By Michael Zhou, Medill, Immigrant Connect
As we step up to the doormat, my mother takes a deep breath and exhales nervously. In her hand is a large Pyrex bowl containing pan fried pumpkin and pork dumplings, her most prideful dish. My dad carries in his left hand a bottle of red wine that he bought from Shoprite yesterday. His right hand taps the bottle anxiously. I stand there with my hands in my pockets, excited for the Christmas party.
The door opens to our neighbor, Amy, flashing a bright smile and warmly greeting us, each with hugs. My parents stand there awkwardly, trying to pick out the right words to say while reciprocating Amy’s enthusiastic hugs. They take a few steps into the house without taking their shoes off and put the dumplings and wine on the countertop.
A sea of white faces meet them. Some wave to my parents. Some are too involved in their conversations to look up. My parents politely greet the ones who acknowledge them.
I find my friends in the corner of the room. They greet me enthusiastically. I’d grown up with them. They literally lived right next door or on the same street since I was two years old. We talk about anything, from classes and the latest school drama to the status of our college applications. As we feast on beefy sausages, mac and cheese, and sparkling grape juice, I forget about my parents’ awkwardness earlier, with my attention fully on having a good time with my friends. We continue our lively conversation and take out our phones to play the 2016 version of the board game Trivia Crack.
Around the second or third hour of answering niche trivia questions that aren’t getting any easier, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around to my parents gently smiling at me and saying it’s time to go. “Why?” I reply in Chinese. My mom gives me some baloney about being tired and not wanting to stay too late, and assures me I can stay as long as I want. With that, they leave.
Around midnight, I bid farewells to my friends and all the adults, and walk the 30 seconds back home. As soon as I see my parents, I ask them why they left so early.
My mom admits that there wasn’t much for them to talk about. My dad nods in agreement. They tell me that all the American people wanted to talk about was football and their “fantasy” teams, both of which my parents had absolutely no knowledge about.
A week later, we step up to another doormat, this time around a 30-minute drive from our home. My mom has the same Pyrex bowl in her hands with another batch of pan fried pumpkin and pork dumplings. My dad is carrying another bottle of wine. I stand there again with my hands in my pockets, excitedly awaiting the New Year celebration.
The door opens to my mom’s friend, Tan, speaking Chinese a mile a minute. My mom eagerly gives her the dumplings, takes her shoes off, and enters. My dad and I follow. We’re greeted with a loud roar in Chinese. My parents laugh, reply in an even more enthusiastic tone of Chinese, and hug each and every person at the party.
“Your boy is getting so tall!” Tan says. My mom gives me a proud look, compliments Tan’s son, and proceeds to dive into a long conversation about their kids, a Chinese mom’s favorite conversation topic.
I can tell my parents are at home.
On the car ride back home, I ask my parents why they enjoyed talking about kids so much more than football. My mom laughs and explains that it isn’t the subject matter that matters to her, but rather the cultural similarities and the common language she shared with the people at this party that made her more comfortable. She explains that she actually doesn’t like talking about kids at Chinese parties, since it’s usually moms bragging about their children’s various accomplishments, looking to boost their family’s social standing in the Chinese community.
I ask her why she looked like she was enjoying herself so much if she didn’t enjoy the conversation.
My mom responds with a grin. Turns out she half-faked her enjoyment at the party, but it was easy to fake because it was with people of the culture she knew well.
The Christmas party at our neighbor’s house was much more difficult to fake, she says, because she simply wasn’t familiar or comfortable enough with American customs to fake it.