The majestic silver trees lining the streets of Shanghai were imported from France over a century ago. They stand like pillars along the newly paved roads and old cobblestone sidewalks. Between their mottled trunks, colorful flags of blankets and old ladies’ underwear waved in the shade. A middle-aged woman leaned out of a second story window across from us and screamed at her husband below. He tried to calm her but was hit in the face with a slipper. Neighbors barely pretending to mind their own business quickly milled around them. A few brought out folding chairs.
“I want to incorporate some traditional Chinese elements into the wedding,” I said to my uncle. He said nothing. We were standing on the balcony so he could smoke while my grandmother took her afternoon nap. For the past twenty-five years, he pretended to hide his smoking from her and she pretended she didn’t know. She’d even put an ashtray by her cactus plants and denied she knew it was there.
“Are there some Chinese wedding traditions in our family?” I asked, opening my moleskin notebook. “I read that there’s some ceremony involving tea?”
My uncle smoked in silence, his heavy-lidded eyes half-closed. He blew one smoke ring through another, and then stubbed out his cigarette in one of the cactus plants. He lit another from the pack hidden behind a loose tile on the windowsill. His rugged face was shiny in the late summer sun and he scratched his Buddha-belly lazily.
“Let me tell you what tradition is,” he finally said.
“A little girl is learning how to cook from her mother. They’re making braised fish from a recipe that’s been in their family for generations. It’s something her mother learned from her mother who learned from her mother. (Like how you learned to make –oh wait, your dad told me how horrible your cooking is. Never mind.)
The little girl watches her mother take the fish out of the wok and place it on the cutting board. The mother takes the kitchen cleaver, raises it over her head, and chops off the tail with an angry ‘Bang!’ She puts the fish onto the serving dish and plops the tail down next to the head.
‘Mommy,’ says the little girl, ‘why do you chop the tail off the fish?’
The mother says, ‘That’s how my mother always did it. And she learned it from her mother before her. It’s tradition.’
‘But, why?’ says the little girl. (She’s one of those kids who asks too many questions. Like you.)
‘I don’t know,’ says her mother.
So they go to visit the grandmother, the mother’s mother.
‘Mother,’ says the little girl’s mother, “When I was little and learning how to make the braised fish that you learned to make from your mother, you would always raise your cleaver over your head and chop the tail off before you served it. Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know,” says the grandmother. “That’s how my mother always did it, and I learned from her. It’s tradition.”
Well, the women in this family were long-lived and the great-grandmother is still around. So these three generations of women trek across the city to the high-rise condo the great-grandmother lived in. (Or the nursing home, or the house in the country, whatever you want. The important thing is they go on a long journey of soul-searching and inspirational bonding crap. You know, that bullshit Hollywood stuff.) Finally they arrive at the great-grandmother’s, who is one of those white-haired, ninety-year-old women who still does tai-chi every morning.
“Ma,” says the little girl’s grandmother, “When I was young and learning how to make your famous braised fish, you would always chop the tail off the fish before you served it. Where does that tradition come from?”
The great-grandmother stops fanning herself with her old raffia fan. She takes a sip of Pu’er tea from the ancient tea thermos all old ladies carry (the green plastic kind, made in the ‘80s). She points a gnarled finger at her three descendants standing before her, awaiting her wisdom.
‘Tradition?’ she cackles. ‘What tradition? Our serving dish was too small for a whole fish and your cheapskate dad wouldn’t get a bigger one. Every time I made my delicious braised fish, I had to cut off the tail so it would fit on that tacky thing his mother gave us. It completely ruined the presentation! I would raise the cleaver above my head and chop as loudly as I could so he would know I was angry. Did that make him get me a bigger, nicer serving dish like my sister’s husband got her? Nope. Cheap bastard.
Now why did you always chop the tail off?’”
My uncle put out his cigarette in the poor cactus pot again and threw the stubs over the balcony. On the sidewalk, the fighting couple seemed to be reconciling. Neighbors wandered away, bored.
“So you see,” my uncle continued, folding his hands over his Buddha-belly. “Tradition is arbitrary and insignificant. Someone sometime did something for some dumb reason and somehow their kids decided to repeat this action as if it were special.
Your parents took you to a new country so you don’t have to worry about all these pointless rules and practices. If you want to get married, then just get married. What does tradition have to do with it?
You Americans are always talking about freedom, but then you come back to ask about tradition and family and history to tie yourself down again.
Just go and be free!”