Note: Once again, there’s been difficulty here in China for 2 weeks getting to access my site. Sorry for the long wait. Photos will follow later, if I can get on again!
An Evening at Joe’s Home
As many of you know, Saturday afternoons in my home are for the neighborhood kids. From 3 p.m. to 4, my door is open to those wishing to hang out with the foreigner. I have my regulars, Amy (Huang Yawei, 11) and Joe (Guo Guanyu, 15) as well as their friends.
Last year, Joe invited me to his 14th birthday party but I was unable to attend. It was a big disappointment to him and I remember how sad he was. I promised, “Next year, Joe. You have your party on a night I can come and I’ll be there.”
Well, last Friday was it.
After waiting an entire year, Joe planned his party on an evening when I could definitely attend, school wouldn’t be held the next day and his buddies could all come. His plan was to have me over for a dinner with all the relatives before his other friends began to arrive for cake and snacks. This is the usual tradition for birthday parties in China. An evening is set and relatives or friends just come and go as they please, nothing formal or organized.
Tasty dishes are left on the table the entire evening so those who haven’t eaten anything can pick over what the original dinner guests haven’t gobbled down already. Bottles of Coke and Sprite, beer and hard liquor (for the older folk) are spread out for consumption while the kids race about, enjoying themselves.
I’d been to parties before in other parts of China but never in Longzhou. This would be my first family-cooked dinner in Guangxi and I was really looking forward to it.
What kind of dishes would be served for this province? What host manners would be displayed? What kind of a home would I be visiting?
One thing’s for sure: I knew the family was looking forward to meeting me. Joe had been talking about me for almost 2 years now, displaying the small goodies I’d send home with him and the pictures as well. This was a time for returning the favor of showing kindness to their boy. I really needed to put my best foot forward, brush up on my Chinese small-talk and give a good impression.
Friday evening, Joe came by with another one of our campus visitors, 11-year-old Annie (Chen Xinyu) and 10-year-old Mike (Nong Kuntian). We then headed over to Amy’s small apartment at the front gate.
Amy’s father is one of our gate keepers at our school. His family has a rather dismal, dark and dank 4-room apartment (provided by the school) at the front gate along with several other campus workers. Such housing for blue-collar school employees is the norm inChina. The accommodations are not great, with cement walls oozing mold and dripping dampness, no windows, closet-sized stinky squat toilet with questionable sewage system and electrical wires dangling from the ceiling. But there is no rental fee so they can save what little the workers earn from the school.
At Amy’s home, her mother settled me down in a rickety whicker chair to wait for her daughter to return from school. Joe told me her mother was an elementary English teacher years ago. Her response to that was to adamantly shake her head and be embarrassed the topic had even come up. Her English was completely forgotten after years of no use, she said. She really can’t remember anything.
When Amy popped through the door, we had a quick photo session with all of us together before departing for Joe’s home. Naturally, my camera was with me and I had fully charged the batteries just for this evening’s festivities.
As previously mentioned in the last blog, pictures to the Chinese are greatly treasured. Having photos to remember special moments together are a must. I personally didn’t have picture of Amy’s mom so I was more than happy to hustle us all together for a photo shoot.
After all, the evening was going to be full of photos. Might as well get started early.
Arrival At Joe’s
We all headed out the back gate, where two 3-wheeled taxies were hailed. Joe and I jumped in one while Annie, Amy and Mike hopped in the other. Off we went, zig-zagging the narrow roads of Longzhou on the town’s backstreets.
After just 5 minutes, we arrived at our destination: a row of small shops situated on a snaking town backroad. This was where Joe lived.
The 3-wheeled cab stopped in front of a small, 1-room women’s clothing shop. This was Joe’s mom’s business, he explained. It was attached to a 4-story building and the family uses 3 floors in the back of the shop for living. Both sets of grandparents have their own rooms, as does Joe and his parents and younger sister. Then we have the uncles and aunts, which often arrive for daily family dinners as well.
In other words, Joe had a very big family, which I discovered when we entered the living area of his home.
The table had already been set with dishes and everyone was gathered around, waiting for Joe and me to arrive. His dad’s brother was busy woking up more dishes in the kitchen area, and the men were relaxing in lazy ease around the table, when I stepped through the apartment entrance. The women in the family, Joe’s mom and grandmother, were the first to jump up to greet me along with Joe’s dad.
Mike, Annie and Amy came bursting in with giggles. Their pent-up energy from school had them racing around the room and then disappearing outside on the street to play until it was time for dinner. Joe settled me into a chair at the table and then bustled about, making calls to his 2 classmates who were coming over a bit later.
There was the usual apprehensive hesitation which comes when a new person is in the midst of a family gathering. Everyone was a bit nervous for fear the foreigner wouldn’t understand. Joe’s mother and grandmother had practiced their English greetings,as taught to them by Joe, and were quite keen to use them..
“Hello!” his mom said, turning to me. “I am mother.”
Her mom then immediately piped up, “I am grandmother!”
“Father!” Joe’s dad beamed, pointing to himself.
That sent dad’s brothers, the uncles, to hee-hawing with jovial delight.
“Wow! Your English is great!” I replied in Chinese. “Very good.”
That pretty much set the mood for the rest of the evening. Laughter, banter and friendly chit-chat ensued, now that everyone knew we could communicate.
An Unusual Drinking Custom
Of course, the family’s men in our midst added more to the festive atmosphere with their laid-back smoking and drinking, which loosened them up even more.
I’m used to both during a Chinese dinner but the drinking habit here was a bit unusual. In between bites of food and talk, the guys were spoon-feeding each other baijiu (“white liquor,” or whiskey) from a small bowl on the table. I’d never seen this done before anywhere in China. Usually, everyone has their own shot-glass to drink from. But in Longzhou, I learned it’s the custom for the host to spoon feed his guests (and himself) a Chinese porcelain spoonful of whiskey from time to time. The same spoon remained in the bowl at all times, with each sharing the same utensil whenever a slurp was given to another.
Sounds a bit unsanitary but from the proof of the whiskey, I’m guessing anything alive in that bowl or on that spoon was dead as soon as the liquor hit it.
We women were invited to participate in this male-bonding ritual but we declined. Our fondness was for food, soft drinks and girl-talk, not liquor, cigarettes and machismo.
More Friends and Relatives Arrive
After a majority of us had enjoyed the many dishes set before us, Joe’s friends, family neighbors and others began to show up. The place was buzzing with activity, especially from Joe’s friends who were ready to dig into the birthday cake.
InChina, birthday cakes have now become a necessary tradition. Years ago, birthdays were not important and looked over. Cakes were not on the menu because ovens didn’t exist in China.
But now, with the international world crashing in on the country, birthday cakes are a must. Cake shops are all over town and make a fortune creating huge, double-layer sponge cakes loaded with whipped-cream frosting and decorative, fluffy figures on top.
Born in the year of the rabbit? The goat? The horse? No problem! Your totem animal goes right on top, amidst slices of fruit and chocolate shavings.
Prices for cakes range from $15 to over $100, depending on how big they are.
Joe’s was quite substantial and probably around $35. He was the one to help carve and then Annie began to serve.
As always inChina, the adults steered clear of the young folk at their table, dishing up the cake. Adults consider cake a treat for the kids and don’t usually partake of such things. So it was Joe’s friends and myself who gathered round to inhale our pieces.
Not only was cake on the birthday table menu but tubs of KMC fried chicken (a Chinese knock-off of America’s KFC), plates of cut-up fruit and bread buns. These were for Joe’s friends who didn’t come for dinner, although I noticed that those who had eaten dinner with the rest of us were busy digging into the cartons. They gobbled down those greasy chicken wings and drumsticks as if there was no tomorrow. Amy, Mike and Annie certainly had their fair share as did Joe.
How in the world do these Chinese kids eat so much and stay so skinny is beyond me.
After the cake , Joe gave us the tour of the upper floors. He led us upstairs to show us his room before we landed in his grandparents’ bedroom with the TV set and DVD.
Joe’s favorite movies are the Narnia series. As the birthday boy, it was only fair we watch what he wanted so we gathered around on the bed to see the exciting last half of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Then it was Prince Caspian next.
The chicken tubs were brought up in the middle of the movie, along with more Coke and cups. Everyone was mesmerized by the fantasy world created in the film’s Narnia Chronicles. I’d seen all 3 several times myself but had forgotten the storyline so it was just as much a treat for me as for the kids.
Time to Call It A Night
Although Joe and his friends were ready to start the last of the Narnia movies, I had to call it quits. It was already 10 p.m. and had been a long day.
Joe’s parents and relatives saw me through to the shop’s entrance where his mom hailed a 3-wheeled cab to drive me home. There were many thank you’s and grateful farewells as I slipped in behind the taxi driver. Mom made sure to thrust the cab fare into the man’s hands before we took off.
As is the custom in China, always make sure the guest is well-cared for, including paying for rides home.
It’s been a long time since I had an evening out with a Chinese family and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute. With our initial introductions completed, I have a feeling that I’ll be visiting Joe and his family again in the near future, hopefully for yet another great dinner along with great company.
From Longzhou, here’s wishing you Ping An (peace) for your day.