I had no way of knowing where that first taste of Chinese food might lead me. Six and short for my age at the time, I couldn’t come close to brushing my feet against the floor.
The Chinese man hosting the banquet at a Waikiki hotel was a friend of my father’s. Decades later when I recall the event, I am struck by a sense of awe that people could eat such exotic food. Then I’m hit by a wave of guilt and indigestion, as I relive the moment when the waiter set a steaming bowl in front of me and said it contained bird’s nest soup.
The closest thing to Chinese food we ate at home was a dish my mother called Chinese Chicken. She had gotten the recipe from the Air Force Officers’ Wives’ Cookbook. From across the dining room table, my mother’s creation could have passed for Chinese, with its thinly sliced chicken, chopped green peppers and dark sauce. But unlike good Chinese food, my mother’s dish tasted, and even smelled, decidedly sour.
We ate Chinese Chicken with forks, not chopsticks, whose purpose I assumed was for wearing in my hair. I had several pair that my father had brought me back from Japan. I stuck the pink plastic chopsticks in diagonally, after I twisted my ponytail around my index and third fingers into a knot. My thumbs slid effortlessly along the smooth surface.
My first attempt to use chopsticks for eating occurred in a brightly-lit restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. I was twenty at the time, taken there by the art professor I most admired, Hannah Stein.
Several of Hannah’s artist friends joined us at a large round table that needed a good wiping off. Hannah ordered dishes for us to share.
When the waiter brought the food, I searched around for my fork. A pair of shiny plastic chopsticks, like the ones I used to wear in my hair, lay next to my plate, on a napkin. I watched everyone at the table pick up their chopsticks and start eating.
I tried pointing my chopsticks straight down toward the plate and pinching them against the food but the food refused to cooperate. The little I managed to pick up, drifted back down onto the plate before I managed to raise the chopsticks close to my face. I pressed the chopsticks together and scooped sideways. But lacking anything like the high side of a bowl to press against, the food barely left the plate. I studied the technique used by the other women, as they all seemed to be eating away. But when I tried mimicking what I’d seen, only the minutest portion of chicken and green beans made it up to my lips.
I can’t remember who eventually showed me the proper form -- holding one chopstick steady while using the other chopstick to push food against the immobilized one. I only know that by the time I met my first serious boyfriend Marshall I had mastered the use of chopsticks to lift dainty bits of food.
Living with Marshall I learned to love Chinese food. At least once a week we had dinner in the small two-block strip of restaurants that made up Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown.
* * *
My first Chinese-American boyfriend, Harry, kept a supply of frozen potstickers in his freezer. He would heat up a handful in sizzling oil, and we’d eat the potstickers with long bamboo chopsticks, dipping the sticky stuffed noodles into soy sauce between sips of chilled Chardonnay.
I’d wanted an Asian boyfriend because I loved their hair. My attraction to the thick black hair Asian men were wearing in cute, spiky styles was a natural result of having entered adulthood with the same baby-fine hair I had as an infant.
In addition to good hair, Harry also had a lovely smile, and a small muscular body, honed from early morning racquetball games, bike rides up and down Mt. Tam and hours of weightlifting at the gym.
But therein lay my problem. Harry spent so much time working out he barely had any time left over to spend with me.
My second Chinese-American boyfriend, Robert, got take-out from a dumpy little hole-in-the-wall in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He never ordered anything fancy or strange, sticking to basic dishes, like tomato beef. We’d take the food back to his townhouse and eat using chopsticks from his kitchen, then make love in his king-sized bed.
From our first meal of tomato beef over flaky steamed rice, Robert acted as if he liked me as much as the food. As we lifted chopped green peppers and tomato chunks to our mouths, he talked about how much fun we were going to have on vacation together in Hawaii and Mexico.
That is, until one morning when he called to say he’d made other plans. I knew without his telling me that Robert had made other plans for more than this particular night. And that turned out to be the case. I soon learned that Robert had started dating someone else.
It wasn’t until I met my husband Richard that I learned the best kept chopstick secret of all. This secret I call the shoveling method. In Chinese, it is known as pa fan. Fan is the Cantonese word for rice. As I quickly learned, rice is not only the most important ingredient in Chinese food but the glue that holds the proper chopstick technique together.
The trick I learned from my husband, a second-generation Chinese-American, is that you drop a scoop of rice into a small round bowl, instead of setting it on a plate. You lift the rice bowl up, close to your mouth and just under the chin. Taking small bits of food from dishes on the table with your chopsticks, you delicately place the food atop the rice. Then you shovel the food and rice mixture into your mouth. The proximity of the bowl to your mouth allows you to move the food and rice easily, as well as catching any stray grains in the bowl, rather than letting rice fall all over your clothes.
Instead of Chinese food, on our first date Richard and I ate fresh Dungeness crab. We sat on an outdoor deck overlooking San Francisco Bay, while the sun beat down against our backs. When I wasn’t paying attention, I waved my hand and knocked over my water glass. Richard said it didn’t matter, even though I’d splattered water all over his pants.
A few months later, I talked Richard into getting one of those cute spiky haircuts. As time went on, it occurred to me that Richard might actually stay with me. We started picking up dim sum on Friday nights, at a small crowded Chinese bakery on Clement Street, in the neighborhood that’s become San Francisco’s second Chinatown. We’d reheat the pork buns and small shrimp dumplings and eat, using our fingers, while we watched t.v.
We’d been dating about six months when Richard took me to my first family banquet. Entering the crowded bar area of the restaurant not far from the San Francisco airport, I heard shouts of Ricky and was then introduced to excited aunts who hadn’t seen Richard for some time. Introductions to uncles, aunts and cousins followed, so many names and faces that I quickly lost track.
The occasion for this banquet was Richard’s father’s seventieth birthday. My nervous brother-in-law Russ, the event’s organizer, instructed us to take our pre-assigned seats at one of the large round tables that filled the adjacent dining room. When everyone was seated, the food, starting with seafood and tofu soup, began to arrive.
At first I managed to keep up, as someone spun the lazy Susan my way so I could reach the honey walnut prawns or crispy chicken or sliced duck or the spongy folded bun the duck was supposed to be eaten in. But before long, I fell behind. Without even trying, I missed the sweet and sour pork, the bok choy and black mushrooms, and the Chinese broccoli. This was all before the crab and the whole steamed bass arrived, the fish with its head intact, along with its unblinking eyes.
In addition to the large number of dishes brought out in quick succession, the chopsticks also slowed me down. The bok choy and black mushrooms in oyster sauce were so slippery, every time I tried to pick them up with the ivory-colored plastic chopsticks and guide them to my mouth, they slithered right back down to the rice. If the slipperiness of the bok choy wasn’t bad enough, the size of the pieces made it impossible. When I succeeded in lifting the miniature tree trunks of bok choy to my mouth, I discovered that they were too thick to bite through. This left me with the choice of using my fingers to hold the stalk after each bite or letting it drop down to the rice and giving up entirely, which is exactly what I decided to do.
Every few months after that, we received an invitation to another family banquet. There were fiftieth wedding anniversary banquets and sixtieth birthday banquets. There was even a banquet for my father-in-law when, at the age of seventy-seven, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in art. We attended banquets in suburban Chinese restaurants with pink cloth tablecloths and napkins, in dingy restaurants on foggy Geary Street out near the beach, and in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The number of dishes varied slightly, but we usually picked our way through about twelve, ending with the cake someone had brought from a neighboring bakery.
One banquet, a cousin of Richard’s sixtieth birthday celebration, was held on the second floor of a Chinatown restaurant, while a wedding banquet for another family was underway on the first. We sampled each dish as we watched the young couple go through the elaborate rituals a traditional Chinese wedding ceremony proscribes. The bride slipped into a back room, emerging every few minutes wearing a different outfit. When we had gotten through our first six dishes, we heard the sound of drums and a group of Chinese lion dancers appeared on the downstairs floor. We left our food sitting on the lazy Susans and moved over to the railing. Boys with large lion heads, their mouths open to reveal huge red tongues, danced and leaped atop tall posts and then jumped from post to post. The young bride seated on the stage in front of the assembled guests yawned. We uninvited guests upstairs cheered every move executed by the young lions.
At a banquet about a year later, when I started to get full after about the first five dishes, my brother-in-law Russ gave me some advice.
“You’ve got to pace yourself,” he said, as he carefully cut a small piece of crispy chicken with a fork and knife.
At the end of a banquet held for my father-in-law Bill’s eightieth birthday, Bill looked at his two sons and said, “No more.”
Later that night my husband and I talked about the banquet, as we did after every single one. As was our custom, we tried to list each and every dish. Shark’s fin soup. Honey walnut prawns. Crispy chicken. Dish by dish, we continued on. All the way down to the long life noodles.
We talked about the relatives. We noted that Auntie Mintz, who had died the previous year, was certainly missed, and that Auntie Jess, now eighty-seven, looked awfully frail. We smiled over the fact that Uncle Ed, at eighty-three, had gotten himself a new, much younger wife.
And then I asked the question that had been on both of our minds.
“Do you think this will be our last banquet?”
My husband frowned.
“This could be the last one,” he said and shook his head.
Richard agreed that his father’s generation might not be having any more banquets. And being several generations removed from China, he and his cousins probably wouldn’t continue the tradition.
We both lay in bed, feeling a bit melancholy. But then I thought about Owen, the latest addition to the family and my father-in-law’s first great-grandchild.
Owen had spent most of the banquet sitting on his Great Uncle Russ’ lap. He used his curled fingers to shove rice grains into his mouth, along with tiny bites of crispy chicken. In between, he kept reaching out his fingers, attempting to nab my chopsticks.
For a time, I managed to keep hold of the chopsticks. But in the end I had to give them up.
After securing the chopsticks in his chubby left hand, Owen slid the sticks, without hesitation, into his mouth. In appreciation for all the delicious food we’d just been served, Owen twirled the chopsticks around in his mouth and proceeded to drool all over them.
About the author:
Author of From Here to There and Other Stories, Patty Somlo has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and for storySouth’s Million Writers Award. Her essay was selected as a notable essay for Best American Essays 2014. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and in thirteen anthologies.