Happy post-Thanksgiving! I’m a few days late, but it’s the perfect recipe for another blog post right now: it’s a time I should be sleeping (been up since 3AM…thanks jetlag!), it’s a time when I feel reflective (transitions to come), and it’s a time that I feel pretty emotional (a common side effect of visiting my family in China).
I left Dalian on Saturday evening. The previous night, after another three hours of mahjong – we’d played mahjong for hours every night for the entire week – I came out of the bathroom after having brushed my teeth to find my grandma rummaging through the freezer. It was midnight.
“Lao Lao, what on earth are you doing? I thought we said we were going to bed five minutes ago!”
Without turning her head, she explained, “Your Lao Ye said you wanted to eat ‘mian xian’ tomorrow for breakfast, so I’m looking for shrimp that he can put in it.”
Exasperated, my mom and I waited until Lao Lao found what she was looking for; we knew she wouldn’t stop until she did. Luckily, it didn’t take long – and sure enough, the next morning, the shrimp proudly topped the steaming bowl of needle noodles that my grandpa made for my last breakfast in Dalian. Despite his shaking hands and slow movements, Lao Ye insisted on cooking for me himself. He completed the noodle soup from his native Fuzhou with an egg and stuffed fishballs, the way it’s traditionally made: “My mom would make this for me every morning growing up,” he told me as I ate.
My whole life, I’ve loved food. I’m not exaggerating: this trip, my grandma recounted the story, again, of sneaking noodles to me when I was just a few months old because baby me wouldn’t stop staring at the food until she did. In Philly, I started exploring different cuisines through restaurant week; in New York, I tackled a list of 100 cheap eats; in Shanghai and Hong Kong, I photographed each mouthwatering dish; in Chicago, I even became a Yelp Elite (not anymore, since I got lazy) and used the a la card to try new restaurants.
And throughout all of those years, every time I visited my family in China, it has been the same routine: every meal is deliberately planned around what I (and my sister, and my parents) like to eat. In fact, I almost feel like I’ve been conditioned to elevate the importance of food, feeding (pun intended) my innate affinity for eating. Because my whole life, that’s also been how I’ve been shown love by my family.
- When my paternal grandma, Nai Nai, sent an insane amount of milk tablets back with my dad when he visited because she remembered that we loved them;
- When my dad’s younger brother, Xiao Shu, snuck us to street vendor lamb kabobs because he knew that we were obsessed with lamb kabobs;
- When my cousin Shan Shan takes me to hot pot or barbecue every single time I see her, laughing at how I’m a true “Liu” because of how much I love meat;
- When my mom’s younger brother Jiu Jiu takes us to the fish and produce market every day of our visit, buying too much of everything and cooking it to perfection – better than any restaurant;
- When his wife, Jiu Ma, stocks the fridge with ‘suan nai’ – yogurt – knowing how quickly my sister and I will devour the pouches;
- When Lao Ye ignores Jiu Jiu’s pleas not to go out (worried about Lao Ye’s age) because he insists on taking the bus to go buy ‘dou fu nao’ – savory tofu soup – at 7AM so it would be ready when we woke up;
- When Lao Lao climbs back out of bed at midnight to make sure that the right ingredients were available for that traditional needle noodle soup that her oldest grandchild wanted for breakfast in the morning
It’s the incessant thoughtfulness of remembering exactly which foods we like, no matter how long it’s been since we last visited. It’s the unnecessary self-denial of saving the tastiest snacks in anticipation for our visits, even if it’s six months away. It’s the insistent commands for us to take the best, biggest, last bites of every dish. It’s the meticulous effort put into finding the freshest ingredients, even if it takes extra trips to the market. It’s the loving heart put into creating each dish – from the simplest of steamed eggs to sauerkraut dumplings that are wrapped one by one – no matter how busy, how tired, how old the chef may be.
I was so grateful to spend this Thanksgiving in China with my extended family, feasting on crabs and shrimp and oysters and fish – a port city, Dalian is known for its seafood – instead of turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. Jiu Jiu had taken us to the market again that afternoon, buying whatever we pointed at while expertly navigating stalls for the freshest hauls. And I saw it again: love, delivered through actions, manifested through the meal on the table that evening.
Like every other time I’ve visited China, there’s a hole in my heart from just missing my family already: I hate being so far away from them. But, like every other time, I’m also so full, filled to the brim with my favorite foods and love from my favorite people in the entire world. Until next time, Dalian!