A few weeks ago I received an unexpected phone call. I was running a workshop in Shunyi and we had just stopped for lunch when I saw “Ayi” flash on my mobile screen. Ayi never calls. So I immediately worried that something was amiss with Elsa.
But no. Ayi was issuing an invitation to eat jiaozi that evening at her sister-in-law Baoying’s place. Although I consider Ayi and I to be quite close after almost three years of her taking care of Elsa, I’m ashamed to say that this is the first such invitation I have received. (Unlike me, my daughter was welcomed into the fold long ago, and is a regular visitor at the sister-in-law’s, as she was on this day.) Aware of the honor of this request, I accepted instantly – although with a bit of regret, as I’d eagerly anticipated a vegetative night in with a gin and tonic and trashy DVDs.
I knew the evening was likely to be an extended family affair. Fortunately, several months back I’d had the forethought to ask Ayi to draw up a family tree. (Both her husband and daughter have impossible-to-remember names, so with an uncustomary spark of genius, I had re-elicited this key information under the guise of inquiring after the wider family). Rushing home, I just had time to cram over 20 impenetrable names into my short-term memory before Ayi turned up to ferry me to the waiting guests.
An hour of intense traffic later, we arrived at the sister-in-law’s. As predicted, I was enthusiastically welcomed by Baoying, her husband, her daughter, Ayi’s husband, Ayi’s mother-in-law, the brother of someone I didn’t quite catch, and four random neighbours. Elsa greeted me somewhat less warmly, shooting me a dark look that said quite clearly, “This is my turf.”
Ayi lost no time in showing me around. I admired each room, dutifully concurring that Baoying’s bathrooms were a step up from mine. (Yes, Ayi, both of them.) And I was touched to see that photos of Elsa adorned almost every surface.
After my guided tour, I was given pride of place at the dining room table. Three hundred jiaozi were brought out – they’d been cooking since midday – and my glass filled with a suspicious-looking red wine.
“Chi fan, he jiu,” instructed the wizened mother-in-law seated to my right. In other words, eat up and drink up. “Gan bei!” endorsed the man of the house, clinking my glass with his baijiu-filled teacup. And then the conversation got underway.
“Can she understand us?” asked a neighbor. “No, not much,” pronounced Baoying, who’s been on the receiving end of my faltering Chinese a few times before. “Oh, I don’t know,” countered her husband, “I think she does a bit.” My head swivelled round dizzily as I glanced from speaker to speaker like one of those irritating nodding toy dogs.
I tried out a few feeble jokes. “Oh thanks, but what are you all going to eat?” I quipped when the heaving mound of jiaozi was placed on the table directly in front of me. They found me gratifyingly hilarious. “Ha ha ha! Chi fan, he jiu,” repeated the mother-in-law. “Gan bei!” exclaimed the husband.
A couple of hours later we’d made a decent dent in the jiaozi pile, polished off the red wine, and all become firm friends. My family tree recall was hopelessly scrambled, but it didn’t seem to matter. The men drifted off to play mahjong and us ladies retired to eat nuts on the sofa. Elsa, embarrassed by my attempts to speak Chinese, continued to devote her full attention to Ayi.
Eventually, it was time to head home. It was pitch-black outside and the path to the car was not well lit. Ayi – who refuses to wear glasses even though she can’t read a thing without them – took my arm solicitously. “I’ll help you,” she said kindly, “I know your eyes are bad.”
Once back, I dispatched Elsa, bath-less, to bed before crawling, exhausted, under my duvet. I was pleased to have finally been accepted into Ayi’s inner circle. And as a bonus, the oversized doggy bag that accompanied my departure would see us through lunch for the next week.
Sarah Cooper started her own career and personal coaching business (www.cowsfrommywindow.com) after coming to Beijing with 3-month-old Elsa, who is now going on 3 years old.