Early one February, Andy asked if I want to go to dim sum with his aunt, uncle, and cousins on the weekend.
I said, “So long as you don’t make fun of me for not eating the chicken feet.”
“But they’re so good! And you won’t even try them!”
I shuddered. “It’s the toenails. If you have to spit out toenails, you cannot pretend you’re not eating another creature’s feet.”
“But you are eating another creature’s feet.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “But like most Americans, I prefer to pretend that I am NOT eating fellow creatures. We like to think it was an amorphous blob of protein that magically showed up on the table. It’s more digestible that way.”
“You are so weird,” Andy said. “But fine. I’ll make sure you get your nai wong bao and jin duei.”
I expected us to head to the usual place in Monterrey Park. But we went to a restaurant in a plaza instead. We were on the ground floor, near a window. The place was packed. As usual, I was the only white person there (fending off the inevitable onslaught of forks) until Engineer Cousin and Chronically Late Cousin showed up with their Caucasian husbands. The cousins also had babies – yes, both of them! It was a bloody baby epidemic.
Yee-mah was thrilled, of course. Now she had two granddaughters, and her sister Sunny (my mother-in-law) only had one. Thankfully, with a doting grandmother and grandfather at the table, I did not have to hold the babies. They were adorable, of course, but I’d had my fill of babies years ago.
I focused on casually acquiring as many nai wong bao as possible instead.
Usually Andy’s family is too busy spitting out chicken toenails to notice who eats all the nai wong bao. But this year, while holding Cousin Baby #1, Yee-mah caught me reaching for the last one. (It was my third, if you MUST know.)
Yee-mah must have known. Her eyes narrowed. “Autumn, you eating lot of sweets.”
I hastily moved my hand to the right and spun the lazy Susan in the middle of the table. The last nai wong bao drifted away. I settled for the beef trunk fun instead. “Really, Yee-mah?”
“You have good appetite.”
“Always, Yee-mah. Except for chicken feet,” I said, listening to the “plink, plink, plink” of toenails hitting plates around the table.
“You not so skinny as when you get married,” Yee-mah observed.
Andy snorted. “Thank God. I could count her ribs on our wedding night.”
I snorted back. “Like you were looking at my ribs that night, babe.”
Andy turned red, laughed, and stuffed his face with another foot.
“Nobody can stay skinny with Andy cooking for them,” I explained to Yee-mah. “He makes his own ravioli. FROM SCRATCH.”
“So it is just Andy’s cooking?”
“Well, we aren’t dancing as much, either.”
Yee-mah frowned. “How come you not dancing?”
“Well, we’re saving up for something—”
Cousin Freddy interrupted, pointing out the window. “It’s the Lion Dance! Look!”
We all turned and looked.
A giant, lush creature of red and gold jumped and danced through the plaza. It took me a minute to figure out it was a puppet worked by two people under an elaborate costume. One carried the head, the other the back end.
I whispered to Andy, “What is that?”
“Didn’t you hear Freddy? It’s the Chinese Lion Dance. For the New Year.”
“Uh…New Year’s was a month ago.”
“It’s the Chinese New Year.”
“Today? I thought it was just dim sum?”
Andy shrugged. “It’s no big deal.”
I looked at the packed restaurant. The customers were on their feet, cheering the Lion Dance. More than a few kids waved around cash and elaborate red envelopes. I looked back out at the lion. The costume was incredibly detailed, down to the eyes that opened and shut. A cadre of drummers in the plaza pounded out a beat that made the table vibrate.
“No BIG DEAL?!” I echoed. “Oh, my God! We were supposed to bring red envelopes for the kids, weren’t we?!”
“No way,” Andy argued. “What do babies need money for? They’d just drool on it.”
I shoved my way past Andy, closer to Cousin Freddy and the window. “What’s the Lion Dance for?”
“Scaring away evil spirits, summoning good fortune, stuff like that. Or that’s what it’s supposed to do,” Freddy explained. He giggled. “Look! He got lettuce from that one store!”
Sure enough, the lion’s head had a head of lettuce. Mr. Lion appeared to be eating it. Bits of lettuce were thrown in all directions. Like how the Cookie Monster “eats” cookies on Sesame Street.
“The lion eats lettuce? Why?”
Freddy shared a knowing look with Andy. “Well, there’s usually a red envelope filled with cash in the lettuce. They say it’s to thank the dancers for doing the dance and bringing good luck to the business.”
“But really it’s for…?”
Freddy laughed. “Well…the lion dancers now are martial artists. Locals. And they keep an eye on shops and shop owners. But if there’s no money in the lettuce, well… Something bad might happen to the shop.”
“You mean the Lion Dance is a kung fu protection racket?!” The Extortionist Lion finished shredding lettuce and pranced over to the restaurant.
Andy nodded. “Yep. And that’s why the lion tears the lettuce apart. To make sure there’s cash in there.”
I gave them a look. “Are you guys just messing with the clueless white girl?”
They grinned, but never answered. I never pressed them, either, because by then Mr. Lion and some drummers were in the restaurant. Yee-mah ran off with Cousin Baby #1. She ran all the way to the lion. Then Yee-mah pulled the baby’s hand out, touched Mr. Lion’s head, and ran back to us. Baby Cousin #1 protested until she was red in the face. Undaunted, Yee-mah swapped Baby Cousin #1 for Baby Cousin #2 and ran off to make sure the other granddaughter also touched the lion. Baby Cousin #2 screamed.
As did all the other babies that got dragged over to touch Mr. Lion.
Thankfully, the drums were louder than the babies. When Mr. Lion left and the drums subsided, Yee-mah explained that touching the lion would give the babies good luck.
She stared at my stomach. “Maybe you need to touch the lion, too?”
The lightbulb finally went off over my head. “No way, Yee-mah! I’m just getting fat, not pregnant!”
Yee-mah’s face broke into a huge smile. She spun the lazy Susan and put the last nai wong bao on my plate. “You’re not fat. You need to eat more.”
Don’t have to ask me twice.
On the way home, I told Andy, “Your aunt is so different from your mother. She seems happy that I’m not pregnant.”
“Yeah. Well, she is the older sister. And she and my mom are kind of competitive.”
“Over the number of grandchildren? Really? But even if I was pregnant, she and Sunny would be tied, with the same number of grandkids. She wouldn’t be losing or anything.”
Andy didn’t say a word.
Another lightbulb went on over my dense white head. Lunar New Year was excellent for epiphanies. “OH! Oh, right, I forgot about that sexist crap. YOUR child would be the first grandchild of a SON, rather than a daughter. And if the baby was a boy…” I gnashed my feminist teeth.
Andy, wisely, continued to say nothing.
I tried to look on the bright side. Even though we hadn’t brought any red envelopes, we’d given out at least one gift.
Yee-mah knew she was still beating her sister in the Chinese Offspring War.
Never seen the Lion Dance? Check this out.