Lights Out (#99)

IMG_5041My 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.”

Me: “Awesome.”

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.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

23 thoughts on “Lights Out (#99)”

  1. I had one Chinese friend. She is now in her late 70s. She was in the march through China from the Japanese and endured really hard times. I may have commented about her before (she’s my only real Chinese friend). She never made jokes and didn’t get anyone else’s. She took everything exactly as you said it. She said that people say what they really think then call them jokes. I never joked with her again. Your stories of Sunny remind me so much of her. The drive to control everything was so overwhelming that she lost her adopted son. Underneath she was a good person but very quirky. Money was also very central to her life. However, I am American and LMAO at your posts. Hope that’s ok.

  2. I think humor is the hardest thing to translate. In international film sales, comedies were never big in Asia. Action, on the other hand, was huge. Even awful action! Malaysian buyers were possibly the only people glad to see the end of Steven Segal.

    I think your friend had a point, though. Often people do say horrible — even racist — things and try and get away with calling them jokes. And there are a lot of awful Asian stereotypes in old movies and TV that white people laugh at, even today.

    Well, I am glad you are laughing and hope that no one someday finds my posts as racist as old American movies. Fingers crossed.

  3. My dad had a horrible temper, Autumn. He would be fine for months and then – WHAM – get the hell out of the way. Now, he’s perfected passive/aggressive behavior to a science. He’s Filipino, does that mean anything? My two cents about jokes – my brother was married to a Japanese woman. She wouldn’t understand our humor but would laugh and joke at very inappropriate times…or is that exactly what Sunny would say about you? 🙂 And, she’s obsessed with designer anything. I am not, not in the least so couldn’t understand the need for $3,000 purse.

    1. Oh, totally what Sunny would say about me. But also what I would say about her. Wait until I get to the part where she and Jay visit us…

      Hmmm, my dad’s temper is an Ashbough thing. Very type A, hostile when thwarted. Doesn’t matter if we’re thwarted by the vacuum or lost car keys. Our immediate response, as my father would say, is to “go bat-shit crazy.” It’s something we all work on.

      Passive-aggressive? Not our thing. But Andy is AWESOME at it. 😉

  4. I think Chinese people (especially Chinese women) take passive-aggressiveness to a whole new level. Sometimes, when you write about Sunny, I feel like you’re writing about my mother. lol. Andy has my whole-hearted sympathies.

    Whenever my mom got mad, we never used humour to joke her out of it… she’d just get madder. It was ‘wrong place, wrong time’. Especially when we were kids. My sister can sometimes turn my mom’s anger into laughter nowadays, but that is not a skill that I have mastered.

  5. Oh, yes, I absolutely did the “wrong place, wrong time” jokes!

    I rather thought Sunny was one of kind, but I’m learning she’s more universal than I thought.

    If Andy ever comments again, he will probably send back similar sympathies.

  6. I’m always surprised there’s a word for sarcasm in chinese and Japanese, because they do NOT ever use it in jokes or conversation. Andys mom definitely seemed to miss your sarcasm!

    My mom never got the hang of western humor….ever. Even after 30+ years of being married to an American guy. Luckily she didn’t have a temper! I’d never diffuse it.

    Can’t wait to hear about the banquet!

    1. Thanks, Mary! Question to resident Asian language expert — do you think sarcasm is difficult because of the tonal nature of the language? Like, when Andy’s mom and his aunts converse in Cantonese, it sounds very intense. Then, about the time I think one might hit the other, they stop talking and burst into laughter. As in, the laughter always seems to come AFTER, rather than during the conversation. Does that make any sense?

  7. What a post. Like your other restaurant posts, love it. My dad never really swears in English, never drops the F-bomb in English unless he is really, really, really mad. And when he does, everyone in my family and everyone around him goes silent. He certainly infuses a lot of anger into that one on the very rare occasion he says it. I wonder if it’s the same for other Chinese parents.

    Restaurant humour and money matters: very seldom do we joke about food at the table. No one in my family has even joked about how big the fish head and its opened eyes on the platter looks. Except when there are kid around and the kids are sort of jabbing at it. Emotions are not to be toyed with, at least that is what my Chinese family thinks. Better to be serious than to be humorous.

    If my family doesn’t like a certain restaurant and their service, they won’t go back. They won’t even offer a tip as a courtesy (and tipping is not common in Malaysia). The food can certainly be the make or break it, certainly is a big part as to whether we will dine there again or not.

    1. I think Andy’s family will put up with poor service, but feeling in any way cheated? Not a chance. Andy’s family can never go to one restaurant in Monterrey Park and one restaurant in Hawaii since one aunt tipped the servers cash and only later discovered that the tip had already been included in the bill (due to the size of the party). But the rest of the family will go without her, absolutely, because the food is great.

      I can’t speak for all Chinese parents but with a silent type like Andy’s dad, everyone goes quiet when he’s mad. He doesn’t even have to swear — he’s so quiet even talking is shocking to us all!

      Yeah, there’s not as much talking at Andy’s dinner table as there was at mine. The focus is definitely on the food.

      1. Andy’s dad is so like my dad. The silent and quiet ones always have the most impact with their word when they do speak up. It can be quite scary.

        Putting up with poor service for good food. Lot of tolerance there. Or maybe the stomach rules the mind.

  8. I thought at the end you were going to say the Chinese never joke about food. At least they do take it very seriously. My Chinese father-in-law always seemed to know the best place to eat in cities around the world and the best dishes to order. He always ordered too much, and he was very sneaky about grabbing the bill or paying surrepticiously. I never learned good bill-fighting techniques, but my daughters are very good at it.

    1. LOL, yes, food is taken very seriously. I could definitely have ended it that way.

      That’s pretty impressive on your father-in-law’s part, in the days before smart phones and google!

  9. Blog #99 – one more and it will be number 100! 🙂

    I don’t think my MIL would ever do that to me. I am allergic to shellfish and if she ever piled my plate with seafood, I would not be a very happy camper. I have attended a few wedding where nearly every plate was seafood and my MIL actually got them to do a beef dish just for me. She always makes me feel so special! 🙂

    1. I KNOW! I cringe now, when I think about my minimization of the problem. Sigh. A good daughter-in-law would have stood up, demanded to see the manager, and harangued the crap out of the staff until the meal was comped, right? Ah, well. Next time. 🙂

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