On Food

Thoughts

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.

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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.

Love is…

    • 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!

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On Opinions

Thoughts

It’s already Thanksgiving 2016, which is unbelievable. I know we all say this every winter, but the year has seriously blown by. The holidays are here once again, and as per tradition, we stop to think about those things that we’re thankful for: family, friends, and loved ones. Our homes, our jobs, our food on the table. The world we live in today, with the internet, with cell phones, with planes that make traveling easier than ever.

As I think about this year, I’m also thankful for one more thing in my life: opinions, both mine and those of people around me. Opinions, and the freedom to express them.

I used to have this shirt when I was in 7th grade that said, “I’m not opinionated. I’m just always right.” It had this cute monkey on it and my preteen-self was proud to display her “sassy” attitude. My now-self, of course, can’t stop cringing at this memory – but it certainly reminds me how much I valued my own opinions, even when I was too young to have thoughts about more substantive topics.

It’s been more than a decade since my preteen years, and this has been an interesting year to say the least. I spent the first half of this year in Hong Kong and the second half in Chicago, with trips to other cities sprinkled throughout. A few key events in 2016 really provoked me to think about opinions:

  • The “Fishball Revolution” in Hong Kong. In February, the streets of Mongkok experienced chaos as underlying tension between Hong Kongers and mainland China continued to bubble over. I heard anti-Chinese opinions around me all the time, and I was uncomfortable with the overt disdain the HKers held for Mainlanders. I had just spent an awesome 9 months living in Shanghai, and I loved my Chinese friends and coworkers. I also deeply love my extended family – nearly all of whom live in Mainland China – and my parents are from there as well. Despite feeling personally offended by anti-China opinions, I felt subjected to them more openly because people considered me “American,” not Chinese. I halfheartedly tried to defend my Mainland family and friends, but I ultimately gave up and kept quiet instead.
  • The passing of the King of ThailandI visited Thailand for the first time in March of 2016, prior to the late King’s passing. I feel extremely lucky to have seen firsthand the reverence and love the people of Thailand have for the late King, to the extent where it was punishable by law to speak of him in a negative manner. I didn’t know enough about the King to speak of him at all, much less negatively, so this wasn’t a concern for me. Regardless, it was fascinating to learn about a society that so loved its Monarch that a pervasive opinion was decreed to be the norm (although the decree itself is controversial). Now that the King has passed away, I have no idea how the Thai people are feeling about this law. All I know is that I’d never before spent time in a country where it was literally illegal to have a negative opinion about its Monarch.
  • The 2016 U.S. Presidential ElectionThere’s no way I could leave the election out on a post about opinions in 2016. One of the things I did this election cycle was click on comments and articles shared by Trump-supporters on my Facebook newsfeed. Given my newsfeed was pervasively pro-Bernie and later pro-Hillary, it was interesting and quite honestly refreshing to learn about opinions from “the other side” – even if I disagreed. My brain ping ponged between arguments from both parties, and as a result I was left with a lot of confusion. One thing that stood out to me was how emotional and personal all the opinions were regarding this election – Facebook became a scary place full of attacks and anger, a place filled with arguments between friends and strangers alike.

To be honest, all of these events have made me think twice about sharing my own opinion. It’s made me less confident in my own thoughts, and the strength of the dissonance between parties has driven me to shy away from forming an opinion at all, cowardly as that may be. In retrospect, I’m so aware of how blessed I am to have lived in places where, even in sharing my opinions, the only things at stake were my personal feelings. I’ve never had to fear being jailed for my thoughts, and my cop-out avoidance of forming a real opinion is an insult to those who are persecuted for expressing their beliefs.

In a year where I’ve seen so many different opinions, I’m thankful for all of them. For the ones that are the same as mine, and for ones that are different. For the people who challenge me to try and think another way. For the rights I have today to express my thoughts and feelings, even if I’m too scared to. I want to try and be thankful to have arguments about different opinions, because there are people around the world who can’t openly have these arguments. I hope that I stop taking these rights for granted, and start recognizing how privileged I am to live in one of the most progressive societies in the world.

I’m thankful this year for opinions, and the freedom I have to express them.