“What?” I say.
I’m used to being stared at: this is Tai Po, after all, and I’m white, bald, and about a head-and-a-half taller than everyone else.
This time is different, though. I’m with friends—or at least co-workers—and they’re used to their freak show of a colleague.
“What?” I say again.
It’s Hui Xuan who speaks. “We don’t ask these questions here.”
I look at her, then at Nana, who runs our office, then at Dwight. Dwight is our guest, a scholar on service learning, and the reason we’re all out for dinner—we wanted to show him a good time. Nice idea.
I look at Nana again. “All I did was ask if she was married.”
Hui Xuan nods and blinks slowly, as though to remind herself to be patient. Hui Xuan is from the mainland, not a native Cantonese speaker, and definitely an old soul. I sometimes worry that she feels marooned in a field of baboons in our office—she’s the only one who’s studied general education formally, and the only one who seems to take every conversation we have very seriously.
“I know,” she says now. “But we don’t ask these kinds of questions here. Not unless you are very old.”
That I am very old—at least compared to Hui Xuan, and Nana, and Iris, the other colleague present—is something I decide not to point out.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Nana.
She laughs. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It’s just—“ and here I look at Dwight, who’s from Boston. Wisely, he’s examining a fingernail, very careful, as though looking for a secret word or code to make the awkwardness go away. “It’s just that in the States, it’s strange to work with someone and not know if they’re married or single, or if they have kids or not.”
“But Paul,” Nana says, “I’m only eighteen.”
I stare, then everyone bursts out laughing.
“And she’s looking for a man who’s twenty,” Iris says, and everyone cracks up again. The moment is broken, the awkwardness fades, and everyone goes back to normal conversation.
The thing is, though, I don’t actually know how old Nana is. Or Hui Xuan. I don’t know if Iris has children, or a boyfriend, or is gay or married or the daughter of the last emperor of the Bigfoot kingdom. All of this is fair enough, of course: their private lives are none of my damn business. But still, all of this feels a little peculiar to a guy who comes from a country where people go on national TV and say things like, “Jerry, I once had sex with a goat, and I’ll have you know, it wasn’t half bad.”
Now, the four Chinese—we’ve been joined by the director of some program that has a lot of initials and whose purpose is unknown to me—go back to speaking Cantonese, which is a pity, since between us, Dwight and I know exactly two phrases of Cantonese, one of which means, “I’m so sorry, but I believe the state of Massachusetts just elected an idiot,” and other of which involves ensuring your masseuse keeps her clothes on for the duration of your massage.
Since neither of these seem useful in this particular setting, Dwight and I chitchat across the table, carefully avoiding any questions about each other’s spouses, children, politics, incomes, or religion.
Fortunately for us, the hot pot arrives soon.
"But what," you say, "is hot pot?"
Good question. An even better question, though, is how the heck have the Chinese kept hot pot a secret for so long?
Because, and I fear exaggerating here but bear with me—because hot pot is the best damn thing ever.
Jesus liked hot pot.
So did Ghandi.
Abe Lincoln? Hot pot addict.
Joan D’Arc? Requested it for her last meal.
Even Michelle Obama, who, frankly, currently surpasses all of these people in my mind, my lady Michelle LOVES hot pot.
The best way to describe hot pot is to harken back to the late ‘70s and the Fondue craze. For those of you for whom shag carpet is just a rumor, Fondue consisted of a bunch of people in tacky pants suits boiling a pot of hot oil in the middle of the table and sticking stuff—shrimp, mini-hotdogs, squares of cheese, what’s left of their marijuana joints—in it to cook.
If this sounds bizarre and even a little dangerous, that’s because it is. And the cool thing about Chinese hot pot is that it’s even more bizarre and even more dangerous.
Essentially, hot pot consists of a pot—stick with me here—that you put in the middle of the table and—wait for it—make hot. The means for achieving the latter are various. Most restaurants have special tables with a burner laid into the center. Other places, though, need to improvise: I was at a fast food place, once, where keeping the hot pot boiling involved lighting a can of sterno, something I’d love to see Ronald McDonald try.
But what you ask, is in the pot?
A good, hearty broth. Exactly what’s in the broth depends upon your tastes. The first time we had it, our hosts ordered a pot divided in half: one side had lots of spices to keep the adults happy; the other had a milder broth that wouldn’t offend the children.
When we have hot pot at Wonderful Joy, Iris and Nana do the ordering. Iris is a little like Abe Lincoln in that she too wears a tall black hat, once freed a nation from slavery, and is addicted to hot pot. She’ll deny this if you ask her, but one visit to her Face Book wall and you realize that an intervention is in order:
10 January. Hot pot! The fifth time this week!
2 January. Hot pot tonight. Friends got mad at me because I wouldn’t share. Don’t care.
28 December. Hot pot again tonight, alone, in a sleazy hotel. Not very good, but enough to keep me going.
21 December. Held myself to just one hot pot this week. Want more, though. Much much more.
15 December. Had to sell mother’s pearls to get hot pot. Feel bad. But not too bad.
5 December. Killed an old lady because she got in the way of my hot pot. Hope she was homeless, so no one will notice.
Anyhow, Iris and Nana do all the ordering, so when the pot comes, all of us ask what’s in it.
“Chicken feet,” says Iris.
Dwight and I stare. “Really?” I ask.
Iris picks up her chopsticks, fishes around in the broth for a few seconds, and pulls out a very large, very gnarled chicken foot.
“Oh,” I say. I try to sound nonplussed, but I’m sure my face is pale.
“Is it for flavor?” Dwight asks.
Iris shakes her head.
“Not,” I say, feeling just a little bit white, a little bit western, and, well, sort of a little bit scared to death. “Not for eating?”
Iris grimaces and shakes her head again.
“Well then,” I say, “what’s it for?”
Iris considers for a moment, then says, “I don’t know.” She drops the foot back in the pot, and returns to her conversation with Nana.
Besides the broth, everyone at the table receives a small bowl with soy sauce in it. To this you can add a variety of chopped delicacies: roasted garlic, green onions, peanuts, sliced chilies. I take most of the chilies and when everyone complains, give them each one peanut.
Once the stew is at a rolling boil, the waiters and waitresses descend on the table with plate after plate of goodies to be cooked. The great thing about hot pot is that you can do it with anything. On this particular night, we can choose from sliced beef, butterflied scallops, prawns still twitching on the plate, three or four kinds of dumplings, a melon-like vegetable that have to be cooked forever before you could eat it, razor-thin slices of eel, and four or five different kinds of fish.
And mushrooms. The mushrooms are unbelievable: some of them are just plain old stem and caps like your mother used to put on pizza or your college roommate used to eat before watching reruns of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Others, though, are more exotic: my favorite are the enoki, long, reedy mushrooms joined at the bottom and with caps so narrow that they look like bean sprouts when cooked.
Once the food comes, it takes a while to get things going. Everyone reaches for stuff and passes plates around the table. Each person has a small wire basket with a wooden handle. You put your food in this, then place it in the broth, trying your best to avoid the chicken foot floating near the surface. Then you wait. It seems pokey, at first, especially since you’re hungry and you’ve just been informed that all of the things you’d normally talk about over dinner are forbidden. But eventually you draw your scallops or shrimp dumpling or pork meatball out of the pot and put it in your bowl. Once it’s cooled a bit, you roll it in the soy-sauce mixture, then pop it in your mouth.
And then you chew and go, “Oh my god, that tastes good.” And then, for maybe the fifteenth time that evening, you wonder why the heck the rest of the world doesn’t know about Chinese hot pot.
At one point, I gesture toward my little basket where something pink and limp is waiting to be boiled. “What’s this?” I say to Iris.
She uses her chopsticks to nudge it. She looked at Nana, who shrugs. Then she looks back at me. “I don’t know.”
“But you ordered it,” I say.
Again that shrug.
“And you’re the hot pot expert,” I say.
Iris makes a small, gleeful smile and throws another prawn in the pot. She is in her element. She’s not about to be thrown off by some white guy who’s afraid of eating chicken foot. “We ordered a lot of things.”
I lower my basket into the pot. Within seconds, the heat curls the pink thing into a ball, revealing ruffles and ridges resembling an octopus tentacle.
“Oh!” says Iris, “it’s—“ and then names something in Cantonese.
I drop it into my soy mix and pop it into my mouth. It definitely has that rubbery, squiddy texture and that mild, pleasant flavor I’ve come to associate with cephalopods.
“So what is it in English?”
Iris squints, then shakes her head. “No idea.”
This happens two or three times, enough that Dwight and I start to wonder if we’re not being fed every form of internal organ known to man. At one point, Dwight points to a plate near me and says, “Can I try some of that?”
“Sure.” I hand it to him. I’ve had four or five of these things, and found them really tasty.
He takes one in his chopsticks, holds it up to his face and examines it. “What is it?”
“Jellyfish,” I say, at the exact same moment the man next to me—the director of the initial place—says, “Noodles.”
I stare at him. “That?” I point to the small nearly translucent white bundles. There are probably fifteen of them, each about the size and shape of a small thumb. Thin strands curve along the back—tentacles, I have no doubt.
The man nods. “Noodles.”
“That,” I say, “is most certainly jellyfish.”
We eye each other for a moment, then turn to Iris. She bends over the plate. When she straightens, she says, “Squid.”
Nana snorts. “Noodles.”
Iris looks at her. “Is not. It’s—“ and then she tosses out another Cantonese term.
“It’s noodles,” Hui Xuan says from the other side of the table.
But by now Nana is taking another look, holding whatever it is up for closer examination. “Paul’s right.” The regret is diamond hard in her voice. “Jellyfish.”
“Oh please,” Iris says, then bursts into machine-gun Cantonese. In seconds the table has erupted, everyone throwing words back and forth across the pot. Even Hui Xuan is animated.
Eventually the waitress comes. Iris gestures at Nana, using a little basket to fish one of the whatever-it-ises out of the hot pot. En masse, the four Chinese grill the waitress. She listens for a minute, hands in her pockets, then throws back a staccato question or two. Iris responds, and eventually the waitress marches off.
“What’d she say?” Dwight asks.
Nana bites her lip. “She doesn’t know.”
A few minutes later another woman comes to the table, this one in a suit with a white shirt, looking like the hostess maybe, or even the owner. Again the rapid-fire words and phrases, everyone at the table giving suggestions. The hostess listens for a while, nodding at each person in turn. Dwight and I, meanwhile, are working our way through the little white things. Whatever they are, they taste good.
Eventually the hostess lets loose a stream of words. Iris responds in kind, then the man next to me tosses out a phrase or two. The woman ignores him, gesturing toward the back of the restaurant. And then, in what sounds like mid-sentence, she turns and walks off.
“Where’s she going?” I say.
“To the kitchen.”
“She doesn’t know either?”
Iris shakes her head. “She’s asking the cook.”
To the best of my knowledge, we never did get the answer. It didn’t matter: we ate every one of those little white things, then cleared every other plate on the table, and a few from a table nearby.
It’s hard to say just what makes hot pot so wonderful. Certainly, the broth helps (god bless them chicken feet) and the ground spices in soy sauce don’t suck either. And there’s a lot to be said for food that’s so freshly-cooked you actually scald your lips eating it. There’s no oil that I can tell, and no grease, so everything you put in your mouth you really taste. I like shrimp under any circumstances, but coming out of a hot pot, you get the sense that you’re experiencing shrimp in its purest form.
It’s also possible that part of the joy of hot pot comes with having to wait. That sounds very Victorian, I know, and rather ironic coming from a guy my “friend” Gordon once referred to as “the king of instant gratification.” But there you have it. As we hover over the steaming pot, eyes on our spoons, we start to talk about the impending birth of Hui Xuan’s first child . She tells us the story of a friend who got pregnant and posted 24 names on a website, asking acquaintances to vote.
“Did she go with the winning name?” Dwight asks.
Hui Xuan shakes her head. “No. Right before the baby came, she thought of another one. That’s what they chose.”
Someone asks if Hui Xuan and her husband have picked a name for their baby. Hui Xuan shakes her head. Apparently there’s a tradition in her husband’s family where everyone has the same character as their second name.
“You mean the same middle name?”
No Hui Xuan says, and then explains that Chinese names aren’t really names, at all, but combinations of words. In English, of course, most names are meaningless sounds separate from everyday speech—Paul, Ellen, Dolores. There are some exceptions, of course: Will, Heather, Angus.
In China, though, names are made up of one, two, or three actual words that express the parents’ hopes for the personality and fortunes of the child: Hui, for instance, means “intelligent” and “Xuan” means gem. My colleague William is named Wai Lam, which means “Strong Forest.”
“So what’s the name your husband’s family uses?” one of the other women asks.
Hui Xuan responds in Mandarin. The other Chinese look confused. Hui Xuan thinks for a moment, then shakes her head. She can’t remember the Cantonese word.
“What’s the character?” Iris asks. Mandarin and Cantonese use the same characters, just pronounce them differently.
Hui Xuan looks around, trying to see if there’s a piece of paper handy. There isn’t. Finally, she holds up her hand, flat, so we can see. With her index finger, she makes a slash across the palm, then a dot. She hesitates, then, using her nail, makes a pair of squiggles just below the line.
I’ve known Hui Xuan for five months now, seen her on an almost daily basis. I respect her about as much as any scholar I’ve ever worked with. In that time, we’ve talked about assessment, about curricular development, about service-learning and cognition and writing and course assessment. We’ve discussed coming from the north and living in the south and being far away from our families. I’ve met her husband and seen her present at a conference and talked with her afterwards about how she thought she did. When she confessed her pregnancy to me, long after I’d figured it out for myself, she neither blushed nor looked away.
This, though—this flight of the finger over the curve of the thumb—this is the most intimate thing I’ve ever seen her do. This is evident to everyone at the table, maybe everyone in the restaurant. As she gestures, it’s like the whole room falls silent: there’s just her one hand, palm to us, finger dancing over the skin, her eyes on us, each of us, as she writes, trying to see, trying to know, hoping we understand.