Monday, December 21, 2009

“Just needs a little soy sauce, mom!”

When mom used to make her weekly Sunday dinners for our immediate family 0f 17, it really was a grand affair.  We’d pack the chairs around the round dining room table and feast on no fewer than eight delicious courses of home-cooked Chinese food.  With a gentle flick of the wrist, the spinning Lazy Susan would smoothly float the platter of choice right in front you.  Each time my mom would bring out a steaming hot stir-fry dish from the wok, she would say with a shrug, “Oh, it’s not that good.  I don’t know, it’s just okay.”  Of course, every morsel you tasted was always one of the most delicious things you’d ever put in your mouth.  But it’s a Chinese thing to be modest and humble. 

There’s actually a scene out of Amy Tan’s best selling novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” that reminds me of our family dining ritual.  In the film, when the mom proudly brings out her grand finale dish amidst everyone’s “oohs” and “ahhs”, she demurely says, “Oh, it’s not so good.  Not my best…”  Of course she doesn’t really believe this.  But then the doofus Caucasian boyfriend proclaims, “Oh, that’s okay, all it needs is a little soy sauce!” and douses the entire platter with a bottle of soy.  The room goes silent, the family is frozen with shock, the mom’s mouth is gaping open, and the clueless boyfriend continues to eat the now-ruined dish.  Ever since that movie came out, whenever my mom presents her signature kung pao chicken at the end of an eight course meal, my husband just can’t wait to say, “Just needs a little soy sauce, mom!”  (Ar, ar!)  It was probably an LOL the first couple times he did it.  But now my mom brushes it off with an affectionate, “Okay, okay…”, and my dad just gives him a courtesy chuckle and spins the Lazy Susan. 

My parents have come a long way.  They have a sense of humor now.  And, they’ve really loosened their cultural boundaries.  A couple decades ago, this certainly was not the case.  I should mention that we all married lo fans (that’s Chinese for “Caucasian”, or as we affectionately like to say, “white person”).  It’s hardly an issue now, but 25 years ago it was a huge point of contention.  My oldest sister and her boyfriend John M. (now husband) really had some major ground to break.  After all, they were the first culprits to crush my parents’ dream of having a nice, smart, rice-loving-Chinese son-in-law.  Instead, they got a nice, smart, potato-loving- Irish son-in-law.  (Damn banana-kids!)

I know John M. was truly devoted to my sister because he was practically put through Chinese water torture before my parents finally gave him their blessing.  It was nothing personal.  He was just, well…white.  But they grew to truly love and accept him.  To make a long story short, this is how my brother-in-law puts it…”your parents took a long time to open that door to me, but once they did, they pulled me inside and have never let go.”  (kinda brings a tear to my eye.)  That sentiment can also be taken quite literally, because John M. initially would never even come to the front door when he picked up my sister for dates.  He’d park on the corner and wait for her in the car.  We also had a German Shepard, Dartanian, who ferociously barked at lo fans, but for some reason, didn’t make a peep at Chinese people.  Honestly, no one ever trained Dartanian to do this; he just did it!

My second oldest sister inducted the second lo fan son-in-law into the family.  So by the time I brought my boyfriend (who is now my husband, and whose name is also John) around, my conniving brother Mark would welcome these lo fan-initiating-opportunities with open arms.  Although Mark is 4 years older than me and is a successful business man, he is the biggest jokester I know and often possesses the maturity level of a kindergartner.  The first time John came to dinner at my parents' house, he brought a bottle of wine.  Mark got his hands on it, and taped a fake tag on the bottom indentation of the bottle that read, “To John, From Susie.  Xmas ’88” to make it look like a re-gift.  When he nudged my sister at the dinner table and showed it to her, her eyes popped out of her head with embarrassment for John.  The next time John came for dinner, Mark clinked on his water glass and announced out of the blue, “John would like to make a toast now…in Chinese.”  On another occasion, when Mark tried to teach John some “respectful Chinese phrases” for him to say to my parents, John knew better.  He realized that if Mark tried to teach him to say “Your hair looks nice” to my mom in Chinese, the phrase probably really meant “Your butt looks huge.”

Now that my mom’s family dinners have become fewer and farther between, the upside is it doesn’t give Mark as many opportunities for his antics.  The downside:  we don’t have as many opportunities to feast on the family favorites, like kung pao chicken.  Again, that is the purpose for this blog.  So give this special recipe a try, and let me know what you think.  If you tell me, “It just needs is a little soy sauce,” I’ll hope you are joking.