China Elevator Stories
Being Forced To Raise My Glass At A Family Dinner
When we are almost done with dinner, my husband’s uncle calls out my name. The whole table goes quiet.
The last evening we spend in my husband’s hometown Siping on my first visit in 2013, we have dinner at a restaurant with his relatives.
We wait until everyone is in the room and seats are assigned in order of age. The most respected person, which is usually the oldest male, or in the case of a company, the CEO, is seated opposite the door. In this case, it is my husband’s oldest uncle, the head of the family according to Chinese tradition. Before my husband’s grandfather died, his grandfather was the head of the family.
Since it is my husband’s turn to pay for the dinner, he gets to choose the dishes for everyone. My husband doesn’t care too much about traditions such as these, so he lets others choose from the menu as well.
I haven’t been feeling well the whole day due to menstrual pain, but this is an important dinner I’m told I can’t miss.
When we are almost done with dinner, my husband’s oldest uncle calls out my name. The whole table goes quiet.
He asks me: “How are you supposed to call me?”
I say: “I’m sorry, I don’t remember. We don’t distuingish between older and younger uncles of our father’s and mother’s side in German, like you do in Chinese. That’s why I can currently only recall the word shushu (叔叔, the father’s younger brother) for uncle.”
Not too happy about my answer, he replies: “Do you also eat like this in Austria?”, thereby pointing at the round table filled with dishes everyone shares with one another.
“We don’t. Everyone has their own plate with a single dish on it. We usually eat it with soup and salad.”
I don’t feel like talking, but I try to stay strong and force a friendly smile. I have a bad feeling about what is still to come.
He goes on: “How long have you stayed in China for?”
“For two years.”
“U-huh, for over two years.”
My father-in-law, who is seated right next to him, chips in: “For less than two years.”
My husband’s oldest uncle ignores what he just said and goes on: “Since you’ve stayed in China for over two years already, I assume you’re familiar with Chinese eating and drinking traditions. Just now, my niece’s boyfriend has actively raised his glass towards me. Actually, it should have been you who did that first.”
I answer him, feeling more uncomfortable by the minute: “What you’re saying is that I should drink alcohol with you? I’m sorry, I don’t drink.”
I look at my husband for help. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. My husband tells me that I can also use water.
His oldest uncle keeps getting at me: “Today, we’re here to see if you two will get my approval or not. You can decide for yourself if you raise your glass to me or not.”
The right word to adress my husband’s oldest uncle from his father’s side would have been daye (大爷).