We are led through a building covered in wood panels onto to a deck with a staircase leading to two sliding doors. Host father proudly opened the doors revealing a private dining room with a large, round table set to receive us. In the back corner, two servers dressed in plaid and Scottish kilts, smile in way of greeting. Mounted on the wall above them are two buffalo bones with fencing swords wedged between. On the center of the table – a rotating piece of wood I refer to as a “spin-spin” – sat with some food already on it. We found our seats with little fuss and settled into our chairs in silence, curiously stealing glances, taking each other in.
My sister sat erect busying her hands with napkins and place settings, flanked by her girls, while host mother smiled broadly at her two year-old daughter in a highchair. The fathers are separated by Teacher who serves as tonight’s interpreter. Patrick sat directly across from the fathers and next to host brother and Godmother’s husband. I am situated between my brother-in-law and Godmother. Fittingly, teacher spoke first introducing himself and the host family, expressing how joyful they all were for having us all there.
While Teacher talked servers poured wine for the ladies and white liquor for the men. At the end, host father raised his glass towards my brother-in-law, exclaiming, “Ganbei!” This was cue for us to drink until we reached the bottom of our glasses. A command, I learned, frequently expressed at Chinese celebrations. Godmother smiled conspicuously at our empty glasses nodding her head with approval, and in an instant we bonded. A server reached his hand between us placing down fish ball soup and sautéed greens. In front of my sister, they came with tofu noodles soaked in soy sauce, honey glazed pork ribs, and shrimp.
“Eat, Eat,” Teacher encouraged motioning his hands.
For the next couple of hours, food appeared in this manner, casually circling the table until our spin-spin was overflowing with plates of sautéed lima beans, sliced cured beef, rice noodles with a peanut and chili oil sauce, sliced watermelon, cantaloupe, and dragon fruit. All the while conversations flowed then dulled only to pick back up again. Godmother, repetitively told me my name Julia is very famous in China and means I will yield lots of riches.
“Ganbei!” I replied. “My father will be relieved to hear this.”
Then halfway through the meal, after I shared a family story with Teacher that made him chuckle, he quietly admitted, “I miss having siblings around.” I nodded encouragingly. not sure how to respond. He continued, “I grew up with three brothers in a rowdy house. It was in my generation the government enforced the one-child policy.” He dropped his eyes and I felt a hollowing sadness carve out inside me. When he returned his gaze to meet my sister’s four children – I could see them as he saw them – a symbol of freedom from another era. Quickly, Teacher redirected the conversation to Patrick who spoke Mandarin with relative ease while his finger flicked up and down like a conductor showcasing tones he was striving to make. The host family was obviously engaged in Patrick’s story following along line by line while I watched on in awe. It was apparent what Godmother had said about him on the car trip over – that Patrick was smart, handsome and clever – was absolutely true.
A Warrior Princess