I fell in love with the minister's son the winter I turned fourteen. He was not Chinese, but as white as Mary in the manger. For Christmas I prayed for this blond-haired boy, Robert, and a slim new American nose. When I found out that my parents had invited the minister's family over for Christmas Eve dinner, I cried. What would Robert think of our shabby Chinese Christmas? What would he think of our noisy Chinese relatives who lacked proper American manners? What terrible disappointment would he feel upon seeing not a roasted turkey and sweet potatoes but Chinese food?
On Christmas Eve I saw that my mother had outdone herself in creating a strange menu. She was pulling black veins1 out of the backs of fleshy prawns2. The kitchen was littered with appalling3 mounds4 of raw food: A slimy rock cod5 with bulging6 eyes that pleaded not to be thrown into a pan of hot oil. Tofu, which looked like stacked wedges of rubbery white sponges. A bowl soaking dried fungus7 back to life. A plate of squid, their back crisscrossed with knife markings so they resembled bicycle tires.
And then they arrived --- the minister's family and all my relatives in a clamor of doorbells and rumpled8 Christmas packages. Robert grunted9 hello, and I pretended he was not worthy10 of existence.
Dinner threw me deeper into despair. My relatives licked the ends of their chopsticks and reached across the table, dipping them into the dozen or so plates of food. Robert and his family waited patiently for platters to be passed to them. My relatives murmured with pleasure when my mother brought out the whole steam fish. Robert grimaced11.
Then my father poked12 his chopsticks just below the fish eye and plucked out the soft meat. "Amy, your favorite," he said, offering me the tender fish cheek. I wanted to disappear. At the end of the meal my father leaned back to and belched13 loudly, thanking my mother for her fine cooking. "It's a polite Chinese custom to show you are satisfied," explained my father to our astonished guests. Robert was looking down at his plate with a reddened face. The minister managed to muster14 up a quiet burp. I was stunned15 into silence for the rest of the night.
After everyone had gone, my mother told me, "You want to be the same as American girls on the outside." She handed me an early gift. It was a miniskirt in beige tweed. "But inside you must always be Chinese. You must be proud you are different. Your only shame is to have shame."
And even though I didn't agree with her then, I knew that she understood how much I had suffered during the evening's dinner. It wasn't until many years later --- long after I had gotten over my crush on Robert --- that I was able to fully16 appreciate her lesson and the true purpose behind out particular menu. For Christmas Eve that year, she had chosen all my favorite foods.