Dragon Boat Dinners
Kay Yee is the best drummer any dragon boat team has ever had. Her job is to keep the paddlers working at their maximum without wearing them out. That’s not easy.
A dragon boat is a forty-foot-long canoe propelled by twenty paddlers. The drummer is usually a lightweight woman who sits on a cigar box-sized seat at the bow with her legs wrapped around a barrel-sized Chinese drum. Through drumming and shouting commands, she regulates the speed of the boat. I stand at the rear and steer with a ten-foot paddle loosely attached to the stern. Steering, while not easy, is straightforward. I have to align the boat at the start of a race, dealing with wind and current, and keep it going as straight as possible for a five-hundred-meter sprint. The drummer, on the other hand, has to change the form and pace of paddling a number of times in those five hundred meters, from deep hard pulls to get the boat started to an all-out push at the finish. Kay Yee and I have been doing this for a long time and work well together. What the paddlers have to do is keep their heads down, stay in sync, and paddle hard. They’re the engine.
Kay Yee is one of the sweetest women I know when she’s not sitting at the drum, but when she is, some of the team call her the Tyrantess. She once shouted out to a new member of the team who was sitting toward the back of the boat, “Tell me your name. I need to know your name so I can yell at you when you do something wrong.” She can be fierce, but we have a well-disciplined, winning team.
Most of our teammates are Chinese, and the rest are a typical New York City ethnic mix. Our ages range from eighteen up to my wife Bridget, me, and some other grandparents. We practice in Flushing Bay just under the planes, taking off and landing at the end of the LaGuardia Airport runway, and we race in cities up and down the East Coast from Montreal to Miami, June to October. Each venue has its own boats, so all teams are on an equal footing and don’t have to transport their boat.
Almost every city we visit has some sort of Chinatown, and after a day of racing, we usually find a restaurant that can accommodate a large group. If the restaurant is authentic, they serve us Chinese banquet style. We’ve joked about Chinese restaurant owners only being able to count by ten. That means round tables for ten with at least ten courses served on lazy Susans in the center of the tables and a check in multiples of ten when we’re finished. Very few courses at these restaurants resemble anything you’d get in a standard Anglo-Chinese restaurant. Our polite Chinese friends won’t tell us the ingredients in what we’re eating unless we ask. Bridget used to like a particular crunchy noodle dish until she found out they weren’t noodles at all but actually julienned jellyfish. Maybe she shouldn’t have asked. I was once surprised by a beautiful platter I would have sworn was made up of colorful squash and strips of beef and pork. I was only right about the squash. It was a strictly vegetarian Buddhist dish, and the “beef” and “pork” were actually tofu.
Dragon boating is an expensive sport, and teams often have corporate sponsors. Bridget used to work for a bank that wanted to start a team and invited all employees and their spouses to try out. That’s how we began sixteen years ago, and since then, a group of us formed our own team, Gotham Thunder. Instead of a sponsor, we raise money with dinners and happy hours to cover equipment, insurance, and other expenses. We invite other teams, and they reciprocate by asking us to their events. We often don’t immediately recognize one another at these off-season events, wearing suits, ties, heels, and make-up instead of tee shirts, shorts, and flip-flops. Getting together like this, over food and drinks, is fun and an excellent way to keep the team members in touch over the winter months.
The younger and more demure Chinese women are entertained and maybe taken aback by Bridget’s American forwardness and saying exactly what’s on her mind. Some of them have spoken of their well-to-do grandmothers who had their feet bound in pre-revolution China, saying with some pride that they were rich enough not to need to walk efficiently. And then there’s Mae, who starts some of her political statements with, “I’m not a communist but…” and then goes on to say what great things Chairman Mao did for the Chinese people.
Some team members are amused that with my Italian American background, I’m not unfamiliar with ingredients like chicken feet, tripe, and various other types of organ meat and sea creatures. If there are no Chinese restaurants, the second choice is often Italian. At a dinner in an Italian restaurant, some of the team didn’t know what broccoli rabe was.
I told them, “Think of it as Italian bok choy.”
We have much in common that revolves around the dinner table. My Italian traditions tie into my Chinese friend’s traditions in that our major life events are grounded by food. These events, and not just happy ones like weddings and births, center on a meal. After a Chinese or Italian funeral, close friends and family meet at a restaurant for an elaborate luncheon where the life of the deceased is celebrated. When visiting a Chinese home, I must acknowledge the hospitality offered and accept something to eat, even something as basic as a piece of fruit. This is so much like my home when I was growing up, with my mother serving something to any guest who arrived at our door because no visit could be complete without the sharing of food.
When I hear the Chinese greeting, “Ni chele fan ne meijou?” (“Have you eaten rice today?”), it makes me recall my mother saying “Mangia!” to a guest.
When at home in New York, we typically meet at restaurants in Chinatown in lower Manhattan or in the newer Chinatown in Flushing, Queens, and not always on special occasions. Sometimes, after a Sunday morning practice, we’ll have Dim Sum when we need to discuss team issues or just feel like hanging out together. Meals after evening practice are more elaborate. Some of us enjoy these dinners as much as the races, and Bridget teases me about my being on the team only for the group dinners. It’s interesting how she and I are treated differently when we return to these same restaurants alone. The chopsticks disappear and are replaced with forks. They serve us American-style, little saucers of duck sauce and crispy fried noodles. The food is still good, but the authenticity is missing.
From time to time, we have potluck dinners at someone’s home. The last time it was at our place, Bridget made Italian sausage with peppers and onions. I was a little disappointed when Kay Yee arrived with couscous and lamb patties, expecting her to bring some traditional Chinese home cooking. I wasn’t disappointed when I tasted it. It was better than any I’d ever had in a Middle Eastern restaurant.
Dragon boating keeps us fit and tan, but I like how it brings together such a diverse group of people, and as different as we are, we all laugh at the same jokes and feel the same emotions when we win or lose a race. We have college students and retirees, bankers and construction workers, a father and son, a mother and daughter, people with various national, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds, all working together as a team to win races and when we’re not racing, enjoying each other’s company over good food.