Those Other Relatives
On Christmas Eve 1994, I was stirring. Christmas Day was about to become an unsettling reality.
Instead of our normal Chinese dinner with friends, we were spending Christmas Day with my dad’s great uncle and great aunt.
As a bustling crowd filled the restaurant, our table was still and silent. There was nothing I could say to make it better.
We went to the Sichuan House every year for Christmas dinner. It was always bright and buzzing with Jews, and we knew a bunch of other families from school or shul. People would constantly stop by to chat during the meal.
The scene was like a wedding, the waiters dancing around us with steaming plates of food — but this dance was no Hora. Everyone was bouncing around everywhere, shouting across tables and asking people what they ordered.
"Bethie, you're so tall!"
“Earl, you see that football game last night? Oh you was ahhht? Didja tape it?”
“Did you get the shrimp lo mein?”
“This tea is too hot! Excuse me, excuse me, this tea is too hot!”
But tonight we were seated at the big table in no man’s land, all the way near the bathrooms in the back. No one would ever see us back here. Tonight, we would dine alone.
Uncle Milton, a retired doctor, and Aunt Lydia, a retired nurse, lived north of Pittsburgh in Bradford Woods, a mysterious place filled with lush forest and a still, numbing silence. We went there once and never went back. Their house was very cold, enclosed by glass, and their dog wanted to eat me.
‘Who lives in a glass house?’ I remember thinking, ‘People who want to be seen? Or did being so visible just mean they were experts at hiding their dark deeds?’ It seemed like a great setup for a Hitchcock movie.
Despite my suspicions, I played my role as a polite seven year-old in my Tweety Bird T-shirt and leggings.
“Wear your nicer Tweety outfit, the glittery one!” my mom had said. “We probably won’t see Milton and Lydia for another 10 years after this.”
There we were. My dad, happy to be with family but mostly apathetic, probably thinking about getting home to watch a repeat of Penn State volleyball, the only sport on TV that night.
My mom, pretending to be interested in these two distant relatives.
My older sister, Jamie, only there for food, dressed in baggy JNCO jeans and a Nirvana T-shirt.
Was I expected to make a real connection here?
"How's school?" Lydia asked.
"It's good," I answered.
"She's the lead actress in a play this spring!" my mom chimed in.
I described my role in the first grade play, How My Parents Learned to Eat. I played a Japanese woman who meets an American sailor, and they subtly try to learn each other’s way of eating.
I’d later learn something horribly unsettling about how these so-called “relatives” of mine ate their Chinese food. I hid behind my menu, dreading the rest of this meal.
The menu reading process for my family was just for show at Chinese restaurants. We shared the same things every time: sweet and sour chicken for Dad, General Tso’s chicken for Jamie, and chicken with broccoli or mixed vegetables for Mom and me.
If we attempted to switched up the system, all hell would break loose. Fried chicken + lots of sauce + one veggie was deemed a balanced meal, and I usually didn’t argue. On a good day, I’d convince them to throw in a pu pu platter, feeling victorious, then guilty through every crispy crab rangoon.
Tonight was not the night to push boundaries.
"I want General Tso's," Jamie stated bluntly, closing the menu with a defiant thud. She was always eager to get the process moving at restaurants. I’d just go with the flow.
"So we’ll order a bunch of things and share them," my mom said, her face still halfway behind the menu.
Then it came. As a timid child just beginning to open up to the world's cruelties, Lydia's words stunned me.
"We don't share."
I seized up, my stomach jumping into my throat. I felt like George Costanza in the worst kind of awkward situation — one that threatened my food rituals. My brain ran at full speed, the words ringing over and over. We don’t share. We don’t share. We don’t share.
"Well, we always share," my mom said.
Milton popped up from behind his menu.
"Yeah, we don't share."
Who were these people? How dare they defy the unspoken laws of Chinese food? Each dish played a crucial role: sweet, sour, spice. When a spoonful of each soaked into the bland white rice, it was an exotic party of flavor. Eating was all I had to look forward to tonight, even if we were so close to the toilets I could hear them flush.
I didn’t know where to look or what to do. I don't know why I looked to my dad first — the notorious conflict avoider. The guy who abandoned us for three hours at Disneyland because we were arguing about how many Mickey-shaped chicken nuggets to order.
Well, leave it to Mom to bridge the gap with an extended display of her classic stare down. She was frozen. This lasted 15 seconds. Finally, she said "OK." The business was done.
We rallied through our delicious delights, while Milton and Lydia silently ate theirs. They also did not share with each other, apparently. They may as well have been in separate cubicles, or maybe food etiquette jail cells. I’d never seen anything like this. Even if you hated your family, you shared at Chinese. It wasn’t something you just said “no” to.
I tried not to look at their plates. What was that dish Milton was digging into — some type of bizarre sea creature adorned with fancy flowers? What was that smoking bowl of bright veggies Lydia was eating? Was it on fire? What the heck had these two ordered? I was too afraid to ask, after they had whispered their orders to the waiter. Did they think we might ask for a bite? I worked through my pool of sauce, chicken and rice. The thick surrounding silence made it feel like we were in outer space, or the very last table on Earth.
On the ride home, we finally “talked shit," as my mom called it in the ‘90s. I never thought talking shit could feel so good. I felt alive!
"Who do they think they are?" Mom barked.
"That was so weird!" I finally released.
"Oyyyy...I don't know..." my dad sighed, as usual. He had missed the whole volleyball game for this.
My sister, who never wanted to share her General Tso’s anyway, remained silent.
"They don't share! HA!" Mom snickered.
The Chinese food sharing system is solid as steel. Attempt to tackle it, and you will be doomed.
After this epic blunder, Milton and Lydia safely remained inside their glass house in the woods, far from the chaos of Sichuan Christmas — and never to be dined with again.