Bubbles burst from a hot pot in the middle of the table. The pungent aroma of the soup fills the room, blending with the oaky, polluted city smoke wafting in from the window. A waitress sets an assortment crab, octopus legs, chicken feet, and pig intestines on the rotating tray.
I wrinkle my nose and turn to my mom sitting next to me. “Can I just get sesame chicken or something?”
My mom points to the seafood floating in the soup. “You need to learn to eat traditional Chinese food. We did not come all the way to China to get American food,” she insists in Chinese. She switches to English and points around the circular table. “Look at all your family, they are not picky eaters like you.”
Around me, my dozen aunts and uncles wear traditional cheongsams and changshans with exquisite flower designs, grinning and chatting as they turn the Lazy Susan and take out small pieces of seafood one by one. They each extend one hand, the middle finger between the two sticks and the hand forming a pencil grip. Their pointer and ring fingers push the chopsticks together like two scissor blades. Their plates fill with piles of tentacles and scaly, three-pronged feet.
My aunt to my left picks out a chicken foot in between her chopsticks and turns it to my plate. She says something in Chinese, but I don’t understand her Szechuan dialect.
As my family eats and chats with each other, I turn the tray, trying to find something edible. When the eel comes to my side, I pause and poise my chopsticks over the eel. My stomach growls, but a brown-red liquid with exotic spices surrounds the thin strips of eel, like earthworms in the dirt. Spinach drifts in the broth and bubbles of oil froth along its surface as if a witch’s stew were brewing on the table. I try to turn the Lazy Susan, but it doesn’t budge.
On my right, my mom holds onto the tray. “Try it. You will like it.” She places a chunk of eel on my plate and smiles with tight lips.
I frown at the piece and look away at the scarlet dragon pillars surrounding the small banquet room. Ornate paintings and calligraphy hang on the crimson walls, and paper lanterns dangle from the dim lights. My stomach groans again, so I reach for the menu, but my mom blocks my arm. “Please. Try it.”
I look at my relatives, with traditional Chinese clothes and food, and then at myself, with a plain blue t-shirt and one piece of fish on my plate.
When I pick up two chopsticks, one falls as I attempt to form a pencil grip. I sigh and stab the eel with a single chopstick and move the fish to my mouth as slowly as possible. As it is inches in front of my face, instead of exuding a greasy and oily odor like many of the other dishes did, it is sweet. The eel enters my mouth, and the sauce on the eel tastes like a sugar glaze, and the spices add a flare that pierces my nostrils.
The tangy flavors of the sauce and spices blend with the natural sweetness of the fish, juices leaking out of the soft and chewy texture. The ends of my mouth curve into a smile.
My mom laughs, scooping more eel onto my plate. “See?”
I smile back and devour the rest of my fish.