My friend Willie organized a trip out to Chinatown last weekend for some of my friends and me. Eight of us packed into a van to a Chinese restaurant for lunch, milk tea, and a supermarket tour. A hill and tollway later, we were there.
While driving several months ago, I remember listening to a segment on National Public Radio. A woman described her experience with Chinese culture. She knew little about China, but knew about some customs. She couldn’t speak Chinese, but she knew the words for food. She lived like any American family in U.S. suburbia, but her family would cook full Chinese cuisine on Sunday nights. I laughed at how familiar her story seemed, how much it resonated with my own experiences.
(I like this paragraph, though I’m not sure if it’s in the right place, or really fits with the unity of the story. What do you think?)
I had a good time on the trip. I spent some time with my friends, and I visited a culture I’m familiar with and love much, yet rarely see. Nothing about it surprised me, yet I was shocked with the explaining I had to do.
Western and Chinese cultures are a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to me. While both are distinct and separate, they are coupled and normal to me. I could have gone to Arby’s for lunch and Safeway afterwards, and it would have been just the same to me. To my friends, however, it was something different.
I first noticed it with the menus. I can’t read Chinese, so I’m used to the poorly explained English translations. While certainly helpful, I didn’t need to walk over to the wall of pictures to determine my meal.
Which was also set up somewhat different. In western culture, people order individually, often sharing small portions of their meals with others. With Chinese dining, everything is communal. Large dishes are brought out and put on a turntable in the middle of the table, and everyone digs in to the same dishes, almost like a buffet. I was surprised at how calmly that went, as well. Chinese dining is usually a furious ordeal, with the turntable spinning and food grabbed mid-revolution. My friends were more conservative, seemingly unwilling to get the wheel spinning for their food.
It’s difficult to see the difference without a direct comparison. I always understood that the two cultures have had different standards, manners, customs. Even so, both always felt comfortable to me, and never seemed to occupy separate places as much as I realize now. It’s a gift to have two perspectives, two lifestyles. Best of both worlds, right?
(Not wholly satisfied with this, but I know I need to publish. Thank goodness for second chances in editing.)