My friend Emily invited me to dinner with her family this weekend. I expected to meet her parents, and maybe two or three or other relatives. Instead, when we showed up at a hotel on Dongfeng Dong Lu, and went up to a meeting room on the second floor, I found that I was part of the Li family party of 20. What follows are the three lessons I learned at my big fat Chinese dinner.
We all loitered around the room until someone started the move toward the humongous round table that we all would share. There was a bit of awkwardness and confusion as Emily’s father tried to create a seating chart on the spot. I was first told to sit at one seat, then another. At one point, there were a couple of hands gripping my forearm, yanking me to the left and right; I guess they were just trying to politely usher me to the right place.
I was eventually seated on the complete opposite side of the table from where Mr. Li had first sent me. “These seats are for important people,” said Emily, sitting to my right. To her right was her cousin, the guest of honor; he had just completed the college entrance exam. To my left were that same cousin’s paternal grandparents, his nainai and yieyie. So there we were, the most important people in the room—the scholar, the revered grandparents, and yours truly, along with the one person at the table who spoke enough English to converse with me. Lesson learned: People are always watching me.
Nainai and Me
We ate family-style, of course, sharing two dozen different dishes on a giant spinning glass platform on the table. Whatever dish passed, I would politely put a serving on my plate. But I never seemed to take enough to satisfy Nainai. She just kept heaping it all on: noodles, spicy vegetables, baozi (Chinese steamed buns), sautéed squash, sweet bread with a spicy spread (surprisingly delicious), grilled fish, some watermelon, ginger and celery salad.
As the meal went on, I got a little more bold, and started responding to Nainai’s attempts to stuff me by asking her “Ni ne?” (And you?) and spooning food onto her plate, which made her laugh a great, shoulder-shrugging, belly laugh.
She did all of this with a really beautiful smile on her face, which you can see in the above photo. That’s her 6-year-old granddaughter with us. I’m proud to say that my Chinese was good enough to tease the little girl about her missing teeth.
Lesson learned: grandmothers everywhere are the same, all worried that young people are starving, even when confronted with evidence to the contrary.
Over the course of the meal, I was given some explanation for everyone at the table (how they were related, what they did, where they were from), but I didn’t understand most of it and forgot the rest. I did get to meet everyone, though, since there’s apparently a custom of getting up and going around to various parts of the table to toast the people sitting there. The closest thing I can think of in American culture is the way the bride and groom mingle with each table at a wedding reception. But in this case, everyone is involved, giving it a more chaotic feeling.
We each had three glasses at our place: a tall skinny one for orange juice, a glass for white wine and a tiny one, with probably a quarter-ounce capacity. Early on, one of the men filled my tiny glass with baijiu, a strong white liquor that’s got little taste aside from, well, white liquor. When he raised his glass to toast to my health and success, and finished his in one swig, I did the same. This, of course, led to my glass being refilled again for the next toast, and again for the one after that. The stuff is strong and so is its taste. My face heated up, my throat stung and my stomach rumbled. I loved the meal, but the baijiu-binge was a bit much.
Lesson learned: It’s polite to mirror your foreign hosts, but if you do so too enthusiastically before you know what you’re getting into, you might end up binging on baijiu.
One More Time With the Manager
When it came time to leave, there was talk of karaoke. As much as I enjoyed everyone’s company, I was happy to say I had other plans. It’s taken me all of one trip to Kunming’s very popular KTV to determine that I will always try to duck out when karaoke comes up. Being locked up in a dark room with a bunch of my friends singing badly is not my idea of a fun evening, or even a harmlessly mundane one.
I went around saying my goodbyes and thank yous. One member of our group was actually the hotel’s manager. I said goodbye to him one time in the lobby, shaking his hand, giving a little bow and sincerely thanking him. I said goodbye again on the steps outside of the hotel. When I told Emily that I was going to catch the bus, she whispered to me, “One more time with the manager.” I made a big loop around a van parked outside to reach where he was standing, so I could say goodbye and thank you one more time.
Lesson learned: Thank the host excessively.
Li Qing Rong