I went back to Chengdu, my hometown in southwest China, for my dad's big 69th birthday over the weekend. Since it's big, we basically ate for two days--Saturday lunch and dinner with close family, and Sunday lunch and dinner with extended family.
On Sunday we lunched at a very nice restaurant in a private room, with two tables for 24 people. Then befitting the image of leisured Sichuanese who spent their days away at mahjong tables, we moved to a crowded tea house by a muddy river to play mahjong. We had three tables of mahjong blocks, one table of nuts and fruits, three kids running around, one baby crying for mommy, and non-mahjong-playing adults whispering family gossips, all under the swaying new green leaves of the willow trees dense with dust.
I had not seen some of my distant relatives for a few years. I used to see them at least twice a year--once during Chinese New Year, and once more during summer break. Time then was also spent over dinner dinner tables and mahjong tables, except that we were all poor then and we had more things to talk about.
Now a veil of silence hanged over the mahjong tables. My grand-uncles and -aunts had all retired with puny pensions. My aunt was worried that her daughter might not test into college next year and asked me for any connection in Beijing. Neither the step-son of my grandpa nor his wife uttered a word. Their daughter is graduating soon but has no job in sight; she had joined the communist party to gain more trust from prospective employers. My grandpa asked if I could help.
The most awkward was with my two distant cousins whom I used to be close to. They were only a couple of years older and always behaved like big sisters to me. In the past, they would jump up with huge grins whenever they saw me. "What do you want to eat this time?" "How did do at your final exams?" "How was university life?" "Ready to play mahjong?"
They shot out questions like cheerful firecrackers. And what little mahjong techniques I know, I owe it to them.
Now they appeared subdued at the table. They might have lost their jobs from their work units. Both had kids who have no access to dancing rehearsals, piano classes or french lessons as kids in my circle of friends. Both of their families still dined at my grand-uncle's old apartment. I did not dare ask how they were doing; nor did they about me. Perhaps it was already obvious how differently we had fared in life.
My sister and I dutifully paid for everything. Dinner passed with small talks about kids. I was bored -- how dreadful it was that, in order to maintain the facade of a harmonious family, we had to waste time over small talks and pretend we all enjoy each other's company. There had been past grudges between the families, about who hadn't treated whom well enough and who had been stingy with money, which I only began to know as an adult.
But to a kid, these relatives were always ready with a smile and red envelopes stuffed with cash for firecrackers. Now, it seems all irreversibly gone, burdened with past differences and growing gaps of the present.
We said goodbye to each other in the dark parking lot. My grand-uncle pushed a bagful of sausages and fermented tofu into my mom's hand. "Something I made," he said, "for the kids to take back home."
"Take them. They are very tasty," one of my cousin chimed in. "His students often came to our house to taste his cooking."
I remembered then the wonderful home cooking that my grand-uncle and -aunt used to prepare for Chinese New Year. "I loved the shredded pork with green peppers you used to make," I said.
"No. It's shredded pork with sweet red pepper that you used to love," my grand-aunt corrected me. "Remember we used to make a big bowlful for you each year?"
Yes, I remember. And that tiny dark dinning room of yours which was always filled with laughter and lively discussion of mahjong tricks, relatives' dating gossips, and what we, as kids then, would turn out someday.
"Come visit us in the summer and we will make it for you again," my grand-aunt grinned. "And bring your girlfriend this time."
"Yeah, come. Definitely come." My two cousins added enthusiastically. Finally everyone was beaming with excitement. Finally we appeared to be a big harmonious family for real.
For that shredded pork with sweet red pepper, I'm planning a trip back to Chengdu this summer.