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.

Amy and the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American community group!
Chinese New Year treasures!

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.

Chinatown discoveries

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.


Streets lined with red lanterns, firecracker debris scattered on the streets like red confetti, lion dances outside restaurants and storefronts with that dun-dun-dun-dun drumroll with the crashing cymbals that lets you know that the new year has come! Listen closely, and come see the bright red banners with shiny gold Chinese characters, the fresh shrimp chips with the oil dripping into its three-tiered paper towel cushion, and hear the sound of the wok’s sizzle song as the wooden spoon keeps the stirfry on beat. Artfully displayed cuts of fresh fruit, shiny red Chinese candies, gold coins of solid milk chocolate. It’s like Valentine’s Day, but better! No one is alone and sad. Everyone is together, there is decidedly less pink, and there are hung baos (red envelopes) full of cash.

Lion dances on Mott Street, Chinatown NYC. Dragons eat cabbage!

These Chinese New Year memories have sharp sounds and savory smells and flavors and feelings and little kid wonders. As a third-generation Chinese-American whose parents were born in New York City and whose Chinese is limited to “Gung Hay Fat Choy” (happy new year), a few food dishes, and “ne mo gaw cho-ah” (what is your problem?), I have sometimes felt like an outsider looking into a culture not quite my own. Is this mine, too? After years of the slow work of God healing my understanding of my identity (more on that in another post!), I have been freed to say yes, it is also mine. From a much greater distance than my ancestors in China, but yes, it still speaks to a family whose story and culture has shaped me deeply. It’s a culture about which excitedly enjoy learning and celebrating!

One of the things I most appreciate about my Chinese culture is the sheer generosity in expressing love. Through many perspectives, that might sound odd because Chinese communication could be seen as stingy – quiet, passive, not direct enough to say “I love you.” But if you look closely you’ll see that it is not passive but quite active; we communicate love through quietly anticipating needs and thoughtful, generous acts of service. It is not a deficiency of love but a different means of expressing it. It’s the best.

My family out at Chinese New Year in 1994! Guess which child I am 🙂

If you listen curiously to the indirect communication within a Chinese family, you might be surprised to see the subtle but strong ways need, love, and appreciation are expressed with lavish generosity, yet subtly so that the recipient will not feel ashamed. If you listen closely, you will hear stories of my dad coming to my apartment when I’m away for the weekend and dropping off two watermelons, a Costco ream of toilet paper, and containers of hearts of palm (something I love but don’t want to spend money on). You’ll see the group text between my mom and sisters and the ways we care for each other by constant updates and pictures of Harper, cats, and me with yogurt masks on my face. You’ll see softly given, unpretentious generosity from Chinese church families who support the ministry to students continuously and with great faith. You’ll see my parents driving to Boston to bring snow tires up for Andrew for the winter.  You’ll see tables abundant with all of our favorite Chinese food whenever we come home, communicating an affection without words. But, to us, it’s understood as plain as day. You will see me trying on wedding dresses with my sisters and mom, falling in love with the most expensive one in the store, crestfallen at the price, then receiving a text from my dad the week after saying “Don’t worry about the dress.” And then getting similar texts from my sisters to see if I needed help to get the dress. You’ll see me cry. You’ll see my parents ensuring that we had real hot food and a tent for our wedding so that we didn’t have to do a potluck picnic haha (a real option). You will see the cards from my parents, with prayerful and powerful words of pride and joy. Rarely spoken, but heard and treasured forever.

My dad got a first look of my golden-flower princess poof wedding dress! Photo by Shipra Panosian Photography

It is a beautiful song of call and response that you will miss if you’re not listening. Families seeing each other deeply, anticipating each other’s needs, and helping each other. Whole communities functioning and flourishing with this sweet, subtle communication to help one another, to save face and protect honor. It is a song that that communicates pain and softness, strength and wisdom, courage and pride. It is not without missteps – harshness where there should be softness, passive aggression when it doesn’t feel accessible to express negative feelings, needs not well anticipated. And in emergencies when decisions need to be made quickly, indirect communication doesn’t work so well. But when it is just right – when there is learning and giving and receiving, and a shame-lifting grace, it is powerful. It would bring tears to your eyes.

As I’ve walked with God I have found that he sometimes he speaks boldly and directly in  moments that change your life forever. But there are also times where he is subtle and indirect, where you feel seen and gently invited if you so choose to trust him. There are the bold declarations of the prophet, and also the gentle whisper of the Lord after the wind, earthquake, and fire. You see Jesus blatantly chastising the self-righteous, and you also see him teaching in parables for him who has ears to hear.  Those earth-shattering “ah ha” moments are powerful, but the indirect ways he speaks to me are some of the sweetest. I often find myself crying and repenting when reading for pleasure; God speaking subtly and yet powerfully through fictional characters! Or through a thoughtful note from a friend gently suggesting the very thing I need, reminding me of how seen I am.  Or in writing – as I wrote the last post on generosity via our wedding cake, I heard God’s invitation to be radically generous to a brother when I really didn’t want to be generous (haha, irony). But I heard God’s voice constantly as I wrote (it was annoying but endearing) and eventually said yes to him. And it has brought life. His indirect, gentle beckoning and care is one of the ways that his long-suffering love comes along side of us. It is a deep seeing, soft with kindness and strong for the long road. How has God shown you his love in subtle, gentle ways?