Brooklyn Boro

A lesson in Chinese

"The Chinese hosts almost gagged."

March 25, 2021 William A. Gralnick

I just read a short story that has relevance. Written by a Chinese American it is about food and her family’s acculturation. In their new neighborhood a white American family, whose daughter attended public school with the Chinese family’s daughter, watched out for them. One day the family invited the new immigrant neighbors over for dinner. Prior to dinner there was the obligatory hors d’oeuvres. On the relish tray were fresh veggies including celery. There began the problem.

In China one didn’t eat vegetables raw. For health and sanitary reasons, one always cooked them. Thus, the family had never seen fresh celery put out to eat. They didn’t know what to do with it because it was obvious to them that it was there by mistake. So, they looked around and observed the others who were happily munching away on their celery. Inwardly they shrugged, and each took a piece. Crunching in unison, they discovered something. Strings.

We take it for granted but think a moment of the celery you find in your chicken soup, or celery soup for that matter. It is soft, floppy, and needs no chewing. Fresh celery however has these, well, strings that are reduced to mush by boiling. Uncooked the strings get caught in your teeth. Obviously, the Americans must know how to deal with that and did it while the Chinese weren’t watching. So, they did what they thought was natural. They then noticed the room was silent. Busy as they were it took them a while to realize that conversation had stopped. They looked up to see everyone’s gaze fixed on them as they painstakingly lifted from the end of each stalk, one by one, the strings in the celery, pulled them out, and placed them on their plates. Oooops! Mortified they stopped.

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The torture continued at dinner when soup was served in what was to them a flat bowl. How do you get soup out of a flat bowl? Again, they watched and saw people tipping the bowl backwards, so they did that. But it was the cultural music that got them in trouble. In China, as a sign of approval, as well as a technique to cool hot liquids, one schlurps in one’s soup. In unison the family, tipped, scooped and SCHLURPED. Again, the table sat stock still. It got worse. The burp of approval came next!

Time passes. The family accepts now more invitations and studiously sets about learning how America “works.” Father is a bright scientist. His command of English increases and he is promoted. Now more comfortable socially and economically he decides to invite the neighbors to a traditional Chinese meal.

The tables they are about to turn.

I got ahead of myself in the story because I knew what was coming. When I was in high school a Chinese student showed up one day in mid-semester. He spoke virtually no English. His family had escaped from Communist China. They opened a laundry above which they lived and when the found out the law required children to be in school during the day, not at work, he was enrolled in Midwood High School. To him it must have felt like he had fallen out of a plane, his parachute had opened, and he dropped into this foreign land. The social studies teacher asked for a volunteer tutor and I volunteered. At the end of the year the family invited me to a thank-you dinner of foods one does not see on menus in Chinese restaurants. What follows in the story was also my own experience.

Greeted by a large, long table and the host I was ushered into the room. I was introduced around the table to about 15 people, none of whom spoke English but seemed filled in, thankful, and happy to see me. In the center of the table were bowls of steaming foods. Each person reached to the center and took food for their plate. It was only moments before all eyes were now on the American. Each Chinese person took whatever food they wished to begin with but only that food. The American, me, went from bowl to bowl to bowl. Here it gets a little dicey. If the Chinese decide they want seconds of a food, they stick in their chopsticks at take it. There were the same chopsticks they’d been eating with. Once one had a sufficiency of food one, then food two was taken and so on. Save for double dipping with the utensil you’ve eaten from, it makes perfect sense. One captures the unique, distinct flavor of each dish. Beyond that it was a tradition that used by me in my house would have gotten me slapped on the hand—hard.

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Then came the shocker, the coup de gras, the absolute showstopper for the Chinese. Having made piles of food on my plates, piles whose juices were sluicing from pile to pile, I began — horror of horrors — actually mixing the piles together. The Chinese hosts almost gagged!

Moral of the story: Times they are a-changin. Just compare the shop owners along Coney Island Avenue in the ’50s and those now. Just compare the restaurants then and now. Unless we, as the majority, learn and accommodate, we will not have set the right example for when the tables turn. We will be strangers in our own land and could be treated accordingly.

On the other hand, if one lends oneself to the process, one ends up with a life-long positive memory. Imagine. From both the desire for extra credit and a little something inside me that said that volunteering was the right thing to do, from figuring out how two people communicate when neither speaks the other’s language, to feeling the joy and appreciation every time Steve (apparently a name he had heard and decided he liked) and I met, and being given a hero’s welcome when I was presented to the family, I have this one of a kind experience and a memory that has lasted, well, longer than I care to put down here. If you’ve had such moments’ please share them. If you haven’t, then as Levy’s used to say of their rye bread, “Try it. You’ll like it!”


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2 Comments

  1. William A. Gralnick, the moral of your story is that Westerners and Mainland Chinese will never understand nor accept the habits of each other. They will always be so far apart from each other that no bridge will ever be able to built between them.

  2. mayEe_BK

    I remember this book from my own childhood! Mostly since I puzzled over whether or not my family actually peeled such strings off our celery (we do, sometimes, not really though). Somehow, and I don’t know how (I haven’t read this book probably 30 years) I feel like parts of that story would probably offend these days, but I appreciated that all of the above (the book and your experience) left room for mistakes to be made without blame.