Ulrich and I recently returned from a trip to New York City, where we’d spent a week sightseeing with his daughter Anneliese in celebration of her Abiturabschluss (high school diploma).
We received a dinner invitation for our last night in the city from Paul, a partner at a consulting company who’s been bidding on one of Ulrich's projects at work. I thought the idea sounded awful but eventually gave in because 1) Anneliese was equally intrigued by the prospect of being wined and dined by rich New Yorkers, and 2) I knew that the only way to persuade Ulrich of the idea’s awfulness was for him to experience it firsthand. I expected it to be awful for the simple reason that Paul was a partner at a large, “big 4” consulting firm, and I guess I find New York executives unbearable. (My reason was shallow, but the odds were in my favor: I am, unfortunately, rather good at predicting the unbearableness of rich New Yorkers, having lived among them from 2004-2009.)
The restaurant was an expensive place dressed down in a bohemian-jungle aesthetic with tables spilling onto Sixth Avenue under a slanted-roof, plywood-and-plexiglass construct. Paul arrived with his wife, an elegant Chinese tiger mom named Feng, and her daughter Xianxian, who was in her mid-twenties and had decided to tag along for the fancy cocktails.
After self-introductions Feng and Xianxian went in search of restrooms, and I asked Paul if I had understood how to pronounce his stepdaughter’s name correctly. Paul waved his hand, chuckling: “I don’t know if I pronounce it correctly either, but I just remind myself that it sounds like the body part, repeated twice.” He pointed to his chin, indicating chin-chin.
Feng told us over appetizers how sorry she felt for her friends back in Shanghai, who were under many COVID restrictions and couldn’t lead normal lives (not like us, drinking chilled Barolo and nibbling Panisse as we sat at white-clothed tables in a repurposed bike lane!). Then she asked for my opinion of China’s zero-COVID lockdowns, and whether I also felt sorry for my friends and family “back home”, hoping to elicit some camaraderie from a fellow immigrant-turned-critic. I panicked, blurting out: “Uhh – well, both of my parents were born in Taiwan and I was raised to speak Taiwanese and be pro-Taiwan, so I kind of think that everything the Chinese government does is bad.” I skimmed Feng’s almond-shaped face for signs of contempt but she remained expressionless, wearing a rehearsed look of plausible deniability. I wonder how often she uses that look when she returns to Shanghai.
Sensing a whiff of tension in the air, Paul chimed in to say that he knew a song in Taiwanese, and he looked like he might start to sing it. But Feng shook her head, batting her hands at him in a slapping motion.
“You don’t know how to sing in Taiwanese!” she scolded. “You can sing one song in mandarin – not Taiwanese – which happened to be written by a Taiwanese singer.”
Paul blinked. We were rescued by the server arriving to take our entrée orders.
The restaurant had an infuriating menu with words alternating in English, Italian and French, making it impossible to decipher using Google Translate. I asked for whatever was vegetarian, which seemed to be the one thing that the server did not expect me to say. Upon learning that four out of six of us at the table were vegetarians, she dashed away in a hurry, returning moments later to explain that while there was no vegetarian entrée per se, the chefs were happy to assemble all the vegetable sides from that day’s menu to improvise an “absolutely gorgeous” vegetarian plate. None of us minded of course, but I wonder how much more efficient the ordering process would have been if they had simply stuck to one language on the menu.
While we waited for our entrées, Xianxian and I discovered that we’d both majored in Economics at NYU, graduating twelve years apart. As we compared notes on our favorite professors Feng leaned in, wide-eyed and curious, to ask how I’d managed to get a job when I’d graduated during the big Wall Street collapse of 2008. I didn’t realize until later, as Xianxian told us about her winning Settlers of Catan strategy and admitted to spending hours playing online while unemployed, that Feng’s question had been a jab at her daughter for not finding a job immediately after her own graduation in 2020.
Midway through dinner Anneliese was overcome by a sudden wave of nausea. Anneliese has had an autoimmune disease since she was young and feeling nauseous is not entirely unusual for her, due to side effects from various medications; still, I wonder if the palpable exertion from the dinner conversation had weakened her stomach. Xianxian and Feng had taken turns asking her – in a level of enthusiasm three pitches higher than what you’d typically hear in a conversation among Germans – about her favorite music, Netflix shows, and plans for college. The latter was a topic of special interest; they were fascinated (as I had also been) that German high school graduates don’t find out which universities they’ve been accepted to until just a month or two before the fall semester starts. “Oh, that sounds so stressful – you must be having an awful summer!” said Feng with a sharp laugh. Anneliese laughed too, uneasily, shooting me a quizzical look.
Moments later she nudged me and whispered in my ear that she might need to vomit; I could tell by her expression that she desperately wanted to go back to our Airbnb. I looked over at Ulrich to my right, who was mid-conversation with Paul. His hairline was dotted with beads of sweat, lips inverted in a semi-permanent frown, the kind he gets when he’s lost in thought over a troubling problem. I leaned over and, placing my hand on his back, explained that Anneliese was unwell. I suggested to hail a cab.
Paul snapped into quarterback mode, motioning for Xianxian’s attention. “Chin-chin,” he barked. “Use your phone to order an Uber from my account. And when it gets here, you’ll bring Anneliese to the Uber.” I found it strange how he emphasized the word you’ll, as if she might get confused over which chin-chin he was talking about.
Feng had missed the exchange and was struggling to catch up; she scoffed when she realized her husband had asked her daughter to order an Uber. “Why do you need to order an Uber when there’s hundreds of cabs right outside?”
I managed to usher Anneliese away from the table and put her in a cab back to the Airbnb. When I returned, Xianxian shared that she often gets sick while travelling as well; she had fallen ill, inexplicably, during recent trips to Milan and Barcelona.
“Oh, interesting,” I responded, shoving forkfuls of sprouts into my mouth in an effort to catch up to the others, most of whom were finishing their entrées. “Is there something about new surroundings that’s hard for you to adjust to?”
“It’s purely psychological,” interjected her mother.
Weighing the implications of Feng’s statement, Paul attempted to clarify: “For chin-chin it’s psychological,” he said, winking. “For Anneliese I’m sure it’s real.”
Xianxian rolled her eyes as she sipped her cocktail.
At the end of the night Feng inadvertently flipped the dinner table by exerting too much pressure with one arm as she exited her side, breaking a wine glass, a water pitcher and two tumblers. Shards of glass landed dangerously close to our neighbors at the next table. As Feng gasped and began to apologize profusely, Xianxian remarked, as an afterthought: “oh yeah, this side of the table has been wobbly all night.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Feng implored, her cheeks flushed.
“I guess I forgot,” shrugged Xianxian.
I accelerated our goodbyes by announcing that I needed to visit the restroom on our way out. Ulrich and I left the family waving to us from the street corner, their silhouettes lit up by the backdrop of a rose-and-lilac sunset bursting around them. I wondered if we appeared as dysfunctional to them as they had to me.
I turned to Ulrich and bit my lip, resisting the urge to say “I told you so.” Instead, I said that I could use an Old Fashioned.