hotel, there was some very energetic networking. Viewed from the elevator doors the distance was enormous. By which I mean, I was gazing at a room full of clean-cut, well-dressed young people talking at high volume, mingling and networking and shaking hands with terrifyingly energetic determination. How many of these have I gone to, these mixers where they forge connections and you somehow just don't? (A fleeting recollection of eating alone in the freshman dining hall during college.) I haven't, since then, gotten much better at forging connections, but at least I've hardened my sense of independence. Charisma, the ability to generate admiration in those around you, makes life a lot easier of course. But if you haven't got it (or rarely), you can still get by. The first thing to learn is to overcome hard feelings about it. Or no, the first thing is find the fine line between caring too much and caring too little.
The mixer glob of future FB fellows was hovering over the only chairs in the lobby, so I had to be absorbed by the glob just to sit down. (No one else was sitting down.) But I sat down, just to adjust and come back from the far shores of alienation and caring too little. Actually, why not sit and say nothing? I made a rough demographic estimate. I listened for the distinctive voices. But then I saw a guy with a clipboard checking people in. Bureacracy includes everyone, and that is one of its underappreciated good points. So I got myself checked in by JA, our mother hen, and as with all people who have such jobs, he diligently set me rolling into conversations which I will not record in detail.
The worst thing about these mixers is that there is nothing for it but to ask the same obvious questions that everyone is asking and answering twenty times over. Where are you from? where are you going? what is your project? Are you a recent graduate? There is really little more to ask than that, and the answers are all interesting. But you can't help sounding like a parody of yourself. A glass-blower from RISDE going to Guangdong. A grad student with a law degree studying the Chinese legal system in Beijing. A recent grad from I've now forgotten where studying infant mortality (depressing!!). Sustainable agriculture.
We walked to Dupont Circle and had dinner and crowded into a restaurant there. Fifty-four, the biggest China group ever, thanks to Senator Liebermann's recent bill (it seems) upping the level of funding for cultural exchange with China (a good thing, too). Bamboo slips from the Guodian tomb. Foreign relations on the interpersonal level. China's energy resources as photographic subject. I ordered prime rib. Somehow by then I was actually in a talking mood and had already said how I was a vegetarian at home. So everyone thought it was quite funny when what arrived for me was a big bloody chunk of beef. I explained my carnivore convictions, and mentioned having once executed a chicken. Small talk and smaller talk.
After dinner, to my surprise, I found myself swept up in a group of people who were in search of alcohol and merriment. Flattered to be included, but within certain limits. In a way I felt oldish. No one had much idea where to go, and most of them had probably been of legal drinking age for less than a year. Someone mentioned Brickskeller, a bar of many beers (apparently thousands, any one you can imagine or have ever heard of, a menu like a book as it turned out). But no one knew how to get there. The law guy, a tallish Asian guy with an improbably huge bass voice and an utterly unserious extrovert personality to match, took charge of asking directions. By the way, may I express my disgust with the street layout of DC. They have a promising grid system... but alas, nothing runs straight. Grids are meant to intersect at right angles! But we got there eventually, and it was rather glorious.
Film academy hopeful. Migrant education. More sustainable agriculture (but China can use all it can get!). Women's employment. I learned a new drinking game, something like rock paper scissors, but involving forming the characters 中 and 大 with your arms and body, followed by stylized representations of "male", "female", or "transvestite", one of which the other person has to guess at the very moment you are forming it. Somehow the funny gender stuff is what makes the game hilarious. I was awful at it, but formed a very good theory about the psychological tricks that were employed to defeat the guesser. "You're really into this analysis stuff, huh." "Well, those who can't do analyze--the story of my life." General hilarity, though anyone who was drunk had to have been an incredible lightweight--we only had a beer each, or two at most. I actually didn't have a beer at all, but a Belgian Framboise lambic, which was incredible. Essence of fresh raspberries.
I started a slow movement out at 11:15. After all, it was a 30+ minute walk back to the hotel, and our activities would begin at 8 the next morning. I felt exhausted (after that early trip to the station, then all those conveyances, and all the talking), but good. Like the distance was less, despite the extreme youth of everyone but me, despite how different my project was, despite the damned dress code. I spread out in the king-size bed. I felt located rather than the reverse, a little out of place, but not so out of place as I might have feared.
The next day--today, that is--was even more full of fascinating information, so much I took pages of notes as I knew it would run out of my head like water. But I will have to finish this story tomorrow...