A Big Day

Today life seems to be taking on a frenetic pace – feeling more like we are back in Vermont where there is too much fun to be had and less like the rather unscheduled and somewhat empty hours that had been characterizing life here (not a complaint, really, just an observation about how different life is when you are in a new place with very few connections to the people and institutions surrounding you).

First, there are Law School folks in town. Although we haven’t seen them yet, we have been in increasing contact regarding their arrival for the last few weeks. In the last 2 days we have moved, in typical Chinese fashion, into the making/cancelling/rescheduling phase of the visit. We hope to see them tomorrow.

We also received a bundle of boxes from folks back in the States (5 packages today alone!). Jie-jie and Mei-mei have received new ballerina and mermaid dress-up clothes, doll clothes, picture and coloring books, clothes, necklaces and bracelets, and a host of organic snacks from aunts, uncles, grandparents and great grandparents. Jason is all set to make pancakes for breakfast Saturday, including Vermont Maple Syrup, and I have a new pillow when I read in bed – a big stuffed animal lobster who goes by the name Fundy. Thanks, everyone!

Finally, we have our first invitation to get together with the family of one of the other children in Jie-jie’s class – really the first such invitation of any kind. The premise of the event is so that I can learn to make Hong Dou Gao (Sweet Red Bean Cake). I think the parent in question has been trying to invite me for the longest time. Today I finally understood in Chinese “Sweet Red Bean Cake Cook Study What Time?” but I wasn’t confident – especially when my suggestion that Sunday would work was not understood (there are 2 ways to say Sunday but one, Xingtiri, is very hard for me to pronounce). So, fortunately, a grandpa of one of the other students, an oceanographer with passable English, came over and engaged in lengthy negotiations on my behalf. I had to offer a few responses regarding what cooking supplies I had (apparently not sufficient), when we were available, how we would get to their place (once it was determined I didn’t have the necessary kitchen tools), how would we find their place, and what subsection of “we” would be in attendance. The rest of the 10 minutes it took to sort everything out, the grandpa and my closest-thing-to-a-friend were talking at length but in the end, grandpa just turned to me and said, “That would be fine. Saturday at 3 she will meet you on her bicycle and you will all ride to her apartment. The whole family of 4.” I offered a grateful Xie-xie (thank you) to them both. I am quite excited about the invitation although wonder how in the world we are going to communicate that day since I speak less Chinese than a 2 year old. On top of it, I think that usually she is speaking Cantonese. [Aside: I wish that folks acknowledged the fact that Cantonese is the lingua franca in GZ instead of glossing over China’s tremendous language diversity because that makes it tough for someone trying to learn to communicate in everyday situations.] We teach in English. We need language skills for the rest of life. Finally, what should I bring, how long should we expect to stay, will we eat dinner with them, should we offer a reciprocal engagement right away, what are the must and must-not behaviors, etc, etc? Are you out there, Janna? Help!

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One Response to A Big Day

  1. Janna Clar says:

    In my experience and from what I observed, the best gift to bring to a host/hostess is food-based — such as a large amount of an expensive fruit in season or something like that. (It took me a long time to lose that habit after returning home.) Since you are a “foreign guest,” you could also get away with bringing some sort of a foreign food or beverage as a gift, but just know that depending on their spirit of adventure, it may or may not ever be consumed. From a 3:00 arrival, it isn’t definite whether or not you are expected to stay for dinner, but in most cases I would think yes. Learning how to make the bean cake thing will probably take quite a while, and then there is some time for meal prep. Play it by ear? As far as how long you should expect to stay, if for the meal, then probably each dish will be cooked one at a time and eating is gradual. If you don’t feel comfortable staying for the meal, then just tell them you have other plans (“Zhen Duibuqi, keshi jintian wanshang, women you shi, bu neng gen nimen chifan.”) If you are comfortable with them and can bear the linguistic challenges, etc., it would be nice to offer a reciprocal invitation right away or soon after. As you are learning, this is a major norm for most Chinese people. Re: your question of behaviors, these could include: offering to take off your shoes as soon as you arrive (they might have guest slippers or you could bring your own), being humble when receiving compliments, etc., tasting everything offered to you unless it is meat (make sure they know you are vegetarian if that is the case), complimenting the host/ess, and NEVER emptying a serving dish of food served to you (contrary to our American ways, in China, it’s often perceived as a sign that they didn’t prepare enough, and might send them stressed off to prepare more). Oh, and when eating, pacing yourself is important, because they may make such a fuss over having you as guests that the dishes of food just keep coming and coming….

    Those are my two cents for now. Hope that helps. And have fun! Home visits are a great way to learn new cooking techniques and become more comfortable interacting with the locals. Don’t worry about making some mistakes, they will probably be quite forgiving. You can always laugh at yourselves and say something like, “Women jiushi laowai, hai zai xue Zhongguo xiguan!” — we are foreigners, still learning Chinese habits!

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