Okay, so the Chinese don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. But they did express gratitude often, and one evening while living there in 2010 (on a November evening as a matter of fact) I was invited to the home of a family to help prepare and enjoy a delicious dinner.
The following excerpt is taken from my book, Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China.
My English teaching duties extended beyond the classroom. In November, I was asked to attend something called “Joy Family Night.” For this event, a student’s family hosted their teacher for dinner. I wasn’t sure whether it was something my school did to impress their clients or something the parents did to benefit their child’s education, but off I went on a Saturday night.
After classes this day, two twenty-something female staff members of the school and I arrived with a gift of chocolates at the door of this residence on the sixteenth floor. It was an apartment, and believe it or not, the fact that a middle class family of four lived here rather than a house marked the most surprising difference between their lifestyle and that which I knew in the US. (I had anticipated the language and food bridges to cross.) Indeed, it turned out that the biggest surprise of the night was how “at home” I felt.
The door to their apartment opened, and a husky, tall man with a five o’ clock shadow on his smiling, round face welcomed us into the small entryway. The man of the house motioned us inside to the wood-floor living room complete with a plush sofa, television, and some toy shelving. Further inside, the dining room sat to the left and kitchen to the right. And further back still ran a hallway to the bathroom and two bedrooms. I thought to myself that minus the Chinese characters on wall calendars and other décor, and maybe added a touch of color to the plain white walls, this apartment could belong in any number of countless complexes in suburban America.
The father’s English was quite good, and after being seated, he shared with me his family’s story. He’s from northern China and met his wife in Beijing. They lived in Singapore for a few years (a tiny country straight south of China near the equator) and then Denmark for a few more before settling here in southern China. He is employed as an engineer; actually, he manages a team of engineers, who were working their fingers to the bone designing the little vibrators in cell phones. He explained that with all the players in the marketplace and a steady turnover of new phones, competitors were breathing down their neck for every opportunity. So he was regularly at the office twelve hours a day.
The mother, as far as I knew, was a stay-at-home mom. They had a nine-year-old daughter—my student, whose English name was Minny—and a preschool-aged son, which obviously went against China’s one-child policy. So I’m assuming dad had to pay the fee for having a second child. Yet even with their size and resources, this family didn’t reside within a four-bed, two-and-a-half-bath sprawl. Houses were expensive in Zhuhai.
After small talk, we started to prepare for dinner. Or I should say, we started to prepare dinner. This wasn’t just going to be a “feed the teacher” night. It was a participatory, get-to-know-you event that meal prep is wonderfully amenable to—particularly dumpling-making, a culinary/social tradition here in China that goes way back.
I got schooled in the art of dumpling making. We flattened balls of homemade dough into three-inch patties. I scooped a dollop of pork-based filling (somehow greenish in color) inside and then pinched the dough closed. My first efforts were misguided by overestimating the amount of filling to use, making my dumplings more like plumplings. I also couldn’t make the “sewn” ending come together in that pretty, fingernail-indented fashion that the pros here could. But mine were functional as they held together. Function, not form, right? Yeah, tell that to the engineer.
I got the hang of it—sort of. There’s an art to it, really. Eventually, I did get one to look picture-worthy.
Dumplings as a side dish is common in Zhuhai, but according to Dad they make for a main course in the North. And tonight it was ours in the South. While they cooked, I played with Minny’s little brother. As if to cater to the memory of my life back in Minnesota, I felt like I was with one of my own nephews.
Soon it was time to eat. We all sat around the table and ate dumpling after dumpling…after dumpling after dumpling after dumpling. Vintage Northern Chinese, said Dad. We chatted away, and I felt as comfortable and relaxed as if eating at another’s home in my own country. I approached this night thinking there’d be some cultural or behavioral division between this family and me. Perhaps I’d eat the food the wrong way or something. (Perhaps I did.) But in a most intimate of settings, I felt welcome—from meal prep…
…to meal time.
Next week, I’ll share what Christmas was like in China when I lived there five years ago.