When Lions Eat Lettuce (#114)

Gung hey fat choi! It's the Year of the Monkey! (Better give the lion some lai see if you don't want to get eaten, Monkey.)
Gung hey fat choi! It’s the Year of the Monkey. (Better give the lion some lai see if you don’t want to get eaten, Monkey.)

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.”

Dim sum restaurant all decked out for Lunar New Year. Red envelopes hang off the flowering branches.

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.

These are nai wong bao (custard filled buns). So good, one was off the plate before I could take a picture.)
These are nai wong bao (custard filled buns). So good, one was off the plate before I could take a picture.)

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.

Two lions dancing in Lugang, Taiwan - Courtesy of Foreign Sanctuary. Click for more Lion Dance Pictures!
Two lions dancing in Lugang, Taiwan – Courtesy of Foreign Sanctuary. Click for more Lion Dance Pictures!

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.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

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

23 thoughts on “When Lions Eat Lettuce (#114)”

  1. The next dragon year is 2024… you have time. *g*

    I am appalled that Andy thinks that Chinese New Year is “no big deal”!!! He cheated his baby cousins out of money! Tsk!

    p.s. nai wong bao are awesome, but nobody (and I mean nobody) stands between my dad and his jin duei. Or else.

    1. I know! Chinese New Year is a big deal — there are even school districts in Los Angeles that take today off because so many kids won’t be there.

      Andy’s just not into holidays. Doesn’t matter if it’s an Eastern holiday or a Western one. I blame his parents. They worked hard, but they didn’t play hard. 🙁

      It’s gonna be up to me to insist we celebrate all the holidays. Even the Chinese ones!

        1. It depends on the part of LA County. In the South Bay, Torrance was closed, Redondo was open, as were Hermosa and Manhattan. I think Pasadena and South Pasadena closed, but LAUSD’s website said they were open.

          It just depends on how much of the school population is Asian. Because if the kids don’t show up, the school district doesn’t get money from the state.

  2. I have only seen lion dances at temple events in Taiwan, so there was no giving of red envelopes or lettuce involved.

    Believe me, MILs love their grandchildren because they equal bragging rights [from what I have seen anyway]. My MIL’s reaction yesterday to our news was absolutely amazing, better than I could have ever imagined. However, the story has a strange twist as well which I will explain on my blog soon.

  3. I have never even heard of the lettuce, red envelope story!! Is it really for extortionist martial artists!? Do martial artists still man it today, I wonder? Or did Andy and his cousin manage to trick another white girl with this so-called legend? haha

    Man that dim sum sounds really good right about now. Mmmm… Monterey Park dim sum… I love the “dan tan” egg tarts! They’re a classic. Nai Wong is good too.

    Even after four years in China Is till don’t like chicken feet. There’s no meat on it! It’s totally not worth it.

    1. Well, Andy and Freddy are sticking by their story of kung fu extortion, but I feel like it’s something that was done “back in the day.” Like old mob legends. 🙂

      Right. Cartilage is not my thing. No chicken feet until the famine.

  4. I love the story about the kung fu extortion. I suspect you’re right about it being a practice from the past … although you never know.

    Those nai wong bao look delicious. My youngest daughter insists on egg custard tarts when we go for dim sum. I like the fried sesame balls stuffed with red bean paste.

      1. She’s in Hawaii and they are in Tennessee. She helps when she can. She would love to be closer to the kids, but alas, it does not always work out that way.

  5. The lettuce was involved in the lion dance during Chinese New Year because, in Cantonese, the term for lettuce sounds similar to growing wealth. Chinese who celecbrate Chinese New Year want to say things positive in order to bring in good luck.

      1. What they said about some Kung Fu gangsters doing lion dance was true to a certain extent in the old days. In the distant past, some students in certain Kung Fu schools might be gang members, but they were the minority and did not control the schools. Nowadays, the student body of Kung Fu schools is clean (not gang members), drawn to the schools primarily for their love of martial arts. BTW, lion dancing is not used as a mean of extortion. The store owner gives red-pocket money to the lion dancers for two primary reasons. First, in order to thank the lion dancers for doing the lion dance (the lion dance performed during Chinese New Year is supposed to bring good luck to the store). Chinese typically would give a red pocket during New Year if somebody has done something nice for them. Second, the store owner gives the red pocket in order to not lose face (the owners of adjacent stores would have given red pockets to the lion dancers). In some instances, the lion dancing teams were actually invited by store owners who banded together to spruce up the festive atmosphere for Chinese New Year. The reason lion dance is not used for extortion is that the lion dancing team is too big and obvious a target should the police wants to crack down on it. Extortion, if done, around Chinese New Year is typically performed by gangsters who would bring, uninvited, a pot of flowers to a store and leave the pot there. The gangster would pretend to wish the store owner good luck. The store owner would typically give them some money, or else the gangsters might tell their colleagues to vandalize the store later. Bringing a pot of flowers is much less conspicuous than doing a lion dance. Gangsters are smart people too.

        1. Oh, this is fascinating stuff! Ostentatious dancers versus innocuous plant. Very clever. Thank you for sharing. I am going to hoard this information and surprise my in-laws with my knowledge next year. Cousin Freddy will not be able to put one over on me again.

  6. That sounds so exciting! And the nai wong bao (hope this was the name, for my memory is going down) look absolutely delicious! I wanna try some out too. *-*

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