Delicately powdered with flour, the white circular pei (dough skin) lies demurely in rows on the dark table, between three women and I. The three women - my aunt, my mother, and my grandmother - chat while they work, flipping pei in their hands as they exchange the latest family gossip in a rapid-fire blend of Cantonese and English. I only catch a quarter of the guttural words that fly over my head, punctuated by ai yah! and high-pitched laughter. We are making sui gao (steamed dumplings).
Like many cultures, food is central to Chinese people. A visit to maa maa’s (father’s mother) home is incomplete without multiple helpings of her fragrant tofu skin soup or soya sauce dribbled gai lan (Chinese broccoli). Wastage is a cardinal sin. A marker of a happy family is the meals they eat together - which is why Chinese people share dishes with communal chopsticks, and why dim sum restaurants have turntables. Meals are not only about eating; rather, the act of sharing food reaffirms the bonds between a family.
At eleven years old, I understood none of the social complexities behind the act of eating together; I only knew that the art of making dumplings was devilishly hard. Aunt, on the other hand, scooped chopped meat and chives onto her pei, dabbed the edge with water, pinched the lips shut, and pressed the dumpling into a crescent moon with fluidity and ease. Though I enviously watched her smooth movements, I failed to recognise the hours she spent perfecting her technique.
The Chinese family personifies the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’. Whether that entails spending months pounding piano keys until your fingers glide like dancers, or drilling math problems until your mind becomes a calculator, or folding a dumpling until your hands curl unconsciously to its shape, Chinese children never practices until they get it right; they practice until they never get it wrong. For me, I quit piano after grade one, and stopped Kumon after grade seven.
As such, perfecting the art of dumplings in a single afternoon is likely infeasible, however, it does not stop me from trying. Watching the three women calmly shape perfect dumplings, I marshal my skinny fingers and heap a large spoonful of meat onto my pei, then pinch the edges. Already I can imagine the wisps of moisture swirling off a freshly steamed batch, each dumpling skin wrapped around its delicious cargo like a savoury treat. I can taste the meat and chives breaking apart delicately in my mouth, the simple vinegar dressing adding a fresh tang, every mouthful releasing streams of warmth and juice... I look down to see cold meat juice running, too early, over my fingers. The illusion bursts, along with the bottom of my dumpling, as the too-large hunk of meat falls to the table with an audible plop. The dumpling train grinds to a halt.
“Why did you add so much meat?” Aunt says as she picks up my behemoth. With deft fingers she tucks in the tears, halves the meat, reseals the lips, and squishes the dumpling into its proper shape. She tosses the newly conformed dumpling onto a tray, along with its perfect siblings. “Is she still learning Mandarin?” she asks.
“We keep up the tutoring,” Mother says mildly. “But she takes French at the international school now.”
Pursing her lips, Aunt replies, “You shouldn’t let her forget Mandarin.” This time she looks directly at me. “People look at you and see a Chinese girl. What will they think if you can’t speak Chinese well, or even make dumplings?”
The half jest hangs heavy in the air.
As I grew, I gave up Mandarin altogether. My forgetting was gradual - I forgot the order of each complex character’s strokes, then I forgot the characters themselves. Where once each word held a rich multitude of meanings, now they stood individually as beautiful, foreign pictures. Where once sentences rolled excitedly from my tongue in unstoppable streams, now words stuttered out haltingly, causing more confusion than comprehension. Yet, even when I stopped reciting lǐ bái (a famous Chinese poet) and took up reading Enid Blyton, when I gave up calligraphy for flash fiction - my favourite dishes remained Chinese.
Time passed, and Aunt softened. For my 17th birthday she gifted me make-up, and giggled through the night with me at the results. As I grew, I realised it was not her only present - inclusion at the dumpling table, when I always made a mess; spending time reproaching my loss of Mandarin, when I practiced rolling my French r’s with Mandarin words; wanting me to know the elegance of Chinese culture, when all I wanted was to distance myself. Those too were gifts.
Rigidity dominates Chinese culture. There is safety in conformity and power in a crowd. There are tangible results in practicing the same skills until your body cannot remember any other way. Following tradition honours ancestors, but also directly links to survival. In reciting poems from ancient poets and copying recipes from generations before, parents hope to pass down the skills and character their children will need in life. For what are parents’ most simple wish, if not to ensure their child leads a better life than they have? All actions stem from this wish, regardless of which culture you come from. It is tough love to force a child to speak Chinese, but it is love nonetheless.
I am somewhat older now. Most days, I prefer my western upbringing. Yet, as much as individuality and freedom inspire me, the Chinese mores of humility, respect and moderation ground me. Although my Chinese heritage is rigid and difficult to understand, it remains a part of me. I am still learning to navigate between the two. Perhaps one day I will return to the dumpling table, to learn again the art of making dumplings, and to appreciate the culture I have buried.