By Matt Cutugno
When I was very young, I learned two things about China. My mother taught me that I should eat all my vegetables because people there were starving, and a playmate told me that if I dug a hole deep enough I would come out in that country on the other side of the world.
Since then, I have married a Chinese woman (which made me a Zhong Guo nü xu - a son-in-law of China) and I have visited there many times. I am in Nanjing now, learning new things each day.
Matt Cutugno - Nanjing
It’s always exciting to be back in the Middle Kingdom. Here I am a novelty - the guy from New York in America (that is, Mei Guo, the beautiful land). In my wife’s hometown of Yingcheng, in rural Hubei province, I can literally stop traffic, and people follow me around in department stores. Even in Nanjing, a modern and sophisticated city, I am still an object of some curiosity.
I admire the Chinese culture, and its people’s long history. And most Chinese are admiring of America, even when begrudgingly and for different reasons. We Americans are a great paradox to them. A recent survey done in China found that the number one quality associated with Americans in their minds was arrogance, followed by confidence and creativity.
My first night in Nanjing, I am taken out to dinner at a fine restaurant downtown. The prominent businessman who hired me is present, as are his son, his Mom and a few other friends and associates.
Sit-down dinners in China are somewhat stressful for me, partly because of the formality of eating. Guests sit at a large round table, and in the middle of the tabletop is a smaller wheel for serving food - what Chinese call zhuan pan, which may be translated as “plate going around.” Such a server is not so common in America (outside of our Chinatowns), but I’ve always heard it called a “Lazy Susan,” a comical turn of phrase.
As different small plates of food come out from the kitchen, they are placed on the wheel. It is turned first toward the most “important” person at the table - in this case my employer. Once he is served, the wheel is spun slowly away from him until all the guests take some.
I’m not comfortable using my chopsticks to reach out and take food from plates as they spin by. While I am adept enough at using kuai zi, I fear dropping food onto the table short of my plate. I worry about not being able to securely remove the food from the zhaun pan’s plates before it rolls on past me.
Even more ominous is the art of toasting in China. Once a meal has begun, and guests have been eating for a while, one guest might well get up and approach me with their small glass of red wine or beer.
This is when things get tricky. The guest may offer his glass and say to me wo ging ni – meaning “take a sip,” or sui yi - “take as much as you like.” Or he or she may offer gān bēi - “bottoms up,” in which case I am supposed to empty my glass. For each person that comes by to offer good wishes and a toast, one is expected to later get up from one’s seat and return the sentiment. If most people ask you to “bottoms up,” you know you are at a drinking party and not a dinner party.
The art of consuming soup can also be worrisome. In the Chinese culture, slurping is okay, even encouraged, as the flavor of the soup is said to be fully appreciated. That first night in Nanjing, an English-speaking guest urges me to slurp. I smile and continue my silent enjoyment of my food. Old habits are hard to break, and my mother was quite clear about such matters.
Jocularity aside, Nanjing strikes me as a great place, and I’m confident I will enjoy my stay here. At least the Chinese think so.
Matt Cutugno is the author of The Winter Barbeque.