The first time I met my Chinese-American boyfriend’s parents, they were not impressed. Not by my appearance, not by the gifts I brought, and not by my conversational abilities. When Andy announced that we were going to Dim Sum with his grandmother, I was pleased. Here was my chance to show Jay and Sunny that I had some familiarity and respect for their cuisine, at least. This white girl can use chopsticks!
I grew up in the capital of the United States — the world capital of ethnic cuisine. You can get any specialty of any country’s cuisine, from Northern Ethiopian to Upper Myanmar Burmese. So of course my dad took us to the crappy Americanized Chinese place. As bland as the “Chinese” food was, it was light years better than any dish my parental units could cook. My siblings and I wolfed down chow mein, challenging each other to use only chopsticks. Life is cutthroat in large family, especially with type A kids. Also, first to finish was first to get seconds. (There was never quite enough food in my family. A second helping was a serious incentive.)
I was all set to awe the not only Andy’s Chinese parents, but his beloved grandmother. We picked up Popo on the way to the restaurant. She immediately hugged Andy and didn’t let go. And even though she didn’t speak much English, the phrases she did know were touching: “You call me Po-po, too,” and, especially “I love Andy.” She beamed at me. I adored her instantly.
The restaurant was crowded. Servers threaded little carts of hot food between tables, hawking different specialties. Dim Sum is a like an open air market in reverse – the buyer stays in one place, while the vendors move the goods around. I stared, fascinated, as we were shown to a table. As we sat, I realized I was the only non-Asian in the restaurant. It didn’t feel awkward, though. Everyone else was too busy concentrating on the food to pay any attention to me.
Except for the hostess. She quickly called for a pot of tea, which landed on the lazy Susan in the center of the table. Small cups followed, and chopstick packets were handed around to everyone. Well, to everyone but me.
The hostess handed me a fork.
I handed it back. “I can use chopsticks.”
She smiled, put the fork on the table next to me, and left. Without giving me chopsticks.
Andy tried not to snicker. And failed. “She probably doesn’t speak much English, honey.”
Sunny poured the tea and sent the cups around on the lazy Susan. “You can use the fork. It’s okay.”
I took a cup of tea. Truculently. “But I can use chopsticks! Really!”
Sunny hailed a cart-pusher and engaged in negotiations. I looked around the restaurant, hoping to spy a spare chopstick packet on another table. No such luck. What, were they made of gold? I watched as Andy pulled his out of the paper packet and broke them apart at the attached end. Nope. They were regular, disposable chopsticks. Maybe the staff was under orders not to waste them on white people who were going to wind up demanding a fork anyway.
Well, I was not one of those people. I could, and would use chopsticks. If I only knew how to ask for them. I asked Andy how to ask for chopsticks.
He just shrugged. “I can understand Cantonese, but I haven’t spoken it since I was six. Also, these guys speak Mandarin. Just use the fork.”
Popo used her chopsticks to snag a pork dumpling and dump it on my plate. “You eat!”
“Thank you,” I smiled at Popo, then turned my head and hissed at Andy: “I am NOT eating with a fork, damn it.”
“It’s no big deal.”
I blew an angry sigh out my nose, put my head in my hands, and knocked my fork off the table with my elbow. “Oh, dear. Look at that. My fork is dirty. Sunny, can you ask them for some CHOPSTICKS? I’ll be right back.”
I went off to the restroom, pretending I didn’t hear Sunny comment on my clumsiness. I washed my hands. Breathed.
I headed back into the dining room. Three feet from the table, I saw the shine of metallic flatware in front of my chair.
It was another fork. Andy caught my eye. He looked a little sheepish, and a lot like he was trying not to laugh. I stopped. Reversed direction, straight to the hostess stand at the front door. She was in the midst of gathering chopstick packets and napkins for another party. They were all Asian. No forks for them.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I need some more chopsticks.”
She gave me a blank look.
I waggled two fingers, mimed eating, and pointed at the chopsticks in her hand. “Chopsticks?”
She held up a packet and raised her eyebrows.
I grabbed it. “Yes! Thanks!” I hurried back to the table with my prize.
“Ha!” I slid in next to Andy, broke the sticks apart, and clicked them together under his nose. Expertly. With one hand. “I am triumphant!”
“Ah, honey?” Andy whispered. “You’re holding them wrong.”
“What? I am NOT.”
“The round ends grab the food,” he explained. “You hold the square end, honey. You’re doing it backwards.” Andy clicked his chopsticks back at me. Sure enough, his fingers held the bigger, square ends. I looked at his parents. They did the same.
I looked back at Andy. “But that makes no sense. Wouldn’t it be easier for the food to roll off the round ends?”
“It’s like needle-nosed pliers,” Andy said. And then he couldn’t say anything else. Because the traitor was laughing too hard.
I set down the chopsticks. I drank some tea. I smiled at Popo. She smiled back, and handed me a bowl of rice.
I kicked Andy under the table. He finally quit laughing, told his bewildered parents it was nothing, and wiped the tears out of his eyes with his napkin.
But a few chortles escaped him as he leaned over and said, “I can’t believe…hahahaha…with all your chopstick talk…that you’ve been….hahahaha…HOLDING THEM UPSIDE DOWN all these years!”
“I told you, it wasn’t a real Chinese restaurant. How were we white kids to know how it was done? This was before YouTube!”
I gave him a last glare, and then turned away, red-faced. I picked up my rice bowl. As I reached for my chopsticks, a server appeared next to me, smiling.
She held out a spoon.