Friday, June 27, 2008

Homestay Dinner

The Internet is moving too slow for my life right now. I'm skipping the last few days' worth of interesting things to talk about dinner tonight with my homestay family in Beijing.

The family I'm staying with is a mom, a husband who's home in the evenings, and a son about my age who I haven't met yet because he's still at college. We ate dinner together for the first time tonight, and this is how it went.

My Chinese mom (who I'm just going to call "Mom") cooked food that I told her I was used to when I lived in Chengdu. While she cooked, I sat in the kitchen doing homework and trying to have a conversation with her.

She served up the food, each dish on a plate in the middle of the table, asked me how it was. Providing some manly unsentimentality Dad said to her, "Don't ask him how it is. Even if it's horrible he's still going to say it's good. You have to wait until after the meal, and then you just look at which plate has the least left to see which was your best dish."

We ate. I listened to them talk about things I didn't understand but which might have included affirmative action in Chinese colleges (since she's a teacher). Then they started talking about the names of the food we were eating, and it was remarkable how familiar the flow of the argument sounded.

"So," Dad says. "You told him there's spicy chicken, chicken with vegetables, and sweet-sauce chicken. What was your argument again?"

"That he can tell what kind of flavor it is by paying attention to the beginning part. Look at this," Mom said, pointing. "Spicy chicken is spicy. Sweet-sauce chicken is sweet. You only need to understand the first part to understand the flavor."

"Ah, a teacher being a teacher. I don't think it's that simple, though. What would you call this?" Dad points at one of the dishes we're having.

Mom says something that isn't what he wanted to hear.

"Well, you might call it that, but everyone else is going to call it Green Beans and Chicken. But there's more chicken than there are green beans."

"Well, that's true. It's only a generalization."

Now, don't think that I know words like "generalization" or "affirmative action" in Chinese. I'm more working on "green beans" and "argument." But that's the reconstruction of what I heard in Chinese. Isn't that exciting?

They looked at me and asked what I was smiling about. I said I was just happy that I followed what they were saying, and raised my arms in triumph after having struggled to be in Chinese mode practically all day. I don't know if they understood.

Later they tried to include me in the conversation, and we talked about how often college students talk to their parents.

"I talk to my mom maybe twice a week," I said. "She likes to email me, so whenever I get an email from her, I just email her back. Short messages, you know."

"Oh," Mom says. "That's who you were emailing last night when you borrowed Dad's computer."

"Yeah," I said. Then I started paraphrasing my email in Chinese (which I will now paraphrase back into English). "'Just got to my Chinese family's house. They're pretty awesome. Will.'"

My grammar in translating this wasn't impeccable, of course, so Mom had to repeat it in good Chinese before Dad understood, but they were very touched. "Thank you," Mom said. "Tell them we say hi."

Then after dinner we drank tea. Mom tried to teach about how each tea has a different flavor and thereby a different way to prepare and drink it. I fumbled my way through a cup of some kind of tea. Mom poured some more water into the tea pot.

"You know," Mom said. "I think the second batch has the best flavor."

"Nah," said Dad. "I like the third cup best myself. The second is still too bitter."

"Really? I think the second is fine."

It was getting late, so I moved to go to my room. "Make sure to tell me what time you're going on your field trip tomorrow," Mom said.

"Yeah, I still need to text my classmates about that because I wasn't paying attention."

"Okay, goodnight."

"Goodnight."

And there you have it. A perfect family portrait with one member grafted in.

1 comment:

Mom said...

Please tell your host mom I say "hi" too and "thanks for your care for my kid"!
Your story about the dinner conversation made me smile- not just because you could understand it (wow, now that's saying something!) And not just because you wrote it so well I could envision it (and you know I think you're a good writer)... But it made me smile because you're living with a family who seems like they are willing to be real with you and let you see their hearts. What a treasure they are giving you. The homestay will probably become aggravating and uncomfortable at some point; but what a godo experience you are going to have!