Gu Yi Lin’s One-Month Birthday Party

Gu Yi Lin (Katherine)

On my second day back at the school, I was invited by Karen and Gu Chao to the family celebration marking the one-month birthday of their daughter Gu Yi Lin (also-known-as my Chinese granddaughter Katherine :-)). This was a very large dinner party held at a new restaurant near the new bus station and there must have been over 200 guests. In addition to family members and close friends, many work colleagues joined in the celebration: Karen’s colleagues from the school and Gu Chao’s colleagues from the ChongMing county government offices. At about 5PM, there were many cars in front of the school picking up teachers and administrative staff for the five minute drive to the restaurant. Karen was thoughtful enough to invite Silje too, even though she hadn’t really even met her: she knew that she would be alone at the school if not invited. I rode in Guoming’s car with his wife and daughter and two other teachers.

We were greeted at the door of the restaurant by Gu Chao and Karen’s mother. They warmly welcomed us and asked us to be seated at any of the approximately 20, large, round tables in the very large main dining room. The tables were brightly decorated, making the large room very festive and welcoming. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any photos or videos of the event: I felt a little conspicuous as one of only two foreigners among so many people I hadn’t met. Guoming wanted to sit with some of his work buddies and I wanted to sit with him so we sat at a different table than his wife and daughter. Our table turned out to be mostly men and their table was all ladies with Guoming’s daughter Yao Yun. I knew only a few of the teachers at my table and none of them spoke much English so Guoming was stuck translating for me most of the evening. Although my ability to understand Chinese was much improved compared to the start of my trip, I still have trouble understanding when it’s spoken at normal speed. Also, outside the classroom, most people speak the Shanghai-ese dialect which I cannot understand at all. Our gracious hosts had made sure there was plenty of “jiu” (alcohol) at every table in the form of “pi jiu” (beer), “bai jiu” (Chinese white wine that tastes more like vodka than wine) and “putao jiu” (red grape wine.) Offering toasts to one’s friends and colleagues is an important part of Chinese food culture and the people at our table began clinking their glasses as soon as we were seated.

Typical banquet layout

The food was plentiful and delicious. Chinese banquet meals always start with cold dishes and these include various meats, tofus, and vegetables. Dishes are brought out one at a time at intervals and everyone helps themselves from the large lazy susan in the middle of the table. Individual chopsticks are used both for retrieving the food from its serving dish and for eating it. (The only exception to this that I can remember are crayfish, which are eaten by hand wearing plastic gloves and soup which is eaten using porcelain spoons.) Everyone has a small food plate in front of them where your food can be placed temporarily before eating. These plates are small and etiquette dictates that you use them only to hold a bite or two: filling your plate with food as we do in the west would be considered quite rude. After several cold dishes have been presented, the hot dishes begin arriving. Hot dishes are also made from a variety of meats, tofus and vegetables: on ChangXing Island seafood is very popular but pork and chicken are also common. My impression is pork is the most popular meat in China while beef is not so common, except in the Muslim-owned “stretchy noodle” restaurants which can be found everywhere. I almost alway enjoy the food in China but this meal was especially delicious. There were at least seven or eight hot dishes served. As new dishes were added to the center of the table, the waitresses demonstrated their skill in stacking dishes in a way that left every dish accessible.

People at home always ask me if the food in China is different from the Chinese food we get here. I haven’t been to all the different areas of China and I know there are vast differences between them: for example the food in Sichuan tends to be spicy-hot while that in Shanghai is a bit sweet. Overall, my impression is that food from a good American-Chinese restaurant is similar to the food in China. However, on average, in my opinion, the food in China is more delicious than in America. My guess is that part of the reason for this is that so many dishes are made from locally grown vegetables and livestock. Although more flavorful, it tends to be less salty (and less sweet) than American food. For example, I always thought the pizza served by their Pizza Hut franchises was a bit bland until I added salt. And I often found myself desiring a salty treat (e.g. potato chips!) in the evenings. A major difference between Chinese and western food is that bones and shells are not removed from the food served in China. Indeed, meat is often cut in such a way that almost every piece has some bone. Chinese people are skilled at extracting the meat from the bone: either using chopsticks or by discreetly spitting out inedible bites. Although I can use chopsticks fairly well to pick up food, removing meat from bones or shells is beyond my skill level. Shrimp and crabs are very popular in the Shanghai area and are always served in their shells. My attempts to de-shell a shrimp in my mouth invariably led to a shrimp shell puree that could either be swallowed or spit it out on my plate: neither a very desirable option. During my three months in China I actually lost a few pounds even though I ate as much as I wanted and did no formal daily exercise like I do at home. I think the weight loss was due to all the walking and stair-climbing combined with the Chinese diet. Spending so much time in China made me acutely aware of the American epidemic of obesity and led me to ponder the reason(s) we are so much fatter than people in China. It seems to me that, in addition to the problem of large portions, we eat much more sugar and salt that they do.  We also eat too many dairy products in the form of cheese and milk. It is rare to get cheese in China but hard to avoid it in fast-food restaurants here. Ice cream is becoming more popular in China, especially among children (perhaps contributing to the growing number of overweight Chinese children) and I must admit I enjoyed many ice cream bars purchased at local convenience stores: a taste of home!

As the party went on, we did our best to eat all of the delicious food: an impossible task because there is always too much food – another Chinese cultural standard. Everyone was having a great time, especially all the men who were enjoying the “jiu”. As the alcohol flowed, toasts to friends and colleagues gradually got louder and more impassioned. Once again, as an alcoholic, I felt a little uncomfortable being around so much drinking but the people at my table were kind and never pushed me to join in. Indeed, a couple of them seemed similarly inclined to avoid alcohol. Although I was never really tempted to break my 27-year old vow of sobriety (as I had done one time in Sichuan province), I did feel a little envious of those who were having such a good time. I remembered how alcohol had always helped me have a wonderful time at parties: it relaxed me and lowered my inhibitions, enabling me to say things to friends that I couldn’t say sober – mostly positive, loving things – for whatever reason, I was never a “mean drunk” :-). Of course, the problem was that I could not stop drinking and there were many times when I could not remember what I had said or done the next morning, never a very satisfying feeling.

At these parties, it is standard practice for the leaders to work their way around the room proposing toasts to the people at each table. Leaders from the school (the principal and vice principals) and leaders from the local government (Gu Chao’s superiors) all took their turns coming to our table, bearing bottles of wine (or beer) to ensure that everyone’s glass was topped-up to join in the toast. In this scenario, even the men at my table who had previously avoided alcohol joined in: the social pressure to drink alcohol, apparently as a way to show respect to one’s superiors, seems especially strong in this situation.   Some of the leaders were clearly disappointed that I returned their toast with a glass of coconut milk.  But, since I was an outsider, they were probably more willing to overlook this social blunder. Interestingly, it is only the men who are pressured to drink in this way – it seems OK for a woman to use a non-alcoholic beverage for toasting. There were times when I wished I could sit at a “women’s table” where much less alcohol was being consumed. But, of course, I liked being with my dear friend Guoming and I know he did his best to explain to people that I meant no offense by not drinking alcohol.

The highlight of the party was when the hosts came around to each table to thank us for coming. Gu Chao offered a very warm handshake and made a valiant attempt at expressing his appreciation to me in English. Later, Karen brought the guest of honor – little Gu Yi Lin – around to each table but, unfortunately, I was in the rest room and missed this opportunity.

Karen, Yi-Lin and Family Members

I found it very interesting that Karen and Gu Chao’s families all dined together in a back room, separated from the guests in the large banquet room, but partly visible through an open door. Karen explained to me that this is primarily for the health of the baby – to shield her from all the noise and smoke of the party. The only photo I have from the event was taken in this back room and provided by Karen. In the photo, Karen is sitting in the middle – on her left is her mother-in-law who is holding Yi Lin. Other people in the photo are one of Karen’s former college professors and Gu Chao’s sister and brother-in-law.

As the party wound down and guests started leaving, the hosts’ family members passed out bags of “red eggs” to everyone. These eggs symbolize the family’s wish for happiness and good fortune for all. They are hard-boiled eggs and, over the next week or so, I enjoyed one each morning in my dorm room. Guoming’s wife Zhou Hai Qin drove us home as Guoming was in no condition to do so. He had a great time at the party and reminded me of myself some 30 years earlier :-). It was a wonderful time and I was so happy that I happened to be onhand for the party marking this auspicious occasion.

If you want to learn more about Chinese child birth customs I found a couple of interesting articles online (article 1) (article 2.)  But, when you read them, please be aware that not all of these customs/traditions are practiced by all Chinese people. Customs vary regionally and changing customs are another way China is rapidly changing. I can tell you that the practice of the mother “sitting the baby’s first month” is something that Karen’s family follows.  I can also tell you that they did receive some “red envelopes” (containing money) from guests at the party but that she returned most of them.  Happily, the panda hand-puppet I brought from Chengdu, Sichuan seemed to be liked by Karen and the family.

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