We arrive at Ben’s uncle’s apartment, and I notice a giant pile of shoes splayed across the doormat. Equally large is an array of slippers of every color and size. Following the actions of others, I slip off my muddy shoes and arrange them neatly on the floor. No one notices me at first, mainly because I’m bending down to take off my shoes, but when I stand up, and tower over everyone, something of a tizzy breaks out among Ben’s family. His aunt scurries to the door, greets me, and starts digging through the pile of slippers in a fury. Her husband darts across the living room, shakes my hand with a smile, and dives down next to his wife in search of slippers that will fit my giant feet. Soon, their daughter joins the fray, crawling between her parents’ legs as she digs through the piles of shoes like she’s being timed in a game.
[pullquote]No matter how long I’ve been in China, questioning the food never gets old. As long as I’ve tried it at least once, I consider myself totally absolved from any further cultural responsibilities.[/pullquote]“No, no. It’s fine,” I insist. “I have good socks, really!” But they don’t notice anything I’m saying. “Ben, tell them it’s fine. My socks are really okay.”
“No, they can find the shoes for you,” says Ben. “The floor is not clean.”
“But I really don’t think my feet will fit—”
“HAO!” shrieks the cousin, as she leaps into the air clutching the largest pair of brown slippers she could find. A celebratory commotion rings out through the foyer, and she dives back to the ground to stuff them on my feet. My heels stick out the back a good inch-and-a-half. Ben’s parents, aunt and uncle, grandfather, cousin, and a smattering of other relatives and friends who are never properly introduced smile at their success and collectively shuffle me into the living room. I’m plopped down on the couch in front of the TV, and within seconds, presented with several giant wooden bowls full of fruit, candy, nuts and crackers. Ben’s cousins and parents each claim a seat around the TV and devote their attention to a garish Chinese New Year special.
The grandfather, a short, sturdy man with dark skin and kind eyes sits next to me on the couch, smiles excitedly, and starts pointing at the various bowls and acting out “dig in!” Obediently, I grab oranges, milk chews, fruit snacks, and sunflower seeds. The more I eat, the happier he is. He begins to talk animatedly, laughing all the while. Ben sits down next to me and grins, knowing that I have no idea what’s he—or anyone—is saying. Realizing that I’m a lost cause, his grandfather turns to Ben and chatters some more, glancing back at me every now and then to smile and chuckle.
“Ben, what’s he saying?”
“He just wondering about you come from where. I tell him America, so he thinks that is being really cool.”
Ben turns back to his grandfather and talks some more. I give up trying to understand what they’re saying. A regional Hubei dialect, it doesn’t sound at all like Mandarin to me. So I focus on making my way through the candy plate and watching the Chinese New Year television special blaring on the TV. Eventually, I hear my name several times over and turn to Ben to ask what he’s talking about.
“What are you saying about me?” I ask.
“He still just says he’s really really happy having you to come be with his family on the New Year. He really think it is amazing to have a foreigner here.”
[pullquote]The incessant fireworks have gone from reminding me of a war zone to feeling familiar and friendly.[/pullquote]
We are interrupted by calls from Ben’s aunt, who’s been busy in the kitchen since we arrived. It’s time for lunch, I’m told, and we all start to pile into the kitchen. There must be about fifteen of us, and only one tiny table, which, when I arrive in the kitchen, is entirely covered with dozens of plates heaped with food. Somehow we manage to squeeze in. I’m very aware of my size right now and how much space I’m taking up compared to everyone else. Even Ben, who’s nearly as tall as I am, manages to keep his elbows tucked in tight to his sides as he handles his chopsticks and rice bowl.
It’s the first of many meals in Xiangfan, and while I don’t consider myself that much of a food snob, I’m intent on discovering just what it is I’m being fed before I eat it. No matter how long I’ve been in China, questioning the food never gets old. As long as I’ve tried it at least once, I consider myself totally absolved from any further cultural responsibilities. At the table, there are at least thirty-five different dishes, each large enough to be its own entrée. A bowl of chicken soup with the chicken head floating in it, a dish of beef and fried green peppers, one of pig intestines, another of spicy tofu, a whole steamed fish, three plates of dumplings, salty peanuts, green beans, fried rice, white rice, something that looks like cheese curds with salsa… and more, always more.
I’m instructed to start, so I pick up my chopsticks and start flicking samples into my little bowl of white rice. Much of it’s delicious. Some is utterly lost on me. The beef and peppers scores big, and I dig into the serving dish, taking more. I return to the spicy tofu, another winner, and pile more onto my rice. The fried rice is perfection itself, and the chicken soup is quite nice (minus the head, of course, which I offer to Ben).
Eating a Chinese meal is a kind of territorial contest: Diners must stake out territory and watch their favorite dishes carefully like warring tribes battling over limited water and game. Once I find the three or four dishes I like most, I try not to stray under any circumstances.
Ben’s family quickly catches on to my act, however, noticing that I’ve devoted my time only to the dishes which they surely consider to be the most basic and bland. As the guest of honor, it’s apparently my job to finish every single dish on the table. Not just try them, but to finish them. Sticking to the beef and peppers just won’t do, and Ben’s mother, in what I’m sure she considers a most hospitable manner, begins to point to all the dishes that I’ve neglected. Dutifully, I obey and start putting small bits of pig intestine on my plate.
“I suppose I haven’t tried this yet, have I,” I say sadly as I relinquish my monopoly on the spicy tofu and turn to the more impressive, though much less enticing, gizzards of pig.
She watches intently as I raise the intestine to my mouth. Before taking a bite, I glance up and notice that everyone at the table has stopped what they were doing and is looking at me and my morsel of gut. I place it in my mouth. I chew, chew some more, and then swallow. It’s rubbery and fleshy, though not without flavor. The exact flavor I cannot be sure, but based on my year of high school biology, I’ll go with villi. Salty, Chinese, porky villi. Not bad, really. But one bite’s enough.
I finish and look around the table, hoping that everyone’s turned their attention back to their own food. They haven’t. They keep staring at me, waiting for me to take another bite, and another, and another… and at least fifteen more before they’ve decided that the cooking is appreciated. I’m docile, obedient, and before long, a new game develops at the table: point and eat. “Try this!” And I do. “Now, yes, try this!” And I do again. Pig intestine, chicken feet, fish fins… it try it all.
I’m far too shy to reject anything. I’m a big, fat, white person who’s stretching out their slippers. The last thing I’m going to do is look like I’m not having fun and not enjoying the meal. The younger cousin points to some sort of clear eggs, the aunt to some kind of fishy mass with the texture of tofu, the grandpa to his flask of rice wine.
“Ben, I’m kinda full now. I don’t want to say anything bad. Please, save me!”
“Okay,” says Ben. “Mama! Ta chi bao le!”
His mother smiles and chuckles, everyone else at the table joins in. One by one, they give up their game, and lower their hands from whatever dish they are pointing to. Only the grandpa presses on, insisting I join him in getting drunk. Just as I reach for my cup, Ben calls him out.
“Yeye! Ta bu yao he baijiu!” With that, grandpa pulls his cup away from mine and finishes his drink alone. He doesn’t look upset, just pleased that I’m still next to him. He puts his hand on my leg.
* * *
After the meal, I’m escorted back to the couch. The Chinese New Year special is still on, but I’m content to sit and watch Ben’s family interact with each other. I watch his younger cousin, who, though brave in the beginning during the hunt for slippers, dives into her mother’s lap whenever I look in her direction. I watch the animated conversations Ben has with his mother. They’re talking about me, I can tell, but I’m not invited to chime in. Ben seems to have prepared answers to all the common questions he expected his mother to ask about me, and is intent on controlling the conversation, lest I chime in foolishly and let anything inappropriate slip. Without the ability to truly understand what they’re saying, I use my imagination and make up the conversation for myself.
“Where did you two meet?” she asks.
“He’s studying in China with NYU. It’s a really good school in America. So I needed help with my English, and he decided to tutor me,” says Ben.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” replies his mother. “I didn’t realize you were still going to study English after you graduated last year.”
“Well, my company is in television, so they really like it if we can learn English to talk to the actors and everything. Also, for graduate school it’d be really good to say I know English.”
“Oh, have you thought much about graduate school? You never got back to me about what you wanted to study when I asked you last month.”
“I think it’s going to be directing,” says Ben. “I really want to get good at it, and then maybe I can go to America to study. I met Bram’s family when they visited him last semester in Shanghai. His mother works in the movie business.”
“Does she really?”
“Well, she owns a cinema, so she knows what movies are popular and everything.”
“You think you want to move to America to study and/or work someday?”
“I think so. I mean, if I’m interested in film and television, then there’s definitely no better place to do that than in America.”
“True. What about your life there? Do you think you could stay with Bram when you go?”
“Of course, he’s actually already invited me to stay with him if I choose to go this summer.”
“That’s really important. I wouldn’t be comfortable if you didn’t know anybody. But now that you have Bram, and he seems very nice, then I’m much more okay with it.”
My reverie—and the imagined conversation—is interrupted by someone grabbing at my hand. It’s Ben’s grandpa. He yanks on my fingers and rubs the back of my hand. He’s been asking questions about me, it seems. He interrupts Ben and his mother and asks Ben about my home, my height, the size of my hands, the length of my legs, the shape of my nose and eyes. He’ll occasionally pull my hand toward him holding it to his chest and petting it gently.
“Err, Ben? What’s going on?” I say as I smile awkwardly at his grandpa. I’m not sure whether to feel scared or amused.
“Don’t worry,” says Ben, “he just likes you. He’s never met an American before, so he thinks that’s really cool.”
Grandpa instructs Ben to hold his hand up, and he pulls my hand into Ben’s so that they’re palm to palm. “He thinks your hands are big,” says Ben. “He wants to see whose are bigger.” They’re actually quite similar, though my fingers outstrip Ben’s slightly. Grandpa finds this funny and roars with laughter. He finally lets go of my hand only to point to the bowls of fruit and candy on the table again, insisting that I eat.
* * *
It’s time for one final dinner with just Ben, his mother and father, and his grandpa. It’s been a vacation of food and fireworks. Each meal has brought with it an eclectic assortment of flavors and animal parts, all of which I was ordered to finish without protest. “Point and Eat” became Ben’s family’s new favorite game, and though I finally learned how to say, “I’m full,” that never discouraged anyone from happily forcing me to eat anything put in front of me.
The incessant fireworks have gone from reminding me of a war zone to feeling familiar and friendly. The piles of wet red fireworks wrapping paper littering the muddy streets—which initially reminded me of blood as loud explosions rang out all around—lost their menacing edge once I’d set off hundreds of them myself. I have come to appreciate a good round of deafening explosions and flashing, fiery light. The kids in the streets casually toss their little rocket launchers (something that my mother would never let me play with, even to this day) back in forth while running through the streets, blowing things up. They try to engage me in their games, occasionally shooting fireworks at my ankles as I pass, but I just walk by, mostly because Ben orders me to ignore them.
We sit around the table and start eating our final meal. Everything is kept relatively simple this time—Ben must’ve told his mom to keep it that way for my sake. Nothing but dumplings and spicy beef. Perfection. The New Year special is still playing on TV—by now everyone knows the words to all the skits, but they continue to watch it nonetheless. Ben and his mom chat away while his father is mostly silent aside from the occasional interjection. I can’t tell what they’re talking about. I don’t think it’s about me, but every now and then I think I hear something that sounds like my Chinese name, Mingteng. Ben’s grandpa keeps drinking rice wine and pours more into my cup despite the fact that I stopped drinking it days ago. Without him realizing, I now pass it off to Ben’s dad, who accepts it eagerly enough.
Grandpa is holding my hand again and petting it. I’m used to it by now, though if someone had told me two weeks prior that an eighty-two year old man would pet my hand at the dinner table while smiling into my eyes, I would have thought, “great, I’ll finally have my sugar daddy!” But Ben’s grandpa’s touch is kind, warm and fatherly, and now, strangely, there’s nothing at all strange about it to me.
He starts talking, pointing to himself, and to me, and then over his shoulder. Ben realizes that I have no idea what’s going on, and steps in to help me.
“He wants to know what your grandparents do,” says Ben.
“Well, two of my grandparents are alive. My grandpa lives in Vermont, near my family, and my grandma lives in Florida. My grandpa’s wife died about eighteen years ago, my grandma’s husband died just two years ago in my freshman year of college.”
Ben relays the message to his grandpa, who smiles, then starts talking again.
“How old was your grandpa when he died?” Ben translates.
“Seventy-six,” I reply.
The message is translated to Ben’s grandpa, who starts talking again, pointing to his chest, and then over his shouldersome more.
“He says he was in the Korea War, and wanting to know if your grandpa was in that too,” says Ben.
“Yeah, he was, actually. I know he was in the army then. Whether or not he actually fought in the war, that I’m not sure of,” I reply.
Ben starts to translate, but his grandfather cuts him off, talking faster. He points to himself, then to me, then to Ben, then to the sky, then to me, to himself, to me and then to Ben. He doesn’t stop talking, and he’s smiling broadly. When he finally finishes, Ben begins to translate.
“He says that he must have fought against your grandfather in the Korea War. And now he think that it is really good that even though he fought against him in the past, now his grandson, and that man’s grandson, can be friends, and come to be in China together.”
His grandpa rests his hands together on his chest, smiling at me, then at Ben. He laughs a little, then tucks himself in to another round of dumplings and rice wine.
Bram Schumer is a Senior Psychology major with a minor in Creative Writing. “Xiangfan New Year” is excerpted from a longer narrative recounting his experiences in China in the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010.