Stir­ring the Pot

Fam­ily Dy­nam­ics at the Din­ner Ta­ble

That's China - - Contents - Text by / David P. Pur­nell

北京火锅

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.

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