It was meant to be a special treat for my newly found relatives, a Sunday dinner family style, at the only knife-and-fork restaurant in town. After accepting their lavish hospitality for days, it was my turn to celebrate my wife's first meeting with her Chinese aunts, uncle and cousins.
There I sat like the proud patron at the head of the table anticipating their reactions as the waitress carted in plates of cold cuts and fantail shrimp, tureens of steamy cream soup and tubs of chicken fricassee, lamb curry and German beef stew. A sure hit for people numbered by the daily Chinese diet of vegetables and rice, I surmised. In another culture I certainly would qualify for mensch of the day.
Too busy congratulating myself, I didn't realize at first that the only ones eating were my wife and I. In fact, the only sound in our private dining room upstairs was the clacking of my fork against the plate. My eight guests, at other times a talkative bunch, sat in awkward silence trying to figure out what to do next. Far from enjoying themselves, they looked as if they were being sentenced to a month of political study sessions.
Were they stymied by Western utensils? Intimidated by the huge portions? Worried about being seen indulging in such bourgeois excess? Was I surrounded by vegetarians? After an hour of what could have passed for a family wake, my wife left the room, igniting a curious change in mood. Suddenly the two youngest cousins unzipped large black travel bags they mysteriously had brought along for the outing and passed several tin boxes around the table.
With the teamwork of a Chinese opera troupe, everyone left their seats and began emptying their uneaten food into the tins. They shoveled. They pured, scooped. Stabbed. Everything. Even the lettuce garnish and pickles. They worked with the urgency of people grabbing a few personal effects before escaping a burning house.
The Chinese, legendary savers who can do wonders with every part of a chicken, taught me a textbook lesson in frugality.
When my wife returned, she found her relatives cheerfully back in their seats, overlooking a depleted banquet table. in the few minutes she had been away, they had managed to stuff $70 worth of carefully prepared food into four tin boxes without uttering a note of explanation.
The dinner now over, they left the eatery chattering about the fine repast, profusely thanking me for the treat.
THIS WAS MORE than a normal visit to relatives. My wife, Lily, born in Taiwan and reared in Washington, had spent her entire 25 years never knowing an aunt or grandparent, uncle or cousin. Her surname, Dow (pronounced doe), is so rare among overseas Chinese that she often joked about being the descendant of the Jade Princess.
Through revolution, civil war, cold war and the vagaries of American diplomacy, Lily's father, who left Tianjin in the late 1930s to fly for the Nationalist Chinese Air Force, had lost contact with his family in China. Thirty-five years later, after President Nixon's visit to China, my father-in-law sent a letter to his old address in Tianjin. The letter passed from household to household for months before landing on the right doorstep.
By the time we set off for Tianjin, about 90 miles from Peking, we thought we had sufficiently prepared ourselves for the visit. Our Chinese was passable enough to survive a weekend of conversation. We had exchanged letters and pictures, giving the relatives fair warning that their new in-law was a "big nose." We packed bottles of the pungent alcoholic drink mao tai, boxes of Marlboro cigarettes, yards of colorful cloth and transistor radios.
Despite our forethought, it was impossible to prepare for the emotional impact for the first encounter. Arriving two hours late after getting lost in the twisting streets of Tianjin, we found the entire clan assembled outside the apartment building of Lily's youngest aunt. Like a traffic cop, her uncle bolted into the street to flag down the only foreign car to pass in hours.
In those first few awkward minutes of curbside handshakes and smiles, everything began to click. The high-bridged nose, the long skull, the bushy eyebrows. At home, Lily is often mistaken for Japanese, Malaysian or Korean. At 62 Yunnan Road in Tianjin, she looked like everybody else.
FOR LILY, the biggest worry was keeping track of everyone. Even if we knew all their names, it wouldn't have helped much. Chinese relatives don't call themselves by name. They use terms designating age and place in the family. For example, the oldest sister of Lily's father is called Eldest Aunt. Her five girls are: Eldest Cousin, Second Cousin, Third Cousin and so on.
Sounds easy at first glance but it gets unfathomable for us name-conscious Westerners.
Was the relative on the paternal or maternal side? Male or female? Older or younger? An in-law? A step relative? The daughters of Lily's aunts are called something differenct from the daughters of her father's step-brothers. And they all shouldn't be confused with the terms for her male cousins.
Their actual names are equally difficult: Singing Praises of the Duckweed and Singing Praises of the Poris Cocus (a Chinese medicinal herb).
The only solution was to sit down and draw a family tree, less for the sake of discovering roots than to ease the confusion. This proved to be the most rewarding experience for Lily, who learned that her ancestors were perhaps more humble than the Jade Princess but nonetheless of good sound stock. As it turns out, her grandfather spoke English and worked for a Chevrolet plant in Tianjin before the Communist takeover.
Finally deciding what to call her relatives turned out to be easier for Lily than being one of them. We drove a new Toyota. They biked. We stayed at Tianjin's best hotel. They stayed in their cramped homes. They insisted that we shop at the "foreigners only" Friendship Store while they waited outside in the beating sun.
IN CHINA EVEN everyday guests get treated like heads of state. When out-of-town relatives arrive, the effort to please rises by geometric progression.
Scarecely a moment passed in Jianjin when Lily's family missed a chance to spoil us.They peeled one orange after another. As soon as we finished eating peanuts specially cracked for us, another handful was thrust in our palms. They escorted us to the bathroom and boiled pans of water to wash our hands. They shepherded us to the cushiest chairs and never allowed us to see the bottom of our tea cups. They would have breathed for us if they could have.
The real test came when Lily got sick. Just a head cold and laryngitis, but you'd have thought it was cancer. First, one of the cousins slipped away to the home of a doctor and came back with bottles of chartreuse, Western-style pills. When that failed a day later, her aunts insisted that she see a herbal doctor at the neighborhood clinic.
The clinic looked like an old gymnasium. In the lobby next to the reception desk, an active game of ping-pong distracted incoming patients from the seriousness of their visit. Without the long waits and complicated registration procedures of an American emergency room, Lily and her delegation of concerned relatives were sent to the second floor examination rooms.
The doctor, a confident man of 26, was waiting for us in a tiny office where someone had just completed a week's wash. Several pairs of pants, dripping wet, were hanging on a clothesline stretched across the room. Sitting Lily down at a small wooden desk, he explained the four principles of Chinese herbal medicine: observe, smell, interview and examine.
After inspecting her tongue and eyes, sniffing her breath, asking a few questions about her general health and feeling her pulse, the doctor rendered his diagnosis. It was a head cold. Filling out a prescription form, he gave us a bill totaling less than $1 for the office visit and medication.
Stopping at the drug dispensary on the first floor (where the ping-pong game was heating up), we handed the prescription to a nurse who withdrew to a storage room filled with large burlap bags of herbs. She returned with two paper bags stuffed with 12 varieties of herbs, a bottle of pink pills and a bottle of tiny black pills.
Back home again, Lily's aunts still were uneasy. The doctor was so young; how could they be sure his diagnosis was sound? So they arranged for another herbal doctor, a family friend, to make a house call for a second opinion. His conclusion was that the herbal medicine was good, but the black and pink pills were not.
Finally reassured, the aunts began preparing the herbal potion on the family's portable propane stove. Directions for the herbal medications: pour one bag herbs into a rounded, cast-iron medicine pot, add one cup cold water and cook 10 minutes. Out came an acid-smelling brew that looked like tar, and according to Lily, tasted little better.
Despite her valor, Lily's cold resisted the ancient remedy, succumbing only after a regimen of Contac and bed rest when we returned to Peking.