The family congregates…

22 Sep

Two Saturdays ago, around 8:30 in the morning, I was roused from sleep by what sounded like gunshots. What the hell is going on, I half-consciously thought, and couldn’t it have waited a few hours? I stumbled over to the window, hoping for some extraordinary sight – carnage, a police standoff? – to justify being awoken at such an ungodly hour. All I saw was a group of Chinese people massed a few feet from fizzled-out firecrackers. What is wrong with these people? The Chinese New Year isn’t until January!

It wasn’t the Chinese New Year but, in fact, a different holiday: 中秋节 (Zhongqiujie), the Mid-Autumn Festival. It is celebrated annually on the autumnal equinox, when the moon is at its fullest. The holiday’s closest American analogue is Thanksgiving, in that both were originally harvest festivals and are now occasions for large family gatherings. This year, the festival fell on a Monday (Sept. 12), gifting me and 1.3 billion other souls a three-day weekend.

Other students in my program celebrated with their host families on Monday evening, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, my host family had its pow-wow at lunch on Sunday. And what an affair it was…

I had been video chatting with my American family for 40 minutes when, around 11:10 am, my host father called out, “Luo Yi Fan, zhunbei haole ma?” “Evan, are you ready to go?” The door muffled his voice, but not its aura of urgency. “Xianzai? Keyi xian xizao ma?” I replied. “Right now? Can I take a shower first?” The answer was no. I threw on a collared shirt and jeans, then hustled out to the curb, where a taxi was idling.

I hadn’t expected to be in such a hurry. The previous day, my host mother told me we would leave at noon. Evidently, “arrive” and “leave” were confused in translation.

A few minutes before 12 o’clock, we pulled up to a nondescript, gray stone building in an area of Shanghai I didn’t recognize. I was unimpressed, fleetingly unaware that the structure’s ugly exterior belied its opulent interior. As soon as I stepped inside, I started laughing. Over-the-top would not begin to describe how outrageously decorated this restaurant, Dynasty Food and Drink Chain Business, was.

The palatial "Dynasty Food and Drink Chain Business"

Every flat surface was marble, wood, or gold-encrusted. Mirrors lined ample areas of all walls, which was a nice touch, but frankly unnecessary. Every square inch – floor, ceiling, left, right – was so well polished that I could see my reflection at all times. As we (my host parents and I) wound a labyrinthine path to our personal lunch room – there was no grand dining hall, only individual spaces for large families – some walls appeared to have been constructed from large, immaculate, white marble bricks. Just below the ceiling ran intricately detailed gold friezes, which housed lights that cast a yellow-orange tint, as if to accentuate the excessive amount of gold. It was clear that this unabashedly flamboyant establishment catered to China’s emerging middle class, the relative nouveau riche.

We found the dining room empty, but three more people – my host-aunt, uncle and cousin – arrived a few minutes later. My “cousin” introduced himself as Wilson and we got to chatting. I learned that he was 20 years old, which surprised me, because, having no facial hair, I could have sworn he was 15. He asked me, in Chinese, how many times I had been to China, where I had been, all the standard “getting to know you” questions. The oft-rehearsed answers rolled off my tongue as if I were a fluent speaker.

Wilson and me

After five minutes of small talk, Wilson beckoned for me to follow him. We walked 50 feet, then sat alone in a room whose purpose was ambiguous. Wilson took out a pack of cigarettes, offered me one (I refused), then lit up. “My mother doesn’t like it when I smoke,” he told me. An awkward silence ensued… He spoke first: “Ni chou dama ma?”

大麻… dama… what is dama? I frantically trawled the depths of my brain, searching for the word’s meaning. Oh, it’s marijuana! MARIJUANA?! He was asking, “Have you smoked weed?” Before I could reply, Wilson added, “I really want to try it, just once. Does it feel nice?”
I stammered, weighing how I should respond. “Umm… Uhh…” His eyes telegraphed a want for answers. “Who’s that?” I deflected, pointing out the door to a Caucasian man and an Asian woman walking toward our dining room. “Oh, he’s from Belguim. He’s married to my aunt. We should go back now.”

(I never did learn the Belgian or his wife’s name, so they will be referred to as “the Belgian” and “the Belgian’s wife”) Both appeared to be in their thirties. I ascertained from Wilson that the Belgian was fluent in English – in addition to his native French or Dutch, depending on where he was raised  –  and knew a little bit of Chinese. My hope was that he and his wife would be seated near me at the large, circular 15-person table, and a hope it remained. They sat directly across the table, marooning me in a sea of Chinese or, at best, pidgin English. Wilson sat to my immediate left, my host brother, Dawei, and his girlfriend were on my right.

The Belgian's wife holds the baby, Apple's youngest customer

As cold appetizers – various meats, fish and vegetables – were placed on the largest lazy susan I have ever seen, the atmosphere was electric with anticipation for the last three arrivals: Wilson’s older brother, his brother’s wife, and their baby, the first of the new generation bequeathed to the family.

Wilson's brother holds his daughter as the Belgian's wife (center) and my host mother look on. Wilson's brother's wife is in the bottom-right corner.

The room erupted when they finally arrived, around 12:30 p.m. The women all beelined to the baby, miming “goo-goo-ga-ga” baby noises, making faces at the infant, and angling to hold her in their arms. It was quite a sight to behold. Even Asians, I discovered, find Asian babies irresistibly cute.

Once the commotion ceased, and everyone returned to their seats, the Belgian was asked, by who appeared to be his father-in-law (and who inexplicably wore a Mets baseball cap), “Ni shenme shihou gei wo erzi ma?”

I, like the Belgian, took a second to process the question. Then I chuckled with the rest of the room: “When will you be giving us a son?” The question was asked in jest (sort of), but I could have sworn I saw the Belgian cringe.

By this time, the cold appetizers had been removed and the hot appetizers were being brought out. There was xiaolongbao, a traditional Shanghainese dumpling-like dish, steamed vegetables, pork prepared a variety of ways, and two foods I couldn’t believe I was seeing: garlic bread and escargot.

“Do you know what that is?” I asked Wilson rhetorically, pointing at the snails. “French food, escargot.” He tried pronouncing it as I had, but after “esca-” the word was indiscernible. Forget about the silent “t.”

I was tempted to ask why escargot and garlic bread were being served, however I doubted anyone could have enlightened me. Like the extravagant decor, I suppose it confers status on China’s emerging middle class. Certainly the older people at our table couldn’t have imagined 25 years ago that they would one day be eating escargot.

(From left to right) Baby nurse, my host father, the Belgian's father-in-law, the Belgian, unidentified woman.

The meal progressed steadily, interrupted only when the women handed the baby to one another, or mimed loud infant noises. At one point, when I captured the baby’s attention, my host mother told the toddler, which lay in her arms, “He is a foreigner. His nose is big and your nose is small,” as if the baby could comprehend her words.

Wilson, I learned, had knack for posing difficult questions. After explaining how young Chinese men choose a style of dress, either American (plaid shirts and jeans, i.e. comfort) or European (trim shirts and fitted slacks, i.e. sophistication), he asked whether I thought he, and Chinese men in general, was handsome.

Stalling for time, I responded with my own question: “Why do you think that?” “Well, I saw on the internet that some people think Chinese men aren’t handsome,” Wilson replied. “Uh, yeah. I mean, in America a few people don’t think Chinese men are good-looking.” I spoke hesitantly, first scrutinizing each word in my mind. “But I don’t agree. And a lot of other people don’t agree.”

It was distressing to hear Wilson’s insecurities. I had never considered how pervasive or influential the Western ideal of beauty – Caucasian, blonde hair, blue eyes – was in China. Among the post-80s generation, which consumes Hollywood films and television, and lives a second life on the Web,it must be emotionally damaging to perceive yourself as physically inferior, as a mere stereotype.

But I digress…

As the meal concluded, a waitress brought a stack of plastic tupperware to the table. In China, apparently, if you want to take an unfinished dish home, you are expected to box it yourself. My host mom promptly took a container and asked me, pointing at each dish with her chopsticks, “Yao bu yao?” “Do you want this?” I laughed, having no idea what was on half of the plates, and said “Yes” to a handful items, knowing that that would compose dinner for the next few nights.

My host mother, center, boxes leftover food. On the left is the Belgian and his wife, on the right is Wilson's mother and Dawei's girlfriend.

Once the solid food packaged and divided between the women, they moved on to the soup. Out of nowhere came a plastic bag, into which the soup was poured. That bag was then placed in another, creating a foolproof container. I guess in China there are no soup containers like the ones Americans receive for Chinese takeout.

Around two-and-a-half hours after the lunch began, we all retraced our steps to the elevator, then the exit. On the way out, the Belgian said to me, in reference to the furnishings, “It’s so bling-bling, right?” I couldn’t have said it better, yet I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Yeah. Uhh… do you come to these kinds of family meals a lot?”

“Oh, you know,” he replied, “just three or four times a year.”

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One Response to “The family congregates…”

  1. Mark Lederman September 22, 2011 at 3:04 am #

    Evan,

    Just great! Loved all the great detail. Hunan Larchmont (and not even Ray’s) will ever be the same. Keep the good stuff coming.

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