Heaps of dumplings — boiled, steamed and fried — filled up the table, awaiting our guests in our American home. Inside, my mom was still busy frying the last batch because a “Chinese mom,” as she’d describe herself, never leaves any guests half-full.
As I took in the familiar smell of the vinegar-sesame oil dip and the umami of different meats, I was transported back to my childhood in China. Every time I take a bite of a dumpling, I feel like I am closely connected to not just my Chinese culture, but also my community and family back home in Guangzhou. Food allows me to fully embrace my Chinese heritage which often goes unseen by those around me in America.
The childhood memories associated with food always remind me of the significance of my Chinese heritage that is erased because I’m mixed. Even when the world may not perceive me as Chinese, these memories of cooking with family and friends affirm my connection to China.
I am grounded in the sound of silverware clinking as the womxn of my community chattered while placing chopsticks and soup bowls on the table. These womxn would meticulously make everything with care for the weekly potluck my mom often hosted. Laughter filled our table as we shared sauteed greens with garlic, Cantonese soy sauce braised fish and sweet and sour ribs. During these gatherings, I felt like I was fully accepted and supported –– not read as a foreigner, as I often was in public spaces.
The support of community was embodied by my love of eating “manhuo aotang”–– a slow-cooked soup that would sit at the center of the table in a clay pot on low fire. Even though it was Cantonese custom to have soup with every meal, the soup symbolized the connection I held to the generations of womxn in my family who have perfected the recipe. With every mouthful of warm soup, I felt more and more calm and grounded in the love my grandma put into preparing the soup.
And with every dish I watched her make, I felt more connected to her as I learned to follow my family’s traditions. I would bring a freshly-folded plate of dumplings outside to my grandma and stand next to her, observing in wonder as she skillfully flipped the guotie (potstickers) as they browned. With each finished batch, I would eagerly stuff a guotie in my mouth, not caring how it would burn, so I could hurry inside to get more for her to fry.
Inside, the house was an act of community –– my mom taught my friends how to carefully fill their dumplings so that each would cook correctly. The folding of dumplings was not just a fun activity, it was a ritual in which different generations of Chinese womxn in my family came together to learn a common craft. Whenever I folded a perfect dumpling, I felt this immense sense of accomplishment in being a part of the next generation of Chinese womxn, trusted to pass this tradition down despite being mixed American.
As I walked toward the giant dining table in my house where my friends were clumsily folding dumplings, I would joke with them about the weird shapes or skimpiness of their creations. The welcoming space we created made me felt like I wasn’t excluded for being mixed, and seen as just another poor dumpling maker. I was validated in being just as Chinese as a full Chinese person.
In America, I often feel like my connection to China is escaping me as I rarely ever make Chinese food for myself at home. I can never find time for the hour-long trip to 99 Ranch, and Chinese dishes often take a long time to prepare. So, you could say that I’ve lost touch with these memories associated with Chinese food. But whenever I do make Chinese food, the aroma and taste of it brings me right back home.
This past year, my Chinese friend invited me over to his place to make dumplings with a group of his friends for Chinese New Year. As I clumsily folded dumplings for the first time in a few years, it took me back to my memories of communal food-making in China. I relived gathering with my childhood friends to make ugly dumplings as we giggled at the weird shapes we created.
I barely knew most of his friends, but making Chinese food together brought us closer. As my friend and I bantered in Mandarin while peering over the half-cooked dumplings in the pot, I felt truly immersed and comfortable in my Chinese culture. Moments like these reaffirm how I can always connect to my heritage through food, no matter how distant it may seem sometimes.
It has been difficult for me to stay in touch with my Chinese heritage since I moved to the U.S. I don’t feel comfortable participating in Chinese ethnic clubs because I feel like I might have to justify my presence in a space intended to celebrate my own culture. Sometimes, when I forget an ingredient in a recipe or stumble over a Mandarin sentence, I feel like I don’t have a legitimate claim to my Chinese identity. But then I think about the times my grandma held my hand as I folded in the nooks and crannies of unshapely dumplings, and I feel validated in my connection to China again.
I realize that my Chinese culture is always alive within me.