AS we drove around the bend, we saw the freshly painted signboard by the roadside. ``Shu-Bing: Parking,'' it read. I sighed in relief. After more than an hour wan-dering around narrow roads in an unknown and seemingly deserted part of the Jura Mountains, turning the map this way and that, I was convinced we were lost. A few minutes earlier, we had come across another car with Geneva license plates pulled into the side of the road, the occupants bent over a similar map. Windows wound down. ``Are you going to Shu-Bing's party?''
``Yes, do you know the way?''
``No, we hoped you might.''
A third car - this one with local French plates - drove slowly past.
``If you're looking for Shu-Bing's party, follow me.''
And so the little convoy reached the signboard. By now it was raining hard and the rutted track leading off the road was squelchy. Fields of wild narcissus, like great snowdrifts in the lush green grass, rose on either side to the dark forests above. At the end of the track, cars were parked in a muddy yard outside a farmhouse with barn attached. The unmistakable smell of Chinese cooking wafted out.
Our friend Shu-Bing was due to return to China after two years at the European Center for Nuclear Research (or CERN, to give it its French acronym) in Geneva. Being a hospitable person and a great cook, Shu-Bing had decided to invite all his friends to a party. But his one-room Geneva apartment couldn't possibly accommodate the number of friends he had acquired.
A German fellow-physicist offered his weekend cottage-cum-farmhouse in the nearby Jura, handed out those indecipherable maps, and put up the signboard by the roadside. Et voil`a - there we all finally were.
A more motley gathering would be difficult to imagine. The majority were, of course, physicists of every nationality - though it was often hard to tell which, as they had lived or traveled in most of the countries represented and switched easily in and out of one another's languages.
This day the conversation centered on the secret ingredients of the dumplings, which were spread out on trestle tables in a downstairs room: rows and rows of pale bulbous shapes waiting for their turn in the wok. Four stoves had been set up in different corners of the house, each manned by two smiling Chinese. Shu-Bing himself rushed around supervising, a grin of welcome alternating with a worried frown if he smelled burning.
Besides the physicists and the cooks, there were others: the daughter of a former Swiss ambassador to China, who had fallen into conversation with Shu-Bing at the dried mushroom counter of an Oriental specialty shop in Geneva; the woman who led off-the-beaten-track tours to China twice a year; a Vietnamese doctor and his family. And us.
I had been approached by Shu-Bing, wearing his polite but worried smile, as I hurried through Geneva's Old Town on the way to an organ concert. In terrible French, he tried to explain that he was looking for a church, pointing to the announcement of the same concert in the newspaper he was holding. Mistaking him for a lost Japanese tourist, I tried English. His relief was visible.
As we walked together toward the church, he told me he was from Shanghai. When I said I had just returned from a trip there, his face lit up. An invitation to lunch followed, at which my husband showed him our photographs of his city, and the friendship began.
I agreed to help him ``improve'' his English. Conscientiously at first, then more halfheartedly, I corrected his mistakes.
```Colleagues' is two syllables, not three,'' I would say. Or: ```When I go back to China,' not `When I go back China.''' But as ideas spilled out, the words cascaded faster and faster until the grammar just got washed away.
It was like talking to a man from Mars - his eyes and ears working overtime to absorb all the new things around him. How did credit cards work? How did my husband run his business? How did people go about getting jobs? Why was ``individualism'' considered to be such a virtue, while in China it was equated with selfishness? Were neighbors always so cold and unfriendly?
In turn, I plied him with questions - about his family, his work, the system, religion, politics. He was not a member of the Communist Party - ``I don't need to be'' - but he cared deeply about his country. From being worlds apart, we forged a fragile link of understanding.
We introduced him to our friends, who in turn became his friends. And now all these strands of friendship were gathered up here in this Jura farmhouse, to be woven together. He pulled me across the room to meet his Italian co-worker who had taken him to his family home in Tuscany - and I remembered his incredulous account, on his return, of the way of life led by the old Italian aristocracy.
Someone said to me: ``So you're his English teacher. I've heard so much about you.'' Heavens, I wondered, what impression of Englishness had I given? Rain poured down outside and the children raced in and out with armfuls of wet narcissus while the rest of us gathered around the stoves, eating the dumplings as fast as they emerged from the pans and discovering that we were not really strangers after all.
As the party began to break up, Shu-Bing stood by the door pumping hands vigorously, his glasses steamed up with excitement.
``I think my colleagues' cooking is OK, isn't it?'' he demanded, pronouncing ``colleagues'' with three syllables.
I let it go. ``Nearly as good as yours,'' I said.
We bounced back along the track to where the German physicist was dismantling his signboard. What was really needed, I thought, was some sort of permanent sign, proclaiming: ``Shu-Bing's Party Was Here.''