China Observations – dinner party

I was talking to a friend about living abroad. I told her that everyone has different customs. Even if you went down south from NY,

  • How you approach a table for dinner,
  • How you toast/drink
  • What you can/can’t talk about…. all that stuff is different.

And this is the stuff I *LOVE*. The different customs of a place and trying to figure it out.

In this article, my aunt goes to a dinner party.

Shortly after I arrived in Shanghai a man at the school asked if I’d like some freelance work. His three nieces needed someone to tutor them in English. The parents didn’t speak ANY English but the father would pay me in US dollars and send his driver to pick me up each Saturday. Would two hours a week be acceptable?


My two hour commitment quickly mushroomed into three and I also got a huge raise. The twin 9 year olds still can’t compose an English sentence, but they sure can recite any English stories that they’ve memorized. Tiffany, the 14 year old, is still struggling with proper pronouns and vocabulary, but she’s getting better. And then … the entire family wanted to meet me … and I was asked to dinner.


I had only met Mommy (as she’d introduced herself to me) and Grandma. I wondered if I was going to actually meet the Papa, when Tiffany whispered, “That’s my dad.” She gestured toward the kitchen and there was the tallest Chinese man I’d ever seen (six foot three? four? more?) in a bright orange apron. He waved and said, “Hi-ya!” Then he added, “Wine or whiskey?”


I was whisked into the dining room and instructed to sit beside Papa while Mr. Shen (the driver) brought him a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue. Papa poured us small amounts in lovely crystal glasses. We lifted our glasses as he voiced his English vocabulary word: Cheers. I didn’t know that there was a toasting procedure in China. There is, and I learned it fairly rapidly. The ritual is: pour, clink, toast, drink, clink again, return glass to the table. Sadly, Papa was unable to pour himself another drink until I had emptied my glass. And since I was sipping slowly, he kept making toasts, eagerly hoping I would finish the contents.


While all of this clinking and drinking was going on, the lazy susan in the center of the table was filling up with more than a dozen bowls, each overflowing with food that smelled delicious. There were ten of us at the table at all times. The twins came, ate, and left in a hurry. Their chairs were quickly filled by Grandpa and Mr. Shen. Grandpa exited and Mommy sat down. Mr. Shen took a phone call. Grandma finally took a seat, and eventually the cook joined us too. For a bit, it looked like musical chairs without the music.


Tiffany served as interpreter as they bombarded me with questions. “Was this my first time in China?” No, I was in China six years ago. “In Shanghai?” No, Beijing … “Oooooooo, what did you think of Beijing?” Actually, I didn’t like Beijing … “Who does?!! (they all laughed) The air is just filthy!! (they all laughed again)” (Now, the air in Shanghai is reportedly some of the most polluted on the planet, so this was definitely the pot calling the kettle black.)


Actually, I explained, six years ago the air wasn’t too bad, but the crowds were terrible! “Crowds?” I pantomimed that I was being bumped into – rudely and constantly — on the right and on the left. This sent them all into peels of laughter.


“What else did you see?” The Great Wall. (Heads nodded the way they would in the US if I’d said the Statue of Liberty.) The Terra Cotta Warriors? Blank faces. I resorted to pantomime of killing and destroying, and finally they guessed correctly. More laughter. Now we were playing charades!


After a mere two hours Papa stood up: Mr. Shen would take me home while another driver would take four of them to a concert. I thanked them for inviting me, and for the delicious meal. Everyone shook hands properly, and then all hugged and kissed.


As I walked toward the door, Papa asked if we could do this again on November 28th.

He would love to teach Jim how to cook Chinese food while I teach the girls. “Okay?” he asked in perfect English. I smiled. A-okay, Papa. A-okay.


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