Winter China 3: A Chinese Family


After our glorious days in XiShuangBanNa, we had to leave. No vacation lasts forever, especially ones to tropical places! We took the plane to KunMing, followed by a transfer flight to NanJing, in the JiangSu province – my mom’s hometown. The plan? To visit (albeit distant) relatives, friends, to lavish on them gifts, and stuff ourselves at every meal. I mean, what else is there to do in China, besides to give & receive gifts and stuff yourself with food?

My dad decided that my mom should take the reins in JiangSu – as in, make all the travel arrangements and be the ‘tour guide’, something that my dad has always done. Was that a good decision? Well, that is neither here nor there. All I can (or should…) say is that we had an adventure: wandering the streets to find a hotel, figuring it all out as we went – and we eventually got to our destination. I don’t know about your family, but with my family, you just have to take things as they come. Almost nothing is a surprise to me, and I’ve just learned to go with the flow, keeping hopes high but expectations low. (hey, that rhymed!)

After getting off the flight, we searched for a dinner in NanJing, then decided we would get to our destination best by bus. So we boarded a bus for a few hours, and got off at ZhenJiang, my mom’s hometown. We wandered around a bit, and then found a place that seemed relatively decent to spend the night, and then went out for Papa John’s with my mom’s cousin, aunt, and family. Yup, Papa John’s! (Although it is not quite as big as Pizza Hut or KFC. KFC and McDonald’s are huge in China. But that’s irrelevant!) The next day, we went out for actual Chinese food. We went to lunch with the same cousins and aunt, as well as good family friends. The days following consisted of more meals to stuff ourselves, attended by different people: more family, other friends, as well as a trip to Pearl Buck’s house along the way. Although that was an extremely brief summary, there are times I’m especially thankful and happy that I have Chinese heritage in me. My family and I talked a lot about Chinese culture – if you will, let me enlighten you on a couple aspects, on meals in particular, in case you’re ever hosting a meal in China:

  • The seating around a round table at a meal is an essential part of the meal. The person sitting directly across from the door is the host. If it’s not the host, it’s the most important person in the room. At a fancy restaurant, their napkin will likely be the poofiest. The person sitting to their right is the most important guest; the person to their left is the second-most important guest. The seating arrangement rules don’t end there – but I will, for both of our sakes.
  • It is VERY important that you argue over who pays for the meal. Fight over who will bring out their wallet. The fight might become physical, and that’s okay. Continue to do argue as loudly obnoxiously as possible for as long as you can until you sense that the fight could be a fight to the death. It is at that time you can tell your guest(s) that the meal has already been paid for, or slide your wallet to the waitress.
  • Force food onto a guest or honored person’s plate. It is extremely impolite to let a guest go hungry, so to make sure that doesn’t happen, put food on their plate whenever a new dish joins the lazy Susan, or whenever you remember to. They will probably say that they do not need more food. Pay no attention – it doesn’t matter what they say; their plate needs food on it regardless of how full they say they are. Remember to honor your elders and those who are honored, so do the same to the them too. On the flip-side: as a guest, you should never finish your plate or bowl. If you do, you are insulting your host by making it seem like they didn’t give you enough to eat. That would not be okay; do not finish your plate or bowl at all costs.
  • A concept derived from the above rule (never let a guest go hungry) is to ALWAYS give and do far more than necessary. So your guests will most likely bring a gift of some kind – any kind, really, but just so you know: chances are high that your gift will be food or tea-related, possibly extravagant and entirely unnecessary. But it’s the thought that counts. (Note to guest: never go without a gift to a dinner by invitation.) There might be a time when actually want some of these gifts (e.g. money or snacks for the train), but it is vital that you DO NOT accept any gifts right away. Make sure you say tell them that no, you DO NOT need or want these gifts at all, that they are too generous and good to you, it really is okay – at least three times. Once those three times have passed, you can then feel free to exhale loudly and accept the gift with gratitude, thanking them many more times than necessary.

These rules seem ridiculous, but the Chinese people take them 100% seriously. In Eastern cultures, it is the host’s responsibility to make the other feel honored, welcomed and appreciated by sacrificing a lot of yourself for them (sometimes a little too much!). As the receiver, one should not find themselves accepting everything; they are not actually in need of help, but the gesture is greatly appreciated. Fighting over who pays? It is the act of generosity that matters. You want your friends and family to do well, so it is almost your obligation to oversee that, as much as possible.

The days of ‘continually going to meals and eating’ continued when we traveled back to Beijing. We have friends there, so we had lunch with my brother’s host family (the one who is studying in Beijing), and lots of meals with friends. Every time, my brothers and I would practice our ‘Chinese manners’ and, of course, dramatize everything.

Being Chinese has its perks – for instance, the monetary gifts! Of course money isn’t everything, but it is definitely nice to remember that your family has always got your back. When China decided it would roll with us (that is, make conditions about everything but make it seem like the New World), we decided we’d roll with China. (It’s a pretty sweet ride.)

Next time: California and Home. We left China eventually, leaving Jon behind and going to California to see my mom’s brother, family, and parents. Dumplings ensue.

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