by Sarah Wei, Managing Editor
A sharp rap of chopsticks against a plate tore my attention away from my phone.
I met my mother’s eyes, which scowled at me from across the dinner table as she nudged the broccoli towards me.
“Don’t get distracted. Focus on eating.”
Our daily family dinners demand our full attention: there are no TV dinners, no meals on our desks, no crumbs on the bed allowed. We are expected to be promptly seated at 7 p.m., arriving with empty stomachs and our best attitudes.
Our kitchen table is a carefully curated display of four sets of chopsticks and bowls of rice. In the middle lies the night’s offering — a vat of steaming soup, a plate of sauteed vegetables and at least two dishes of braised meat, all richly flavored and emulsified with Chinese spices.
Eating communally, we reach over each other in a weaving of tangled arms for spoonfuls out of shared bowls, our portions carefully monitored under my mother’s watchful gaze.
“But could I just bring this to the couch? The Patriots are up by only … ”
“No,” she curtly replies. “It’s tradition. Families should always eat together.”
My cheeks grew hot. Our strict rules, sharpened with my mother’s harsh tones, made me resent dinners as a child. I didn’t understand the dramatism — nothing important ever occurred during mealtime.
Our conversations seemed to solely consist of nagging about my portion sizes or how I was doing in school. It always just seemed like more, more, more — more stalks of celery, more refills of rice, more test grades I had to explain.
When I didn’t comply, groaning that I’d had enough, my parents ignored my complaints and reached over to pile more servings into my bowl.
The motivations behind our rigid regimentation remained a mystery to me for years, until I visited my grandparents in China in eighth grade. One night over dinner in my grandma’s apartment in Shanghai, a familiar old dish triggered my mom to begin recounting her childhood experiences.
All of her most vivid recollections from when she was a kid were centered around the round table we sat around — how her parents rationed one egg per week and spent hours on the field picking free sweet potatoes, just so they could enjoy mundane conversation every night as a family.
In their home, I learned, with her parents away working for the entire day, dinner time was sacred: a ritual of connection and appreciation for their commitment to each other.
And as I observed the hours my parents took out of their schedule every night to toil over the stove, I began to understand their creations of meatballs and fish soup and the strict rules that surrounded them.
“Don’t get distracted.”
Those sharp definitive commands had made me resentful and cynical towards our family. But I had just understood them wrong — they weren’t controlling or burdensome — they were just continuing their tradition and the experiences that had shaped my parents as children.
Even if I didn’t always enjoy them, or wished I could just eat pizza on the couch, I began to appreciate our daily meals. I recognized the time and energy that my parents put into our family in the best way they knew how — by cooking and eating together everyday.
Our dinners aren’t about comfortability or practicality, but our shared connection and sacrifice for each other.
As I prepare to enter college, my family’s schedules have grown increasingly frantic, and we’ve migrated farther into different sections of the house. I now welcome our conversations around the dinner table, memorizing faces and soaking up old stories, knowing that the table is our strongest anchor to each other.
So every night at 7 p.m., when my mom’s declaration of “Dinner!” rings like a siren through my house, I eagerly make my way downstairs and take a seat.