Showing Me How To Eat & Speak in China: Xie Xie


China is a shame based society. This I know. Being driven by the possibility of being shamed still wears on Chinese Americans. It’s engrained somewhere deep, untouchable; unlike so much else that has eroded away with the generations of American lineage. So even though China is 8 months and 16 countries into our trip, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised that in the build up to it I felt different. It felt so…loaded. I was as anxious landing in Beijing as I had been when we first left for Mexico in January. I don’t speak a lick of mandarin, and fare barely better in Cantonese. But I should, right? I mean, if I’m Chinese, I must be able to speak it…Your parents/grandparents didn’t speak it to you growing up? What a shame…However, I was also excited for the opportunity to reconcile the China I’ve always pictured in my mind, to maybe even learn what it is to be Chinese and in turn understand what is still distinctly Chinese about me.

Beijing has been the perfect intro period for me into China. Beijing is the capital. Beijing is the Great Wall of China. Beijing is the Forbidden City…is great food…is stifled democracy…is where the servers are housed that censor the internet…It is…it is…it is…Everything that is good and bad with China revolves around this city. And with the crests and valleys of Beijing rode my own pride and shame.

Mari and I had decided before we had our first meal in Beijing that we were going to splurge and try the Peking duck. It’s one of our favorite meals back at home, and we couldn’t pass up having it in its namesake. We arrived at the famous roasted duck restaurant, nicknamed Old Duck, to a hive of activity. 5:20 pm and all of the tables and halls were already full. Two waiting areas were filling up and the hostesses were being swamped. Mari and I, still a little slow in giving up the concepts of a queue or personal space, made our way to the hostess to get a number. After 4 people pushed pass us, we accomplished our mission.

As we sat in the waiting area, other people admired the artifacts along the wall, played with their children, talked with one another. We stared at our number and tried to figure out how to recognize when they called us. We tried to remember the groups who were in front of us. We made regular eye contact with the hostess and gave her our confused looks. Finally, we noticed that the hostess had said something over the loudspeaker, and subsequently her looking around was going unanswered. And right when we were wondering whether to check if she had called us, “84″ was shouted into the microphone. In English. Just for us.

Our table was in the middle of the lively restaurant, letting us see the chefs carve the ducks at nearby tables and feast on the culinary smells around us. We ordered (again in English) to our waiter, who did his best to communicate with us, even explaining that the sauce and scallions were part of the dish. When our Peking duck arrived we were practically salivating. Our waiter, placed the dish on the table, then offered to show me how it is eaten by making me my first one. I tried to tell him that it wasn’t necessary…that I knew how to eat my favorite meal…that of course I knew how to eat it—I’m Chinese! But then, why can’t you speak Chinese?

Instead, I smiled as he manipulated my chopsticks and spoon to make me my little sandwich and weakly told him “xie xie.” Surrounding tables looked at me, giving me their confused looks. And I had nothing to offer them in return. No answers, knowledge, or way of making them understand that despite my looking like them, I was clearly not. Somewhere, over the generations, something had been lost.

waiter showing me how to eat

waiter showing me how to eat

Jeff Lee
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