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It was about six o'clock in the evening (Beijing time) on a cold Wednesday night. Although the rest of the nearby restaurants were filling up with diners, this place didn't usually see a crowd until nine or ten. Only one of the four stools in front of the tiny bar was occupied. In it sat an American guy bundled in a fur lined jacket and wool-knit hat. He looked quite occupied smoking a cigarette and thumbing away at his mobile phone. There was also a young Chinese couple sitting at a back table. They were both decked out in scarves and leather jackets with the girl in a black dreadlock cap and knee high boots. She was giggling constantly as she fed bits of the French cuisine to her man.
The bartender was also French… and looked it. Her hair hung at the sides of her face but folded away from her chin into a long braid that fell below her waist. Her beauty was dark and staunch. On a previous occasion, the owner introduced her to me as his girlfriend. She was friendly enough, but slightly galvanized. Like most nights around this time, she had converted the flip top section of the bar into her dining space and was busying her fork into a steak with vegetable tart.
The chef was standing sideways between two of the barstools looking at her. Like the American next to him, he was wearing a heavy winter coat and hat. He took a drag from his cigarette and exhaled a plume of smoke across the beer taps. He flicked a long ash onto the floor, took one more drag, and decided it was time to get the bartender's attention.
"Miss,…uh…I…uh…go…uh…go neighbor…er…uh…to see…uh neighbor…Okay?" He let a few more ashes fall onto the bar as he jabbed his cigarette towards the direction he was planning to go. Puffs of smoke hovered around his face as he stammered.
The bartender looked up from her plate but said nothing. The chef took this to mean she didn't understand him, so he repeated himself. "I…go… neighbor…er…uh…Okay?"
She bounced her eyes from him to the kitchen and then out the front window as if trying to remember where she was. Once her eyes landed back on him, she shrugged her shoulders up close to her ears.
"I don't know. Why you ask me?" She asked.
"I ask you." The chef affirmed by bowing his head slightly.
"You don't need to ask me." She dropped her shoulders but still looked straight at him.
"I ask you," he said again nodding, "OK?"
She inhaled in frustration. "Don't ask me. I don't know. I don't say you go you don't go. If you want to go you go."
A server, whose English name was Allan, came out from the kitchen carrying a warm goat cheese salad and placed it on the bar along with the rest of the bartender's meal. He was focused on their conversation, though, and almost tipped over her wine glass. The chef turned around to him and explained, in Chinese, that he was on his way down the street to buy something for tonight's menu and was just letting the bartender know.
Allan, who doubled as the in-house translator, put on his best winning smile as he turned towards the bartender.
"He ask you OK he go…"
"I know." The bartender jumped in. "He don't need to ask me. Why he ask me?" She was standing now and started to organize things behind the bar. "Please explain to him that he don't need to ask if he want to go. He just go."
The server considered this for a moment, but, as he turned to the chef to tell him what she said, he found himself at a loss. Though he understood every word of it, there was something which he just couldn't quite translate. Instead, he turned back to the bartender.
"Okay, okay, okay." His smile broadening, "You just say he can go. OK?" He leaned towards her as he said this and extended his right arm across the bar in a way that seemed to say "Just between you and me."
The bartended deflated. She picked up a towel and folded it between her hands before she spoke.
"It's not me. If he want to go, he go. I don't know...uh…I don't know kitchen."
She waved her hand towards the back of the café and all three of them turned to the large window that looked into the kitchen. The cook who was perched inside had stopped working and was watching what was going on with them out at the bar. He was motionless and wide eyed. He remained unmoved even with all of their faces looking straight back at him.
Their attention returning to the immediate area, the chef spoke up with open arms and a smile.
"You say I go, I go."
The bartender pleaded, "I don't care. You go. You don't go."
"You say no go, OK, I no go." He spread his arms wider and made as if to turn towards the kitchen.
"As you like!" Nodding, the bartender turned both palms upwards, extending them first towards the chef and then towards the door.
"As you like," Allan muttered to himself questioningly. Clearly, he was unfamiliar with this turn of phrase.
The chef had taken half a step towards the door, but, seeing the confusion on Allan's face, he hesitated. "Ta shuo shenme?" (What did she say?). He asked.
"OK? He go?" Allan looked puzzled at the bartender.
"AS…YOU…LIKE." She repeated loud and slow. The two men looked at each other nervously.
The American at the bar took this as his cue to enter the situation. He reached over to the chef and placed his hand gently on his back. "As you like! Go ahead, man. It's OK… AS YOU LIKE."
"Okay?" The chef asked looking back at the bartender.
"It's not me!" the bartender said angrily. "As you like! Go. I don't care."
The tone in the bartender's voice made Allan unable to help the chef any longer. The two just returned muted looks. They seemed to shrink where they stood and became motionless with uncertainty. However, with the bartender waving her hands towards the door and a few tugs at his coat by the American, the chef showed he understood the signal to leave and eventually did. He stepped outside looking absolutely unsure of himself, threw his cigarette butt on the ground, and glanced back through, the window at the bartender who had already returned to her dinner. Slowly, he walked away.
"He just want to ask you is ok he go." Allan said.
"I know." The bartender said. Her tone was steadying. "Allan" she said trying to appeal to his common sense. "I want you to explain him he don't need to ask me. If he wants to go he just go. I'm not the boss. Why he ask me, I don't know."
"Yes." Allan said slowly. He was looking down at the floor, clearly baffled.
"I think he's just trying to show you respect." said the American.
"Yeah!" agreed Allan looking up, but it sounded more like "Halleluiah!"
"Hmm, I'm not so sure." The bartender said as she wiped the ashes from the bar.
A moment later, the chef returned. He was empty handed and clearly hadn't had enough time to really go anywhere. Regardless, he smiled to the bartender like everything was normal, hung up his coat and went back into the kitchen.