Chinese, if not Asian, culture is a lot about reciprocity. Not meaning that "if you scratch my back, I will scratch yours" but instead "if you dare claim to pay for this meal, I will have to fight you tooth and nail for this bill." The Chinese like to be generous hosts and do not want to outdone by others.
But why does this semi-rule get lost between parent and child. Case in point: visits. Despite living slightly over 200 miles apart from one another, I risk my life and limb every month to visit my parents via the Chinatown bus system while my parents reciprocate with an annual visit despite owning a car. The return ratio on this relationship is simply skewed towards my parents.
My parents suddenly called me up recently and claimed that they will be visiting me on July 4th weekend. Suddenly I am transported to their last visit. Let me clarify that when my parents visit, it is not a vacation but an agenda. They do not expect to laze around, they do not want to sit around a pool and sip pina coladas, they especially do not want to prance around on a beach in a bikini, and finally they expect to be entertained. Years of going on Chinese tour bus vacations, where they cram every minute with activities to make the most of your money, has honed their idea of a "vacation" far pass the expectations of most people.
Last year when they finally decided to embark on their annual pilgrimage to my place, I diligently mapped out their itinerary to account for every minute. Saturday: Arrival, dim sum, Big Apple circus, dinner, sleep. Sunday: Wake up, breakfast, Martha's Vineyard, lunch, drive back, dinner, sleep. Monday: parents leave.
Everything was going according to plan. The dim sum restaurant was suitable to their taste, but of course more expensive and less tasty than the local place they frequent at home; I paid for their meal; the circus was acceptable, but really should have had more animals to claim to be a real circus; and dinner was ok. Sunday should be a better day since we'll be visiting one of the landmarks in the Northeast. Despite the fact that it was in April and it being a bit chilly, we should avoid the tourists which is a positive thing.
But my parents refused to be charmed by the quaint little knick-knacks selling shops, the narrow strip of beach, or the zigging streets; they thought the food was overpriced (well...we were on an island!); the ferry ride was expensive and not scenic enough; and it was chilly. They didn't understand why people would pay to go to a place that didn't have much to do. No matter how I try to convince them that people would take a weekend or a day off to come to the island to bike, fish, or play frisbee, they were wary of my explanations. The fact that there were not enough tourists didn't help.
After lunch we strolled down the beach front. The water was too cold to get in but since the next ferry doesn't depart till an hour later, we had to make the best of it. The sun was shining pleasantly enough to warm the air a bit as we strolled down the tiny beach near where the ferry docked. I was contemplating whether or not to take them further down the road when we seem to have passed through the most bustling area already, my dad called out "Come here PJ, come!"(For some reason they actually don't ever call me by my Chinese name but calls my brother by his Chinese name.)
What could have driven my dad to be at the water's edge and be so excited? My mom and grandma were equally as excited. "Look," said my dad as he continued to bend and pluck something out of the water. Look I did. They were peeling small snails off the rocks of Martha's Vineyard! "There's tons of them," said my mom as she waded further into the frigid water to grab the bigger ones. My dad's arthritic joints prevented him from following her but I'm sure he would have jumped right in if he is less afflicted.
I was half afraid that some tourists would come down the streets and first wonder why three elderly Chinese people were wading in the water only to turn in horror as they realize they were snail hunting. Since I couldn't stop them, I joined them. After 45 minutes of bending and plucking we got a good pound of snails in a plastic bag and it was time to head back to the mainland via the ferry.
Needless to say, my parents cooked them for a tasty dinner. First by boiling the snails, then using toothpicks to extricate the meat from the intricate whorls, and finally sautée-ing them in a fragrant garlic sauce (the French do it too!). Had I known that simple snail picking and cooking can entertained them for the whole day, I would not have agonized about their itinerary.
Now let's see how I can keep them amused for the coming visit.