Saturday, May 10, 2014
Every now and again, my distant relatives come flocking back to Taiwan for a bi-annual visit. It could happen on any given day, but it more than likely falls on Chinese New Year or, in this case, Mother’s Day.
Until my sister was born, I was the youngest in the generation of my late grandma’s grandchildren, and for as long as I can remember, the routine has been the same: those who’ve made the trip back to the “motherland” are summoned by the family elders to a restaurant of their choosing that is often too noisy and too ludicrous for its own good.
It’s a time when relatives talk about things in the past that I didn’t even know happened, and so I always take it with a pinch of salt. Some of these things are about me or my immediate family, but over the course of the past 20-odd years, with one or two meetings per year, they might have neglected to bring it up for reasons blatantly obvious: there’s just too much to tell—or they’re just waiting to embarrass the older, more sensitive me.
However, when a relative does bring up something that you, your father, your uncle, your great-aunt or second-cousin did decades ago, this is usually followed by an endless battle between the elders to resolve the now dominant issue of “when” said event took place.
“Wait, guys, what actually happened?”
The conversation soon takes a turn for the worse after someone says, “Oh! Do you still remember when you were living on that street in that city in that year? You know? A year after you finished high school?”
“Ah, yes! That was when you had your first child. That was a great time.”
“No, that was after my second child was born already! Don’t you remember!?”
This is all very unusual, yet this is the only norm I’ve ever known when it comes to the Feng family—my family.
Away from all the gatherings with friends and colleagues; old friends and once-in-a-blue-moon acquaintance, there remains an epitome of truth and candidness—that is one’s embarrassingly loud, messy and shameless relatives.
There’s no artificial politeness here. There are no superficial moral standards; there’s no saving face. And you are always obliged to answer at least two questions regarding marriage and children before you reach dessert. If you avoid the topic, that simply means you’re cooking up a plan—and that makes them want to prod even more.
I’ve been asked the same question for the past 10 years, and they will keep asking for the next 10 and the 10 after that. It’s not that they don’t remember, it’s simply that, in their eyes, I will forever be 加加; the mischievous Johnny that couldn’t stay away from trouble. The youngest of grandma’s grandchildren who always got to keep the cool toy because, well, I was me.
Being with relatives is about being overfed. It’s about not being able to catch your breath as item after item of edible greatness is shoved in your bowl—if not directly into your mouth.
Amidst the chaos and the constant glances in our direction by other diners in the restaurant, there appears a certain ease.
You want to save your face; you want to show restraint. But you soon realise that, as you sit still, level-headed, cool, calm and collected, it’s you who is the odd one out; you soon realise that your relatives are allowing themselves the only time in the year when they don’t have to care. And if on an occasion like this, you’re still there trying to give too much of a damn about petty 21st-century impediments such as “image” or “reputation”, then, as they say in Chinese, 「你已經輸了」(you’ve already lost).
My relatives don’t care if I’m 4- or 24-years-old. To them, I will always be the youngest. And I won’t find a group of people as blunt and honest as the ones sat around me at this very moment.
I love my relatives. Even when they’re fighting over the bill like a pack of hyenas.
It’s time to get up from your seat and yell across the table for the pork.
Happy Mother’s Day. But really, happy Relatives’ Day. JSF.
P.S. I regret to inform readers of the English language’s lack of precision when defining family roles. I am sorry and ashamed that, in English, it’s impossible, with the help of one simple phrase, to differentiate between a cousin on your mother’s side and another on your father’s; between your aunts and uncles on your mother’s side and their counterparts; or simply between your older sister’s daughter and the daughter of your female cousin whose mother is the first of your father’s two older sisters.
But just in case you’re interested to know, here is a lovely illustration of just how complex a pedantic Chinese family tree can be.