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The Culinary Medallion
Liu Xinwu

      He was twenty-six years old, a college grad with a Masters, and a white-collar worker. That morning for the first time he'd been named by the company's president to attend a business dinner, but at the dinner he'd carelessly spilled abalone juice down the front of his shirt. No need to say how embarrassing that was.
     When he got home he breathed a huge sigh of despair. His mother took one look when he came in the door and saw that he'd lost face, and inevitably started in chattering. He took off his shirt at once and his mother took it to wash for him right away. His father didn't criticize him, but couldn't help chuckling. "What's the hurry to wash it," he said, holding his reading glasses up to look closely at the stain. "It'd be better to hang it up for a few days, first! This is a 'Culinary Medallion'!"
     He didn't understand what the old man was talking about. His mother, pretending to be angry, gave his father a punch on the arm. "What year is this, and you're still jabbering about that!"
     That brand-name shirt was a birthday present given to him by his girlfriend a couple of days before, so he was particularly upset and angry. He sat on the sofa with his head hanging while his mother went to wash it. He couldn't deal with putting another shirt on at the moment.
     His father said, "It's my fault!"
     He looked up at his father but couldn't figure out what he meant. His father explained: "You get it from me. I always eat too fast, and my table manners have never been good. Your grandpa used to lecture me about it all the time, but did I ever think it was a big deal? It's something you've really got to concentrate on, and sometimes I'd lose my self-control. My chopsticks would be flapping and my spoon would miss the mark, and the whole table would be laughing at me. But what other people think of you doesn't count for much. The key is whether you can do the job, whether you're an asset to the company!" Then he asked, "How did your boss react at the dinner?"
    "Seems like he stared at me," he said, "but later on he didn't pay any special attention to me. After dinner he even patted me on the shoulder and told me to make sure I get the paperwork done correctly in English as soon as possible."
     "What about the guests?" his father asked.
     "They must have seen it," he said, "but they acted like they didn't."
     His father sighed. "That's one way to be polite," he said. "I once read a novel by Chekov, and I remember there was this one part in it where everyone was at a banquet and somebody accidentally knocked over a bottle of dressing. The stuff poured out and messed up the whole tablecloth, but the people were educated and it seemed like none of them had seen the guy's mistake. They kept on with their dinner conversation in normal voices."
     His girlfriend called while they were talking. It was the weekend, and they made a date to go to a late-night movie together. His mother had come back into the room when she'd finished with the shirt. She was more upset than he was, because she felt it would be impolite if he wasn't wearing the shirt he'd gotten for his birthday. Truth be told, his girlfriend wouldn't be happy. She'd probably get the wrong idea if he just wore another shirt without saying anything.
     His girlfriend called again. She'd changed her mind, because she'd heard a coworker say that the movie wasn't worth the trip to the theater. She'd gotten hold of a disc with the American movie, "Black Swan", starring this year's newly crowned Oscar winner, Natalie Portman. She wanted to come to his place so the two of them could watch it together on his computer. She said there were a lot of ballet scenes in it that would be fun to watch, and the dialogue was simple which would help them improve their English listening.
     Over the last six months or so it had become commonplace for his girlfriend to come over to his house and for him to go to hers, and both their parents were happy with it. Besides, both their places were good sized. The kids had their own rooms and were sensible enough not to mess around.
     He washed up and changed his shirt before his girlfriend got there. When she came in she looked at him and the first thing she said was, "How did that shirt I gave you get dirty so quick?"
     His mother tried to gloss it over: "People sweat a lot when it's hot, and it's not unusual to do the washing every day, you know."
     His father, on the other hand, was still chuckling about it. "He got himself a 'Culinary Medallion' today!" he said.
     "What Medallion? Huh?" his girlfriend asked. "What happened?"
     He was at a loss for words, so his father told her the complete "anecdote".
     His father was one of the so-called "graduates" from junior and senior high schools during the
Cultural Revolution [when the schools were actually closed]. Specifically, he "graduated" from junior high in 1966*. When kids that age were sent down to the counrtyside, he was assigned to a military unit on the frontier.
     Living conditions were really tough there at the time. They could get enough of the staple foods like rice only with difficulty, and cooking oil and water were unbelievably scarce. The clothing was one size fits all for everyone, so the young men always looked sloppy. Occasionally when they had meat dishes in the canteen, the young men would duel with their chopsticks to get as much as they could. Some of them splashed meat sauce on their shirts, and by convention these stains came to be called "culinary medallions" no matter what part of the shirt they were on.
     Once the command staff sent a group of inspectors around. The regiment slaughtered a hog for a reception, to show off how well it was doing. The inspectors and all the leaders from the regiment and the company ate together at one table. He was one of the most common of soldiers in the regiment, of course, but the regiment's leader had heard him call the assistant team leader of the inspection group "aunt", [using the term for "father's sister" rather than the generic "auntie"]. This gave him some status, so they assigned him to eat at the leaders' table.
     That day each of the common soldiers in the regiment got a big piece of pork to eat, but the food at the leaders' table was far superior in both quality and quantity. He sat next to his aunt and ate with gusto. In his haste to grab a piece of meat with his chopsticks, one of them slipped and a piece of fatty pork belly landed on the right side of his chest. It left a big, round, distinct "culinary medallion".
      "I was really very proud of it at the time. I didn't even think about washing it for several days, just swaggered around the regiment wearing that 'culinary medallion' on my chest. It was a sign that I had 'friends in high places'! Actually, that great aunt of yours, she was only a distant relative and never visited our family much. She passed away before you were born.... I'd had a small role in the publicity team, dancing as one on the Southern Tyrant's men in the Red Detachment of Women, but after the inspection group left, the regiment let me dance the part of Hong Changqing, the male lead!"
     Then his father told the two youngsters, "That was one of the little things that our generation experienced. But when you put all those little things together, that's what history really is."
     That night he and his girlfriend didn't watch "Black Swan". They listened to his father, and later his mother chipped in, too, talking about trivialities from those years. They thought to themselves, "We want to know these things, we should know them."

* [He was one of the "老三届", specifically a "老初一". I have not found any explanations of these terms in English. For explanations in Chinese, see
here and also http://www.baike.com/wiki/老三届 – Fannyi]

百年百篇经典微型小说 100 Years, 100 Classic Mini-stories, 2nd Printing, March 2012, P. 23
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