Dim sum brunches

Here’s the paper I was working on tonight. It’s so hard to capture in words a tradition that means a lot to you. If it weren’t for this tempting high-speed internet I might have had more time today to do the subject justice. ;b Oh well. I’ll sleep now and edit tomorrow morning before I turn it in.


Dim Sum Brunches

My family is fond of food. We eat often and well and have many favorite foods, almost all of them prepared and eaten at home: Shanghai-style spring rolls and roasted duck stuffed with sticky rice and Chinese sausage, as well as mint lemonade and crème brûlée. While each of these delicious dishes evokes happy memories for us all, no one seems more significant than the others. The one special ritual that does spring to mind when I think of my family and food takes place outside the home, in a restaurant. But this, also, did not take on the significance it has for me now until I heard of my sister’s friend David’s family’s similar ritual-that is, the setup was similar, but the outcome, if you can call it that, was quite different. Perhaps it is true that we all define ourselves by our Other. In our case, at least, the other family’s experience led us to think of our ritual as representative of the character of our family.

Every so often, my family gets together for a dim sum brunch. The restaurant varies, but our brunches are almost always on weekends, and the time is almost always eleven a.m., since that is when most dim sum restaurants in our area open for business and we like to be there before the crowds show up, as they inevitably do on weekends. Those present are my extended maternal family (my father’s family is in Shanghai): my mother’s father, three of his four children (my mother, the oldest, my uncle and his wife, my aunt and her husband and their son), and of course my father and my two sisters and me. When our youngest uncle, the absent fourth child, is in town, then he and his family join us, but first his education and now his career keep him at a distance, geographically. We have been doing these brunches forever; in fact, some of my vaguest early memories are of sitting in Kings American Chinese Food in Sacramento having dim sum with my family.

Many Cantonese families gather for dim sum, but what distinguishes our ritual from, say, David’s, and what surprises and often dismays others who join us is our particular way of approaching it. David had told my sister that he dislikes going out for dim sum because he never gets enough to eat. It seems his family usually goes as the guests of other people, who never order enough food, and his family suffers in silence since it would be impolite to ask for more. My sister, amused by the thought, repeated the story to me and to our mother, who then recounted it to our entire family at our next dim sum brunch. We all recognized that the entertainment value of this story lay in how different David’s family’s dim sum ritual was from ours. David’s family was silent, well-behaved, underfed. The hallmarks of our family’s brunches are noise, exuberant and assertive noise, and extreme fullness.

Our brunches begin with the arrival and congregation of all the family members at one of the restaurant’s largest round tables. My own immediate family, with the most members to coordinate (two parents and three kids), usually arrives last. Those who arrived first are hungry because they have been waiting, but so are we the latecomers because we have been thinking and maybe talking about our favorite dim sum dishes in the car on the way to the restaurant. Anyway, it is eleven and we never eat breakfast when we know we are going to have dim sum, so by the time everyone has arrived and greetings have been exchanged we are all in excellent spirits and completely ravenous. (The good spirits are definitely due in part to the knowledge that now that everyone is here, we can finally eat.) The waitresses come by with their pushcarts. Perhaps they know the eagerness in our faces because the first cart is always loaded with the old favorites, things that everyone likes. We order some of everything and the eating begins.

I have often observed, while eating with large groups of friends, that though the conversation may be animated, there is always a time, when everyone is eating most earnestly, that conversation stops. I have never seen this happen during meals with my extended family, and this is most pronounced during our brunches. Our table is always noisy and excited, especially the adults, who have not seen each other for weeks or sometimes months. Because loudness is a characteristic of my mother’s side of the family, and because the restaurant is busy and the table large, everyone raises their voice to speak. My aunt, my mother’s younger sister, is the best storyteller in the family, and she makes everyone laugh with her stories and impressions. Disagreement erupts occasionally as the siblings make their opinions known. While the adults talk nonstop among themselves, we kids keep up an undertone of quieter conversation. My youngest sister and my cousin get deep into discussion of their latest obsession-once Pokémon, later Harry Potter-while my middle sister and I share secrets and our fondness for our family. “Only in our family,” we like to say.

After everyone’s initial hunger is assuaged and only a lone char siu bao, barbecued pork bun, remains on the table (some balance seems to have been upset when I stopped eating meat, for now there always seem to be one or two left over), then the adventure really begins. Now we can be pickier, and we examine each fresh cart with more critical eyes. As with buffets and sushi boats, part of the pleasure of dim sum is the opportunity to try everything one sees, and our ways of coping with this reflect our individual personalities. Waitresses address themselves to my grandfather, seeing his seniority, and since he is so easygoing about eating he unhesitatingly agrees to everything they say until his children stop him. My father, on the other hand, will order everything on the cart, overriding others’ objections, because he likes feeding us and is certain that someone (often himself) will finish it all up. When I was younger, I ate what my parents ordered, but now I get frantic when I see my favorite foods approaching. My Cantonese is inadequate, so I find myself in the nervous, embarrassing, and rare (for me) position of knowing exactly what I want but not being able to ask for it. Somehow my mother always sees or hears my agitation, and orders for me. Food keeps coming by. The waitresses stop at our table and recite in Cantonese the contents of their carts. We receive our family favorites with great enthusiasm-“lo bak go, turnip cakes, yes, yes, yes, we’ll have three plates of them”-and reject or accept the others depending on how crowded the table is at the moment. Each of us waits impatiently for some particular individual favorite. We are never shy: if the long-awaited dish does not make an appearance, someone flags a waiter and sooner or later several orders of it arrive, steaming, brought directly to our table from the kitchen. I usually start to feel full after the first ten or so minutes of this, but I keep eating anyway. We all do. It is part of our tradition.

Our brunches are so much family affairs that very few outsiders have joined us in our ritual. My best friend Jackie has joined us many times, and her presence at our table is always easy and comfortable. Indeed, we all consider her one of the family; anyone who fits so well into it could not be but one of us. My uncle once brought a friend to dim sum, a recent immigrant from China who was trying to find a foothold in America. Even though I was still young at the time, I understood that his presence at our family brunch meant he was somehow being integrated into our family. In the years since that brunch my parents have kept informed on his progress and successes and have reported them in turn to me, and once he and his wife joined us for a holiday meal. Although we rarely see them and would hardly call ourselves close, they are still present in the fabric of our family in a way that even some more distant blood relations are not. Likewise, the first time my boyfriend joined us for dim sum, I sensed this was an important milestone in my relatives’ acceptance of him. Erik comes from a family of quiet, frugal, moderate eaters. Meeting the whole of my boisterous family in a pack and being repeatedly encouraged to eat more than he would have liked must have been overwhelming, but he passed this test by demonstrating his usual courtesy and by good-naturedly eating enough to satisfy my family. For my own part, I was reassured that despite how strange my family must have seemed to him, and he to them, in some way, they understood each other. My sister’s boyfriend was recently subjected to similar scrutiny, but perhaps because their relationship is still young, he did not have to endure the entire battery of relatives-just my aunt and grandfather. He, too, made a good showing, which I expected, and which only serves to bolster my belief that this boyfriend is going to be around for a while.

These brunches are the times when I feel closest to our family. As my sisters and I have grown, we have not maintained some of the closeness we felt to our relatives when we were young. Then, a piggyback ride was enough to create a strong bond, but now that we see each other as people, as individuals, it is more difficult; we love each other dearly and the bond is still there, but now there are no piggyback rides, our lives have diverged, and it can be hard to find things to talk about. Our dim sum brunches, with so many conversations going on at once and so much relaxed happiness all around, remove all awkwardness and pressure and leave only the warmth of our tummies and of each other’s company. I take comfort in these gatherings, knowing that even if I see my relatives less often than I would like and share with them less than I would wish of my life, without any effort, we still share this, our delight in good food, loud conversation, and each other. Our dim sum brunches are equal pats family and food. Dim sum is not everything, but I firmly believe that embedded somewhere in this ritual is the very secret to what makes us a family.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]