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A Family Dinner with Strangers

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“Come out of the table!” I could literally hear my mother’s voice eclipse my aunt’s as my aunt tried to wrestle my young cousin out of the big fancily covered table. I smiled; that was what I used to do. So many years had passed; so many family dinners. I felt a gentle tug on my foot. As I lifted part of the salmon pink table cloth, my cousin shrieked with uncontrollable laughter. Things were different now; my cousins were older; I no longer lived in Taiwan and played with them; and we’ve grown apart.

I grew up with many members of my extended family; some lived in the same apartment building, most lived close by. Back then, family dinners were just celebratory dinners at the big restaurant two blocks away from where we lived in Taipei. Ever since my family immigrated to Vancouver five years ago, family dinners were dinners where we saw unfamiliar relatives. At that dinner, I realized how time has changed this tradition so much.

I was reluctant to go to the dinner. The food was probably the same as last year; my grandfather would make me eat until I grew an overnight beer belly and of course I had better things to do. But I was obliged to go because I only went back once a year. Summer was always the time for family dinners, when all the kids were free of school and all the relatives abroad returned. Family dinners were always kind of boring and lasted forever, but it was well…once a year. I entered the restaurant; the too bright lights blinded me as they reflected off the bleach white plates. It was going to be a long night.

I sat down my closest cousin; she was probably the only I hung out with anymore. All the others were either too old or unfamiliar. At family dinners, we always sat down with our more immediate families so it didn’t feel as strange. But all the other times were half filled with literal strangers. My brother soon arrived. He, at seventeen can be ubiquitous it seems. He had managed to come to dinner on time after he hung out in the city all day. Then, right at the sign that signaled dinner was over, he was going to dash right out to play some midnight basketball. He played with the fake ivory chopsticks. The chopsticks made an annoying clanging sound as Mike dropped one on the plate. Dinner wouldn’t be served until thirty minutes later and I was starving like a wolf.

The first dish finally arrived. As usual cold chicken flavored with wine and other kinds of cold meat. Everyone picked up their chopsticks and took turns helping themselves. My chopsticks felt cold against my fingers. Within minutes, our table had devoured the entire dish. That’s the thing about those dinners. They cooks starve you for thirty minutes or so and then they start serving non-stop. It always made the first dish taste better than the last. The last dishes always tasted like chalk in my mouth and felt like a rock in my stomach.

Between the banging of the colliding plates and spoons, the adults gossiped. Only they knew everyone at the dinner. Some adults roamed around from table to table. They squeezed all the children’s faces as if they were still the little child they remembered to be. There were probably only three kids under the age of three at the dinner. They marveled at how tall I had grown and asked if my brother and I could speak perfect English. I tried not to roll my eyes. I hadn’t grown all that much and not only could I speak English fluently, it was probably better than my Mandarin. I got away by mumbling something like “uh yeah sure” and taking some more food.

As dinner progressed, the food smelled and looked delicious but tasted half as appetizing. I fidgeted with my fingers. Then I saw a tiny hand trying to reach for my smooth and slightly stained napkin. The younger kids were stealing napkins again. They giggled with laughter. That was once me and so many others who now sat in their seats instead of crawling over the ones’ of others. The waitresses came and did a plate change, they took away the greasy ones filled with bones and shrimp shells. The new plates felt warm and looked a bit too clean. I counted the dishes, they were the still the same as last year’s and the year before that.

I looked around; the lights made peoples’ laughing faces look brighter. It used to be more like a joke when I saw relatives I didn’t recognize. But now, it’s more like disbelief. Those people were part of my family yet I didn’t really care about who they were. My dad asked me if I wanted to go around and say hello to the others. I used to love that, innocent and shy was I, but no longer. I shook my head, why would I? I sensed dessert coming and brushed what I just did aside.

The tender meat, too salty dishes, and lack of vegetables were not that made the dinner so memorable. It was what I realized afterwards. The dinner brought together family physically not really emotionally. These dinners would be so different in the future. With all the children growing up and keeping busy lives. Now, I feel kind of ashamed for not knowing much about my extended family. But then, at that moment, it was just a dinner – a dinner I wanted to end soon I could go home and watch television.





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