Every year for my grandparents' birthdays in July and October we have a three-table celebration at a restaurant, with the traditional 10-course menu. Every year my family rushes to leave the house on time, and every year we somehow manage to be late. Every year I resolve to act like an adult, but somehow the sheer awfulness of having to spend time with my relatives seems to squash me back into a petulant five-year-old, kicking the table leg with one high-heeled foot.
First course - steamed longevity buns filled with sweet bean paste
All the fuss over where to sit has finally been settled. My eldest uncle's wife (she has facial hair!) tried earlier to kick my grandfather's maid out of their table, citing a lack of space. El Moustachio's attempt is unsuccessful; the maid celebrates victory by valiantly preventing my diabetic grandfather from eating his bun, and thus prolonging his 84-year-old life. Nobody notices their little wrestling match - they're too busy stuffing their own faces.
Second course - cold lobster combination with spring rolls and baby octopus
In stark comparison to the raucous laughter and hoarse voices at the neighbouring table of aunts and uncles, the conversation at our table centres around Japanese buffets, European tour packages, foods that prevent cancer. No surprise - both my father and uncle married a certain type of woman: the kind who makes your life beautifully comfortable and civilised, and also has your balls zipped up nice and safe inside her Coach handbag. Hey, it's a fair bargain.
Third course - shark's fin soup with crabmeat
The soup is ladled out into little bowls by our waitress from China. My pathetically weak protest is overruled by my father, who insists I eat my bowl of soup. I compromise by eating half. Yeah, that's definitely going to make things better for the sharks.
Fourth course - roasted duck
Over at the next table they've broken out the beer and XO. Somebody reports that my alcoholic grandaunt has already knocked back two glasses of the hard stuff. Needless to say, nobody's drinking at our table. ("Dear, aren't you driving us home later?") My father - perhaps feeling slightly guilty for making me eat the shark's fin - offers to get me some XO. I decline. Like that's going to make things better.
Fifth course - steamed pomfret with preserved vegetables
It's not fresh. I hate steamed fish, I hate preserved vegetables, and I am rapidly devolving into a sulky teenager with every passing course. My cousin, only three years older, walks by with his toddler in his arms. I suggest letting our alcoholic grandaunt take the kid for a spin outside. My cousin doesn't smile, but he does pulls his child closer to him. Fucker never had a sense of humour, even when we were growing up.
Sixth course - Yam ring with prawns and scallops
I love yam rings. Eating a large chunk of it calms me down somewhat. Or maybe it's the latent streak of traditional thinking just waiting to burst out of me. By the end of dinner I'll have married a doctor, enrolled in an accountancy degree and bought a three-bedroom condo in the suburbs. My mother is going to be so happy.
Seventh course - Sea cucumber with broccoli and clams
My younger cousin abstains, saying he's allergic to shellfish. Bubble Boy is allergic to everything, and has a mysterious back injury that got him out of strenuous NS duties to boot. Even my brother - the walking, talking, PS3 playing definition of "sheltered" - thinks of him as a giant pussy. My father tries to make my cousin eat some clams. "A little bit won't hurt," he says. My aunt does not look amused.
Eighth course - Braised abalone with spinach
Everyone's talking about how full they are and which dishes should have been removed from the line-up, arguing over whether the yam ring or duck was more fattening. I'm not sure if it's rage or boredom, but I'm still going strong. I have a second helping of the abalone and spinach. If I had to live with these people 24/7 I would be morbidly obese.
Ninth course - Fried noodles with prawns
My mother and aunt are discussing slimming therapies. My eldest uncle swings by with yet another cousin's baby in his arms. "Babies like me a lot," he says proudly, his face flushed with alcohol. It's because he looks like a big old baby himself, in that flabby, liver-spotted way some middle-aged men have. The baby's mother, my cousin's wife, rolls up and makes a joke about leaving the kid behind so she can finally get a night's sleep. I'm so desperate at this point that it comes across as the funniest fucking thing I've heard in my entire life.
Tenth and last course - orh nee (yam paste) with gingko nuts
"This is what my daughter came for," says my father to the entire table, thus exposing my greed to all the relatives present. Then he runs over to the next table to help the maid, who is now trying to stop my grandfather from eating more than two spoonfuls of the sweet, oily dessert. I eat my bowl, and then I eat half of another bowl. My relatives observe in awe. Got to live up to the gluttonous reputation.
After dessert has been cleared away and the birthday cake brought out, the birthday song sung once in English and once in Mandarin, and the remains of uneaten cake cleared away, it's finally time to go home. People jingle their car keys. Somebody helps my alcoholic grandaunt into an uncle's Honda. I get into my dad's car, sitting on the left-hand side of the backseat like I have for the last 27 years. Nothing changes. We'll be doing this all over again in October.