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Illustration by Ada Tam

Family meals are as much about the arguments as they are about the food.

It is winter break of my senior year in high school and my entire family is, by some sort of miracle, here in China. I’m trying to remember the last time we were all together, but all I can recall is the slamming of car doors, an overcast sky, me standing up to greet my brother. Maybe it was the summer in Hawaii, after my brother’s graduation from Northwestern University. That can’t be right. That was four years ago. But in between Hawaii and now I can only see fragments of my family, fragments of moments that happened with members absent. Maybe it was four years ago.

We’re sitting in a restaurant called Fat Duck, where the décor is a fusion of Victorian and Western modern. It would be tacky if it weren’t for the sweeping windows and high, high ceiling. We’re seated next to the window, and I have my elbows on the table, my cheek resting against my fist. I make faces at my brother.

James is eight years and two days older than I am. I like to tell people that I was meant to be born on his birthday; it was the one story I could tell because it was the only almost-connection we ever had until I turned 15 and left for boarding school back in the States. Before then, I knew him only through his closed door, messy hair, and his fascination with the news and computers. He slept all the time, argued with my mother. Then he went to college when my family moved to China. Adults would ask me if I had any siblings—I would say no before realizing my mistake, as if siblings were something as trivial as having breakfast or doing homework.

But then I turned 15, and our unrelated departures from our parents became common ground. Things my brother could not once say to his kid sister could now be said, and I could comprehend them.

I look out from the window down onto the gray street lined with bundled masses on bicycles and identical housing complexes positioned ever so exactly apart, the gray sky and an orange crane ready to build more of the same. Our mother is in the restroom, our dad in the office.

“Fuwuyuan,” he calls to the passing waitress. “Could I get a bottled water please? Is ee-yuan alright?” Evian. I doubt my brother understands the translation of the French brand to Chinese.

“Xing, xing.” Sure, sure, that’s fine.

“Why don’t you just drink tea?” I ask once she leaves. “It’s free, and that water is going to cost 40 kuai, I bet.”

“No way,” he said. “No more than 25.”

When it arrives, the bottle of Evian is only as tall as the length of my hand. As the waitress pours, the water spirals out along the sides of the cup. My brother thanks her, takes a sip, grins at me. I begrudge him a small smile. “Mom … ” I say. She is walking back with a look of deep contemplation on her face. I see her eyes run a passing glance at his glass cup, registering nothing.

“Dan-dan,” she says, calling me my pet name. She talks about how nice the bathroom is, about how I should go see it for myself—something about sinks. If you don’t go, what a waste.
I look up at the ceiling, then half-laugh. I’m used to my mother’s rambling about nothing. “Okay, Mom.” She sits back down and inspects the menu. A small frown. Just the duck for lunch, she says. She has a juan’er—voucher—in her purse worth 250 kuai, which is just enough to order the Peking duck meal. She has four more juan’er at home. They are all set to expire in the next few days before the New Year, and she has aggressively planned to use them all. The vouchers came in a VIP pack my father purchased last year for some hotel membership. It was a good deal, he claimed. I love Peking duck, but the knowledge that this meal is more indicative of the fact that we have a gold paper juan’er to use and not symbolic of any celebration of reunion diminishes my appetite. I open my mouth, ready to say something about it, and then decide against it.

My mother has started to harp on my brother, asking him about girls. “Your job, it’s no good for settling down. I got married when I was 26. I’m worried for you. It’s not healthy.”

I’m glad the conversation has shifted away from my love life, though I feel bad for my brother. Before he flew in, all I heard in the apartment was, “All your cousins have had boyfriends. What’s wrong with you?”

The rest of the meal is uneventful. My mother mentions all the girls she knows that are my brother’s age, and then asks him about his life in D.C. and Chicago. I say things, but mostly I eat. The bill comes in a red leather-bound check holder, with the outline of a duck and FAT DUCK embossed in gold on the front.

“I have a juan’er,” says my mother to the waitress, her right hand thumbing through papers as her left one steadies the purse on her knee. “And a VIP card. I can use those together, right? 250 yuan off and then another 50 percent?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I am trying to look at anything but the waitress’s face, imagining her look of impatience or maybe bemusement. I can see it in my mind’s eye: she will walk back to her other waitress friends, and she will gossip about the table that was too cheap to buy anything, a joke about eating a voucher instead of a meal.

My brother reaches over the table, his long fingers lightly lifting the receipt. “Twenty-four,” he smirks at me.

“Shenme?” My mother is instantly alert. “Your water!” she moans. “Why? We have water at home. There was free tea!”

I think about the calm, confident way my brother had ordered his French water. He acted like a free man while I still felt the chains that connected me to my mother’s conscience.

My brother takes out a 20 yuan note from his wallet, pushing it to my mom. “Here you go, mom,” he says. “Here you go.” And I watch them, both winning in their own battles, but losing the ultimate war. As usual, I am a bystander.

Now it is spring break during my junior year of college, and I’m sitting in a Chinese banquet hall, the same type of restaurant I have frequented with my family my entire life. Large tables with Lazy Susans, crystal chandeliers above tanks of seafood swimming for future consumption pleasure, and gold and red swaths of cloth abound. Even with the two Spanish men sitting at the table next to us and the Mediterranean Sea outside the window, I have a hard time believing that we are in Badalona, 20 minutes northeast of Barcelona, Spain.

“We,” this time around, consists of my two friends from Barnard, whom I am visiting while they are studying abroad. With this trip, my family is momentarily divided across three continents, instead of the usual two. At this point, the separation is normal—if anything, it’s a separation I have tended toward since leaving for college.

But as my other Chinese-speaking friend and I struggle to order, debating dishes that would go well together and pointing at pictures, since both of us are unable to read a majority of the characters on the menu, I feel waves of nostalgia as overwhelming as the silent waves of the Mediterranean. I suddenly feel a heightened sense of passing time. I find myself closer to the end of college than the beginning of it, recognizing how much I have changed and how homesick I am for a home that is impossible to pinpoint on a map. Instead, it is identifiable only by the predictability of family angst and interactions. By the time my fingers are clumsily handling the chopsticks, the question of when my family will next be seated in a restaurant together like this floats across my mind. I wonder about the next inevitable dinner argument, one that this time will include my voice, and I find myself eagerly anticipating it.

International students family sibling rivalry
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