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A Snapshot of the Modern Family Dinner

A Snapshot of the Modern Family Dinner

  • Culture
  • Life
Image Credit: Eat Drink Man Woman, 1994 

Places like Hoshino Coffee have always confused me. When I walk into them, I expect coffee, nothing more. Instead, I’m greeted by a seemingly endless menu of entrées, desserts and beverages. The result being that my hope for a bit of quiet evening reading gives way to an hour of people-watching and eavesdropping.

It’s dinner time, and families are squeezed into cosy, upholstered booths. Very quickly, my anticipation of familial gossip and badly executed dad jokes melts away and is overtaken by boredom. No one is really talking at all.

Next to me, a family of five eventually arrives—a nice intergenerational mix of parents, children, and their grandpa. After they settle in, I hear something.

“Nice place,” grandpa says, to no one in particular. He looks down at the lush, leather cushioning of the chair that he’s sunk into. Raising his head, he drags his gaze around the interior of the cafe, admiring first the exposed piping in the ceiling and then the bronze and glass instruments that sit on dark, wooden shelves.

“Pa, we’re here every other week,” replies the mother in Hokkien, barely looking up from her mobile phone. Beside her, her two children have whipped out iPads. Across from her, her husband studies the menu, his forehead creasing in 4/4 rhythm.

“Pa, no fried food, okay?” he says.

“Spaghetti, can?” grandpa replies, this time in English.

The parents exchange a look, mutter inaudibly, and call for the waiter. About ten minutes later, their food arrives. Grandpa is served a plate of rice with an omelette on top. Wordlessly, he picks up a spoon and slices into it.

She threatens to take their iPads away if they don’t finish their food. I can tell from her voice that she doesn’t really mean it.

Around him, interaction of an abstract, high-minded sort is taking place. The children are distracted by bright, lively cartoons, and the sound of tiny bubbles popping can be heard coming from their parents’ smartphones. The father is looking downwards as he chews his food, one finger over the screen while his other hand cradles a forkful of spaghetti, a demonstration of formidable multi-tasking.

Soon enough, grandpa finishes his dinner. He alone does not have a mobile phone—oh wait, he does, and as he fishes it out I can see that it’s exactly like the one my grandmother uses. It has large white buttons and a small screen, big enough to display numbers and short messages.

He fiddles with it for a bit before he puts it away. Going slowly from face to face, he looks at the people around him. Putting both hands on the table, he twines his fingers together before pulling them apart. He repeats this a few times, before picking up his fork and toying with it. A waiter stops beside him and asks, “Can I clear this?”

Grandpa nods, dropping the fork with a soft clatter, and the parents look up. Remembering where they are, they resume eating. The mother realises that the children have hardly touched their Tonkatsu sandwiches. She threatens to take their iPads away if they don’t finish their food. I can tell from her voice that she doesn’t really mean it.

They order French toast with ice cream for dessert, and by now I’m a little hungry too. Grandpa has a cup of black coffee, although he’s told to have just a few sips or he won’t be able to sleep.

“Ah gong, if you can’t sleep tonight I’ll keep you company,” one of the kids chirps, looking up for the first time from her iPad.

“Shh, don’t talk so much, you got school tomorrow,” her mother interjects, reaching over with a paper napkin to wipe some ice-cream off her upper lip.

Grandpa smiles, and continues looking down into his coffee. The index finger of his right hand absent-mindedly strokes the handle of his coffee cup. Eventually, it’s time to leave.

“Pa, slowly,” the mother says as she stands and then stretches out to help the old man out of his seat.

Raising his left hand in a signal of dismissal, grandpa extracts himself competently from the booth and is on his feet in seconds. It’s as though he too no longer sees the need for actual speech. The lady backs off and glances once more at her smartphone before dropping it into her Issey Miyake handbag.

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Joshua Lee