My first, most vivid experience with a culture that was different from my own was at the house of my friend Lily Su.
Lily was Chinese, although she never actually lived in China. Her parents were from mainland China, but they left at the start of the Cultural Revolution and met each other on Taiwan. Lily grew up on Okinawa, where her father worked for the US military. At the start of her seventh grade year, the family moved to West Seattle. I’m not sure why, but I think it was probably related to the Reversion of Okinawa back to Japan.
Lily was one of the most friendly, welcoming, intelligent, and gregarious people ever knew. After she got married, years later, she’d often have people over for dinner. I remember sitting at their dining room table watching her cook, or being in the kitchen helping her. She was a good cook, and she made the work of preparing a meal for 10 or 12 people look easy. Unlike me when I had people over for dinner, Lily never worried about whether everything was ready at the exact same time or how the table would get set or how to keep the kitchen clean. She just did it, and she could talk with her friends and make everyone feel at home at the same time. Her Fourth of July parties were a lot of fun, not just because of her generosity but because she had – for Seattle – a remarkably diverse group of friends.
Not long after Lily and I met, in seventh grade history class, we got to be friends, and we started going over to each others’ houses.
The most memorable times I spent at Lily’s parents’ house were when I went over to celebrate Chinese New Year.
The first thing you’d notice when you stepped into Lily’s parents’ house would be this strange smells. Soy sauce, for one, and hot oil; probably ginger, rice wine, garlic, peppers, vinegar, and star anise. I’d say it smelled like Chinese restaurant, but it didn’t. A Chinese restaurant had as much resemblance to their house as a pizza place has to a house in Italy.
At Chinese New Year, they had incense burning. At least, I think they must have. After so many years, I’m filling in my memory from what I’ve found out about New Year’s celebration in China by searching online.
The next thing you’d notice would be a lot of red. The color red is a color of good fortune and celebration in China. Lily’s parents would have red banners hanging on the walls, written on in gold. Of course, I couldn’t read the banners; to me they looked like beautiful, foreign designs. But they would’ve said things like “Greet the New Year and encounter happiness,” “May your wealth come to fill a hall.”
Lily’s parents were really different from my parents. Mr. and Mrs. Su were small and slender. My mom was equally short, but my dad was 6 foot tall and heavy by then because he was running two businesses. Mr. Su worked at a bank in Chinatown (or the International District as we call it now), and Mrs. Su, like my mom, kept house and raised the kids.
Mr. and Mrs. Su didn’t speak English very well, but they were always welcoming and friendly.
Another thing you’d notice on New Year’s was that besides their dining table in the dining room area, their small living room would be filled with card tables with chairs all around them. They always had so many people over, they needed a lot of places for people to sit.
The first people to eat New Year’s dinner were the ancestors. The food would be put on the table and the ancestors would be invited to eat. All of us would sit in the chairs and sofa that were pushed to the edges of the living room. One time, though, I forgot and pulled out a chair from one of the tables so I could talk with Bobby, Lily’s oldest brother. He politely reminded me that they didn’t sit in the chairs just yet. I thought I might have to apologize in some formal way, but he just smiled and said no.
At some point in the evening, I remember Bobby, Lily’s older brother Bay, and Lily’s doing a particular ritual: I remember it as they bowed in that way that’s called kowtowing, then stood and clapped their hands, and repeated that three times. Bay grumbled once about “these rituals,” but then he was a teenager.
After the ancestors had eaten, Lily and her mom would take all of the food back to the kitchen, and reheat it. Then we’d get to eat.
If you’d grown up eating the kinds of foods that I grew up eating, you’d notice how different the food was that Lily’s mom served. My friends and I grew up eating lasagna, buttered toast, roast beef, macaroni and cheese, iceberg lettuce, and frozen vegetables that came out of the package in a solid rectangular chunk.
At Lily’s house on Chinese New Year, there’d be platters of thinly sliced meat: beef, chicken, pork; quails’ eggs and 1000-year-old eggs (which Bay said were steeped in tea for only three years); vegetables of several kinds… what else? I remember Lily talking about how hard she and her mother would work during the weeks up to New Year’s, including making many small meatballs of ground, spiced pork. There might’ve been soup, dumplings, wontons, shrimp. I know there was rice, scooped out of a rice cooker – no one else I knew had a rice cooker.
Each table would be set with bowls, chopsticks, the platters of food, and a wok filled with bubbling broth. At dinner in my and my white, American friends’ houses, someone would serve you from a casserole dish or large bowl. But at Lily’s house, you’d take your chopsticks, pick up what you wanted from the platters, and set it in the bubbling broth. Then you’d pluck it out, after several moments if it was already cooked, or a few minutes if it was raw, or a few seconds if it was a quick-cooking food like spinach.
There were little bowls of spicy and hot sauces you could dip your food into. Lily liked to crack a raw egg into a bowl, stir it up with her chopsticks, and dip her food in that.
Sometimes, your chopsticks would fasten on something that someone else had put in, but that was all right. Once, I pulled out something whose identity I didn’t question so I wouldn’t have to acknowledge that the small square of meat with the strange texture and odd layers was probably tripe.
We’d end the meal with Chinese candies, maybe sweet glutinous rice cake, almost certainly tangerines.
I remember I really liked the food, and how much fun we all had. The only thing my family did that was close to cooking our own food at the table, was the few times we had fondue. That was popular when I was growing up. There are pho restaurants as I write this, and they’ll probably go the way of the fondue restaurant someday.
At the end of the evening, we’d go out to the front yard, and Mr. Su and Lily’s brothers would set off firecrackers. The firecrackers were supposed to scare off evil spirits.
I wonder what everyone else on the street thought. Probably they didn’t like it. When Lily and her family first moved to West Seattle, they had to get an unlisted phone number, because they got so many nasty calls from people who didn’t want a Chinese family in the block. It wasn’t until I started writing this memoir that I wondered how on earth Lily’s parents were able to buy a house in West Seattle, and who would’ve given them a mortgage. At some point I figured that the mortgage probably came from the bank where Mr. Su worked. But the house? I wonder if the realtor who sold the house to them ever got any more sales in West Seattle.
I wish I could ask Lily all of these things. But the firecrackers didn’t keep the evil spirits away forever: Lily died in a scuba diving accident in August, 2004. If Lily’s husband and children still celebrate Chinese New Year, Lily comes to the table not with the living, but with the ancestors. I wonder, if I celebrated with them, could I eat the food that she ate first? Could I sit in the seat she’d sat in; if I did, could I feel her hugging me? I wonder if I could tell her that I love her, that I’ll always regret that I didn’t love her enough when she was alive.
My local drugstore has started carrying cards for Chinese New Year. Gong Xi Fa Chai, Lily! I wish I could give you one of those cards for New Year’s.