Please excuse my hair, but look at this family!
One of the first activities we had in Beijing was a home visit with a typical Chinese (Beijinger) family. I honestly wished this was one of the last activities of the trip, or that we were able to meet with the families throughout the course of our learning. My Mandarin at that point was still a bit lacking, more than I had thought.
You see, Beijingers have a very innate accent. It’s one that you have to get used to, especially someone like me who’d only heard classical or traditional Chinese. They also have different slang and even if I tried to speak with my best accent, they’d probably never completely understand what I was saying. Or, they’d know right off the bat I hadn’t been in Beijing long enough to grasp it in its entirety.
We made 饺子 (jiǎozi / dumplings), which are pretty out of season in the summer months. I’ve always thought of dumplings as a Chinese New Year type of thing. During the Spring Festival I’d ask, “你有不有饺子？可以不可以两百？” （Nǐ yǒu bù yǒu jiǎo zi？ Kě yǐ bù kě yǐ liǎng bǎi？/ “Do you have dumplings? Could I have 200?”） Hahaha! I digress, we made the dumplings somewhat from scratch. Rolling out the dough and filling each dumpling. I hadn’t an idea how much of a task this was until I actually went in and filled the dumplings the only way I knew how, which is to fill and pinch the two sides together. Yuan (mother) laughed and said, “那个美国饺子！” (Nà ge měi guó jiǎo zi！/ That’s an American dumpling!) After a while, I got the hang of their technique to fold and pinch the two sides together to make the dumplings stand up on the cooking sheet.
There were three of us from the camp who visited this particular family. I enjoyed, especially, my interactions with the mother. She seemed particularly interested in me and the other girl who was part of our group. She’d asked if we spoke Mandarin typically, how I came to wanting to speak it. She also mentioned to me that her English was lacking more than my Mandarin, so I didn’t need to feel shy about speaking to her in Mandarin.
The daughter, Yu Qian, was about twelve-years-old. She proved to be very studious, and well-rounded. She showed us her notebook, filled with basic English conversation she wanted to use throughout the day. She was already pretty fluent in English. I sort of wish they hadn’t spoken to us in English, but I was relieved that I could ask the daughter how to say a certain term in Mandarin. Most especially when I had to speak with her grandmother.
Her grandmother looked like mine, and I couldn’t stop staring. I thought I was being rude, so I showed the photos I had on my phone of my grandmother, and to my amazement they all agreed. The mother found it quite bizarre, too. I also showed them photos of my aunt who lives in Malaysia with my Chinese cousins, and they all agreed she looked like the grandmother, too. Perhaps I had found some distant relatives? Most likely not, but it’s peculiar how biological adaptations can give us at least a few lookalikes in this world.
We ended up making tons of dumplings, enough for the whole floor of the apartment complex, and I sort of wished I took some back to our dorms because they were delicious. The family also prepared the best soy-braised pork I’ve ever had. The father and grandfather were also quite entertaining during lunch, sharing a beer between them.
After lunch, our group sans the father and grandparents, went to spend time at the community center. What you’ll need to know about big cities like Beijing is that most people live in apartments. These aren’t just apartments, they come fully equipped with gated communities, at least for those who can afford it. The community we were in had a cafe, convenience store, pool hall, a huge park, an early learning center and I assume much more than we could see. We spent time playing pool and practicing calligraphy. We also took a stroll through the park, and that proved to be daunting since it was extremely hot that day. In the end, we chose air-conditioning over the pretty, but scorching day.
Part of Chinese custom is to bring a gift when you are invited to someone’s home. Come to think of it, what I brought was more geared towards the women of the house. I brought two light-weight infinity scarves, Alaskan chocolate, and Alaskan wild berry teas that are somewhat popular where I live. In hindsight, I think I could have gone without the teas because Yuan had given us some of the best black tea I’d ever tasted. She was also quite serious about her tea set. My wild berry teas weren’t anything special compared to what they had, not at all.
After tea, the father had shown us his photography. His photographs were some of the best family vacation photos I’d ever set my eyes on. He said it was a hobby, something he liked to do to document his life with his wife and daughter. They also showed us their daring side, with pictures of them walking across foot bridges that were a couple hundred feet up. We also got a peek at Yu Qian’s baby photos, which she wasn’t too happy about. But, that just goes to show parents are alike everywhere in the world. They’ll embarrass you even if that wasn’t their intent.
When our afternoon ended, we exchanged WeChat contacts and the mother sent me the Chinese characters for the soy-braised pork I fell in love with. Haha! That was a great takeaway from this experience, establishing a sort of rapport over my newly discovered (for me) food. Sadly, we hadn’t had time or even network coverage to keep in touch. I wish I could have kept in touch after the visit, I think we would have gotten along. However, what sticks with me is how welcoming they were, even if the experience was brief and a bit awkward at first. I do feel, in a sense, there is this lasting connection with someone on the other side of the world. They can look back and say, “Hey, remember that one time we made dumplings with those Americans?”
Bonus! Our family also had a turtle! Turtles, in Chinese culture, are one of the most sacred animals. In Feng Shui, turtles enhance the energy in a home and also protects (and adds to) the prosperity and wealth of the family.