By Assunta Ng
When my friend emailed me that she was taking me to the Oxford and Cambridge Club (OCC) in London, I was elated. But after one meal, my original desire of wanting that experience changed to no desire of returning again.
Was I crazy to make that decision? After all, the OCC is one of the most prestigious clubs in England, and one of the founders was a prime minister. So why did I have such a negative experience?
My husband and I were in London recently. We were looking forward to the invitation, knowing that Oxford and Cambridge University are famous. My friend was being thoughtful for offering the invitation.
The club was a couple blocks from our hotel so her husband, a Brit, picked the OCC, while they took an over hour-long train ride from Cambridge to join us.
And of course, he graduated from Cambridge University, with a double degree. The OCC is not a big club.
It only has about 3,000 members and a long wait list for potential members. You practically have to wait for some alumni to die, or move away, before an opening is available.
My friend emailed me about the dress code. Men have to wear a suit and tie. In Rome, do as the Romans do. I gladly complied.
There are more hidden rules than I expected. Soon, I realized that I had violated every single rule at the OCC.
It started with my golf hat. (It’s different from a baseball hat, which is more casual.) When I walked in, everyone was staring at me. Yep, hats are not a good idea at the OCC, (perhaps unless I had one like Princess Kate Middleton with frills and feathers around it). Everyone could stare as long as they wished; I was not going to expose my bad hair.
In the lounge, I greeted my hosts with hugs and giggles. We hadn’t seen each other for 40 some years—we just couldn’t contain our joyous emotion. Apparently, noise is not acceptable at OCC. My friend’s husband motioned us to “sh sh sh”!
I turned around and saw there were only two small parties besides us at the huge place. Holy crap, was I disturbing and disrupting the whole world?! Still, I reminded myself to do as the Romans do. We whispered even though our conversation included some hilarious jokes.
Later, to my astonishment, my dining manners were clearly unacceptable to high-class Brits.
Decorated with majestic chandeliers, the formal room was elegant, but lacked vibrancy, ingenuity, and energy. In less than an hour, the whole room was packed with professional folks dressed in business attire. No one moved around, interacted, and shook hands with people sitting at other tables. Everyone looked stiff and reserved.
Our waiter was a pleasant Spaniard with a little accent. He gave us the menus and provided us with superb service.
“I like to order a fish, would you like a steak so we can share?” I asked my husband.
“No, No, No! You can’t,” our host, my friend’s husband said.
“You finish [eating] up the whole plate like a good boy,” he told my husband. Actually, his words were meant for me, that I should clean up my own plate. I guess I am not a good girl based on British standards, due to sharing my food with others.
That’s the way we eat, Chinese-family-style. In America, restaurants usually split the dish for us so we need not bother to divide the food ourselves.
I could never finish a whole plate myself when we go out to eat. And my husband is a bigger eater than me. Sharing is not only a cultural norm for us, but it is also economical and natural. It’s a sound, practical way not to waste food.
The portions of each entree were huge. But I forced myself to eat the whole fish. If I didn’t, I would be perceived as rude. But the side dishes including the veggies and potatoes were big too. My husband would have loved my leftovers, which were cooked with the juices of the fish. I would have enjoyed a few pieces of his steak. I felt bad that I had to watch the waiter picked the plates up and knew that he would throw them away. When I thought about the Ethiopian kids who never had enough to eat, I felt sick to my stomach. All my life, I have considered it a gift to cook leftovers, so I don’t need to throw away any bits of food. Why do the Brits have to be so square and tight? Is that how they demonstrate the meaning of high society?
“This is a beautiful room,” I told my friends. “Can I take a picture?”
“No,” my host said. “How would you like everyone in the room, flashing their cell phones?”
I begged, but he insisted that we shouldn’t break the rule. Not able to take photos is like a slap on my itchy hands.
So young people, the OCC is not for those who want to take selfies. “I would like to see a photo of your sons,” I said to my friend.
“No,” her husband said. “Don’t take out your cell phones,” he told his wife.
In defiance, my friend sneaked out her cell phone and showed me her sons’ photo underneath the table. Another friend followed, she showed me her grandkids’ photos.
By the time the waiter arrived with the dessert trolley filled with appealing pastries and cakes, everyone was really full. But how could we resist when the beautiful sweet treats were so tempting? We would prefer to have bits of each dessert. But no, we were not allowed to share. Instantly, it drained the fun. We women like to steal from each others’ dessert plates.
“Honey, can I have a bite of your dessert?” my friend asked her husband. How could he say “no” to his wife!
“No, you can’t,” he replied without any hesitancy.
If he were my husband, you know what I would have done! I would have chewed him out flat like a pancake or pin him down as if I can do kung fu!
So each of us had to order a separate dessert. It was wasting money. Everyone’s dessert was big including my fruit bowl. And everyone finished his or her dessert like good children except me, because I was so stuffed from my main course. What a pity to see fresh fruits being discarded in a garbage can!
Thank God, this was the only meal that I wasn’t allowed to truly be myself in our 16-day England trip.
You might think that I am ungrateful. It’s quite an adventure to dine at the OCC, and it was not the kind of adventure I envisioned.
At the crossroads of my life, I was deciding whether I should study in England or America.
I picked America and loved the country the moment I landed. (end)