Monday, February 19, 2007

Welcome the Year of the Pig

Happy New Year!


I was driving through the parking lot of our local pharmacy Saturday, when I spotted Eddie's friend, Tao Tao, his sister, and Mr. Jiang walking by. Of course, I pulled up to say hello, and this was enough to earn me an invitation to Mr. Jiang's Chinese New Year party last night.

Mr. Jiang informed me that the party would start at 9:30 pm.

Nine-thirty, I thought, is pretty late for a Sunday night. But since Mr. and Mrs. Jiang are such nice people, and Tao Tao and Eddie are such good friends, we could hardly refuse. Plus, the boys were off from school on Monday for Presidents Day.

So, by 7:00 Sunday night, we had finished with dinner, and were sitting around our home, essentially waiting with nothing to do for 9:30 to roll around. Normally, we'd be bathing the kids, getting in pajamas, reading stories, and going to bed. (All four of us.) Bedtime routine starts early in a house full of people who all are up before six. Instead, we were watching television and playing with Gameboys and just sitting around looking at each other. And waiting.

Finally, at about 8:30, Mr. Jiang called and said, "Can you come party now?"

"Now?" I asked. "Sure."

"Tao Tao want Eddie come play now," Mr. Jiang responded.

"Okay. We will be right there," I said and hung up.

And off we went, actually happy to get the evening started. Becky had had reservations of such a late party, but, like me, felt compelled to go. She seemed glad now to be going early, probably under assumption that if we showed up early, maybe we wouldn't be there so late. I was not so optimistic. Something in my gut told me it was going to be a very late night for all of us.

As we arrived at Mr. Jiang's new apartment, we were greeted at the door by Tao Tao, who quickly shuffled the boys off to his room to play on the Xbox. Eddie and Luke don't have an Xbox, so they relish any chance to play on one. This lasted for exactly one set of racing games for each boy, at which point, my boys bored of the game and decided it was more fun to jump between the two twin beds while Tao Tao played on the Xbox.

Becky and I grabbed some chairs in the living room, where we sat watching Chinese television. We were hopeless for communicating with the other guests, since Mr. Jiang was the only person in the room who spoke English, and he was working in the kitchen. I didn't want to abandon Becky, but felt like I had to check on the boys now and then in the back room and visit with Mr. Jiang in the kitchen.

As I entered the kitchen, Mr. Jiang was wok-frying ginger, garlic and strange little spices in some oil. I asked him what the spices were, when he produced a zip-loc sandwich bag full of funny little maroon seed pods about the size of peppercorns.

I reached into the bag, grabbed one of the pods, and crunched it between my teeth. I asked Mr. Jiang what it was, as I have never seen any spice like it before. (And I've seen a lot of spices! We regularly cook Indian, Mexican and Chinese at home with spices from Penzey's.)

"I don't know how you call it in English," he said, "but it not legal to buy in U.S."

My jaw stopped instantly. Uh, oh. Oh, crap. What was I eating?

Right away, my whole mouth, as best as I can describe it, became tingly and then numb. Even through the numbness, I could taste an overwhelming sensation of lemon. Very strange. I thought of what the spices could be, and my best guess was that they were some strange kind of opium pods or something. I really do not know. Sometimes, I'm a little too adventurous.

More than a little panicked, I grabbed for my glass of tea and started washing down as much as I could. My mouth was now completely numb inside, and I felt ready for oral surgery. After a few minutes, though, the sensation passed, and I could settle down with Becky to watch some of the excellent Chinese television on the Jiang's enormous plasma HDTV.

The plasma HDTV did not really enhance the show we were watching very much. From what I could get out of it, the show was a drama where a man has two wives, one in Vancouver, one in Hong Kong, and--you guessed it--the one wife (who's pregnant, of course) eventually finds out about the other, with predictable outcome. The most amusing part of the show was that the production crew was so sloppy that you could see the boom mike dipping into camera shots from time to time. Pretty sloppy, but everyone in the room seemed riveted to it. As were Becky and I, for lack of any English chit-chat in the room.

The dinner table was spread in a feast large enough to feed 40 people, although only twelve were present. In the center was a gas-fired Chinese fondue pot with two chambers, one filled with spicy broth, and the other with mild broth. On the table were raw beef, pork, tofu, bible tripe, whole shrimp, fresh clams still alive, blue crabs, smoked fish, little bread balls like donuts, two kinds of mushrooms, a ton of different veggies, stir fried pork with green beans, stir fried beef with unknown greens, fried chicken with yucca root, and lots more.

As we sat down to eat, Mr. Jiang showed me a bottle of Bacardi Gold with an inquiring look on his face. Not wanted to spurn his hospitality (though not particularly fond of rum), I nodded to him. He filled a coffee cup full of the stuff and thrust it at me. Oh, Christ!

Actually, in retrospect, the rum was a good idea. Again, being pretty adventurous and wanting to be a good guest, I made a point to taste every single thing on the table. With twelve people all putting stuff into the fondue pot, there was a constant inflow and outflow of stuff, and I really wasn't quite sure that the stuff coming out wasn't the stuff that just went in two seconds previously. Every time I'd take a bite of a clam or a piece of pork, I'd swig on the rum just to make sure it's all good and sterile going down. I'm happy to report that this strategy worked beautifully, and no sickness occurred in the night!

So, we sat around the table of people, all talking Chinese except we Harrises and the nice gentlemen (who I didn't know) to my right. He would translate for me from time to time in his own fractured English. The whole table would toast something, and we'd all raise a glass in good cheer. Incidentally, when a Chinaman toasts, they say, "Cheers." I found this amusing!

At one point, Mr. Jiang raised his glass for the fourth or fifth toast of the night, and stammering a little to collect his thoughts, he uttered, "La la la la la la..."

Becky must have thought it was some kind of toast, so she parroted, "La la la la la...," and soon, the pair of them were in harmony. I shrunk into my chair in horror, but soon everyone around the table laughed uproariously, and I sort of figured out that it was funny because they all knew we didn't know what was going on, and that Mr. Jiang was just stuttering. But everyone laughed, and no one was insulted.

Mr. Jiang made sure everybody had plenty to drink, and besides my coffee cup full of rum, he gave me a Chinese lager called "Harbin," a very nice beer. This was one of the two types of beers he had, the other being "O'douls." (The non-alcoholic brew from Anheuser Busch.) Being the only two beverages he offered besides the rum, Becky quickly pounced on the non-alcoholic beer. Later in the night, however, it became suspect that our esteemed hosts and other Chinese guests didn't know that O'douls was non-alcoholic. I saw several of the guests turning down offered bottles of O'douls and making hand signs like, "I have to drive home." We didn't say anything. It really didn't matter.

We ate and ate, and finally, I could eat no more, even though the serving bowls on the table were still three-quarters full. Mr. Jiang informed us that we must keep eating, that the seafood was fresh and wouldn't keep until tomorrow. On that cue, one of the gentlemen across from me dumped about 20 more clams and shrimp into the pot. I was encouraged to take more--well, that's not really accurate--Mr. Jiang ladled a huge clump of seafood onto my plate and told me to eat it. So I did.

I was slowly working my way through it, when I bit into an enormous clam full of sand.

Crap. What now?

At home, I'd just spit the thing into the trash, but I was pinned in my chair by people on every side, and I couldn't just spit this thing out on my plate. I was forced to swallow the clam whole, and this clam was huge. With great effort--Galump!--I got the thing down my throat, followed of course by more rum. That was my last clam for the night.

By 11:30, the party was still going strong, and Becky and I gave each other those knowing secret glances that in this case meant, "We need to go home. It's really late."

We felt rude leaving so soon, but regardless, we politely made our excuses, thanked everybody profusely for their hospitality, and received very cheerful and heartfelt goodbyes from all present. Then, we braved the blistering cold to get back home again.

The boys were so tired. Eddie was exhausted to the point of sobbing, and Luke just jumped into his bed and pulled the covers over his head. They were asleep within four minutes, and Becky and I were asleep in five.

It was a great way to usher in the Year of the Pig, though. And it's always fun to experience life a little askew of our own suburban middle class white existence.

Kind of like cultural calisthenics. It's good for the soul.

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