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.
28 thoughts on “Dim Sum. Dim White Girl. Aw, Fork! (#8)”
First off, Grandmothers are the warmest and most welcoming people in the world. My husband’s grandmother was the same.
So, what did his parents think of you after meeting? Chopstick drama aside, did you have a good time?
You know, I am still not exactly sure what Jay and Sunny think of me. I suspect I am tolerated, as there are not many options. Though they did try to fix him up with a Chinese woman when the family went back to Hong Kong. He won’t confront his parents or yell at them, but he refused to talk to her. Andy is World Class Passive Aggressive.
Ok… now I love Popo, too!
I’ve probably been holding the chopsticks wrong, too. Lol.
Popo is so sweet and kind! You must love calling her Popo and I bet she loved hearing you address her that way I am sure she didn’t mind that you were holding the chopsticks the wrong way…
I felt so sorry for you by the end of this story (very well written, very humorous). I hope you ended up using chopsticks again… Growing up as a Chinese Australian in a Chinese Malaysian household, I struggled to use chopsticks. Couldn’t seem to grasp them well my hands no matter how much my parents complained and showed me. Could have something to do with the joints in my hands (my thumbs actually resemble my fingers). I do use chopsticks when eating out at Chinese restaurants and yum cha…haven’t dropped chopsticks yet but food has certainly slipped out onto the table before… 😀
Mabel, delighted you stopped by! And thanks for saying you found the story humorous and well-written.
Popo was indeed very sweet and kind. She did not know much English, but what she knew were the important words: “I love Andy.” Mainly she just smiled at him, and you could tell she was so happy he was happy. When he was six, he lived with her for a while and she taught him how to write his name in Chinese characters.
Don’t worry, after I got over my embarrassment over backwards chopsticks, I used them again. And again. When Andy’s cooking or eating Chinese food, he always uses chopsticks. Which makes perfect sense. A utensil like a fork pierces a potsticker — then the potsticker falls apart on your plate and makes a mess.
The most suitable eating utensils evolved alongside each type of cuisine, right?
It was indeed well written – though it was a very embarrassing incident, you had the courage to tell it with a dose of humour!
I find it easier to eat certain foods with certain utensils. For instance, with noodles I generally find so much easier eating than with a fork – noodles then to slide out of my fork all the time and I don’t like winding my food around my fork 😀
Right. And since Chinese table manners are different from English & American table manners, it does make more sense to eat noodles with chopsticks and hold the bowl close to your mouth while you shovel in noodles. Eating rice with chopsticks made absolutely no sense to me until I saw how Andy did it (in the same manner as noodles). The lightbulb went off and I thought, “OOOHHHHHH, that’s how it’s done, and not my laborious diet plan of picking up individual grains of rice with chopsticks.”
Wow, a Malaysian Chinese household ? I think I have found someone was raised in the same manner as I was… 🙂
Yes! Chinese Malaysian or Malaysian Chinese household however you want to put it 🙂
I only use chopsticks even when I cook at home.Granted I live in China so it is for survival sake. Have you been to China? If not you and Andy should visit both the Mainland and Hong Kong. They are totally different entities. If you ever decide to come I welcome you to Wuxi,
Yeah, when Andy cooks, same thing. Makes sense. A fork punctures many of the wrapped foods and makes a mess.
Oh these posts truly remind me how lucky I’ve been. I’m starting to think all non English speaking Chinese grandmothers are the sweetest people. My bf’s grandmother gets so excited to see me. Then again I think all of them get excited because they see me not as a person but future generations of children and their oldest son getting married finally lol. But my first dim sum experience was in flushing, ny (aka mini Asia) and as you I was the ONLY white person out of about 200 people. But I’ve only ever been given chopsticks since day one, so I’ve learned to eat before I go visit because I can’t eat as fast and therefore dinner time is like snack time. Lucky on my part I will never have to face a “Jay” since my loves father is absent. His mother barely talks to me which suits me fine because we have a silent understanding of each of our roles in Michael’s life. His family speaks three chinese dialects which gets confusing though.
So you aren’t offended when Michael’s mom ignores you? I guess I do like it better when Jay is silent. It’s weird, but not offensive.
Yeah, sometimes after dim sum with a lot of seafood, Andy takes me to get malasadas. Although I like the coconut tarts and sesame balls!
Which dialects? Mandarin, Cantonese, and? Or other dialects entirely?
His family at home speaks a rare village dialect from the Northern region, which Michael calls “useless” Chinese. But when we go into flushing Chinese markets or restaurants his mom speaks Cantonese and mandarin depending on the server.
Yeah I hide from Michael that I eat peanut butter sandwiches beforehand…..he thinks I’m just a champ. I’ve eaten more shrimp, crap, and pork in over a year than in the last five years combined. Two things I hate to eat :(. His aunt cooks the BEST Vietnamese food though.
As for his mom at first it bothered me. She would just sit there and awkwardly stare at me. Sometimes smile. She also speaks limited English and our conversations are the same, she always asks how I am and if I worked that day and if I work tomorrow. If I ask her anything she doesn’t quite understand she says I don’t know and then looks away from me and avoids eye contact. The worst though that I’m still recovering from is one day she asked Michael if I was pregnant………..lets just say I’m not pregnant, I’m just not Asian skinny.
Ouch on the pregnancy thing, and yet…maybe she’s just hopeful? And at least she isn’t badgering you for ONLY a boy. Or is she?
They don’t talk about the sex of the babies. They first said have two so one isn’t lonely. Now they just say you know, three is a good number. His uncle has one daughter and honestly she’s one of the most adored and spoiled of all the younger generation. Cutest thing.
I gotta say, this was the best article I read so far! My favourite! Me likey! Well, at least I never held them upside down, so that’s a good thing, right? Tho, food slipped over, back onto my plate. Ahahaha. I never went to a dim sum restaurant. I don’t even think there’s any in here. But I’d like to go to one. Though, most likely, I’d embarrass myself. ><
Also, I understand the limited English part on Chinese mom too. xD I find the accent interesting. Ehehehe.
Yes, most people hold chopsticks the right away. I’m the only backwards white person over age 5, I think.
Well, at dim sum, you can just point at stuff. And I’m working on a post about different table manners, so once you read that, you will be all set!
Perfect! I’m looking forward to it! 😀
Wait a minute…you and Andy never did dim sum in LA before meeting his parents?
Nope! Apparently the only acceptable dim sum in LA is up in Monterrey Park, which is a bit of a drive. When we met up with his cousins, it was always at night.
That’s true, actually. C-town has pretty bad dim sum, and the other places in LA weren’t very good.
Are you a chopstick expert now? Can you channel Mr. Miyagi and catch a fly in mid-flight?
Are you kidding? Why would you use chopsticks when there are methods of fly killing such as shoes and towels? Overkill, baby. Always. Anything else is un-Amurican!