PERSONAL NOTE: I decided to share my book with friends and students in mainland China because it costs too much to order a copy from Amazon.com. Enjoy it and share it with people you care and love. STEVE, USA, feb 9, 2019 email@example.com blog – https://getting2knowyou-china.com
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I can see many indelible lively images in my mind and memory of the word leftovers, from my childhood growing up in Malaya, to years spent in the United States and now in modern China. Leftovers were important to me. And still mean something to me personally. For some strange reasons, I grew up yearning for and loving to eat leftovers, assuming we had plenty of meat and vegetables in our regular meals. Regrettably, regular meals for my family meant swallowing plain watery porridge three meals a day, like bitter pills, so bad I would just throw up, many times, after I left the table. We were lucky if we could harvest some vegetables grown in our own backyard or bicycle to the seashore when our own village fishermen would return from the ocean with some great catch to sell to us cheaply. Forget the chickens or ducks or pigs that we raised. If lucky the family might slaughter a chicken because someone had come to visit us after an absent of many years. Like the return of the biblical prodigal son.
So I would pray for my great aunt to visit because she would, without fail, bring us something to eat, like cookies or oranges. As children we would rush to meet her while she was on her bicycle to our house, when someone in the family would announce her arrival. In our Chinese tradition, relatives seldom visit or come empty handed. The family would always slaughter a chicken to celebrate our Chinese New Year. So I prayed fervently for new years to come so we might have some meat or good foods to eat. Because in the Chinese tradition no food on a New Year’s Eve dinner is a bad omen of bad times to come for the rest of the year. So however poor a family, there will always be plenty of foods on the table to eat. So if you begin a new year with plenty of foods on the table, many traditional Chinese would tell you, the family will be assured of abundance for the rest of the year. For example, the orthodox or traditional Chinese would never eat the whole fish the first evening, because the word fish in Chinese means abundance. So people would devour half of it the first night, and eat the leftovers the next evening, the act signifies there will always be plenty to eat. I grew up not to believe in this symbolic tradition in my family. Because my experiences had confirmed we had very little to eat the rest of the year.
Symbolism plays an integral role in the Chinese society and lives. The Chinese society in modern China has plenty of symbolism in every aspect of our lives because we celebrate many holidays here, dating back thousands of years. Most expats think Chinese are a superstitious bunch of people, believing in things and doing things rational people would not do. For example, when to bury the dead. When to get
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married. When not to travel. Many parents would visit a temple or consult priests for the auspicious times to travel, marry or visit some new places. Burning golden paper
money, common everywhere in China like spring blossoms, is a symbolic act, done to ensure the wealth and happiness of the deceased in the underworld. Burning paper money will be here to stay as long as there is China.
I grew up always wanting to spend time with my friends in their homes if my authoritarian mother would allow me because I always found plenty of foods to eat there. As a teenager I was obsessed with thoughts of foods because I had little to eat at home. I grew up wondering why my friends were so lucky, that they always had wonderful dishes on their table no matter what time of the day. I knew we were poor farmers, eking out a living from the land, raising vegetables, chickens and pigs to support ourselves. Because no one in my family, a brother and two sisters had any decent education, and thus we did not have regular income, like some in the village who were shop owners, teachers and a few working for the local or district government. A few were fishermen, whose families were originally fishermen from Fuzhou and Fuqing, two coastal cities in Fujian Province, China. Most in the village were farmers, growing crops to feed their pigs and producing rubber from hundreds of rubber trees.
The price of rubber was unpredictable because of the supply and demand in the world markets. During the Second World War, prices of rubber kept rising because of the high demand for natural rubber to make tires and other durable goods used in the war. During the short time when the Japanese military took over many areas in South-east Asia, the supply of rubber to the world markets suffered, interrupted, and declined. Growing up I heard most people said Japan was desperate for natural resources, very limited on Japanese islands, and so they went crazy trying to take over many areas in South-east Asia, including my country Malaya. Most times my family and many others in the village made very little money from rubber. (Palm trees have replaced the rubber trees in most parts of Malaysia in the 21st century. The price of natural rubber has been on the increase now.) The income from pigs saved us from starvation. We were grateful to our pigs. True for many farmers at the time.
I loved leftovers because they always tasted better than fresh dishes when just cooked. Any gourmet cook will testify to that. The leftovers from a village wedding feast are one I will always remember for the rest of my life. At least a few times a year, I had a chance to eat some tasty leftovers from a feast or a wedding. Imagine hosting a wedding banquet with over 20-course feast for 10 to 20 tables, circular or square, with about eight to ten or more guests to each table, spread out under shady trees around the house. Imagine the amount of foods being prepared and cooked right in your
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home under a tent by professional chefs hired for the occasion. Imagine all the leftovers at the end of each course, collected and divided into different huge containers. The chefs and their helpers, usually friends and relatives, knew how to do this after experiences with many weddings or feasts. Yes, I grew up dreaming of weddings and leftovers, a time to get lucky when a close relative would send a container of leftovers to the family. It was like some kind stranger treating you to a fine meal in a restaurant in town.
For me, the best part of any feast was buckets of leftovers expanding each time the servers brought back the dishes from the tables carefully, dumping in an orderly way what belonged to which unmarked buckets. I had to assume they had been instructed what to do with the leftovers. Divisions according to the methods of cooking: like stir-fry, deep-fry, steam, braise? Divisions according to the tastes: salty, sweet, hot, bitter, sour? Or divisions according to fish, poultry and meats? Overlapping of smells, textures and colors seemed inevitable. The best chop suey in town. A new dish, sui generis. With a 20-course banquet, we expected abundant leftovers. When the dust settled, the chef packed his tools for the day. Small pails of leftovers were delivered to close friends and relatives living nearby. I remember heating up earlier leftovers (from relatives and friends) over and over, better and tastier than the original dishes, and wishing for more. I clamored for more leftovers.
In 2006, I had the privilege of returning to Malaysia for the first time since I left to study in the United States many moons ago. Now almost all the villagers would host a feast or a banquet in a hotel in town. There was no more cooking by professional chefs under a tent by your house. Lifestyles had changed with the passing of time. The occasion was a celebration of my brother’s 79th birthday. For men, I soon learned, 59th, 69th, 79th and any birthday with a 9th in the number was an achievement. The thinking was that if you could reach the 9th in your birthday, especially after 50, you had passed an important threshold in your life and the rest should be smooth sailing.
Brother almost died in a serious motorcycle accident that same year and for days, I was told, he was not able to move or walk or speak. He was in a coma. When he recovered, the family thought it was a miracle. And so the family decided not to collect any gifts or hongbaos from friends and relatives invited to the celebration. In fact the family gave out some hongbaos to certain people who came to the big celebration. All accompanied by loud firecrackers to mark the occasion. It was a time to thank the gods for my brother’s good fortune.
Something happened at the table that was a little new and strange to me, having left the village many moons ago. Almost all the guests were provided with zip-log bags.
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The bags were not hidden but visible by their plates on the table. The purpose? To take home any leftovers from each course at the table. When I was young in the village, the host family would usually collect the leftovers because the feast was usually held at home. Now it was in a big restaurant in the town nearby. This was something very new to me. What annoyed me was some guests would start filling their bags before we had a chance to finish each course coming to the table. I was told later by family members some guests were too greedy, instead of enjoying the feast, they were there to collect foods to take home. The purpose of the bags for the guests was for them to collect any leftovers after each course. This phenomenon was something very new and strange to me. Life is never dull. Always something new to add color to one’s boring life.
The leftovers in America are a complete different story. Leftovers are usually something you cannot finish eating. The restaurant can discard it for you or you can take it home for later consumption. A customer can tell a waitress or a waiter he wants to take home the leftovers and they would bring to you a doggy bag or doggie bag. This common practice could have started as en euphemistic pretense that the leftovers will be taken home for the customer’s pet dog, not for human consumption. In America, we always say this is what a rich person would do, nothing is to be wasted when eating out. That the rich would always ask for a doggie bag. But we also say the rich are rich because they are careful with their money, and they do not eat out as much as those who are not as rich. I remember, once, when a group of us very hungry students were eating out at a KFC restaurant. A family of four sat next to our table. And when they left, we saw so much chicken meat and French fries left on the table, we rushed over and cleaned the plates before a worker came to clear the table. Having lived in the United States decades, I have observed most Americans are not good at eating things like fish with bones, crabs, or chicken with bones, and they would be more inclined to purchase things that are filleted. The family left too many leftovers on the table. We became the doggie bags and felt happy to eat the leftovers. In general, Americans are wasteful about almost everything in life.
I would hear stories what some students might do to get a free meal or fresh leftovers. A student would call a fast-food restaurant and order, say some pizza, and gave them a fake address. Unable to locate the address, the person who delivered the pizza would return it to the restaurant which would then throw them into a dumpster behind the building. Students had learned when and how to retrieve them by going to the dumpsters. I heard this story many times when I was in college in America. Free, fresh and clean and edible leftovers anytime you wanted them. What an ingenuous idea by some smart but insane students. I guess you would do anything if you are poor or hungry as students.
Now I am working and living in China. Many Chinese people would invite you out to
eat, more than cooking themselves at home, and you might not have a chance to visit their homes or taste their cooking. The irony is that I avoided spending time with families in their homes because they would give up everything to take care of you. So the best thing to do is to stay in a hotel and visit them at your leisure. Only those I had developed close friendships might invite me to their homes during major national holidays in China to enjoy a family feast, like the Chinese Spring Festival or the Chinese New Year. And at the restaurant, they would customarily order many dishes, most times more than you could consume. This is China. Enjoy the Chinese hospitality. It happened time and time again. And some would not think of asking a waitress to gather all the leftovers to take them home. Only one mother did it in my years in China. It happened in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province. My student’s parents wanted to thank me for working hard with his son, who was planning to study in Toronto, Canada. Father was a director of a big publishing company. Mother also had an important job somewhere. Towards the end of our expensive meal at an expensive restaurant, I noticed she had asked a waitress for two or three round containers, the ones commonly used by restaurants for take out foods, and she was painstakingly scraping the plates clean of the leftovers. At that moment only one thought came to my mind: she was a frugal woman and all she needed to do at home was to cook some rice for at least a meal or two to go with the leftovers. It did not escape my keen observation: she and her husband are very rich people.
Most of the nouveau riche, and there are many in China and the “club” membership continues to rise day by day, and many top government officials are known to spend extravagantly and wastefully on meals at expensive restaurants so much so that President Xi made it his mission to tell all Chinese citizens to practice frugality and conservation and moderation when it comes to spending money on entertainment and foods and other social celebrations or engagements. He himself has avoided all lavish meals to welcome and entertain him and other top government officials when they visit a place. He would not want any city to stop traffic during the busy hours of the day just to welcome him. So he would appear without all the pomp and ceremony once accorded to people like him. He has introduced a number of austerity measures to cut wasteful spending by government officials in carrying out their official duties when he first took over the presidency of China since 2013. The price of moutai, the once most preferred Chinese liquor used to bribe and curry favors of top ranking government officials, has gradually declined because of Mr. Xi’s anti-corruption measures to correct many top officials suffering from dereliction of public and officials duties for decades in China. Many cynics doubt he will do much to improve the depraved or corrupt social behavior in China, as difficult as trying to remove the permanent tattoos on your bodies.
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During Chairman Mao’s time, no firecrackers were allowed. Or elaborate funerals and many other traditional observations and practices. He was against old customs and traditions that he thought were a serious hindrance to his pursuit and realization of communism. After his death in 1976, slowly and slowly the old habits returned to China, like eating or talking while squatting, banned in Beijing during the Olympics, including the wasteful display of firecrackers. And Mr. Xi is trying to discourage citizens from wasting enormous amount of money on firecrackers. You have to live in China to witness for yourself the amount of firecrackers, from the cheap to the most expensive ones, being used especially during the major national holidays, like the Chinese New Year. Billions of Chinese yuan literally turned into smoke and ashes, like a million light bulbs illuminating the dark night skies. Dangerous and hazardous to buildings and humans, injuring many careless children and adults playing with firecrackers or worse, polluting the air across China on such occasions. An old extravagant habit, now resurrected and considered an integral part of life in China.
In China I also witnessed a strange phenomenon, happened only when dinning out at a very expensive restaurant, with valet parking. The occasion was a visit by a friend who used to study with me in the same interdenominational college in Singapore. He had been a consul general in the American Embassy in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province before I came to China. Now he was back in China to visit some of the people who once worked with him there, and they are now wealthy people in Xiamen, running profitable businesses. I found it difficult to believe wealthy people would take photos of dishes they ordered for the evening meal. Each dish reminded me of Japanese flower arrangement shows. True also if you eat at a Japanese restaurant where each dish, no matter how simple or small, comes to you like a part of an elegant flower arrangement. And so the cameras were busy taking photos of all the dishes the hosts had ordered for this occasion to welcome their old boss from America back to Xiamen. And of course, nobody seemed to care about the leftovers after the sumptuous meal. I did have the privilege to run the keyboard at a grand piano in the elegant hotel to entertain the guests, and others who were there to enjoy a drink or two. I once entered a big hotel in Beijing to play the piano but someone in the hotel later told me to leave it alone. Why the fucking piano? This is China! I continue to play whenever I see a piano. True happiness is shared experiences, to me.
The Bible has an interesting saying, that the more you use your talents, the more will be given to you. And I believe in it. Most young people in China, some with years of playing the piano, are reluctant to share it with you. This is China.