Section B

Rich Meeting His Future Mother-in-law

After much thought, I came up with a brilliant plan for Rich to meet my mother and win her over. In fact, I arranged it so my mother would want to cook a meal especially for him.

One day, my mother called me, to invite me to a birthday dinner for my father. My brother Vincent was bringing his girlfriend, Lisa Lum. I could bring a friend, too.

I knew she would do this, because cooking was how my mother expressed her love, her pride, her power, her proof that she knew more than any one else. "Just be sure to tell her later that her cooking was the best you ever tasted," I told Rich. "Believe me."

The eve of the dinner, I sat in the kitchen watching her cook, waiting for the right moment to tell her about our marriage plans, that we had decided to get married next July, about seven months away. She was cubing garlic and slicing cabbage into small pieces and chatting at the same time about Auntie Suyuan: "She can only cook looking at directions. My instructions are in my fingers. I know what secret ingredients to put in just by using my nose!" And she was slicing so quickly, seemingly not paying attention to her sharp chopping knife, that I was afraid the tips of her fingers would become one of the ingredients of the purple vegetable and pork dish.

I was hoping she would say something first concerning Rich. I had seen her expression when she opened the door, her forced smile as she surveyed him from head to toe, checking her judgment of him against that already given to her by Auntie Suyuan. I tried to anticipate what criticisms she would have.

Rich was not only not Chinese, he was also my junior, a few years younger than I was. And unfortunately, he looked much younger with his curly red hair, smooth pale skin, and the splash of orange freckles across his nose. He was a bit on the short side, compactly built. In his dark business suits, he looked nice but easily forgettable, like somebody's nephew at a funeral. This was why I didn't notice him the first year we worked together at the firm. But, my mother noticed everything.

"So what do you think of Rich?" I finally asked, holding my breath.

She tossed the garlic in the hot oil which bubbled in a loud, angry sound. "So many spots on his face," she said.

I could feel the goose bumps rise on my back. "They're freckles. Freckles are good luck, you know," I felt compelled to defend on his behalf, a bit too heatedly as I raised my voice above the noise of the kitchen.

"Oh?" she said innocently.

"Yes, the more spots the better. Everybody knows that."

She considered this a moment and then smiled and spoke in a Chinese dialect: "Maybe this is true. When you were young, you got the chicken pox. So many spots, you had to stay home for ten days. So lucky, you thought."

I couldn't save Rich in the kitchen. And I couldn't save him later at the dinner table either.

He had brought a bottle of French wine, something he did not know my parents could not appreciate. My parents did not even own appropriate glasses for wine. And then he also made the mistake of drinking not one but two frosted glasses full, while everybody else had a half-inch "just for taste."

But the worst happened when Rich criticized my mother's cooking, and he didn't even have a clue about what he had done. As is the Chinese cook's custom, my mother always made negative remarks about her own cooking. That night she chose to direct it toward her famous steamed pork and preserved vegetable dish, which she always served with special pride.

"Ai! This dish not salty enough, no flavor," she complained, after tasting a small bite. "It is too bad to eat."

This was our family's cue to eat some and proclaim it the best she had ever made. But before we could be so diplomatic, Rich said, "You know, all it needs is a little soy sauce." And he proceeded to pour a riverful of the salty black stuff on the china plate, right before my mother's shocked eyes.

And even though I was hopeful throughout the dinner that my mother would somehow see Rich's kindness, his sense of humor and charm, I knew he had failed miserably in her eyes.

Rich obviously had had a different opinion on how the evening had gone. When we got home that night, after we put Shoshana to bed, he said modestly, "Well, I think we hit it off A-OK."