Thursday, December 29, 2011

Culture Corner: A Chinese Thanksgiving

This year for Thanksgiving I thought I would give my students a little taste (pun intended) of American culture, and invited them to my house for a meal. The only real American thing I had to offer was the brain power to wield the Chinese ingredients and cooking utensils otherwise foreign to the holiday meal. I planned a dish of pork and apple sauce, mashed potatoes, and also paid way too much for a loaf of “bread” at a fancy bakery. These were the closest things I could think of to a real Thanksgiving dinner that worked within the strict limitations Chinese supermarkets unintentionally impose on American food.

After class Thanksgiving night, eleven of my students and myself trooped to my one-bedroom apartment to celebrate. It is not a spacious apartment, but certainly enough for me, so once all of us were piled inside, it went from peaceful and quiet to a madhouse. I don't know whether they took my words of "make yourselves at home" to heart, or if they would have done it anyway, but very soon every nook and cranny of my "foreign" apartment was being peered into, the tv was blaring at full volume and my bedroom and closet under examination.  The contents of my refrigerator were the source of much laughter, and what extremely few toiletries I have in the bathroom were being read from top to bottom. It goes without saying, there were eleven curious faces peering over my shoulder, watching every move, and commenting in Chinese like they were watching the chess world championship as I prepared the meal.

That day I had bought a bottle of wine, a couple large bottles of beer and some other beverages thinking it would be enough for a mature gathering of young adults to sit back and enjoy while getting a taste of Western culture.  But when I settled them down and asked them what they wanted to drink, they all said soda or hot water, making me wonder if I'd unintentionally stocked my own alcohol supply. After pouring their soda and water, I left them in the living room and went back to the kitchen.  Ten minutes later I decided to pour myself a glass of beer, but to my surprise, there was no beer or wine where I'd left it. I went into the living room to investigate and found a ruckus of youth and empty bottles of beer and wine. The five boys (girls don't drink except in clubs) had successfully polished off the alcohol in that short amount of time and were now working on rosy cheeks and tipsiness, commenting "Jesse, I sink I'm feering a reetre drunk." Several minutes later, one of the boys was so drunk off the three plastic cups of beer he'd had that he needed assistance moving about.

The actual meal went over well - I think. If they were being polite, they disguised it well. Otherwise most of them ate what I'd prepared, the plastic fork and knives I'd bought especially for the night used accordingly, or at least Viking style. (It requires a higher degree of refinement to handle chopsticks, knives and forks a throwback to our cavemen days.  I also learned from them that the locker-room-sink style brown paper towels I was using for napkins were actually used as toilet paper in China and the toilet paper I had in the bathroom is what is used as paper towels or napkins. More laughter at my expense, here.

But, as quickly as the circus had entered, it was gone, and in its wake was an incredible mess. Plates, wrappers, bits of tomato, hardened chunks of applesauce, and spilled drinks covered my apartment. (The meal had been "to go" when curiosity called.) The thorough cleaning I'd done that afternoon was useless in hindsight. It may be funniest to think their greatest source of tidy pleasure was that they didn't have to take their shoes off at my door.

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