Dumpling Days

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Article by Matthew Zheng (UWCAC 2016-2018)

My parents work 6, sometimes 7 days a week. They go to bed around 1 AM and wake up at 7. For them, hard work and discipline is not a matter of how many articles about mindfulness they read, or being able to balance hours in the office with time in the yoga studio – it is a paradigm.

My father is the head physician at his own private clinic, where my mother works as well. While both my parents were doctors in China, they were stripped of their titles when they emigrated to the United States. They’ve built themselves up from absolute poverty, escaping the vice grip of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

My mother dug graves for two years, and when her intestines herniated from bending over so much, she had to keep digging. Her father, my grandfather, was a chemistry professor — a genius in his department. When Communism chose intellectuals as Public Enemy One, he was sent to detention camps and starved to near death. My grandmother and mother had to sneak in at night to give him scraps so that he could survive.

My father worked on a yam farm. Famine meant that he only had yams to eat for 2 years. (He doesn’t eat yams much anymore.) He remembers a time when there was so little food that every tree in sight had been stripped of its bark – a crude way to flavor water as an excuse for a meal.

Yet, they’ve somehow made it to a comfortable, luxurious life in California.

My sister and I lead comfortable, privileged lives because of their incredible sacrifices. She goes to medical school now, and I got my scholarship for Atlantic College. It seems that the end product of their work to bring their family to California has led to us being even further apart.

In some ways, I have fulfilled the image of the dreams they sent into future generations; I study well, achieve good grades, and win academic awards. In others, I am antithetical to those dreams – an unathletic, antiauthoritarian gay kid.

In spite of all of these boundaries, all of these lines, all of these levels of division and subtraction, we are often called by some force to center ourselves around the same dinner table. For a couple of hours, we forget about American or Chinese politics; we can remember stories of their past; and we can be ourselves, in our own bubble; imperfectly Chinese or American, but perfectly ourselves.

These nights are best when we fold dumplings. My mom prepares the meat and vegetable filling while my dad presses that filling into a dough wrap. I really dislike the most common english translation of this food —dumpling — which should be called jiaozi (饺子), because the word “dumpling” is some kind of sell-all. Any wrap stuffed with something can call itself a dumpling.

Jiaozi are special. Jiaozi are celebratory. They’re a food reserved for times of great prosperity. Even though we can now have jiaozi every day of the week if we wanted to, for my parents, jiaozi are worth their weight in gold. My dad had to share a small bowl the size of his fist with 6 other brothers — he can count the number of times he got to taste jiaozi every year. But outside of remembering this scarcity, making jiaozi is just the right level of complexity to necessitate shared work with others without frustrating anyone new. So, we sit around a table. We fold, we fry, we eat.

The end of these dinners is more than just completion of a meal — it’s wrapping up an incredibly long storybook. Every time we sit down like this, I can read more pages. I continue to understand the legacy   that my parents have left me and my sister, while also slowly comprehending the conclusion that I will never be able to understand what it means to suffer like they have.

We fold our dumplings, the product of millennia of culinary cultural development, because they symbolize what we are — the product of millennia of culinary and cultural development. We think about everything left behind in China by tasting something we can remember well; something remembered not only in the mind, but in the tongue, bones, and heart. We are strange bodies in a foreign land; perhaps our dishes are just illusions, but they are illusions that remind of us the heart and home.

We click our chopsticks, pick up our plates, and wash the dishes. Cycles always continue.

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