As part of my duties as a teacher, I got the opportunity to have dinner as a guest in a Chinese family's home.
I was asked to attend a "Joy Family Night." The Chinese have a very cheerful way of labeling things. Events are named "Exciting Event," a dinner with a family is "Joy"ful, and more things are "Happy" around here than I can count -- I even saw something once that read "happy virus."
For this event, a teacher is hosted by one of his or student's families for dinner. I'm not sure if it's something my school does to impress their clients (it's a private English learning center, not a public school); or perhaps it's something the parents do to benefit their child's education experience.
Either way, we arrived (me and two 20-something female Chinese staff members) Sunday evening with a couple of gifts. We knocked on the door of the residence -- on the 16th floor. That it was an apartment building marked, perhaps, the biggest, most obvious difference between this family's life and the life of Americans. Few have houses here.
Yes, that's right -- this was the biggest, most obvious difference. In other words, there really wasn't much else to speak of in the way of what we in America would consider odd. Does this mean it was boring? Don't be silly; that the difference was so minimal was interesting in its own right. Okay, so the food was different, too. You'll read about that in a bit.
The apartment was white-walled, and the layout and design was similar to many I've seen stateside. In fact, if you got rid of the Chinese characters on wall calendars and such, you would not know you weren't in the United States
That they only have an apartment is not for lack of resources, I assume (though houses are quite expensive); as the father's an engineer. Actually, he manages a team of engineers who are working their fingers to the bone, busy building the little vibrators in cell phones. There's a steady turnover of new phones and competitors breathing down his neck at every turn. So he says he's at the office 14 hours a day.
This of course, to the stereotyping folk, will fall in line with the idea that the Chinese are working their butts off while we lazy Americans eat and watch TV. Well, guys like this do work hard, but humans are still humans, and there also exists in China a streak of laziness.
Back in the apartment, we were preparing for dinner. Mom, as far as I knew, was a stay-at-home mom. They had two kids, which definitely goes against the one-child policy norm. From what I learned, here's how that policy works: parents "should" have just one child (yes, twins/triplets are fine). But another birth means you gotta pay. How much? Not sure, but I know it's many, many yuan (their currency). And if you have a civil position -- government, police, school -- you will lose your job. But here, Dad's an engineer so is in the clear, and an big sister/little brother duo worked great for them.
Their daughter, 9, was my student. Her English name was "Minny." Oh, yes, the students all get English names when starting their English education. Chinese names, unlike other foreign names never resemble Western ones, so they bridge that gap by assuming a new title. However, without the Western culture they sometimes pick some interesting names from time to time -- like Butterfly and Go Go.
This family had a nanny -- a woman in her late thirties --who looked after the apartment and helped out when needed. Maybe the money they saved not buying a house helped them afford her. In America, a house usually comes before a nanny. Anyway, she was there assisting us as we made dumplings together.
Bonding over food
After a bit of opening chitter-chatter, we started to prepare the meal. It was a great way to bond with the family, keeping ourselves busy while conversing about our respective pasts. It was mainly Dad and I doing the talking, since he spoke English. He was from northern China -- he met his wife in Beijing. They lived together in Singapore (a tiny country straight south of China) for a few years and then in Denmark for a few more before settled here in southern China.
Of course, this was all discovered after I was schooled in the art of dumpling-rolling. Dumplings as a side dish is common here in Zhuhai, but apparently in the north of China, dumplings make for a main course. And tonight it was ours.
We flattened balls of homemade dough into 3-inch patties. Inside, I put a pork-based filling (somehow greenish in color) and then pinched the dough closed. I got the hang of it. Kind of. There's an art to it, really. It was so pretty I hardly wanted to cook it.
While the dumplings were being cooked (steamed, I believe), I played with Minny's little brother, who was 3 years old. I felt like an uncle again, as he was roughly the age of my two nephews. Same games, different little boy. I'd take his little toy train and drive it around the floor. He laughed as I had it detour up his leg, over his shoulder and on his head.
This horseplay was one example of the everyday "little" things that really embed the similarities between humans living 9,000 miles apart.
After the playing, it was time to eat. We all sat around the table and ate dumpling after dumpling. I ate a gazillion of them. Dumplings have come to be a favorite food of mine here in China.
No experience thus far had me so intimately engaged with people here. And while the food, language and other obvious differences were present, the striking similarities were what stuck out.
Knowing little about China before arriving, I assumed some cultural differences would make me double-take from time to time. Not here, anyway. Quite the contrary. The TV in the living room and all the other electronics and appliances, the clothing, the furniture, even the décor resembled a residence back home.
Modernity has a way of universalizing the ways of people. It's cool because I fit in like a glove, the world feeling comfortably smaller. Now I just had to try to measure up in my chopsticks use!
Go out and experience our ever-accessible world.
Brandon Ferdig writes a weekly blog at www.newplateaus.areavoices.com. This column is an excerpt from a blog post during the year he spent teaching and traveling in China. His book, "New Plateaus in China," about his experiences, interactions and insights while traveling in China, is due out this winter. He can be reached at email@example.com.