Sunday, October 2nd, Day 17
Called Dad at 9:15am his time (Oops! It was 9:15am Melissa time, 6:15am Dad’s time!). He didn’t answer, but called me back in about 10 minutes. “I know how to find the last number that called me,” he said. “Sorry, Dad. I thought it was 9.”
Worked on my computer. I gave myself until 2pm to start getting ready for the dinner party. I swept, damp-mopped all the floors, cleaned up the bathroom, rearranged the living room, put away hanging clothes, computer, tablet, cell phones…
At 3:45pm I got a call from Jeremy.
“My wife misunderstood, thought we were going out to a restaurant. She invited a few friends. Would it be okay if they came along? Or should we just go out to a restaurant?”
“It’s like this in China,” Jeremy went on. “People invite others along. We’re used to putting a lot of people in a small apartment.”
I had just loaded up my kitchen with all this food, but would it be enough? I didn’t want to go out to eat at a restaurant after all my preparations.
“How many people are we talking about?”
“Including you, it’d be six.”
I answered, “If they don’t mind sitting on the couch, or bed, or window seat, bring them along!”.
Did I hear Jeremy give a sigh with relief?
“Should we bring anything? You have enough chopsticks?” he asked.
“Bring a dish that you know they’ll like!” I said.
I figured what the heck. I wanted to meet people, right? The more the merrier? If my cooking was not liked, I’d have plenty of food. If they all liked it and there wasn’t enough to eat, well, at least it would be a topic of conversation and a culinary success. I checked the kitchen. I had a dozen eggs. I could keep making egg pancakes with onion, bean sprouts, and hot peppers as a backup, if anyone was still hungry.
I started prepping the food at 4pm. The sun was pouring in (another sunny day) and I was sweating. It was 90F outside and no breeze. I watched the heat rash on my ankles get bright red, turned on the air conditioning. As long as the rash didn’t spread…
Finished at 5:45. I was meeting Jeremy out in front at 6pm, so I cleaned myself up, put on a clean shirt with another layer of deodorant, socks and shoes. Just as I was wiping my brow and about out the door, there was a knock. It was Jeremy, with his wife and a friend. They were the only three.
“What happened to the others?”
“It’s like this in China,” Jeremy said.
I gave a brief tour of the apartment. Upon seeing the food prepared in the kitchen there was a buzz of conversation in Chinese.
“No,” Jeremy said in English, “I said he was making American-Chinese food, not American food.”
I saw the disappointment flash for a brief moment.
“You need help?” Jeremy’s wife tried in English.
“Nope. I’m cooking tonight,” I said, shooing everybody out of the tiny kitchen.
It was getting hot in the apartment. I’d turned the air-conditioning off, afraid it would be too cold for the locals.
“I found this great pineapple drink,” I said, pulling cold drinks out of my fridge.
There was another buzz of Chinese as the word “pineapple” was repeated in English, practiced, explained.
“This is beer!” Jeremy said.
I couldn’t believe it. Pineapple beer? And Jeremy doesn’t drink alcohol. He pointed out the words, right there in English: “Low Alcohol Beer”.
“I have cold water, too,” I said, flustered at my gaff. “I boiled it.”
He didn’t look happy.
“I’ve got my own,” he said, holding up a bottle he had brought.
Not a great start to the evening.
Jeremy’s wife handed me a bag of roasted chestnuts, and a large, football-sized fruit.
“Like a grapefruit, only sweeter.”
“No, just a gift for you. It won’t keep. Be sure to eat it tomorrow.”
“The whole thing?”
“It won’t keep.”
It was enough grapefruit to last me a month!
“Thank you,” I said in Chinese, “xiè xie.”
No sooner spoken than the two native speakers corrected my poor pronunciation. I practiced listening and saying xiè xie until I got a “thumbs up”. I think they gave up on me.
“Nope,” Jeremy told me, “they both thought you got it good enough, not perfect, but not bad. The Chinese phrase, bù cuò, is the same as the French phrase, pas mal. Both mean not bad. That doesn’t mean good, just not bad.”
We ate the chestnuts. I commented that they seemed different from the ones I’d eaten elsewhere. Jeremy searched his Chinese-English dictionary. He discovered they were Chinese chestnuts, smaller than the European variety.
“Like this,” Jeremy’s wife demonstrated, putting a chestnut between her teeth and cracking the shell.
After a few more Chinese/English lessons, I went and got my new brush, ink, and paper. Jeremy’s wife is an expert on Chinese literature, so I thought she might be a good person to show me how to get started writing Chinese characters.
“Do you know how to do this?” I asked.
Her face lit up. She quickly took the brush and started giving instructions.
“Water,” she said. “Clean water.”
She explained how every character is made up of strokes. And every stroke has a beginning, middle, and end, each requiring a different brush technique. I watched as her hand, shaking a bit (nervous?), drew the first character.
“Shí,” she said, smiling.
We all applauded.
“Shí,” she repeated for me, pointing a finger and crossing it with her other pointer finger. “Ten,” she said, “shí”. She was holding one finger against the other, making the character for ten: 十
I had seen that before, the fingers crossing like that. It was at the market yesterday, when the man at the vegetable stand was telling me how much I owed. It had been 11 yuan, “ten-one” or “shí-yī”, he had said, tapping his pointer fingers to make “ten” and “one”.
She carefully wrote a couple more characters, then asked me to trace over her character of the number one, a single, horizontal stroke. But even in that single stroke, the brush had to be “twirled” at the beginning and end to make the stroke broader. My attempt was a disaster. She took the brush back and drew the character for two, then handed me the brush.
“Three,” she said, “sān.”
I knew that the character she had just finished, two horizontal strokes, with the top one slightly shorter than the bottom one, was for the word “two”, not “three.” She pointed at a blank square on the paper, nodded.
“Sān,” she said again.
The character for three was three horizontal strokes, one more stroke on top of the character for two. I tried to write it.
“Bù cuò, bù cuò,” she said. “Not bad, not bad.”
She circled my work and gave it a check-mark.
Counting to ten in Mandarin:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
yī èr sān sì wǔ liù qī bā jiǔ shí
Folks were getting hungry, so I made dinner, taking longer than I had hoped, with everybody waiting until all the food was on the table.
“Plates?” I asked.
“Bowls,” Jeremy coached.
I got four small bowls, filled them with rice, handed out chopsticks, and we ate like I remember eating in Laos: family style, all of us eating off the same plates.
Jeremy told me whenever I got a compliment about the food. But based on what actually got eaten, the favorite by far was the spicy fried lotus root with tree fungus, followed by the bitter melon and fried eggplant. Not much of my tofu broccoli got eaten, and the cucumbers were only tasted once.
For desert I had a special event planned. Never-before done. I tried to get Jeremy to explain, in Chinese, the American tradition of roasting marshmallows over an open fire. But he was stumped right off the bat. There was no Chinese word for marshmallow, other than the same word used for cotton candy. Jeremy finally showed a picture of a marshmallow to his wife, who replied that she’d never seen one before. So much for explaining the American tradition.
“Tonight,” I announced, hoping Jeremy would translate, but not waiting for him to do so, “for the first time on the Asian continent, for the first time in the whole world, I will prepare a special desert for you. I will prepare this desert in the American tradition of roasting marshmallows.”
I went into the kitchen and brought out a “golden cake,” the Chinese version of angel-food cake, but with the egg yolks added, making it “golden.” I sliced some of the cake into 1-inch cubes.
“Tonight, demonstrating the Cali-Sino cooking style, the fusion of California and Chinese cuisines, I will attempt to cook for you Roasted Golden Cake!”
Too afraid to wait for any reaction, I waved everybody into the kitchen, lit the wok stove, put it on jet-fuel setting, stuck a cube of golden cake on a fork, and roasted it over the open flame.
Out came the cameras, taking pictures. I had their attention. As I finished each cube, I handed it to one of my guests. The last one was for me. I re-joined everybody back at the table.
I noticed that one person had carefully hidden the remains of the roasted cake under a plate. Someone else had delicately picked at the non-roasted interior, perhaps thinking that the skin was not edible. I smiled, quickly hiding a giggle by stuffing my roasted cake into my mouth.
It was AWFUL!
I didn’t take it out of my mouth, being somewhat accustomed to eating charred food. But this tasted the way burnt newspaper smelled. I swallowed the golden mass with a big gulp, as newspaper ash smeared over my tongue.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, lowering my head.
By this point, nobody knew what to say or do, so I broke the silence.
“Of course, no great cuisine is without its failures,” I said with an impish smile.
I noticed that Jeremy wasn’t translating. He was busy eating another slice of the un-roasted golden cake.
“I like it,” he said, a bit sheepishly, his American sweet-tooth showing.
I remembered the Daims, chocolate-covered toffee, a gift from my daughter that I had carried with me to China. I went into the fridge and got us each a couple of the small candies. I handed them out despite a chorus of “too full, too full,” polite for “please, no more!” Jeremy liked the Daims (me, too). The two Chinese guests each ate one. Jeremy stole his wife’s second one.
Not wanting the evening to end on failure, I pulled out my guitar. I played a couple songs, quickly learning that if Jeremy liked the song, he would sing along, and his wife would follow. We sang my favorite songs with easy, repeating choruses: Mr. Bojangles, Brown-Eyed Girl, The Boxer. We also sang Home on the Range, I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad, and Down in the Valley. But the favorite song we sang all night, the one that got all four of us singing, was my old Yangtze River Cruise Talent Show hit: Oh my darling, Clementine!
We howled and yowled the chorus as the Chinese sang something in Chinese. Jeremy had never heard the verse about “missed her, ’til I kissed her sister”, which he took some time trying to translate without much apparent success.
We sang until 9:30pm, at which time I said I really had to stop. Jeremy said it was past his bedtime, so everybody got up, thanking me for the dinner and entertainment. I walked them down to the street where they would catch their bus.
I was exhausted, but set the apartment back as it had been. When I moved the dishes into the kitchen, I found an unopened Daim slipped under a plate, neighbor to the roasted golden cake. I got the kitchen clean telling myself that I wouldn’t want to clean it in the morning. Melissa would be proud. All done by 10:30pm, I couldn’t wait to call Melissa to share my stories about my dinner-party debut.