My father had a terrible temper. When he unloaded a barrage of profanity at the washing machine, my siblings and I fled. God forbid his gaze landed on you when he was pissed – you could easily be the next target. On the other hand, you couldn’t go completely out of earshot. If you did, and the man needed a hammer or wrench or rag, and you weren’t there to supply it, you’d definitely get hit with the next blast of fury.
Luckily, my father also had a sense of humor. When Future Lawyer Sis and I unluckily acquired target status and our father chased us around the center island in the kitchen, I tripped. (My feet were size 10 when I was 10. I tripped over them a lot). I crashed into a kitchen chair and dragged it to the ground on top of me.
I screamed something like, “I’m going down!”
Dad stopped. Sister stopped. I waved her onward. “Go! Save yourself! There’s no hope for me!” I pretended to struggle with lifting the chair and dropped it down with a mighty sigh. Of course I nailed my own cheekbone.
They stared at me. I slid a few inches on the linoleum, chair still on top of me, until I was in between Dad and Sis. “I shall trip him! And then I’ll, I’ll, ‘I’ll bite your kneecaps!’” I exclaimed, in a terrible British accent.
Sis did her best deer-in-the-headlights impression, poised between loyalty and the not unreasonable desire to save her own skin.
But Dad laughed. He was our father again, rather than a Viking berserker.
I had discovered a magic pill.
When the situation is tense, my best line of defense is the ridiculous.
Twenty years later, the situation WAS tense. I was at a restaurant in Hawaii with my brand new in-laws. It was the restaurant where our Chinese wedding banquet was supposed to be held in two days. Sunny and Jay had brought us there for dinner. I wasn’t sure if they were doing a beta test or trying to impress us. They certainly weren’t asking for our input. We didn’t even get menus.
Sunny ordered. “Shark fin soup. Jellyfish. Crab. Oysters. Whole fish.”
I winced. I didn’t like seafood. I’d mentioned this to Sunny. Yet when we went to dim sum, Sunny heaped seafood – plus plenty of other unpalatable food on my plate. I spent a lot of time transferring chicken feet and shrimp from my plate to Andy’s when Sunny interrogated servers. Then she’d turn back, notice my empty plate, and triumphantly say, “See? Seafood Chinese style taste good!”
So she’d order more and fill up my plate again.
Andy’s pants were never going to fit on the flight home.
Once Sunny finished ordering, the conversation was in Cantonese. I understood nothing, but it sounded angry. I amused myself by staring at the massive fish tank and conducting imaginary conversations with a huge crab.
Me: “I loved you in Deadliest Catch.”
Crab: “Fuck off.”
Our heart-to-heart was interrupted by the wait staff bringing soup to the table.
The lights went out.
A gasp went up from all the diners. Which was the four of us. Not exactly ringing endorsement of the restaurant, but this was not my rodeo. I’d planned my wedding within an inch of its life. This was Jay’s gig, since it was his family that apparently needed impressing. I was in charge of nothing and totally fine with that.
The restaurant wasn’t completely dark, however – early evening sunlight streamed through the windows and the front door.
“Well,” I said with a laugh, “let’s hope the oven is gas and not electric!”
“AI-yah!” Sunny yelled at the wait staff. One scurried over with a lighter. He lit the candle at the center of our table. Sunny harangued him in Cantonese. He disappeared.
I pulled the candle under my chin and intoned, “It was a dark and stormy night –”
Sunny waved dismissive hand. Andy ignored me. I shoved the candle back to the middle of the table. A server returned with yet another candle. Sunny glared at him.
I giggled. “Just one more and it will be a candelabra!”
“Ha, ha,” muttered Andy.
The main dishes arrived. Whole fish. Whole crab. Yay.
I looked away and resumed my conversation with the giant crab. “I swear, I don’t understand food presentation. How is a dead crustacean staring at you with accusing eyes at all appetizing?”
Crab: “His name was Melvin.”
The lights still hadn’t come on.
Sunny scowled at the waiter when he brought a third candle.
She scowled at me when I asked if we could order marshmallows for dessert and roast them over our candles.
And her scowl at the check? So terrifying even the giant crab hid.
Jay said nothing, but Sunny’s fury was palpable. She slapped cash down the check, stalked to the door, shoved it open with a stiff arm, and stomped out. Andy, Jay, and I scurried to catch up.
I whispered, “Damn, your mom is super pissed.”
The face Andy turned on me bore a striking resemblance to his mother’s. “They didn’t comp us. Not even a discount. And you giggling at everything just made it worse.”
So much for my favorite magic pill. I felt like I’d been slapped. Into silence. I stopped making jokes. I said nothing at all on the way back to Sunny and Jay’s. I might have been cowed. (I might also have been sulking.) At some point, I did tell Sunny that she should have at least gotten a discount. She grunted at me. I took that to mean I was sort of forgiven.
And at least Sunny had been too incensed to pile seafood on my plate.
I’ve thought about that restaurant, my jokes, and Sunny’s anger many times since. In my family, we make jokes about everything. Sometimes it’s because life is just absurd and who can resist pointing that out? But sometimes it’s to conceal our pain, our humiliation, or our vulnerability. And sometimes, humor is useful in defusing tense situations.
But in the Chinese family? There’s one thing you never, ever joke about.
And that’s when someone is NOT getting their money’s worth.
Author’s Addendum: You’d better believe Sunny moved the banquet to a different restaurant. But that’s another post.