The following is our first every GUEST POST!! Featuring Amy Zhao, who was my “Head Dumpling Czar” for our wedding, successfully leading a small army towards the ridiculous but delicious goal of making 1,300 homemade dumplings! Amy’s journey with God in her Chinese-American identity has brought me great joy and her thoughtful, precise, and powerful voice has encouraged many others, including my own.
In the third grade I practiced writing 新年快乐, happy new year, over and over again. I remember sitting at our kitchen table with a sheet of scrap paper with my mom’s example handwriting at the top – clean and natural compared to my ugly and lopsided scripts. But I was practicing it so that the next day, my scratch paper reference would be ready and I could write it on the class whiteboard so everyone would know it was Chinese New Year! A special, very important day!
In subsequent years, my signifiers changed form and then slowly fizzled out. Some years I wore a simple jade necklace, the classic red string with the pearly jade stone. “It’s Chinese New Year today,” I liked to inform people. “Did you know that?” Throughout elementary school, I was usually the only Asian student in my class and sharing this one part of Chinese culture seemed to be exotic, special. “See me, I’m Chinese.”
When Chinese New Year rolls around every year, with its bright red and gold colors and dragons and music and delicious food, it is the most overt expression of Chinese pride that I know. And as a kid, it was like my one Chinese thing that I could be proud of, that my classmates were actually curious about. I clutched onto it as my proof that I was Chinese and that that was something to be proud of. I had language to describe it and explain it, images to point to, the lion, the red envelopes, a whole history of traditions that I didn’t know but could at least Google. On that one day it didn’t matter that I was the only Asian in my class, and all my other defensiveness and insecurities about being Chinese hid themselves in pride.
By high school, though, I felt like a poseur and stopped wearing the necklace on Chinese New Year and didn’t really bring it up at school unless someone else brought it up. Chinese New Year meant going to church and eating slightly overcooked dumplings with random Chinese dads and bringing a book to read while the Mandarin congregation carried on their festivities. It meant good food at home and occasionally at my mom’s friend’s house too, but mostly, my participation was that of an obedient Chinese daughter. The tight clutch shifted to a loose grasp, like I didn’t know why I was holding it anymore.
On the outside, I am pretty Chinese. I can speak Mandarin without an accent (most of the time). I make pretty good tang cu pai gu and can fold dumplings really fast and I prefer to cook Chinese food for myself most of the time, even if it is the simplest interpretation of Chinese food. I go to Asian American Center events and lead a community group for Asian American students and (after a few years of questioning) am beginning to have language to name both beautiful and broken things about Chinese culture.
But when I’ve made dumplings with friends and roommates for Chinese New Year in college, my ownership over the tradition has felt feigned for some reason, like I’m pretending to have ownership over something that doesn’t feel like mine. This is probably imagined and self-imposed but when my non-Chinese friends ask me about new year traditions and dumpling recipes, I feel this pressure to know or at least pretend to know the answers. When really inside I do not know how much salt to put in the filling or how long to cook the Chinese celery!!! Or really how to do anything without my mom on the phone, patiently giving me instructions while I back track and double check everything she says, anxiously trying to hold on to all the details.
On Friday I went to Chinatown after class to get ingredients for dumplings and some decorations for Kaitlin. I thought it would be a quick trip: I always go to the same grocery store (Jia Ho) and know where to find the dumpling skins, ground pork, and Chinese celery from my previous trips. But then they were sold out of the dumpling skins I like and the meat counter man understood my Mandarin but I didn’t understand his and I couldn’t find the red envelopes even after asking two different workers. And then I had to walk to Cmart and I couldn’t find the entrance and I couldn’t find this other preserved vegetable thing I wanted and my parents weren’t picking up their phones and suddenly what was supposed to be a restful quick trip to Chinatown turned into a confusing bumbling 2-hour affair of me wondering what the heck I was doing there.
What does it mean for me as a Chinese American daughter of immigrants that my culture is not and will not be the same as my parents’? What does it mean for years and generations of traditions to be transplanted into a whole new country and whole new experience, and that translation, not replication, is how I will pass my heritage on? What does it mean that loss and generational change are inherently a part of my narrative as a Chinese American?
In reflecting about all this, I think in some ways my relationship with Chinese New Year from year to year tells a story of my relationship with Chinese culture, from a sort of forced pride to hesitancy to shame to shy reclamation. And even with the questions that still remain, for me, my hope is in the God who made me in his image, who made me intentionally as his Chinese American daughter. That my identity is not just a narrative torn between a binary of Chinese and American, or defined by confusion and loss, but was intentionally made by Him, and made well. Although at times all I see are lost details and undersalted dumplings, there is a God who has ordered it all behind the scenes, who has given me a chance to experience first-hand wonder in the discovery. Many days I begin the day imagining God kindly inviting me to eat with him at his table, and because it’s breakfast time, we eat congee together. As a kid, I used to hate congee, but it is in this time that I get to savor it, a simple and familiar comfort, a reminder of how God has made me.