Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Family style

Over the years I've gotten to sit down with a lot of different families at their respective dinner tables and it's given me a lot to think about, not only in learning how to interact in that sort of social situation - which often feels like a social experiment, as you throw clashing personalities into their places around the table - but in discovering which dynamic I'd want in my own life when I have a table of my own.

My first real insight came probably around seven to eight years old. I had been best friends with a girl named Ashley since first grade and we loved to have sleepovers at her grandparents house - which is just up the road from the house I still live in. I'd come over in the afternoon and we'd play games for hours. We'd rent PG-13 movies (scandalous!) and fall asleep before they ended, sharing the big full-sized bed in the room Ashley used whenever she stayed at her grandparents'.

It was always a lovely experience. Their house was so big that it was made for hide-and-seek. Outside there was a shed with a bunch of toys and a play kitchen. They also had a horse and a huge german shepherd that scared me to death when my dad dropped me off at the end of the tree-lined driveway.

The first time I slept over at Ashley's grandparents house, though, was the first time I realized that little bit of awkwardness that arises when you're in the company of a different family over dinner.

This wasn't the first time I'd ever eaten at a friend's house, but it was the first time I ever felt uncomfortable eating at a friend's house.

We sat around at the little wooden table, Ashley, her grandfather, grandmother and I, picking at homemade meatloaf and doing little else. Here is where the difference lay.

I'm from a family of interactive eaters. Whether we're sitting at the dinner table talking about life or sitting in front of a television talking about life over the sound of Jeopardy, we make time in the evening to enjoy the company and perhaps gab a bit too much.

Sometimes mealtime is the only opportunity to reconnect. It becomes a necessary part of the daily routine otherwise we'd barely interact with each other at all. But that's not true for everyone, I guess.

I figure this out at that table with Ashley and her grandparents, when instead of the decibel picking up with the sound of people talking about their days, it became almost necessary to breathe loudly so as to avoid hearing everyone else chew their food.

That being said, I respected the choice to be quiet at dinner. Sometimes it can be a pleasant experience to simply enjoy food, then retire to some other venue for family interaction if that is on the agenda. There's no rule that states that we should all be loud and gregarious over food.

Yet I think there is something to humanity, that virtually expects loquacious mealtimes.

Half of my ethnic background is made up of the Japanese culture - a not-so-very-touchy-and-or-sentimental group of people who are perhaps known for their shyness and regal personas. When I went to Japan a couple of years ago and visited my family, this was certainly what I expected from them.

To some extent, I received it. As soon as my grandma and I stumbled into her cousin's home one afternoon, we were ushered into their living room with some strange bowing and scraping, followed by gift-giving, followed by some scrambling to perform tea ceremony. And this was all before we were served any food - save for the matcha we had in the tea ceremony room.

Everything was arranged very orderly. All particulars were maintained. Nothing was out of place.

Then came dinner.

My very culture-restrained family sat down (or in the women's case, kneeled) on the floor (a more traditional way of gathering for a Japanese meal) and started to present themselves in the same way an Italian family might with platters of varied dishes and one person yelling to pass the gnocchi.

Seriously, you wouldn't have believed they were Japanese. Not to be culturally stereotypical or anything, but being someone who's grown up with a very prim and proper grandmother who constantly speaks to the sophistication of the Japanese, I tend to believe this estimation.

It's at this point during the day that my family, and many families all around the world, are able to let loose and show their true selves. It's when we can finally gather around and actually feel like a family. Without pretenses and without expectations, we finally get to live.

The reason I bring this up is because this afternoon I sat at another table with a friend's family. While it wasn't as awkward as my experience more than 10 years ago at Ashley's grandparents house, at the time I still felt a bit of unease at the quiet that seemed to envelope the dining room.

Within a few minutes, I was fishing for subjects to bring up that might spark conversation with everyone. I ended up talking with my friend's parents about movie ratings, and luckily the interaction flowed much better than it might have if I were seven or eight years old again.

Looking back at all my experiences at meals with my own family - who no matter in what combination are always eager to keep conversations plentiful at the table - and with my friends' families - who, depending on the grouping, are sometimes incredibly loquacious as well, or frighteningly taciturn, it can be hard to predict how any particular family will act at dinner.

But the awareness of this makes me even more conscious of how I act at the table - and how to see to it that the table never gets entirely silent. Because, as much as it is everyone's choice whether they want to blabber with their mouth full or not, it's also everyone's right to a happy eating experience at least once a day for the rest of their lives.

So give me a loud Japanese family every day at dinner. Even if it gives me a headache, it's worth it for the voices.

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