The meanderings of a recovering ex-expat with the occasional identity crisis
For my birthday I had a group of friends over to my place for a birthday / leftover X’mas / Chinese New Year hot pot (fondue) dinner.
Traditionally in the Chinese culture, the birthday girl is supposed to treat all her friends and not the other way around. I’m supposed to have an elaborate spread, make sure that everyone’s had at least a bottle of wine each and several gallons of food, then let them crawl home. If I don’t achieve this, then I have failed as a Chinese.
And the guilt would be enormous. The Chinese are very much like the Catholics in terms of guilt, with my Mom being the torch bearer. If you go to her house and have her signature dish, black cod with secret sauce, but don’t praise her effusively enough, she’ll go into the kitchen, turn on the gas oven and stick her head inside…at least till the stewed pork on the stove was done. Because guilt about proper etiquette would compel Mom to take her head out of the oven long enough to serve the pork to her guests.
I’ve inherited this Chinese guilt as far as throwing dinner parties is concerned. I had marinaded some spareribs for my signature Thai spareribs platter one day beforehand. About 8lbs of ribs. On the day of, I bought a trunkload of food for the hot pot. And, just in case any of my guests were coming directly from their 10-day trek to the Himalayas, I also got several pounds of assorted dim sum and chow mein.
Less than 15 people were attending and 3 of them kids. I had enough food to feed Sri Lanka.
Then, one of the kids asked for RICE – that white, granular, carb-loaded staple of Chinese cuisine.
“Sure!” I said brightly, Aunt-Susan style and proceeded to get the water in the pot ready for my Minute Rice.
“YOU…YOU…are going to…to cook – MINUTE RICE?!” The child’s Mother pointed at me in disbelief.
“Yeah. What’s wrong with Minute Rice? It’s fast and it tastes like rice! Besides, I don’t know how to cook rice properly in the rice cooker.”
“YOU…YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO COOK RICE?!” The Mother then turned towards my living room and yelled, “Hey, hey everybody! Susan doesn’t know how to cook rice! She can’t cook rice! Can you believe it?”
All the voices in the living room hushed. There was a loud thud, like someone fell from his chair onto the ground.
“B-b-b-but…I don’t really eat rice. I mean, I prefer quinoa….”
“Susan, OH-MY-GOD! You can’t cook rice?! It’s OK…it’s OK. Nothing to worry about. It’s never too late. Let me teach you. It’s SO EASY.”
“Susan, Susan: where’s your RICE COOKER? I’ll show you how to cook rice. You HAVE a rice cooker, don’t you?”
“How could this be, Susan? I’ve known you for more than 10 years! You were bridesmaid at my wedding! How come I didn’t know about this?! It must be my fault. I was not enough of a friend to you. I’M SO SO SORRY, Susan!” (My guilty girlfriend of 10 years is also Chinese).
As friends prepared for an emergency Rice Intervention by setting up Iron Chef work stations, I realized how my inability to cook rice the traditional way has affected my “Chineseness” in other people’s eyes, and this was a bitter truth they didn’t want to face. It was like discovering that swollen ugly mole on your chest is really a third breast. Maybe you kind of knew all along, but who wants to face the reality of having a third breast? I mean, how would you shop for bras?
Frankly, I don’t care for Chinese food, unless it’s served Panda-Express style with a crunchy fortune cookie written in that tacky Chinese font I love so much.
I make enough good “Asian” food – usually Thai or Vietnamese – to keep me on the right side of being Chinese. None of my Caucasian friends knows any other Asians and will often introduce me as their token Asian: THIS – IS – SUSAN – FROM – CHINA! – as if I was that rare moose milk cheese from Sweden that sells for over $500/lb.
At parties I’d regale people with stories about living and working in China and I thought they listened because the stories were interesting and my delivery entertaining, but now I realized it was probably because they thought I was Chinese.
During a Christmas party last year, I spent nearly an hour haranguing a poor Caucasian lady into using acupuncture to cure her leg pain, even though she’d tried it several times and found it uncomfortable. I had recently discovered acupuncture – through a Caucasian practitioner in the US, no less – and it helped me with everything from insomnia to stomach cramps and neck pain.
I finally convinced the poor woman to give acupuncture another go, because my petite Chinese self was so persuasive. If I were a 5’10″ red-haired, freckle-faced woman I’m sure she would have thought twice. Now, I think I should call this lady and tell her to take some extra-strength Advil instead.
We all do this kind of racial stereotyping. Would you ask an Asian with Hello Kitty earmuffs to recommend a good taco joint? What about that sinking feeling you get when you’re in a Chinese restaurant and realize that all of your fellow diners are Caucasian, and that your gelatinous excuse for a Chinese soup contains diced ham and that hideous frozen vegetable mix (peas, cubed carrots and corn niblets)?
What if your fellow diners were Chinese – how would you feel about the soup then?
Things aren’t much better for me on the Chinese side, either. In China, I’ve been mistaken for a bitchy Filipino, a confused Korean, a half-baked Japanese and a deep-fried Caucasian. Even my Mom sometimes looks at me and says, Susan, you just don’t look that Chinese, as if I was supposed to be an elaborate multi-tiered wedding cake that turned out to be an incredibly dry and slightly-lopsided pound cake with a corner missing.
My ambiguous Chinese identity has always bothered other people more than it has bothered me, but I thought it’d be interesting to figure out how Chinese I really am by listing some of my characteristics and assigning them with a point system, with positive points indicating that I’m MORE Chinese:
1. My hair is not smooth and neat, but messy, curly and abrasive, like a nest of barbed wire thrown together by schizophrenic birds before the Apocalypse (-2 points).
2. If schizophrenic birds do take up residence in my hair, I’d charge them rent and there would be no rent control (+5 points). If I start charging the birds, they’ll probably move to a lower-rent neighborhood (+10 points for the birds).
3. I don’t drive with my head up my ass (-10 points). I don’t drive with my head up your ass (-20 points). I drive a Japanese car (+35 points). I don’t drive a Lexus or a Camry (-100 points). I don’t have a Chinese ornament hanging from my rear view mirror (-250 points). Buddha’s not on my dashboard (-100 points).
4. I have four different types of soy sauce (+30 points): low sodium (-25 points), a big bottle of Kikkoman (+20 points), a smaller bottle of Kikkoman (+10 points), and a bottle of what I see now is just aged balsamic vinegar (-100 points). Honest mistake (-500 points).
5. Going out for dinner with my sister the other day, we sat next to each other, but were texting instead of talking to each other (+150 points). Her iPhone (+150 points for my sister) has a pink Hello Kitty cover (+550 points for my sister). My sister thinks she’s a Hello Kitty (+10000 points for Hello Kitty). I’m inclined to agree with her (Another +10000 points for Hello Kitty).
6. I’m 10lbs over the maximum allowable weight for a Chinese woman (-25 points). I want to lose an additional 5lbs as a *buffer*, in case the 10lbs I lose come creeping back (+25 points for overachieving, which is very Chinese). I’ve gained 2lbs since I started writing this post an hour ago (-500 points, +2lbs).
7. For the first 15 years of my life, I thought “Kung Pao Chicken” – a spicy dish that originated in Sichuan - was a play on “Kung POW Chicken” and the dish was an homage to Bruce Lee and our fine Chinese martial arts tradition (-50000 points). At least, this is what I told my friends growing up (-20000 points). However, I always knew Bruce Lee was never related to Sarah Lee nor Lee Jeans (+20 points).
8. My Mom told me that the reason I got the flu during the Chinese New Year was because I didn’t wear the lucky Chinese New Year red panty she gave me (+50 points for Mom, -50 points for me, -100 points to my physician, who didn’t mention this in his diagnosis).
I had given the panty away to a reader in the Philippines, who had won the panty in a contest I held (-100 points). He asked for the panty to be used, so I blew my nose in the panty and sent it to him (+5000 points). First class mail (+1000 points).
Elmer, next time you have to be more specific (-20000 points for Elmer). But there isn’t going to be a next time (Another -20000 points for Elmer).
After tallying up the score, I fell somewhere in between the 10-for-a-dollar packages of Ramen noodles and General Tsao’s Chicken in terms of Chinese authenticity. I’ll fool all of the Caucasians most of the time and convince none of the Chinese any of the time.
I’d better starting making more Caucasian friends, then. Could I interest you all in some Minute Rice?