Vignette

“A picture is worth a thousand words” as the adage goes. Attach a photograph that represents something important to you, and explain its significance.

Sitting in a dingy, cramped restaurant waiting for the carts of brunch dishes to pass by, I look like your average American teen – Calvin Klein t-shirt, khakis, a look of disgruntlement and impatience on my face. I should be making up this week’s sleep debt. Finally, the tea arrives at our table, and the smell refreshes me ever so slightly, the aroma of jasmine leaves lifting my mood. That is, until”Don’t pour her tea,” declares my father.The teapot slows to a halt on its journey to my cup. My mother rolls her eyes at the voice but places it back on the table anyways. It sits there patiently, silently shouting to tip it over and pour it out. So I lazily heed its command, and it resumes its trip until”Are you just going to pour it for yourself? What about your mother?”Translation: “Pour it for me, too.”The teapot is getting grumpy by now, so I relieve it a bit by pouring my mother, and then my father, tea. Finally, it is my turn to drink, and I bring the teapot towards me for the third time, until”You know, it’s okay if it’s just us, but if there were other adults here, you can’t do that. It’s rude not to pour tea for others first. We’re old and you’re young, you should show more respect and serve us first. I shouldn’t have to remind you to do it, and you shouldn’t wait for others to serve you. It’s traditional to do it if you’re youngest.”I, unfortunately, whether with my parents or family friends, am always unfailingly the youngest. By now, I just eye the teapot wondering if it’s worth the effort to pick it up again or if it’s just futile. This has been Tea Lecture #2,830,245. My hand reaches forward for the handle again, but this timeMy father’s hand beats mine to the needy pot, and the teacup before me is finally cured of its emptiness. His paternal expression is one of restrained pride and affectionate resignation as I gaze on amusedly and a bit uncomfortably. This is certainly a first.”Well, it is Chinese New Year’s. I guess I can do it once.”It seems that despite the mental barrier of self-interest and independence in my rebellious teenage mind, Confucius and his army of ideas have nevertheless been firmly rooted in my subconscious. I feel as if some ancient law has been broken, as if I have committed sacrilege just by allowing my father to stoop to pouring tea for his own child.So I extend my hand once again – and tap my forefinger – once, twice, thrice, until the cup is filled. Once, an emperor traveling in disguise while surveying his lands poured tea for a servant of his, who – knowing his ruler’s true identity yet commanded not to give it away – could do nothing but nervously tap his finger in reverence. Or so the story goes.In the murky depths of my filled cup lies a submerged identity, the one layered over with Seinfeld and Beatles and Chick-fil-A. Having moved at the mere age of four, I had very little opportunity to experience being Chinese in China. At first, resistance was strong against the clutch of Americanism – my refusal to eat salad, my attempts every night to sneak out of the apartment and run away back to my homeland – but weeks passed, and soon I shook my head furiously when asked if I wanted to return. My face beamed with pride whenever teachers inquired if I was born here, because “your English is so good”, and I began exhibiting patriotism, cheering for the U.S. in the Olympics while my parents still rooted on China. Yet there is still a part of me that lectures about respect and quotes ancient sayings of practical wisdom. Somewhere in my individual person survives a connection to the parents whose lives in Cultural Revolution China I could never fully comprehend, to the grandparents once so dear to me whom I now shy away from, to the culture that is an inseparable part of me no matter how integrated into American society I become.The food comes, and my Oriental side becomes more noticeable. Not many Americans devour chicken claws with relish, along with various other slightly odd dishes. Then comes the lucky color red, bringing in its paper folds the very lucky gift money. We celebrate the passing of horse to sheep in the zodiac line and call our relatives when we get home. Yet that special celebration is not needed everyday to connect me to my home country thousands of miles away or my cultural heritage thousands of years before. The essence of being Chinese is passed down simply through a relic of ancient imperial times – an unassuming cup of tea.

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