By Songyi Zhang
Through my godfather Frank in upstate New York, I met several interesting American “codgers” – as they call themselves. They’re Frank’s buddies. Every weekday morning, these guys in their sixties and seventies sit in a local diner, Jodee’s, sipping coffee, having a calorie-rich American breakfast and shooting the breeze.
Among them the frequent patrons are Frank, a retired math teacher; Tom, a retired NYC cop; Dick, a retired executive in a phone company; Tim, a retired manager in a local supermarket; Bob, a retired safety inspector and Paul, an active minister in a Baptist church.
It took me a while to match their names with their faces. That’s just me, a Chinese with a poor memory of English names. I joined Frank at Jodee’s every day while I visited him. So when I was in the diner, I was treated really like an alien as I was the only Asian there. The waitresses would speak slowly in English to me to take my order (although I don’t think it’s necessary as I’m confident with my English) and they were also polite to me, instead of making jokes the way they did with the frequent patrons.
I was also the only woman around the table. Obviously, I wasn’t sensitive about what they discussed. Not only because I wasn’t familiar with the context but also because their topics were quite masculine. Subjects ranged from sports to politics to the obituary in the town. I wonder if this is a universal feature among men’s gatherings. In southern China, retired people go to restaurants for morning tea and dimsum as a daily routine. In most cases, Chinese men sit together after their wives finish their breakfast and go off for morning exercises in the park. The Chinese men usually bring the daily papers to the restaurants and comment on the headlines right off the bat with their male buddies. How great the attraction of politics is to retired men!
I remember when I travelled to Maine, in a local diner I saw a wooden sign read: No politics here. The sign was hung above a long bench and a table at a corner. I thought to myself women probably would gather over there.
Like the Chinese retired men, Frank and his coffee buddies also enjoy reminiscing about the good old days. Tim is quite a collector. One time he showed me a thick album of the newspaper clippings about the events happened in the town. The yellow pages underneath the cellophane cover dated back to the late 19th century. I learned from one clipping that a minister went to Guilin, China for a mission before World War I. At that time, the place Guilin was spelled differently. Just like Beijing was called Peking and Guangzhou was Canton. Another time Tim bought the black and white pictures to the diner. The pictures were taken on the main street of the town in 1960s. I was fascinated by his nostalgic evidence. Just a simple collection of the past aroused so many discussions among the old fogies. What impressed me was how ordinary Americans treasure their individual history. In this regard, Chinese are far behind. Due to warfare, natural disasters and political movements in China, countless family history has been damaged, destroyed or lost.
Sitting with these American codgers from all walks of life, I found my insight was like Marco Polo sharing his stories from his Far East expedition. Their jaws dropped at hearing we Chinese chew fish heads and chicken feet. Their eyes popped as I told them Chinese beggars and hookers loved harassing foreigners. In return, I learned the American sense of humor from them and lots of slang, such as skinny dip and fanny. What a cultural shock! More to come.