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Monday, January 23, 2012

The First Barb of the Year

  
This originally appeared as a note entry in Italki.



Again the entry is too long to fit into the notebook box. So the main text appears in the correction box. This is my 101th one notebook entry on this happy occasion. A good sign as the extra one in Chinese means that I am able to be rise above the crowd and be rich, be famous etc. The literal meaning of出頭 is “jutting head”. The faces had been altered to protect the innocent :)
Today is the Lunar New Year. It is rainy, cold and dank outside. However, to the Cantonese it is of a good omen. Water is synonymous with wealth. You see, Canton is on the coast of China and to the Cantonese, water is life. Chinese from the interior regions do not regard water as much as coastal Chinese and Cantonese are a superstitious lot unlike the rest of the Chinese.

Last night was the eve of the Lunar New Year. It was time for the Reunion Dinner. To us, this dinner can be more important than the New Year itself. This is almost like the American Thanksgiving Dinner. It is a time of bonding with family members. It is a time of re-acquaintance. For dysfunctional families, a time of old wounds breaking out for bystanders to enjoy a good Chinese opera. However, this happens only in movies. No one would dare to mar the auspiciousness of the occasion! It is a time for renewal and a time of joy. No one dares to wrought the anger of the gods upon themselves and have bad luck for the entire year!

It is also a time to discard all things old. It is the time to don on things brand new, clothing, including underwear, socks and new pajamas to bed. It is also a time when kids can run amuck with no curfew. They are allowed to stay up to greet the New Year, eat whatever there is to be eaten and play around with firecrackers. As a child growing up, it was a long sought magical time when their childhood times seemed to be at a stand still. A day, an eternity to the kid. It was a time I could play with my rarely seen cousins (because of school and we do not attend the same school); setting off firecrackers; eating candies, sweet meats and drinking sodas (a rare commodity in those days for us) and finally to the temple at midnight for getting good luck (no blessing from priests. Chinese are a very practical people). The women of the family would also prepare their traditional garb for the next morning’s tea ceremony presented to the patriarchs and matriarchs of one’s family.

This all important cup of tea presented by the daughter-in-law and son is the main thing in the ritual besides the birthdays of the paternal grandparents. In a big family like ours, the first son and wife will start the ritual with the youngest son and wife ending it. Almost like watching a Chinese opera close up. This is because part of the house will become a changing room with the ladies donning their costumes. After the tea ceremony, the women changed back into their normal clothing and the costumes packed up in mothballs and covered in plastic bags until next year. Then an efficient round of red packets of money is exchanged by the women for good luck to their respective families. Of course this is another source of endless gossips among different factions of the family. The men, like useless drones are carefree with the wives running the show are by now in the backroom playing poker! Soon the women are enjoined in mahjong sessions. Of course the kids are let loose to do whatever they can get away with by the doting grandmothers (We have two paternal grandmothers living under the same roof). Finally when the gathering comes to an end, each family was on their way to do their various activities. For my family, we had to go to two different places to pay our respect to my mother’s side of the family. Thank goodness, to a kid, there were not as many members. One is to the so called adopted grandmother who adopted my mother’s blood sister and so my mother treated the lady as her “mother” too. It was quite convenient as she lived on the same street as my grandfather. Next we travelled to my maternal grandfather and his second wife (my blood grandmother lives with us). We do not mix often with the maternal side of the family since my grandfather was an ultra conservative and traditional overseas Chinese. Daughters married out are not considered as part of the family. They should belong to the husband’s side. So it was an unspoken rule that the filial daughter-in-law should not be mixing with people not considered being in the direct branches of the family. She must be proper in all her ways. My mother being the obedient one as she was; always followed the rule rigidly. My mother would never go into a hotel by herself even to visit relatives from her side (She has no friends until my grandfather died and claimed that no one is longer interested in an old duck!). She would bring the son or a daughter along to avoid gossip. I never saw other aunts doing the same thing. Either my mother was so obedient or she was the smartest woman alive in the family.

Then the firecrackers ban came. Most Asian cities now banned them because of accidental fires. So the eves of Chinese New Year had become a drab for me. It had turned into just like other ordinary day. The feel and atmosphere were just not the same even though there was enough hustle and bustle going on. No longer were the streets flooded with shreds of exploded red paper of the firecrackers. The magic had gone. Even worse, now in the US, the Chinese New Year Day is just another working day. This year, the Eve fell on a Sunday. Therefore my friends and I can congregate at my place for an afternoon of delight - mahjong before eating out at a nearby restaurant for the Reunion Dinner. Instead of family members, it is my close by friends that we are able to come together for simple enjoyment. We had two tables going on at the same time. We are not gamblers. No money is exchanged. Just our prestige. The reason is simple. Winning too much from a friend is never good. It just creates animosity. Winning meagerly is not satisfying either. So instead, we bet on the prestige of our skills; gossiping and ribbing at each other at the same time. When the time came for the Dinner, the ten of us carpooled and drove in three cars to one of my favourite restaurants that we had patronized regularly over the years. I dare say that if without us being there on weekdays, they would have gone out of business by now!

We had decided to eat near my place because there are not many Chinese or Vietnamese living in my area. In places like San Gabriel, Monterey Park, Alhambra, Rowland Heights, etc, it would be quite difficult to find a place to eat on this day at this time. Even so, Asian restaurants take the advantage on this occasion to raise their prices by ten to thirty percent! Anyway, arriving at the restaurant, it was not a surprise to find the main dinning hall filled up. We waited at the foyer to be seated. Then a regular waiter came up to me and asked,

“Do you have reservation?”

I didn’t think he had cheekily asked in jest. His tone did not suggest that. I was sure he had been worn out by the eating crowds. Still he should not have spoke out in such a way to a regular paying customer. I always pride myself for being quick witted and blessed with a barbed tongue. I quickly retorted,

“Do I need a reservation?”

My reply was laced with menace and venom. The owner must have overhead the conversation and quickly interjected. He told us that our table would be ready soon. Please be patient he said. Of course, I replied with courtesy and told him to take his time. I am sure that he does not want to lose ten people’s worth of business. Being savvy in business and diplomacy, he immediately opened up the VIP section for us to have a private table. We had a great time and the food was great. I wish that I know how to upload the photos of the eight symbolic dishes we ordered. There were two kinds of fish, three kinds of mushrooms, beef, chicken and tofu. I was very sure the owner was a very happy man with dollar signs in his eyes!

Equally impressed were my friends for getting a table so quickly. If the waiter had said nothing or just ask for our patience, I would have kept my mouth shut and waited patiently. It is not that there are empty tables on sight. It would be very unreasonable of me to demand my way or turn my back and head off to another nearby restaurant, of which there are a few. I always believe that I must treat others with dignity, kindness and with smiles. However if you do not reciprocate, then you will know what a stinker I can be.

This is a lesson especially to all my mousey friends on Italki. You know who you are. You need to be outspoken when the situation calls for. Be polite and humble until you are trodden on. Always remember that the customer is right. Anyway, I felt good that my wits are as sharp. I learnt from the best. This quote is from Dorothy Parker (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorothy_Parker),

"The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue."

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