Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oh, Baby-Baby!

If I didn’t know any better, I would swear that my colleagues are all Math teachers, instead of English teachers. Not because they spout equations and randomly place X on grids, but because they are multiplying at an alarming rate!

Today I attended a luncheon hosted by one of our teachers who had gotten married last year and was celebrating the ‘coming out’ of her baby. The invitation was broad: anyone who could attend was welcome. And there we were, eighteen guests, all but 3 not English teachers – one attendee was the department secretary, and the babies.

I’ll get to the babies in just a sec. Please let me explain the baby ‘coming out’ practice. It is not what it sounds like, trust me. The biggest clue is that the party took place in an upscale restaurant, not in a labor/delivery room. That should convince you we didn’t actually attend the baby’s coming out – as in, the birthing.

According to Chinese custom, a baby of 3 to 6 months needs to be formally presented. Thus, the parents choose a very nice restaurant, reserve a private room or two, invite their closest friends and everybody passes the baby around and stuffs their face. Not with baby, but with exquisitely prepared dishes. On the menu today were braised ribs, sliced beef, hard boiled eggs, glutinous rice cakes, sautéed snap peas, a lovely beef soup, some meat balls, a fruit platter and, of course, the inevitable fish – head, tail, fins and all.

At least this was a whole fish, as opposed to the fish head that graced our table Friday afternoon, when I went out with Mouse and Daisy. I never knew a fish head could be picked so clean. I’ll not go into details.

David and his wife, who live in the school apartment complex a few buildings down from me, drove me to the shindig. Their little Devan was in attendance (15 months old). On the way we picked up Sam and my little buddy, Erica. Once there we met up with Daisy and Steve, with their 8 month old. Julia and Chris brought Little Eddie, my own Benjamin’s ‘twin’ (See the Great Baby Race entry, posted July 2012). At the other table were The Baby of Honor (6 months old), with his parents, of course; the department secretary and her 4 year old daughter, yet another Helen with her husband and baby (10 months old). Miller came alone, his wife and baby having stayed at home. The youngest baby of the bunch was Hellen Shao’s. She is due in February.

It is customary at such affairs to offer up a ‘hong bau’ – a red envelope, containing money. I’ve mentioned these before but let me recap: for special occasions one offers such an envelope with a certain sum of money inside, usually 100Yuan. One should put their name on the back of the envelope so that the gift can be recorded and returned, guanxi style, at some later date.

At the proper time, I was proud to proffer my hong bau in traditional manner – both hands extended, envelope between the first 2 fingers of each hand. Imagine my surprise when my offering was turned down!!!

It seems that, while it is proper Chinese culture to offer a red envelope, as a foreigner I was not expected to abide. In fact, the hostess/mother of the baby being celebrated told me that I should follow my own culture’s customs.

I have a conundrum. I was born in France and grew up there, in Germany and in America. Now live in China, mainly because I have an affinity for Chinese culture. Which country’s traditions should I claim as mine?

And how should I react to a gift being spurned?

I pouted. That is, I pooched my lower lip out and made puppy dog eyes while again offering my envelope. Peny, the hostess, again averred I should follow my country’s custom. Seeing as most of my colleagues believe me to be 100% American, I suppose she expected me to follow that culture and offer a gift, rather than money. It being a little late for me to go gift shopping, and not knowing her baby’s gender I was definitely caught out, as far as American custom was concerned.

Now the puppy dog eyes got seriously droopy, and a skilled pilot could have landed a small aircraft on my lower lip, as far as it was protruding. Finally, she accepted my gift. I smiled and the party raged on. 

This incident gave me pause. Not just for the question posed above – which culture should I claim as mine, but also: what would be considered quintessentially American?

Don Henley, eminent sage and Eagles drummer, stated: “Our primary exports being junk food and rock and roll …”

He may have a point with the junk food. Burger King is constantly packed to bursting, as are KFC, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and the ubiquitous McDonalds. I have classrooms full of students longing to savor turkey and steak. What else besides food do we have that is fundamentally American, seeing as American culture is made up of many cultures, all of which lay claim to their original ethnicity? Or, at least, an accepted version thereof?

I’ve decided to put my students to the test. That will be the subject of the next 3 weeks’ lessons: we will explore the many facets of American culture.

We’ll also delve into Chinese culture. What is essentially Chinese? Food? Language/writing system? Kung fu? They should know. These kids are amazing when it comes to deciphering their heritage.

In the meantime, with the additional duty of coaching the debate team for competition in 2 weeks, I’m glad to have such a rich and deep well of subject matter to tap. No need for me to plan lessons for at least 3 weeks, and all I have to do is finish the presentation I’m preparing.

Now, one small problem: we don’t have a debate team.

That’s going to make this job extra challenging. Not only do I get to handpick our team, but I get to work with them intensely for the next 2 weeks to prepare them for competition. Another stumbling block: I know how to debate but not the mechanics of debating. Thanks to technology, the kids and I can watch videos to learn exactly how to do it. So, no sweat for me: I’m learning new things, and I know who I want to represent our school. Now I’ve just got to get them to agree to work intensely for the next couple of weeks and help them choose what to wear.

Fortunately there are no parties to attend in the near future. Hellen Shao had her baby on the 10th of February; a little girl. She won’t ‘come out’ for at least another 5 months. By then, the debate competition will be over.

Wish us luck!    


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