Friday, June 15, 2012

A Birthday Dinner, and Cultural Observations

It was my mother's birthday today.  For the second time this year.  It's not really the paradox that it seems, because she celebrates her birthdays by the Chinese lunisolar calendar.  While the Gregorian or Western calendar adjusts for discrepancies between the calendrical year and the astronomical year by adding a leap day in the years which are divisible by 4 (except for those also divisible by 100, but not by 400), the Chinese calendar inserts a leap month, or intercalary month, based on complicated rules to ensure the northern winter solstice always falls in Month 11.  This year, Month 4 was repeated, an uncommon occurrence that my mother naturally wanted to celebrate.

We went to Hee's Garden for dinner, because they have a special for the month of June (advertised on Chinese TV) whereby you get two courses of Peking Duck for only $35 (normally $65).  It was pretty good quality duck too.  The first course was, of course, the crispy skin on a bed of prawn crackers, served with thin flour pancakes, cucumber and spring onion sticks, and hoisin sauce.   The second course was a bit boring though, just the chopped up chunks of meat, as opposed to the flesh being used in something requiring a bit more effort, such as sang choi bao (lettuce wraps) or tofu soup.

Peking duck first course, the leftovers.
Mum spied a group of young students at the next table, and wanted to tell them about the Peking Duck deal, but they had already ordered before she could do that, selecting... almost unbelievably... fried rice, lemon chicken, and BBQ pork.  Surely this is Chinese takeaway-style food from 20 years ago?  Over at another table, a couple had steamer baskets full of dumplings in front of them.  What, asked my mother out loud, are they doing, eating brunch for dinner?

I have been guilty of eating dim sum for dinner myself.  It's great that you can eat what you like when you want to, though I wish people from other cultures would let me know when I am doing something totally weird.  Like, are you only supposed to have masala tea after your meal, rather than during it?  And when you order tsukemen, must you dip the noodles in the soup, rather than pouring the soup over the noodles?

But wait staff can be overly helpful as well.  I was surprised when I was offered a fork at a Chinese eatery, simply because I spoke in English.  At a Vietnamese restaurant recently, the server showed us how to pour the fish sauce over the rice noodles.

I guess you can't have it both ways.  Either you have silent staff, or ones that might end up telling you something obvious.  In the end, I guess it doesn't matter if you eat something "the wrong way".  But I still want to know.


  1. Thanks for the heads up on the Peking Duck at Hee's Garden. I am totally keen for that this month!

    I find that Asian cultures generally let Westerners do whatever they like. The culture is too polite and shy to interrupt or advise. Unless you're in a tour group situation of course. Whereas Westerners are more extroverted and teach foreigners how to do things.

    In Japan once, were I couldn't read the menu or understand the staff, I communicated that I didn't mind what sauce they put on my katsu. I asked them to choose for me. Anyone they thought would go well with the katsu. The staff wouldn't choose a sauce for me. They didn't want to get it wrong. Whereas in Western culture, choosing the right sauce for someone who was unfamiliar would be no problem.

    In Auckland, I once saw a non-asian guy eating a Yau Ja Gway (deep fried bread stick for dipping in congee). It was cold, bland and unappetising and he didn't seem to like it. I wanted to tell him that is not how you eat it but I didn't have the guts to approach a stranger.

  2. Oooh, leap second coming up...

    @bunnyeatsdesign: It is hard to know when to butt in. Who knows, maybe they know how they should be eating something, but they just want to do it their way. You don't risk offending anyone if you shut up. On the other hand, people like me prefer to be told, since I wouldn't necessarily know or have the courage to ask. Funny that the Japanese waiters refused to help out even when you asked though.


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