Those Who Do Not Speak at Dinner
JinJin Xu ‘17
Laozi, the Zhou dynasty Tao philosopher once wrote, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak, do not know.”
And more than twenty-five hundred years later, my father looked around at a gathering of his friends laughing and smoking amidst the clattering of chopsticks and slurping of soup, pulled me aside to tell me that I should not become like these adults talking over one another at the dinner table. “Listen more than you speak,” he said, and I realized that was the first time he had spoken at the dinner party.
The typical Chinese dinner table is round. Depending on its size, it can fit up to fifteen people, and everyone sits facing each other. It seats a large household, which traditionally spans a few generations. These days, however, due to the one child policy and the bustle and demand of modern life, a small round table is usually sufficient. A glass turntable is placed in the middle, various dishes sit just within the periphery, and one spins the glass wheel to reach the desired dish. At times, more than one person will attempt to spin the glass in opposite directions, and eye contact is established—I tilt my head to say “you first,” and with a few polite nods back and forth, I spin the plate of eggplants in front of my “opponent” and wait until he takes his fill to turn the wheel back towards me. Chopsticks clatter against other chopsticks that are also reaching for the same dish, and there is something comforting about this act of sharing, to know that we, at this moment, desire the same thing, and will a few moments later taste it together. With a soft push of the glass wheel, the dishes spin away into the awaiting chopsticks of others, and inevitably come back around to me less full than before.
I find it to be quite a game to navigate the glass wheel so that my favorite dishes land as close to me (and as inconspicuously) as possible without having to turn the glass wheel myself. It takes concentration to simultaneously eat, converse, and keep track of all of the chopsticks that will dip once, twice, into the dishes, in addition to predicting the hands that linger in wait for their chance to spin. The key, I’ve learned, is a mathematical game of psychological reasoning. I make a mental map of each person’s preferred dish, and the amount of autonomy they take in spinning the glass, cross referencing it with how aware they are of the preferences of others around them. All of this, of course, is calculated based on my observations of their eye contact (with people and with the food) and hand gestures (some impatiently tapping, others calmly holding their bowls). I observe quietly from my seat at the table, never making direct eye contact with the many faces seated and oriented toward each other.
This map-making technique is created in the space between my subconscious awareness of people, and the conscious interpretation of their characters. It is perhaps too much of a generalization to say that someone’s tendency of turning his preferred dish towards himself without glancing at others is indicative of a characteristic like “selfishness”—he could just be hungry, or is less capable of observing others—but it does allow me to observe their actions very closely. On the other hand, I have to confess that my efforts not only allow me to know when, and how frequently, to insert my hands into the chaos of jabbing chopsticks and hungry glances, but it more importantly contributes to the careful creation of my own image. My constant self-consciousness is, I think, the one Chinese instinct I cannot get rid of. I watch others to figure out how others might see me, and how I fit into the equation of the fifteen pairs of hands reaching for the fifteen dishes on the table. My turning of the glass is always timed so that sufficient time has passed since I last turned, and others wouldn’t think I am greedy but in possession of a tolerant appetite and demeanor. As per Chinese tradition, while one is never supposed to say, or express, exactly what one is thinking, it is also necessary to appear humble and selfless at all times.
The competition for the “fish eyeball” illustrates our desire to appear selfless. While there is a most desired “piece” in every dish, whether it’s the most tender, or the biggest, or the part that’s most steeped in sauce, the critique of its desirability is still considerably subjective. I have never, however, come across a Chinese person who does not view the fish eyeball as the greatest delicacy of any fish dish. In a dish, there is usually one, and if you are lucky, two. The fish comes in whole, swimming in sauce. With a few turns of the table, the meat of the fish is picked cleanly off its bones by competing chopsticks. The meat on the reverse side of the fish is scraped off, through the bones, because flipping the fish over is considered ominous—an omen of shipwreck. Once only the head, bones, and tail, lie in its soupy remains, it suddenly gets quiet, and all of our eyes are trained on the upward facing eye of the fish. Everyone wants it for himself or their loved one, so of course, they dedicate it someone else. “JinJin should have it since she just got into college, and needs the nutrition for her brain,” my aunt would say, all the while hoping that someone else would recommend the eyeball to her own daughter.
I never realized how strange this “fish eyeball” ritual might appear to Westerners until my very white teacher at my elementary school told an elaborate tale of her dining experience in Shanghai. Mrs. Gates had stepped out of her gated compound to try out a “local” restaurant. She was shocked to find herself in a loud environment where she could barely hear herself. I imagined her sitting at her table, attempting to have a conversation with her husband in hushed whispers, raising her voice louder and louder in order to be heard. “And then,” she said, “the locals in the next table seemed to fight over something. I looked over, and found them passing around a fish eyeball, and all of them wanted to eat it! Imagine that!” She sighed with exaggeration, prompting laughter and a chorus of echoing “Ewwws” from my Americanized classmates.
So I learned that fish eyeballs are in fact, not a delicacy, but something consumed by the likes of savages. From a distance, I saw the people at my dinner table more clearly. My overly loving mother, who always sat to my right, would be the first to claim an eyeball for someone else (so in fact, for me), and to my left, my father sat and smiled. My father never said much, not to my mother and not to anyone else. When he did open his mouth, it was to laugh. His laughter would shake his whole body back and forth, his hand slapped his knee as if to steady himself. Often, his laugh echoed long after everyone had stopped laughing. At the dinner table, he never spoke, but always made eye contact with the speaker and listened.
My mother and I made fun of his silence. How un-manly, we snickered, how passive. Was he even here? My mother worried that his silence—that stayed even when his daughter’s fish eyeball was at risk—would not entertain others, and talked even more to make up for it. The more she badgered my father about his lack of assertion as the “man of the house” at dinner, the quieter he got. Many times, they argued, but only my mother’s shrill voice was audible. My mother would beg him to “respond, say something, anything, to resolve this issue!” And eventually, my father would crack in frustration, “I don’t agree with you, what more can I say?” It was not worthwhile to him to engage in conversations he found pointless. At a dinner table where happiness is expressed loudly, one’s ability to garner the other’s laughter is an expression of wit. Dominance of a conversation a sign of masculine control, and my father had no place at this table.
“Have you eaten yet?” The widow living down the street called out to me when we met on the sidewalk. Her Labrador pulled on the leash impatiently. This was her routine greeting whenever we overlapped on our post-dinner strolls.
“Yes, have you?” I replied.
“Good, good, me too.” Satisfied with my reply, she walked on.
Having a full stomach in China is similar to having a good day in America. Instead of greetings of “How are you?” we talk in terms of meals. A day is measured out by the meals already had, and the meals soon to-be-had. I have never seen my grandfather as happy as when I complained of feeling overstuffed. Of course, the most important part of the day is the meal itself. A whole family gathers for the meal, and there is always conversation. The male and the elderly get to speak, and the opportunity to speak goes downwards in terms of age even though all gets equal reach of the food at the round table. Today, extended families no longer live together, and the elderly live alone. The dining table is still round, but small enough so that the turntable is unnecessary. With only a single child in the household, dinners are quiet, and the child commands the center of attention. “The new, American way,” some say.
Once, we decided to dine at a fancy restaurant in Washington DC for my father’s birthday while on vacation there. The square table resulted in me sitting facing my father. My mother sat to my right, facing an empty chair. We had to angle ourselves in order to have a conversation, as we could not all see each other at once. The restaurant was dim; soft piano music played in the background. Amidst the hushed whispers, I had the duty as the bilingual only child to translate the menu by candlelight.
When the waiter came around, I asked if we could share a couple of appetizers and entrees between the three of us. He looked confused, so I dropped the proposal. We sat in silence during the wait for food, because everyone else in the restaurant was waiting in dark silence. We could barely make out the contours of the people in the nearby tables, so no scoffing was possible at the Western equivalent of fish eyeballs. Soon, we each had a plate in front of us: three different colors and shapes. It seemed strange to have food and not share it with others. How does conversation flow when we do not taste the same dish?
“My steak is good,” my father said, and we sensed that we had all gotten sick of the monotony of our single dish. We had the idea to rotate our plates, one to the right, a makeshift turntable. The waiters glanced at us at we made the switch, raising our large white plates high in order to not tip over the variety of glasses and shakers and candles lain out in front of us. My mother was worried that our forks and knives clinked too loudly against our plates, and that we chewed too loudly. Every so often she would look up in the middle of the meal to hush us. And perhaps because my father felt giddy on his birthday, or perhaps he felt more comfortable talking when everyone else was silent, he made jokes, breaking his usual silence. He threw his head back in laughter at the end of each one. Instinctively, my mother looked around, and hushed him. “Be quiet!” She whispered loudly, “We are in a civilized place.”
My mother’s distinction of civilization made me think of Mrs. Gates, who first planted the idea of a “savage-like” way of eating into my head. The communal act of eating should be loud and messy, and should spark discussions, even if my father felt that the overlapping voices meant no one was really listening to one another. So much is revealed through the ways people go after their food, especially food that is meant to be shared. Yet, this was all shrouded in secrecy at the DC restaurant.
I guess communal meals are in some ways reminiscent of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We bring our meals together to share, and the chopsticks, extensions of our fingers, collide with one another as we go for the same plate. We make remarks about the food through sounds, slurping and smacking our lips in satisfaction. We become possessive about feeding ourselves, and our loved ones, the best parts of the food, bantering about fish eyeballs. But that is the way my family expresses love. Instead of touching hands or cheeks, our chopsticks touch as we scrape the fish meat off of its bones. We spin the glass turntable, around and around, each of us realizing our power to provide, and deprive, our families and friends of food. There is drama in our sneaked glances at others, but they are transparent, glassy like the table top, captured within the circular space of our gathering. In contrast, the darkness of the DC restaurant cloaked those around us, and impeded our wandering gaze. With our own food in front of us, we are possessive of something that already belongs to us, even though the most tender piece on the dish is safe to stay.
Fifteen of my extended family members once went to a French restaurant in Shanghai, and upon being seated at a long rectangular table, we looked at the others sitting across the way, craned our necks left and right to look at the ones sitting further down the line, and did not know whom to talk to, or who to rely on for conversation. It’s much easier to keep silent, and listen, at a round table. Someone will pick up the conversation.
I always have the urge to laugh when my American friends zealously customize a dish at a restaurant until it no longer resembled the dish on the menu. “Can you make it without mayonnaise and tomatoes, and replace the bread with salad, and add corn instead of peas?” They would ask. The waiter smiles pleasantly, accommodates, and even asks about specific allergies—he does not look at them confused. Perhaps this customization is symbolic of the self-sufficient Western individual who is in touch with one’s own needs, or perhaps it shows creativity, an attitude to express one’s self. Whatever it means, it shines light onto the lack of independence of a shared communal meal. There is no choice once you sit down to dine at a round table—the food has been made one way, and together, we eat from the same dish. Yet, regardless of choice, we trust the food to be good, and tailored to all of our tastes. We know that others at the table will turn the food towards us, and that even if the desired dish failed to land in front of us this time, it will soon come back around. Together, we dissect the fish in front of us, piece by piece, instead of someone single handedly slicing it up. This trust, for the cuisine and for one another, is rooted within us from our five hundred years of shared culture. “Five hundred years ago, we were family,” one says in response to chance encounters, shared names, and hostile rivalries.
Despite the inevitable loudness of round tables, we create a shared space with our dancing fingers on the edge of glass tabletops. For those moments, when we place our hands onto the glass and then intuitively glance at others from around the table, we understand each other’s desires without words. When two pairs of chopsticks collide in the same dish, we don’t quarrel over the biggest piece of meat, but push it to the other person. The fight over fish eyeballs, too, is really just a competition to liven up the spirits of the table, a collective mockery of this space safe away from the ruthless man-eating society.
“The dish will walk by you, spin past you, don’t wait for it to come back around!” My father chanted. I was wrong about my father’s silence. While he never spoke during meals, he always repeated this silly rhyme at the beginning of them. Then, he would gently take ahold of the tabletop between his fingers, and turn it slowly, inch by inch, so that for the first revolution, each dish stopped in front of each person. It wasn’t until I started writing this essay that I realized the role of my father at the table. I had always just believed in the power of our collective spinning, but never considered the other forces at play to further democratize this round table. His silence had always been to me a sign of his refusal to participate in meaningless chatter, a lonely removal from this circular society. I thought his jokes at the DC restaurant meant he was more comfortable when everyone, like him, dwelled in silence. Yet, all along, his invisible hand had been controlling the table, making sure the meals started out on even grounds—while I was congratulating myself on taking advantage of others’ missteps in timing to get access to my favorite dishes.
My father, who did not speak at dinner, was really more involved in dinner than I ever was. He loved us all silently, with the dance of his hand on the glass wheel.