My next memoir post is up.
In this section, I don’t go into too many details about the visit to my cousin’s relatives in Dalian. All that stuff, it seemed, didn’t have a lot to do with the story at hand. In reality it was one of the worst weekends I had in China.
1) My cousin’s relatives were completely freaked out by me. They weren’t related to me – they were cousins on Huang Lei mother’s side – but I still approached them as family. Homesick up the wazoo, I thought one cousin was so much like my younger aunt, while another was like my younger uncle. The eldest reminded me of my mother’s older sister. But whenever I tried to engage myself in their conversations, they froze and backed away. One teenager even left the room whenever I came in. I felt so lonely and alienated that I went into the bathroom and cried.
The only ones who were normal were two younger cousins, both in their early 20s. I hated the girl at first. “Ni hao,” I greeted her when I met her, like any normal Chinese.
“Ni hao!” she repeated, giggling, as though she couldn’t believe this foreigner was speaking Mandarin.
I wanted to smack her.
But when she discovered I wasn’t so different, she was friendly and normal, as was her male cousin.
2) When they weren’t running away from me, they were trying to stuff food down my gullet. This is a normal Chinese practice. At home my mother always puts food on our plates, whether or not we ask, and if we even THINK we might be hungry, she’s there offering treats.
At Huang Lei’s cousins’, it was a billion times worse. You’d be sitting there minding your own business when here came the food. No thank you, you’d say, but they’d think you were just being polite, and would ask a million times more. We kept telling them that since I was American, I didn’t know that kind of politeness, only directness, but they didn’t believe us.
3) The apartment was a 1000 degrees and all the men who smoked. One afternoon, after much insistence that we could take care of ourselves, Huang Lei and I finally made our escape. The cool sea-tinged air was a tremendous relief.
4) I got terrible food poisoning. “You weren’t supposed to eat the shellfish!” Judy said after my return. Now you tell me. We had everything from mussels, to shrimp, to oysters, to clams. The next day I had dizzy spells, followed quickly by diarrhea and vomiting. Violent and often simultaneous diarrhea and vomiting. It was the worst night of my life.
Everyone assumed it was because I was a foreigner. “She’s not used to eating so much seafood,” they said repeatedly, although I had grown up eating shrimp and fish every week, and had lived in Boston for three years, and even Huang Lei had gotten a little sick herself. But at that point I didn’t even care. They had finally stopped forcing food on me.
Don’t get me wrong. My cousin’s relatives were perfectly nice, and perhaps if I had been more outgoing, they wouldn’t have been so afraid of me. But by then I had had it up to here with China and being seen as different. And it would be YEARS before I could eat mussels again.