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 salty, 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 supple tofu and chew on it. The rice is my favorite part; I stack grains on the tapered sticks of wood until it forms a mountain and quickly devour it before it topples. My sisters and cousins are patiently waiting for the adults to conclude their two-hour conversations, where they can begin to argue about whose credit card is the lucky winner. I sip on 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 naicha” (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-clothed 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 pearls 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 utter 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. The times my mother took my sisters and I to visit our cousins’ house, we would make two pit-stops: Dolphin Bay and Ni Ni Bakery. Dolphin Bay was the spot all of us children begged the adults to take us to. Right inside the door were toy vending machines, each capsule waiting for a kid’s hand to insert a quarter into the slot. Pop! was the sound of the jumbo straw puncturing the plastic that sealed the treasured boba milk tea. I would carry my beverage to Ni Ni Bakery, which was literally three stores from Dolphin Bay. Rather than toy vending machines, we were greeted with cream-colored trays and tongs. I would lift the plastic lid and extract the bread, the dough indenting by how delicate it was. Flaky pineapple buns, sponge cake, and red bean paste buns filled the tray in seconds. My hand would run along the cases of cakes and pastries as if I could reach my hand through the glass and grab them. Then, the cashier somehow convinced my mom to buy a box of four savory buns. The practice of that routine had been engrained into my lifestyle. Until I moved.
The memories of weekly brunches and frequent boba runs carried with me when I moved to Arizona at the age of eight. With a fraction of Asians located in the city I live in, the wafts of fresh baked buns and syrup-coated boba had faded from the streets, only to be covered with greasy hamburgers and Panda Express. I began to integrate myself into, what I call, “Gilbert culture.” The city of Gilbert opened a door to Hispanic food and American influences. No longer did I have the luxury to live on streets lined with my favorite Chinese foods. It was replaced with fast-food chains. All my relatives lived within the same state; my family was 400 miles away. ‘Niu naicha’ was substituted for AriZona Iced Tea. Starbucks took the place of cafés. Boba shops are like sacred lounges in the San Gabriel Valley. It is an entire subculture that Asian-Americans hold close to their identities. However, the more I adapted to being the only Asian among my friend group, the further I drifted from my heritage.
Nostalgia hits when I walk in the front doors of my cousin’s house; my Jiu Jiu and Jiu Ma (aunt) preparing our favorite Chinese dishes. When we pack into three cars and drive to an Asian-owned restaurant, where my mother has to order because I am no longer fluent. When we pick up ‘niu naicha’ after every meal even though our stomachs are filled. When we select the breads from Ni Ni Bakery we have known since we were five. When we pass the red rice bucket around the table, or when we turn the Lazy Susan like a game of roulette. Although I am eighteen years old, every visit to my hometown immerses me into my youth once again. Generations upon generations of Asian immigrants (and Asian-Americans) built a culture of food in California, which will always be a reminder of my roots. Now, I cherish the culture I was so used to as a child, but with a deeper understanding of how it ties me back to family.
I peer into the small white porcelain of oolong tea and reminisce on my childhood at the Chinese restaurant.
Despite the fact that my mother and father's families are from Taiwan, Chinese culture is widely practiced in the city of Rowland Heights and in my life.