On Invitations and the Dinner We Never Expected

IMG_1979“Time for dinner! Go to big uncle’s home!”

When my mother-in-law shouted the news up the stairwell a few weeks ago, I was dumbfounded. It was 4:30pm and we never ate dinner until at least 5:30pm. But more importantly, nobody told John and me we were having dinner out this evening. And we weren’t the only ones surprised, as we learned when we met my mother-in-law downstairs.

“They’ve already made dinner,” she said. She was wearing her favorite blue-and-yellow felt apron, evidence that she had probably been working on dinner for us when someone from big uncle’s home came over with the news. “It’s bad not to go. Just go over there and eat a little.”

A little, however, was not what big uncle had in mind — as John and I discovered when we walked into the dining room. Eight people were already huddled around a dining room table filled with more than 10 different dishes, a delicious assortment of stir-fried meats and vegetables that would have rivaled some of the most lavish banquets I’ve ever attended in China.

I couldn’t help thinking how my family back in the US would never pull off such a huge spread at the last minute. People would need days if not weeks of notice, and even then some people might not be available. Yet here, it just happened one afternoon, all because big uncle wanted to share his generosity with us.

Even though I still equate the word “invitation” with advance notification, I’m also learning to understand that invitations don’t always work like that — especially out here in my husband’s village. Sometimes it’s not an easy thing to accept when, like me, you’re so used to setting your own schedule and being told well in advance of upcoming dinners, meetings or other events. But there’s also beauty in living spontaneously, in not always having every moment and every second planned out…especially when, like big uncle’s dinner, it turns out to be a tasty surprise.

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11 Replies to “On Invitations and the Dinner We Never Expected”

  1. My family doesn’t like last minute invitations or anything like that, which was problematic when it came to my friends who seem to thrive on last minute invitations. I used to have a Korean friend who would always be last minute person and who often changed his plans daily. (Planned on doing A, B, C but instead ended up doing D, E, and F…) then the Korean guy I dated from 2008-2010 would talk to me on the phone, then would tell me, “I’m here,” I’d look outside and there his car was!

    In my view there needs to be balance because if taken to extreme both can lead to frustration: predictability because it means no bursting of last minute surprises and no human spirit, and spontaneity because you never know what will happen at all.

  2. It sounds like it was an unexpected but pleasant surprise. Your post reminds me of weddings invites in Taiwan. Invitations are sent out no more than a couple of weeks to one month before the reception, without a reply card; so it is a guessing game regarding how many will show up! In Canada, people send out save-the-dates as soon as a date is set and well before the invitations!

  3. From my (and your) experienced I’ve noticed one thing: no one ever says ‘no’ to big uncles 🙂
    does that put pressure on you? for me when we spent 10 days in Shanghai with his family I never knew what will happen so my love-planning me was in pain. And even when we had different plans, we’ve been on the other part of Shanghai his mother called us with ‘uncles is making a dinner, come home’. It’s kinda annoying, especially I feel sorry for your mom in-law, put so much effort in making the food, half way done and needed to stop >.<

  4. The last minute invites are not uncommon with Chinese families. I think it is also quite common with other Asian societies. So far as I am concerned, they can come more often than not and I won’t complain, especially if the food is delicious!

  5. Actually, that’s what I love most about rural China. When I lived with my in-laws for a while, we would have those “invitations” all the time. Sometimes twice a day.

    Especially in the first few weeks after we came back there would be lunch/dinner invitations from close family memebers, but also from neighbours. It still amazes me. As I grew up in Germany, and Germans have strict rules if it comes to invitations. Some even have to be months in adavance. They would proclaim you insane if you would just stand in front of their door to tell them we are going out now haha But in China I had to be ready all the time. In the beginning I found it quite exhaustin, but after a few weeks I would even ask if their is any invitiation today. Those dinners would usally be extremly delicious and enormous fun. I just love our little village.

  6. Hooray for spontaneous parties! When I lived in the small village above Shaolin Temple last summer, nearly everyone had a cellphone, but my monk friends still prefer just showing up at my door and saying, “Let’s go to dinner,” or sometimes when I got home my landlady would be in her going-out clothes and say, “We’re eating out tonight,” and I would ask,”when?” And she would say, “now.” And she meant “now” as in the car and driver were idling outside! I would drop everything and go. Thinking about this now, I recall that my parents, who are Chinese immigrants to the U.S., also gave very little-to-no notice with their invitations when I was growing up. The thinking was that it gives their guests no time to fuss. No time to get a gift. If they gave you say, three days notice, it obligated you to bring something. So this spontaneity, as abrupt and discourteous as it may feel to a Western scheduler, may actually be the Chinese/Asian way of treating you without any expectation of anything in return. Invitations are great. But unexpected invitations are fantastic!!!

  7. This brings back so many memories! Even on Chinese New Year Day, we would walk halfway across town for bai nian, and people would either not be home (no advance warning, so they didn’t know we were coming!) or they would shift some stools around and we’d join in on a dozen-course lunch. Everything was spontaneous.

  8. Jocelyn, I was wondering if you have written more about the village where you live? It would be very interesting to know about your surroundings and how your day to day life looks like 🙂

  9. Apart from “spontaneous invitations” there is also “guess whose coming to dinner” e.g. you are invited to dinner, think it will be you and the person/s who invited you. You turn up to the restaurant and there in a private room is you, the inviter along with 5+ other people you don’t know and weren’t told would be joining you, but it makes for a fun and interesting evening.

  10. I am actually rather fond of these last mintue invites. Same as Anna, I grew up in Germany with strict rules when it comes to inviting people etc.
    So whenever I am in China I just feel that everything “flows” more freely when it comes to daily life. Of course sometimes it is a bit irritating when you already are in progress of preparing your own lunch or dinner and get invited but anyways, it is nice 🙂

  11. I don’t know if my mother-in-law was always told last minute, but she often didn’t happen to tell me or my husband until late in the afternoon that we were going out to dinner with my father-in-law’s friends or coworkers, or some family member that had come to visit. At first it frustrated me, a person who is very used to making plans in advance, and especially if I was in the middle of something that I had to drop immediately and just go. But there was never any saying “no”, even if you were sick (except for when my husband got such a bad flu that he was bed-ridden for 5 days – then we were excused). But over time I got used to it and just kind of… stopped planning my own evenings, haha, so that I wouldn’t be in the middle of anything when an unexpected dinner came up.

    Constance – Foreign Sanctuary, I asked my husband about the wedding invitations his parents sent out for our wedding, because they sent out hundreds and like you said, there were no reply or RSVP cards. But they also made very meticulous table plans, who would be sitting with who at what table, etc. I asked him how they knew who would be coming for sure and he said they actually called each person to confirm. I don’t know if that’s common or not, though.

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