Eldest Brother, Me, Ba ba, Minxi
Not speaking the language, I really didn't understand the significance of dinner but Minxi was obviously very excited. What happened next was fun, funny, and a great cultural experience on life in small town China.
In the kitchen, I found a huge hot pot steaming on the short table, bottles of orange milk, milk tea, and some brown liquor. There were also six men in the room, all three brothers, Ba ba, and two of Minxi's male cousins; one cousin I had never met before, the other was very nice guy named Aray who I'd met on Skype and spent time with in town earlier. The only woman present was Minxi who sat next to me and began excitedly translating for me.
What was happening was, now that Ba ba had accepted me, all the male family members had been invited to dinner to meet me. This was my welcome to the family, old school China style. All the women were dining next door while the men made me one of their own.
It's important to recognize that, in China, food is very communal. "Hot Pot" is just that, a pot that food goes into to be boiled. Everyone felt free to toss food into the hot pot and everyone dipped into it with their chopsticks. Everyone also felt free to put things into each other's bowls. You could see Baba's status because everyone gave him the softest parts of the meal (the chicken liver for example) and also kept his plate and cup full. This also meant that everyone felt free to help me to food, lots and lots of food. It was all delicious, having come almost entirely from the back yard.
We ate, pork, chicken, beef, dumplings, rice, cabbage, carrots, lettuce, cilantro bundles, red bean soup, eggs, and several mystery things that were very yummy but I never managed to ask what they were.
This was a real high light for Minxi as well. In the local culture of Xindu, women don't join the men for such meet-ups. As a young girl she had listened to these meetings taking place in the next room and was very excited to finally be a part of the excitement. She and Aray, who spoke very good English, tag teamed the translation while we sat and ate and laughed.
You could really see the changes in Chinese culture in the last 20 years. Minxi is the only one of Baba's children to go to college yet, this was her first time at "the table." Strange to me as an American but a sign of how fast China is changing.
The brothers, who had been very reserved before, probably waiting for a sign from Baba, opened up, smiling and laughing. I had practiced with chopsticks before leaving the US and scored big points now for being nimble with them. I hadn't met Minxi's third brother before. He had curly hair and a round face, and, so help me God, looked like Jackie Chan. He was very funny. When I invited him to visit me in the US, he replied, in the local language, "I don't think I could go there. I don't speak English. Talking to Americans would be like chickens talking to a duck." Everyone laughed.
It went on for hours, literally. The entire bottle of liquor was consumed. I think we ate about half the barnyard. There were lots of questions back and forth, "How many rooms in your house?" "How many children?" etc. The elder men were proud of the younger men and we talked some about colleges. College was a rarity when Minxi's brother's were young and they were proud that their sons (and daughters) were studying around the country. Aray is studying industrial robotics. His sister is studying in Guilin where Minxi lives.
By the end, everyone seemed to be most entertained by how much I had eaten. It is polite in Chinese society to offer guests food pretty much until they pop. I can still see all three brother's faces lit with laughter as eldest brother, (Minxi called them all by their titles) offered me just one more piece of pork. I don't know what third brother said about it but it was very funny. I ate the piece gamely and Minxi let me know that it was okay to say I was full. I agreed that I had had enough. This brought more gales of laughter. I was stuffed. I was exhausted. I was now one of the boys.
As the dinner broke up, Minxi led me upstairs. I was happy, very very happy, my head was ringing with laughter. Images of smiling faces and food roamed around my mind. My skin felt steamy from the kitchen. My arms were too heavy to lift. Minxi helped me to bed and put a glass of water by my head. We talked for a little while in the cool dark.
"Did I do all right?"
"Yes. My brothers love you very much."
"Yes. My number brother thinks you are very funny."
"He's very funny."
"Yes. He is always joking."
I don't remember her slipping out of the room to her bed next door. I was already gone.