The Louder, the Better

In The Art of Travel Fall 2015, Shanghai, Good places by Sammy Song

Urban theorist Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place defines such a setting in contradistinction to home and the workplace. The setting should be not only neutral territory disengaged from financial and occupational obligation, likewise the neutralizer of socioeconomic unevenness among frequenters and newcomers alike. For Oldenberg the younger American generations tend to shun a community lifestyle instead for privatization at the expense of these community spaces. My recent experiences here among relatives and their friends sentimentalize my upbringing given that my immigrant parents and I alone relocated to the United States to the effect that I lacked these experiences of Chinese familial culture. At least for now I celebrate that I can participate with relatives overseas, yet as soon as I return home I expect of course to reenter that attitude of the rat race shared among American young adults.

Besides the food and drink the light-hearted banter comprises the primary activity of Oldenburg’s third places: hence the typical instance of restaurants. Doubtless my fondest experiences thus far here have taken place at restaurants: in particular the meal shared among my uncle, aunt, and cousin, as well as their friends over hot pot. From the midpoint crock earthenware brimful of simmering broth the radial arrangement of raw proteins, bean sprouts, bok choy, egg wontons, and udon noodles among a greater variety of morsels entice the diners to submerse them into the broth for impatient cookery until mouthfuls can be at once savored for the flavor and regretted for the oral scald. The setting here conduced kinship and conversation among us per Oldenburg’s definition. Since for the holiday my relatives invited several families to join us for dinner, my first-hand initiation into Chinese food and drink culture could be memorable indeed. In fact these families had raised their twenty-something aged children together since primary school. For years this restaurant has been a usual spot for these families to gather at a private dining room for special events.

Given the notorious kerosenic toxicity of China’s national liquor baijiu I might liken the motions to toast at every opportunity to a manner of hazing the foreigner. From the six families each of the patriarchs at some point during the evening circulated the room to toast us young adults for future success, their lifelong matriarchs for their persistent beauty and intelligence, and at last the patriarchs themselves. Although several of the young adults had been missing from the table to study abroad in France for instance, often the toastmasters welcomed me to their family in their absence. Since several people toasted me in particular I of course drank to excess sooner than expected, yet soon after the early rounds the same could be said of everybody. Here the appropriate descriptor renao defines a standard for Chinese get-togethers to be high-spirited and rambunctious: hence the Chinese obsession with firecrackers during holidays. If for Chinese celebrators the louder the better, my experience here could be considered the best.

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