During the late seventies and early eighties, I was living in China and, afterwards, returned often.
On one return trip, some thirty years later, an older man wearing a white hotel uniform sidled up to me in the Beijing Hotel and asked in English, “Didn’t you live here in 1980?”
How did he know that? With a mix of English and Mandarin, he said that back then he worked in the hotel flower shop. He remembered the red wooden earrings made in Mexico that I wore all the time. And that my lawyer husband spoke good Chinese and that I went back to the States, had a baby there in 1982, and looked fat when I returned to China a year and a half later. He was right on all counts. My own personal spy!
Several of my favorite memories involve food. Sometime during the 1980s, the US ambassador received a shipment of hibiscus bulbs for planting. The Chinese cook mistook them for onions and used them for making turkey stuffing.
Another time we entertained a distinguished group of Harvard Law Professors, including Alan Dershowitz, for which I planned a meal at my favorite Western restaurant (which in retrospect shows how distorted my perspective was that I would plan a Western meal for Western guests at that time in what was then called Peking).
In my best Mandarin, I ordered medium-rare leg of lamb, describing the level of doneness as pink, since I knew no other way to say medium-rare. The chef kept clarifying and finally it was all settled.
So I was puzzled when, for the main course, the chef proudly strutted out with a huge bowl of pink dumplings. Instead of the word for leg, I had mistakenly used the word for foot, which also sounds like the word for dumplings. So for dinner that night we ate pink dumplings; the chef used an American favorite—ketchup—to make sure he fulfilled what he understood to be my request for pink lamb dumplings.
While living in China, I taught English and Western customs to a group of doctors. One lesson involved how to eat with Western utensils, for which I ordered what I figured to be the most challenging meal. That story tells more about life in China during the early post-Mao era than it does about trying to balance peas on a fork.
You can read what I learned during the eating lesson in an excerpt from my new memoir and read much more about those years after the Mao era—when “eating bitterness” was a way of life for Chinese people—in my book:
“Readers of all ages will relate to this deeply personal story, told with comical sensibility by a quirky, startlingly honest mother, daughter, ex-wife, and dog lover, who—à la Nora Ephron—will feel like a dear friend. Confessions of a Worrywart: Husbands, Lovers, Mothers, and Others will stay with you long after you finish reading it.” (adapted from Amazon description and culled from Amazon reviews)
A great Mother’s Day gift and perfect book for worrywarts or anyone who enjoys a “neurotic, hilarious, poignant,” deeply personal story.
What food/kitchen mishaps/stories do you have?
Correction: Via a mutual friend of Alan Dershowitz, I learn that Professor D had been in China in 1979, when I took him shopping and he bought an antique mirrored, wooden box for his girlfriend. He ate Chinese food at every meal. My flawed memory placed him with that group from Harvard. Oops.