Stirring the Pot
Family Dynamics at the Dinner Table
Seeking warmth one night, still wearing our army coats and huddled round the hotpot, I had assumed the role of pot master and, standing with my back to the larger part of the room, I was just starting to stir in an appropriate mix of tantalizing items, when I suddenly heard a crash behind me...
that dotted the city. Today these restaurants have custom-made tables with recessed areas for the electric hotpots, but back then the heat source was charcoal - the real, prehistoric kind that looked like sticks that had somehow turned completely black. Round dinner time, the copper hotpots would be seen outside the restaurants, often with staff fanning the little fires made in the bottom of the cone that, rising upward, projected through a doughnut-shaped well, of sorts, where the water would reside and eventually
nd boil. All the smoke had to be burned off before a waiter would carefully bring the feast’s centerpiece into the establishment and place it in the middle of the table. Beforehand, the diners would order the amount and quality of the meat, as well as a host of other items to cook alongside the lamb, the thin sheets of which would be ready to gobble up as soon as the boiling water turned them from pink to a luscious brown. Bean sprouts, cabbage, “tree ear” mushrooms, doufu (bean curd), sweet potato noodles, beautifully cut curls of squid, and much more could be mixed in, but some art was required to keep the balance right and process moving, so one person would invariably take this role, standing up and bending forward to make sure all went well.
The chief joy of teaching in China is the students; the administration usually only gets in the way, as everyone knows. At that time, there was growing concern and frequent discussion of the one-child policy and the deleterious effects that having no siblings and focused parental attention on just one child, might have on the rising generation. There was even a term that had been attached, colloquially,
to this condition: the '4-2-1' Syndrome. This was compounded by the innate tendency of Chinese people to dote on their children and, to the Western eye, pamper them in ways that went well beyond normal comprehension. For instance, each new group of foreign teachers that came to the school would eventually remark, without fail, on the sight of an elderly grandma carrying a child that weighed half her weight. Sometimes you would see them try to wean the child away from this form of transport, putting them on the sidewalk and taking a few steps away from the crying, motionless youngster, only to quickly dart back and heave the suddenly happy little person back up on to their swaying frame.
Seeking warmth one night, still wearing our army coats and huddled round the hotpot, I had assumed the role of pot master and, standing with my back to the larger part of the room, I was just starting to stir in an appropriate mix of tantalizing items, when I suddenly heard a crash behind me. Quickly changing focus from one of our very favorite activities, and with hunger
nd beginning to gnaw a bit in anticipation, it was difficult to lock in on the scenario at first. A man in his 30’s sat on the floor, with his overturned chair beside him. His expression was a mixture of pain, embarrassment and just a hint of exasperation. Next to him, wearing a gleeful smile and clapping his hands wildly, was a little boy of five or six, who I assumed to be his son. At the table sat four older people, two couples I surmised, along with a younger woman, in her twenties or thirties, who I assumed to be his wife. She was smiling a little, but nervously. The grandparents, as I realized they must be, expressed neither amusement nor anger at the little boy who, I finally realized, had pulled the chair out from under his father as he stirred the hotpot. Four. Two. One.