"It's too easy to eat too many jiaozi. We should stop," My dad says as he leans back into his chair, eyes closed in a combined state of food-induced stupor and exhaustion. It's understandable; he started prepping ingredients with my grandparents in early afternoon, running celery through the food processor and mincing the mushrooms into tiny bits—hard work.
My brother, whom this statement was directed at, simply lets out a groan and reaches for "one more" dumpling.
"You need to lose weight!" My grandpa snaps, and my brother pointedly ignores him. With that, my grandma snarls, "Mind your own business." at her spouse from the other side of the table, eyes wrinkled but still sharp. Soon, an entire argument erupts—over jiaozi, no less—and I'm left to my own devices as I chew away at a cold dumpling and my own self control. It seems that even cold jiaozi are delicious, and I reach for another one.
My brother asks my dad to pass over the black vinegar, and I cringe a little at the mess on his plate. My brother doesn't eat neatly, not even dumplings, and there are bits of filling and wrapper strewn all over the manilla stoneware. I think it'd be easier for him if he simply used chopsticks and a bowl, but that's a bit of a tall order for a Chinese-American—emphasis on the American—like him. But who knows, maybe in a few years, when he can't come home for the Spring Festival anymore, he might buy a box of frozen dumplings for himself. For now though, even if he denounces being Chinese for a while, he still eats the most.
On the opposite side, my grandpa eats silently, probably with plans to disappear back upstairs once dinner is over. It's the same kind of coping my grandma does when she practices Tai Chi Chuan early in the morning, that my dad does when he escapes outside to watch the stars, and that my mom does when she listens to those Chinese songs from twenty years ago.
My grandpa hides his loneliness beneath Chinese food and lifting weights, and knowing that, he probably deserves to eat one more dumpling than he actually does.
I delicately scoop a little more laoganma into my bowl with a spoon, trying to transfer as little chili flakes as possible—they get stuck in my teeth. Against the more bland-looking dumpling, the oil looks like a shining ruby.
My grandpa remarks, "You like to eat spicy things, don't you?" I nod shyly, although my spice tolerance is not as good as I boast. My mom proudly says, "She's half from Hubei, of course she can eat spicy things!" She and I share a glance from across the table, and the glint in her eyes is teasing, mischievous, but I think I can see the barest hints of something else. It's the same look that comes up whenever her home region is mentioned. We smile at each other, and silently, I'm replying: "Hubei people can't make dumplings". (I'm not even sure that's necessarily true, but I've never seen a single dumpling while visiting my mom's side of the family. Just baozi and mi fen.)
My mom doesn't eat very many dumplings at all, and not for the first time, I wonder what I'd know if I could see past my mom's elusive smile.
I salivate a little as my grandpa places a large tray of jiaozi onto the table, its translucent vanilla skin glowing under the harsh fluorescent light. I don't worry much about everyone being at the table before I start eating, probably because I know they'll all come around eventually, but I wait a bit anyways—until at least my dad has sat down—to finally poke at a dumpling. Jiaozi fresh out of the pot are still hot, slightly inflated with air, and very slippery. I struggle to pick one up with my chopsticks and eventually end up stabbing it like a barbarian. Smearing a little bit of bright madder laoganma onto the dumpling wrapper, I blow on it a little and finally take a bite.
Hot, golden broth floods into my mouth and dribbles a little onto the bowl. I start doing that thing where you try to inhale as much air as possible so you don't burn your tongue too bad; it burns good. It's a little tangy—the pork filling broth—rich and oily and absolutely delicious. ("Jiaozi are about the filling, baozi are about the wrapper, and hun dun are about the soup," my mom says.)
My grandma asks if they taste good. I enthusiastically say, "Hao chi!" When the dumplings have cooled a little, my brother finally comes and eats—not before slathering it in his mixture of dipping sauces, of course—and he chews for painfully short time before swallowing. My grandma tentatively queries him about the taste.
He says, "Hai xing ba".
the day before, 6:23pm
It's a normal supper, with my brother giving a repetitive speech about American politics—save for the occasional jabs at the Chinese government—and everybody listens passively out of obligation. It's weirdly cold, but it isn't abnormal. My brother's rants often have that effect.
Then, my dad says: "We have some extra dumpling wrappers in the fridge."
The implications are obvious, and even my brother stops rambling for a spare second.
"I'll make the filling then," my grandpa says immediately, and my grandma scoffs at him. "That's what you always say, but you never actually do any work!" She accuses. Desperately, my mom tries to mediate between the two, but it's no use. A whole new argument breaks out.
I sigh and smile at the familiarity of it all. Silence never fit a Chinese family, and even if the lines between Chinese and American blur from the homemade cornbread we ate two days ago or the fish sticks we ate yesterday, we can still eat dumplings together, today.
Dumplings are China, and China—for them—is home.
In this piece, I am referring to shui jiao, a type of dumpling that is filling in a thin wheat wrapper, then boiled.
Baozi are buns, with a wrapper more close to 'bread'.
Hun dun or wontons are dumplings meant to be eaten in soup.
Hao chi means 'good' or 'delicious'
Hai xing ba literally translates to 'pretty good' but is interpreted more as 'acceptable'.
Tai Chi Chuan is a form of Chinese martial arts.
Laoganma is a the most popular brand of Chinese chili oil.
Mi fen is rice vermicelli.
Hubei is a region in China.
All the conversations in this piece are spoken in Chinese.
*written in reverse chronological order