Monday, February 15, 2010

Gung Hay Fat Choi!

Happy Chinese New Year!

My family gathered for the traditional New Year's Eve dinner this weekend and indulged in a 10-course banquet meal at Ping's Seafood. Everything is served family style atop the bright red tablecloths, and because our family spans three large round tables, there are three sets of every dish. I managed to capture every dish on our table, though not all before they'd been dug into; this is not a crowd that waits for photo shoots!

 Assorted platter of Chinese cold cuts, jellyfish (center), tofu, and the best parts — fried squid and roast pork. Oh, and the sliced vegetables that are garnish — no one eats those.

Fried oysters and steamed oysters with a chili soy sauce. A hard call on which was better. The steamed ones had a slight edge in size and flavor.

Mayonnaise Shrimp with candied walnuts and broccoli. 

Sizzling steak with a pepper and onions sauce.

Egg drop and melon soup.

Lobster in black bean sauce.

Fried chicken in garlic soy sauce.

Fried rice and Yi Mein (egg noodles with mushrooms).

Steamed fish in soy sauce.

Red bean soup with tapioca balls and rice flour dumplings.

Oranges end every meal with good luck.

There are lots of New Year's traditions and symbolic reasons for eating certain foods, but to be honest, my family has never been focused heavily on those things. There are exchanges of gifts between family members and red envelopes distributed to the unmarried, but this time of year has always seemed more simply about observing the family gathering as a recognition of our heritage.

As I had noted when I wrote about the last family gathering I attended, the history of my family tends to leak out in dribs and drabs. For my entire life, I had never heard my dad's parents speak English beyond "thank you," "Roy Rogers" (bizarre, I know), and the occasional English word inserted into a Chinese conversation with a Chinese accent (cheese = cheese-ye-ya). They sat by as conversations whizzed by mostly in the language of their adopted homeland. And my grandmother continues to do so though her fading hearing now contributes to the notion that she has little sense of what goes on before her. But every now and again, it'll seem as though my grandmother manages to utter a response to something that has just been said in English, puzzling us.

Amid a conversation about the speed of my grandmother's walking, all it took was my aunt loudly (as most everything out of my family members' mouths is) telling my dad to see how fast he walks when he is 86! And without missing a beat it seemed, my grandmother turned to my dad and said in Chinese: 85! How was that possible? My aunt said that my grandmother knew more English than it seemed and she was familiar with several words or phrases: Not here, stupid, call back. And in fact, my grandparents had memorized the English answers to the questions for their citizenship test long ago. They knew who the first president of the United States was, my aunt said. To prove it, my aunt posed the question in Chinese to my grandmother and without pausing she responded "George-y Washing-tone." Momentary disbelief. English words from my grandmother's mouth sounded so . . . foreign!

But smiles broke out all around and laughs escaped our mouths.

This got my grandmother to say that she had had to name three U.S. presidents and that the other two she knew were Carter and Ford. She then added that she had been first in her elementary school class. My aunt provided the background: My great-grandfather, the one who had been in the States working on the railroad, had sent money back to his family, but the older son gambled away the money, believing that girls did not need to go to school. Thus, ended my grandmother's education.

But not ours of our family history.

 Scenes from Chinatown festivities.

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