by Claire Moshenberg on August 23, 2014

When our waiter dropped to the floor behind my chair and performed a very earnest swan dance, I was surprised . . . because he was not the noodle man. Bending and dipping, hip bones exposed, he elegantly writhed for several minutes and bowed before the noodle man appeared, dressed like circa “Billie Jean” Michael Jackson, ready to whip a ball of dough through the air until it became an enormous noodle, the kind you plunk into your sizzling hot pot and eat on your birthday to promote long life.

We were having a reunion in Shanghai: a fake birthday celebration to honor all the real birthdays the three of us had missed. We celebrated my very merry unbirthday at an infamous hot pot spot. The whole staff sang “Happy Birthday” in four languages, then hauled out an elaborate speaker system so our waiter could do his best swan. The flustered noodle man dropped the noodle twice and was replaced with the head noodle man, who flung the dough around my head at breakneck speed, then made complicated dough webs dance through the air before dropping the noodle in the bubbling Szechuan hot pot broth.

Numbing peppers electrify, make people flushed and wild. Hot pot is an accidental party; strangers with stinging tongues are bound to become temporary friends. “Hey, what’s your name? Claire? QUEEN CLAIRE!” the two drunk men from the neighboring table announced, after ambling over to pay their respects. “You join us,” they said, leading me by the hand; they distributed warm beer and readied their cameras for several waves of group pictures. Every few minutes one would announce, “QUEEN CLAIRE!” and cheers, beer sloshing, and glad tidings would ensue, arms slung around shoulders for one more snapshot, the party escalating until one of them planted a sloppy kiss on my fiancé’s glasses.

Our hot pot was evaporating; our smile muscles were twitching from waves of photographs. We left to a chorus of “QUEEN CLAIRE!” I waved and smiled and tried to be regal, while eating a noodle as long as me.

Claire Moshenberg is a San Francisco-based author, activist, and new-media consultant. She is co-proprietor of the web site Charm City Jukebox and a contributing editor of The Spleen.

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