by Elizabeth Lee
Marrying into a first-generation Chinese family allowed me to step over a line into an insular world that few can cross, but I learned that with flexibility, creativity — and humor, it could be done successfully.
My Chinese in-laws Lily and Joe didn't want to like me. They told my husband that I must have been drugging his food for him to want to be with a European-American like me. Everything about me was wrong; I was a therapist, tall, older, redheaded and — oh horrors! I had a son from a previous relationship. The fact that I had studied Mandarin didn't matter — they spoke Cantonese. The following is my experience as a European-American woman marrying into a local Chinese family.
"You can tell a good Chinese restaurant," my husband Scott explained when we were dating, "by how many Chinese people are eating there. If you look in the window and see mostly non-Chinese, you know the food can't be that good. But if you see mostly Chinese, you know it's good." It is a Chinese custom to eat out with friends and family, so much of our time together with my in-laws before their deaths was spent in restaurants.
This is how a typical dinner went. After entering the restaurant and waiting our turn to speak to the hosts, Lily, Joe and Scott did the talking while my little boy, Dale, and I waited by Scott's side. "Can I help you?" another hostess asked me, assuming that Dale and I were a separate party.
"We're with them," I answered, putting my hand on Scott's shoulder.
"Oh!" she said, looking down in embarrassment. That's when I always imagined that they, too, wondered what my husband saw in a Caucasian like me. The food there must have been really good because Dale and I were the only non-Chinese people in sight.
"They give Chinese people a menu written in Chinese, and that menu's dishes are more authentic," Scott had also explained. "The dishes on the menus given to non-Chinese are more Americanized."
When they seated us at a round banquet table, two servers rushed to our table and gave Dale and me forks. Not the others, just us. I could use chopsticks as well as anyone, I thought, and so I was determined not to touch it. Scott, Lily and Joe were handed Chinese menus. The two servers stood off to the side and stared at us with awkward frowns. They had different ways of serving Chinese and non-Chinese; what were they supposed to do with us?
"Can I please have a menu?" I asked. They handed me one in English. As I consulted it Lily, Joe and Scott ordered our food in Cantonese. I'd learned to understand some Cantonese from listening to it even though I could barely speak a word. Catching the word yu, I knew they were ordering fish. Although I was mostly a vegetarian, I occasionally ate fish. Next I heard the words dou miao, for pea shoots. Loved those. But when I heard the word gai, or chicken, I tensed. I didn't want chicken. "Excuse me," I said in English. "Could I please order some braised tofu?" I asked our server.
He looked at me as if he were thinking: "It spoke." Asking my questions in Mandarin usually elicited the same response.
Our food was served, and the fragrant smells of ginger and soy sauce triggered my appetite. I ate mostly the dou miao, tofu and rice, as well as a piece of crab in its shell. Watching as Scott, Lily and Joe picked up the large pieces with their chopsticks and carefully broke off the shells with their teeth, I attempted to do the same. At first the heavy piece fell back on my plate. Picking it up again, I tried biting off the hard shell with my teeth. It cracked sharply against my mouth, and then dropped again with a clatter. Embarrassed, I looked around the restaurant. To hell with what anyone thought, I decided. Putting down my chopsticks, I picked it up in my fingers and bit off the shells. Messy, but effective. Noticing my bad manners, our servers brought me a bowl of lemon water to rinse my hands in. At least I hadn't touched the fork.
When our food was finished small bowls of either tapioca or warm, sweet bean soup were served on the house. Once when Scott and I ate out, he'd looked with longing at a table of Chinese people eating tapioca; they hadn't brought us any. "They didn't bring us free tapioca because I'm with you," he said. "If I weren't with you, they would have. They only bring it to groups who are Chinese." Along with the dessert they brought fresh orange slices, another thing only served to Chinese. Another restaurant had only given us fortune cookies, however, something normally just given to non-Chinese.
When our daughter Rowan was born she looked like Scott, so the sight of her never raised any eyebrows; only Dale and I did. As the years went by the restaurant staff got to know us. One night the servers gathered around oohing and aahing over the baby and laughing and joking with Dale. It felt wonderful to no longer have them staring at us from the sidelines, wondering how to serve our mixed-race family. Even Lily and Joe seemed to like me better, although they would never have admitted it. They were thrilled to have a granddaughter, and Dale and Rowan's universal laughter and play helped bridge the culture gap for everyone.
As the servers brought our dessert we looked up in surprise. One smiling man carried a tray with bowls of sweet bean soup while another, beaming in triumph, carried a platter loaded with orange slices — and fortune cookies! They'd found the perfect solution to our racial conundrum, and as they served us like royalty we burst out laughing. What an easy solution for bridging our cultural divide, and a good time was had by all.