Piping hot oolong tea poured in small, white porcelain. Chopsticks fighting as the Lazy Susan turns. Overlapping chatter. The red rice bucket passed by reaching hands. 10:30AM.
I sit in the decorative chair using the white table cloth as a makeshift blanket to cover my knees. My mother is speaking with one of my Jiu Jiu’s (uncle) in Mandarin, leisurely placing a sauce-covered chicken feet between her lips while he pokes at the head of a fried fish. Family members spin the Lazy Susan and park it when the dish they want is in front of them. I wait for the mapo tofu to come my way. My chopstick skills are unacceptable—according to my grandmother—as I pierce a cube of tofu and chew on it. The rice is my favorite part; I stack the grains on the tapered sticks of wood until it forms a mountain and I quickly devour it before it topples. My sisters and cousins are patiently waiting for the adults to conclude their two-hour conversations, so they can begin to argue about who’s credit card is the lucky winner. I sip on the cold oolong tea and bring the bowl to my face in oder to slurp up the rest of my food. When my other Jiu Jiu wins the seesaw game of “Who’s Paying Today,” we leave.
But it does not end at the doors of the Chinese restaurant. Us children and adults cram into three cars and head to a café. Like always, I ask my mother to order a “Niu Nai Cha” (which renders ‘boba milk tea’ in all Rowland Heights cafés) because I am too timid to talk to the cashier. The two-hour conversations once played at the white-clothes tables resume at wooden tabletops of a boba shop. The children gather around each other and exclaim at innocent words exchanged through mouths inhaling tapioca pears and milk tea. The sweet, beige milk tea indulges my tongue followed by spheres of starchy tapioca bubbles. It is now close to 2:00PM. We say our goodbyes to our family members outside the café, like birds chittering in the trees, and depart to our separate houses.
That is a normal occurrence in my family, and many other Asian families. Brunch affairs consisting of family-style dishes at Chinese restaurants and meet-ups at local boba cafés made up my childhood. Growing up in Rowland Heights (California), a predominately Asian city, I was surrounded by Mandarin-speaking Ayi’s (older women) and aromas of delectable Chinese treats like sweet bread and steamed buns. Despite the fact that my mother and father’s families are from Taiwan, Chinese culture is widely practiced within our area. The memories of weekly brunches and (almost) daily boba runs carried with me when I moved to Arizona.
Arizona is on the opposite spectrum of California. With a fraction of Asians located in the city I live in, the scarcity of authentic Chinese restaurants and boba shops is apparent. I began to integrate myself into, what I call, “Gilbert culture.” The city of Gilbert opened a door to Hispanic food and American influences. It was definitely a cultural reset. Every time my family and I visit our relatives in Rowland Heights, I am immediately brought back to my childhood. Nostalgia hits when I walk in the front doors of my cousin’s house; my Jiu Jiu and Jiu Ma (aunt) are preparing our favorite Chinese dishes. When we pack into three cars and drive to an Asian-owned restaurant, where the adults have to order because I am no longer fluent. When we order boba milk teas after every meal even though our stomachs are filled. When we select our special breads from the bakery we’ve known since we were five; my favorites are pineapple buns, red pean buns, and sponge cake (I have too many). When we pass the red rice bucket around the table, or when we turn the Lazy Susan like a game of roulette. I am immersed into my youth once again. Generations upon generations of Asian immigrants (and Asian-Americans) built a culture of food in California, which I cherish generously.
I peer into the small white porcelain of oolong tea and reminisce on my childhood at the Chinese restaurant.