When I was younger, my grandmother often sang to me a song about sparrows, the way their feathers lay on their bodies, each one individual and bold yet simultaneously soft and delicate. She sang those words in her native dialect, and they flowed out sweetly — smooth as honey, light as silk.
She’d sing this song while rocking me to sleep, walking me to school, making me chive dumplings, my favorite food in the world.
Every time, while she expertly rolled out perfect wrappers, I would stand on my tiptoes, barely peering over the edge of the table. As I watched in awe, she would transform the formless pile of flour into a steaming pile of dumplings.
Shortly after I learned the lyrics to the sparrow song, I left my grandmother and her Michelin-worthy dumplings and moved to the States with my parents. Barely speaking in coherent sentences, I sang with enough vigor to make up for Grandma’s absence.
In the United States, I entered kindergarten with frissons of excitement and anticipation. It was a whole new world with an endless supply of over-hyper classmates, goofy storybooks and unfamiliar words. It was also foreign, intimidating, but the other children hardly seemed to notice the differences in my mannerisms or my accent, so I didn’t pay it much attention either.
When lunch rolled around the first day, I had already made two new friends who communicated with me through hand signals and arbitrary noises.
As we settled down, I pulled out my Hello Kitty thermos, stuffed to the brim with homemade chive dumplings (a minor meltdown performed by me the day before had convinced my mother that, yes, I did need my favorite food for the first day of school), and let the deliciously pungent smell wash over me. Immediately, one of my new friends turned toward me.
“Ew, what is that smell?” he said, nose wrinkled. “It smells like the toilet.”
The lump in my throat prevented me from speaking, but even if I wanted to, I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to explain to him that it was actually one of the best foods in the entire world.
The redhead across the table leaned in too close to peer into my thermos. “It’s probably normal food for an Asian. Asians always eat dumplings,” she said matter-of-factly on my behalf.
I went home that day and told my mother I never wanted chives for lunch again. When she asked why, I told her it was because they smelled like the toilet. I told her I wanted to stop bringing Chinese food, and when she protested (“but we’re Chinese!”), I left the room.
For years after, I only brought store-bought American food to school.
After that, I quickly grew to resent my Chinese side and everything associated with it. I hated my monolid eyes, my parents’ accented words, my mother’s seasoned, ethnic dishes and anything else in between.
In a futile attempt to conform to those around me, I transformed from a sweet little girl into a stereotypical “cool” teenager — a music-blaring, eye-rolling, scantily clad teenager. By the time we returned to China for the first time since I’d left more than 10 years prior, my relatives hardly recognized me. I hardly recognized myself.
My sweet, beautiful grandmother was now stooped with age, but as she embraced me, warm and full, the same familiar, sweet jasmine swirled all around. On the way home, we sat together in the back of the cab. Her wrinkled, calloused hand covered mine as she stared contentedly out the window. And under her breath, out of habit, she absently hummed the sparrow song. The song, the lyrics, all of which I had worked hard to forget, came rushing back.
Smooth as honey, light as silk, the sparrows glide, their feathers bold and strong, soft and delicate.
My grandmother had held on to everything I was so ashamed of, but it wasn’t until then that I realized I would never fully belong to one culture or the other. And that was the best part. Because I don’t have to make a choice. Because I am lucky enough to be a part of both.
I spent Chinese New Year this year in Berkeley with my new friends, each with backgrounds and families more different from the next. Unfortunately, the pandemic made it difficult for me to go home to celebrate, much to my disappointment. But I was surprised when the topic came up in conversation, and my friends insisted we celebrate anyway.
That night, we crowded around a pot of boiling water sitting on the hot plate on my friend’s dorm desk, and as my friends looked to me to share this part of my culture, I felt a brief pang of anxiety. Although over the years I’d learned to lose the unreasonable shame I held for my Chinese side — and even readopted my pride for it — talking about my culture in a predominantly white group still makes me nervous. The burden of feeling like I’m representing my entire ethnicity, which too many people of color experience, is overwhelming.
As I mentally prepared myself to share, however, I looked around and saw nothing but excitement and acceptance in my friends’ eyes. I can’t say for sure yet (after all, I haven’t been here for very long), but I have a feeling Berkeley is going to be a place where I can fully embody my honey and silk.
So I start: “I thought it’d be fun if we made chive dumplings today. I’m not sure how you guys will feel, but they’re my favorite food in the world.”
Manya Zhao writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]