A few weeks ago I got my first tutoring student, a fourteen-year-old girl who already has fantastic English. Before teaching her, her mother and me met for some red tea 红茶 and discussed what the mother hoped for her daughter’s English progress etc. The mother seemed very nice, and while she speaks very good English, we also spoke comfortably in Chinese while sipping our tea. After agreeing on times and prices we were both happy with, she scribbled the characters for her address in Chinese and we parted ways, arranging to have the first session the following Sunday. Little did I know upon acceptance of this job offer that I was not only gaining a new student, but a surrogate Chinese family…
After our first session the mother was insistent that they bring me to dinner and the four of us (my student and her parents) went to a nice Xi’an 西安 restaurant where they recommended delicious spicy noodles. Having told them my tale of woe about my allergy to MSG 味精 and other food additives, they were very insistent on double checking everything I ate. Best not kill off the tutor after the very first lesson. When my food arrived the mother thought it looked too red to be natural and immediately called the boss over to discuss the matter further. Without hesitation the boss whisked me to the kitchen and within moments I was crouching on the ground looking into huge metal barrels containing very red coloured sauces, as he explained to me that the sauces were made purely from red peppers and chillies, and surely I couldn’t be allergic to those (which I’m not). His efforts seemed to satisfy the family and they let me start my meal without further ado. On the walk home the mother told me that I could assure my mom that I would be well looked after and each time I teach her daughter (Friday and Sunday evenings) I would eat with the family, no questions asked.
Following this, the next week she told me she would cook for me instead. As she’s from Mongolia, where she has promised to take me if her daughter does well in her finals, this week she told me she was cooking a typical Northern dish, jiao zi 饺子, (or dumplings as we would call them back home), although I didn’t find out what she was cooking immediately on arrival as she was busy telling me about the period troubles her daughter had faced that week.
When the tutoring session was finished she was still making the jiao zi, and insisted I join her, which I was more than happy to do, although sadly my lack of cooking skill is just as apparent with Eastern as well as Western dishes. To make the jiao zi we had to scoop a teaspoon of paste made from pork, spring onions, coriander and some other ingredients and place it inside pieces of dough which the mother had pre-cut. Then we had to gently fold the edges and press them together with our index, middle finger and our thumb. Having not the most delicate hands, this came as quite a challenge to me, and I could see at first the mother found my efforts amusing. Then her humour dwindled slightly and the look I was reading on her face was one of concern as to why they were paying me to tutor their daughter when I myself failed to carry out basic English instruction.
Finally the jiao zi were finished and I took my phone out to take some photos. “For your mom?” the mother asked with intrigue, “You can tell her which ones are yours”. Then she proceeded to point out all the jiao zi that failed to stand independently.
After so marvelously shaping the jiao zi, it was time to boil then serve.
After eating seven of the twenty jiao zi that were placed infront of me, all for my consumption (there were sixty jiao zi between three of us), the mother scolded me for not eating enough. I remained firm but polite and thanked her for the lovely meal. Irish mammies may be pushy with their force feeding, but Asian mammies certainly take it to the next level, because once you say you’re full “吃饱了”, that’s when the rice comes out to ‘fill you up’. The meaning of full seems to be rather subjective in this country.
The next week the arrival chat was all about midterm exams, school and work pressures. I was quickly sat at the table before the session (as is the routine) and told that once I ate my fruit we could get started. This week’s fruit was an apple and an orange, although each week the fruit varies and I get asked, “Do they have these in New Zealand, ah bu，in …I…Ireland?” While I was eating my student quickly popped into the bathroom before class and after a minute or two the mother knocked on the door and asked her, “Hey, 小便还是大便?” “Are you doing a big one or a little one?”. After a short pause I heard my student’s reluctant reply, perhaps because her teacher was sitting feet away, “大便”， “Big one”.
That evening’s dinner was a range of dishes, each of which the mother told me the nutritional value between mouthfuls. While discussing the fact that me and my sister (sorry Zo) were both still unmarried and childless, she gave me something called zao zi 枣子 , which following my recent research I’ve discovered are dates (I hadn’t a notion what they were as they were being piled into my bowl). As I bit into the (at the time) unknown food, thinking that actually it wasn’t half bad, the mother told me that this was
“very good, especially for woman. Help the woman have a baby.”
Luckily spitting is entirely acceptable at the Chinese dinner table.