04 June 2008
“Traditional” Chinese Dinner Party
While I took the more “independent traveler” approach to both my first and current stay in China Kyle Long, my name, alma mater and love for China twin took the “adventurous homestay” approach. That’s right, he’s spent the last ten months living with a Shanghai family in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment located right in the center of town.
Yes, you indeed heard me correctly. That’s an entire 3-person family PLUS Kyle living in about 500 square feet of space – Actwin, Shirley, Jerry and Long Hai (his Chinese name). Where might the daugher, Jerry, sleep you ask? Why, in the bed with her parents of course! Where else would an eleven-year-old catch some z’s?
I arrived a bit early for this supper, just in time to catch Papa Actwin (he chose that name because you need to take action to win in life) sporting the full Chinese man drift. When it gets warm in the summer most men roll up just the bottom of their shirts to catch the passing breeze through a window or fan, though the Chinese man drift is not limited to indoor occasions. No, said drift is fully permitted and even encouraged in public places. He offers me the couch and perches himself on a tiny plastic stool, finishing the gesture with a “No prob!” That’s Kyle’s favorite phrase and he has now indoctrinated this family with it. They use it often, even if it doesn’t fit, Kyle later tells me.
I peek into the dining room (it’s not far, as the apartment is extremely space conscious. In fact, I believe I may have been half in the dining room at this point. No wait, a quarter in the dining room, a quarter in the living room, a quarter in Kyle’s bedroom and a quarter in the bathroom. Yes, that’s it). Anyway, I peek into the dining room where Jerry is working diligently on her homework. She started at 4pm. It is now 7pm. She is 11. This is cruel and unusual punishment.
The housekeeper is working on dinner in the kitchen which, with a pivot of my hips, I am now in. Shirley joins us in the living room and we shoot the breeze for a while. What I do, how much I make, why I like Shanghai, etc. It’s the usual “first meeting” convo in China. The awkward pauses are broken by the housekeeper announcing dinner. Jerry moves her homework (which she will pick up after we eat) and the whole gang pull up chairs.
Dinner is the usual Chinese fair and I am incredibly overjoyed. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I LOVE Chinese food. The meals continues on like most family dinners. Question asked by parent. Answer given by child or foreigner. Acknowledgment. Realization. Nod. Bite of food. Repeat. These back and forths are broken up by Actwin tapping his beer to table before every sip, insisting Kyle toast him then sipping. Jerry, who is sitting across from me, watches me eat then giggles. I attempt to make conversation, which lasts sporadically. I get my best replies from Jerry, whose English is exceptional. I tell Actwin and Shirley how great their daughter’s English is. “Oh no, I don’t think so,” Shirley replies. No praise. Cut back to Actwin, who taps his beer on the table but this time says, “bottoms up,” initiating a brief “chug” session with Kyle. They both finish their beers. Loud burps can be heard. Actwin pops another. One beer down and he is now completely trashed. I take a sip of my boxed ice tea. Yum.
Post beer number one Actwin decides to begin a conversation on the history of America, which leads to statements like “China is very open” and “Taiwan is part of China.” Brilliant. Dinner comes to a close, which means brief period of relaxation, code for Actwin watches TV furiously reading subtitles while Shirley cleans and Kyle and Jerry take turns playing the piano. Dishes done, songs played, subtitles read. It’s fruit time. The edible kind.
We each bring our own trash can to eat over and pull up a stool around the coffee table. The watermelon is cut and we proceed to scarf down slice after slice until the entire melon is gone. Very few words are spoken. Kyle and I then retire to his room for an hour to do some planning. Actwin goes back to reading subtitles while Jerry returns to her homework and Shirley supervises. I leave an hour later (10pm). Jerry is still hard at work. Actwin is in bed asleep. Shirley continues to supervise. “Thanks for having me,” I tell her. “No prob,” she replies.
Kyle later tells me that, upon asking her what she thought of me, Shirley’s replied by raising her arms and uttering a short, “Ahh.” Alas, I made a mighty first impression!