Since I've been here, I have gotten the red carpet treatment the whole way. Aside from taking tours of what seems to be all the facilities in the city and getting to meet top local government officials, I have also been taken out for welcome parties or other free dinners at least four times in the month I've been here, and that's not counting the occaisional free lunch, free afternoon coffee, or ice cream cone.
Last night, however, was an extremely interesting experience. I went to a dinner (enkai = Japanese drinking party) with some people from the Environmental Department. This was a party that they had already planned out, but they invited me as a 'special guest' (using the English term). We went to a Chinese restaraunt where we were served tons of food. Since I don't drink alcohol (a borderline faux pas), I was told to pig out. They brought way more food than the 10 people there could eat, so they also made me take a bunch home.
I know. So far, nothing special, right? Well, I guess that's because I haven't mentioned the 'companions' they hired. Three girls (young women, actually, in their 20s or early 30s) came in toward the beginning of the party. These girls act as 'hostesses' for the party, pouring drinks, lighting cigarettes, filling plates, and going around the room, sitting down and chatting (and flirting) with the guests. I am really not sure how I feel about this custom. I have never seen anything like this in the U.S. and I doubt that companies like this would meet with much favorable press. Personally it was interesting to observe, but I really felt strange talking to a girl hired to flirt with me.
Anyway, it was interesting watching the party break down into different groups. Two older guys talked seriously with one of the young guys, no doubt assessing his future ambitions and capabilities while giving him career advice. A couple of the middle ranking guys (early 30s to mid 40s) imbibed heavily and spent most of the time loudly flirting with the ladies, and one older guy turned bright red and talked with the only female who was actually there as a guest (a woman who I think is retired and interning or working in the department as a volunteer). I was kind of in the middle. I was a 'special guest', but not a regular part of the group, so I spent most of the time eating and talking to whoever didn't seem to be too busy.
I ate way too much and decided to walk (slowly) home. It took about 50 minutes, but I really needed to walk off the heavy dinner. The temparature was great, but even when it's 75 outside, if the humidity is 100%, you get sweaty walking for that long. I guess it's Chinese for dinner again tonight...