It was the food that brought us all together. An extravagant feast at a luxurious restaurant, where a large, private room on the second floor, found often in Chinese restaurants, reserved just for us, was filled with family and family friends.
Grandparents, cousins, aunt, uncles; they all treated my brother and I like royalty, granting our every wish and whim, and then some. Yet we were almost strangers, and though they ensured that physically, we were more than comfortable, yet mentally, it was quite awkward. We met once every two years, and there was never enough time to get to know each other. We stayed for just long enough for me to learn their names, learn the routine in China, learn perhaps a few more Chinese words to add to my vocabulary, and then we were gone.
My parents, of course, got along beautifully. They were back in their element; in this land, they had stopped wallowing in a language they were never quite fluent in. Seeing their parents, siblings, nephews, nieces, and friends once again was an event they had anticipated for months before.
Immediately after I had stepped off the plane and into the airport, I could sense the difference. Yes, I lived in a city, and had been to countless other cities before, but this one was different. No city in America had quite the same feel, with the same sights, smells, and noises as Xian did. The highways had a chaos not found in the United States, and the multitudes of taxis were everywhere.
The warm, humid breeze, smelling slightly of exhaust fumes, whipped my hair around as we walked to the waiting car. Fragments of Chinese surrounded me, a language slightly foreign, though I comprehended most of what was said.
We inched through the traffic, looking, in all the darkness, like a large, luminous snake, writhing out into the night.
I awoke the next morning, after a night of tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep, though finally slipping off into slumber filled with honking cars and the perpetual noise of even nighttime in China, to an almost humorous spread. Throughout the rooms of my grandparent's house lay packs of gum, and waiting for at the breakfast table, beside the bowl of rice porridge, were cans and cans of Coca-Cola. Obviously my relatives, trying to win my pleasure and happiness, were under the wrong impression that Americans spend their time eating gum and drinking Coke. Suppressing my laughter, I did something I had never done before, opening the can and downing it along with my breakfast. Perhaps I should have explained, for every morning after that, a can of soda was always faithfully waiting for me.
Though the awkwardness subsided after the first day in China, it never fully disappeared, as the language gap never fully disappeared either.
That night, living up to their standards of being generous, hospitable hosts, our family took us to the Bai Xue Hua – White Snowflake – restaurant, a lavish, luxurious locale which reminded me of an expensive hotel. Following an immaculately clad waitress up the sweeping marble steps, we entered a large room complete with couches and a television. I stared dumbfounded, thoughts of "I thought we were in a restaurant" running through my head. Later I would realize that it was a room to wait in, akin to a doctor's waiting room, but without its unpleasantness.
Soon another waitress appeared to lead us to another room, this time the room in which we would actually be eating in. Multiple tables were placed throughout the room, and appetizers of all kinds – Chinese hors d'ouevres, in a way – lay on the tabletops, some still faintly steaming.
Small fried shrimp, savory vegetable dishes, and fragrant roasted peanuts were few of the many, many items there. Everyone insisted that I eat everything, and I found my plate piled with food before I had even lifted a finger.
When the main dishes arrived, I became truly lost. I recognized a few dishes from the food my parents made at home. The rest of my knowledge of Chinese cooking was from the few "real," as my parents called them, Chinese restaurants I had been to. Real meant authentic, "Chinese" Chinese food, as opposed to the Americanized version found in so many restaurants.
And I found none of the artificial dishes there. True Chinese food simply amazed me. Cooking, one could suppose, was considered an art, as I knew from the way my father treated the culinary arts. The food here was truly a work of art. There were the dishes with a myriad of flavors, layered atop each other like a chord played on the piano. Subtle flavors which complemented each other, yet they worked as a whole, and I was unable to distinguish them. There was another type of food; cooked and created out of an amazingly limited amount of ingredients, and the chefs had taken the full potential of the food to create a heady, strong dish.
Around me, everyone was talking, meeting and relearning the people surrounding them. And by the time dessert arrived, a plate of fresh fruit, and we had all leaned back in our chairs, sated, I sighed contentedly. I did belong here.
This was my family.