Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Blessing (and Curse) of Chinese Hospitality

2 summers ago, when we spent a month in China working with a house church, the leaders showered us with hospitality.  They took us to the famous pearl market, treated us to lavish Chinese banquets, took us to see pandas at the zoo, and our last night, hosted us in their home for yet another sumptuous Chinese meal.

As the house church pastor said, "In China, we show hospitality by taking our friends to the very best Chinese restaurants.  In America, you show hospitality by having people into your homes, that's why we're having you to our house."

Some of the dishes his family served

So when I learned this pastor was coming to Boston, I immediately offered to host.  But I felt stymied.  As a Chinese-American, do I show hospitality by taking him and assorted Chinese students and scholars to a great restaurant or by cooking for them?

I floated the question with the crowd, and a student said they'd love to come to my house.  That was a relief because hosting 10 adults at a really nice restaurant involves a bundle of cash we don't  have.

But then, what do I cook?

Although (IMHO) I'm a good cook, I'm mediocre when it comes to Chinese food.  Growing up, my mother cooked all the Chinese food and I cooked all the Western food, so I never developed dexterity with my native cuisine or its cooking methods.  Non-Chinese who eat my Chinese dishes are usually satisfied.  True Chinese (or Chinese-Americans) immediately know I'm an imposter.

Also complicating Western menu options, most Chinese don't eat cheese or dairy products.

On top of it all, I spent last weekend leading a gigantic graduate student fall retreat, then flew to meetings in Chicago.  There wasn't time to shop or cook ahead of time.  AND Scott was spending the weekend at the monastery on silent retreat so I was flying solo with the kids.

On Thursday, as I sat with colleagues at a bar in O'Hare because half of our flights were delayed,  I shared my dilemma.

"My wife makes this really great slow-cooker chicken using cream of mushroom soup," said my wonderful colleague from Nashville.

Now I love cream of mushroom soup recipes as much as anyone (as evidenced by my pork chop recipe previously posted--ironically, that blog post was also on the challenges of feeding and honoring our youth pastor), but I looked at him and said, "I can't do that."

"It's really good!" he suggested helpfully.

"Yeah. . .  I can't do that."

The meal a Chinese family served us.  This includes a
chicken soup that took all day to make, Yunnan
ham (a delicacy), and a rare mushroom.  I think
we counted 17 different dishes they cooked!

When I got back, another friend suggested I do take out.  Once again, "I can't do that."

I decided to make Thanksgiving dinner using the extra turkey I bought last Thanksgiving that's been sleeping in our deep freeze.  No cheese, a festive meal, perfect!

But I wondered what was going on within me at 8:15 a.m. Saturday morning as I grocery shopped only to find there were no turkey thighs (We Chinese like dark meat better than white).  My skinny 16 lb. bird just wasn't going to cut it.  I asked the butcher to call around to all the nearby stores.  Store after store, he came out shaking his head until finally, he found 3 packages 10 miles away.

I wondered at my craziness again as I drove to the other store only to have the butcher say, "We don't have any turkey thighs."

Sheer horror.

Then a laugh, "Just joking!"

Here's what I came up with:
  1. The Chinese language of love, hospitality and abundance is food.
  2. I'm Chinese.  That means I need to show lavish hospitality to honor my guests well
  3. The way I do that is feeding guests with gusto
  4. Yet if I was entertaining any old American group, I would have made my mother's beef curry with lots of condiments, served it over rice and called it a night.
  5. Did I say the Chinese language of love, hospitality and abundance is food?
Thank God Kai-Kai has inherited my obsession with cooking and has culinary skills.  When I woke her at 10 a.m., turkey thighs in hand, she jumped right out of bed and helped me for 3 straight hours.

I still descended into screaming mania for a few minutes the hour before guests arrived because house was dirty.  But overall, it ended deliciously.  Our guests felt well welcomed and fed, and the only mishaps were a broken wine glass (strange since almost no one drank alcohol--but being married to a Scot means I've been socialized also into believing that good hospitality always involves wine), and forgetting to serve Kai's cranberry sauce.

We cleaned up the glass, served the cranberries with dessert and enjoyed warm fellowship and conversation (much of it in Mandarin) throughout the evening.  The food wasn't the center of attention, but it served its role:  it spoke welcome--telling our guests they were important; it served as social lubricant; it strengthened our bodies and tasted good all at the same time.

Definitely worth the search for turkey thighs.  

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