When people think of Chinese culture, they envision sparkly dragons etched onto temple pillars, Asian calligraphy, koi fish swimming in serene ponds, and steaming hot dumplings. And they wouldn’t be too far off!
Stereotypes aside, I’ve been wanting to connect more with my culture lately, so I approached the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago for some insight. The mission of the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago (CAMOC) is “to promote the culture and history––through exhibitions, education, and research––of Chinese-Americans in the Midwest.” I attended their 12th Annual Fundraising Dinner celebrating Traditional Chinese Festivals at Cai Fine Dining and Banquet in Chinatown, near the Cermak El stop. Anita Luk, Executive Director of CAMOC, graciously invited me to the event for an elaborate 11-course feast and plenty of jolly good company.
After a traditional lion dance, welcoming remarks and greetings, guests whetted their appetite with lettuce wraps and Peking duck tacos before diving into steak, roast chicken, and lobster. The larger dishes were served family style, with various accompanying sauces. The crispy roast chicken tasted remarkably succulent, and the Hong Kong steak on top of gai lan (or Chinese broccoli) left my tongue buds weak with delight. Gorging myself with MSG-laden homey goodness, I somehow managed to snap pictures and take notes of the event. Despite my best attempts at graciousness, I couldn’t help but smirk at guests who politely scooped bits of food onto their plates. If there’s one rule of Chinese feast etiquette that Americanos must know, it is to load your entire plate, eat all of it in shameless delight, and reload it once more. Gluttony is not a sin–it is a virtue of respect.
Throughout the evening, volunteers and museum workers wandered from table to table, selling raffle tickets for prizes including whole roasted pigs, an iPad, and a Gangnam Tour for Two. The dinner’s goal was to sell $5,000 worth of raffle tickets, and I contributed a whopping 0.1% of that amount! Even if guests didn’t donate (by quickly averting their eyes or hurriedly resuming their eating), everyone got a goodie bag filled with oolong tea, soy sauce, and coconut juice.
Despite the realization that my Mandarin is truly appalling, I thoroughly enjoyed the dinner and even made a couple of friends with fellow Asian journalists. Although the fundraiser supported the Chinese-American community, it was wonderful to see an ethnically-diverse crowd eagerly supporting a cause outside their cultural sphere.
And CAMOC has impressive ties with the Chicago community: they received a 3-year grant from the MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and other grants from organizations including Northrop Grumman Co., the Illinois Humanities Council, and the Chicago Community Trust. They’ve partnered with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as the Chicago History Museum and Chicago Cultural Alliance. I could spout more accomplishments, but essentially, they have their shit down. Needless to say, I’m enormously proud to be Chinese American, and dinners like these remind me of the importance of preserving my people’s culture and history.