Good Fortune: Life In A Chinese Family

A SNAPSHOT OF SOME OF MY COUSINS (I'M THIRD FROM THE RIGHT) 

A SNAPSHOT OF SOME OF MY COUSINS (I'M THIRD FROM THE RIGHT) 

At some point during my middle school years, I realized other families weren't like mine and that I was one of the lucky ones.

My mom comes from a really big family. Of her many siblings, five settled within driving distance of ours to raise their families. My sister and I had cousins for entertainment; and we had lots of them. When our families got together, I had extra brothers, sisters and parents and all of them shaped who I am today.

It was a time that TV shows were on specific days, the internet didn't exist, and paying for summer camps would be unheard of (and may I say ludicrous if you were from a Chinese family). We would travel into Toronto from our small town and then easily fill our days with bike rides, baseball games at the park, trips to the swimming pool, and marathon Commodore 64 competitions, like many other kids of that era. But being Chinese meant we also had late night mahjong sessions and spent afternoons making pork dumplings in my aunt's kitchen.

My family's many cultural traditions and quirks were what set my childhood apart from those of my friends, especially in our hometown: the six hour dinners in Chinese restaurants, where the kids served themselves endless cans of pop from cases tucked under the tables; the meandering trips through the Chinese grocery store with our head aunt (there's always a boss lady in a Chinese family), where upside down roasted ducks were like beautiful window decorations; the slurping of congee and noodles on plastic covered tables in Chinatown that trumped any fast food; the family celebrations during which we would kneel in front of our grandmother so she could bestow her best advice. 

This past month, two of my youngest cousins were married a week apart and there was a lot of excitement and feelings of nostalgia knowing I'd get that time with my cousins (and aunts and uncles, too).

The first wedding brought all the good stuff to the table: the 10-course traditional Chinese feast, the celebratory lion dance, the countless selfie stick photos, and the karaoke. It felt great to be together again.

The second wedding was grown ups only, which meant the "kids" had to travel out-of-town without our partners and children. That dynamic really cranked up the big Chinese family experience and compelled my sister to look at me during one of the chaotic family meals and mouth the words, You have GOT to write this stuff down.

There are some things you can be sure of when you go to a family get together with your extended Chinese family:

  • There will be a LOT (and I mean a LOT) of back and forth she-said/she-said conversations (because women run the families and Chinese moms still try to dictate what their grown up children will do). Many conversations will begin with Auntie says her kids are doing <insert whatever it is your mom wants YOU to do>. But now that we're older and wiser, a quick cousin-to-cousin text almost always results in an I never said that response and a knowing nod of our collective heads.

 

  • There will be a stream of photos sent back and forth of the moms in their outfits, so the kids can weigh in on who looks the skinniest. Note: it's best to choose your own mom. Also note: Chinese moms don't pay attention to clocks, so these texts will come at all hours of the day and night and an immediate reply will be expected. 

 

  • If word gets out there is an empty seat in any vehicle travelling to said family function, a quick flurry of exchanges (Chinese moms are high level texters and FaceTimers) will have that seatbelt occupied with a cousin in no time  — even before the driver themselves are asked, but see point number one. 

 

  • There will be height comparisons made every time you get together, even after all the "kids" have stopped growing. This banter will extend to which Chinese mom has shrunk most. Note: in this case, it's best not to choose your own mom. Also note: these family comparisons may also include bra size, waist size, and wrinkle counts, so it's best to wear your thickest skin.

 

  • You will be handed plastic bags filled with strange items you didn't ask for — you'll have to take them anyway. Often they are weird snacks or cast offs from your parents' last big clean up. Saying no is not an option. If you feel worried about our family wasting plastic bags, don't be. Every bag has been reused thoroughly and probably for years. 

 

  • When the food is served, you have to be ready. The chopsticks will be flying. And if there's a server carrying a tray of hors d'oeuvres, (s)he will get to know everyone from the Chinese side of the family very, very quickly. Also: food you didn't ask for will be thrown onto your plate if you're within arm's reach of your parents. If it's a deep-fried crab claw, you can consider yourself the favourite. Again, saying no isn't an option. 

 

  • When you're with your Chinese family, it will feel like no time has passed. You will still defer to your elders and make fun of the youngest kids on the family tree. Birth order is a really big deal in this culture. So you can grow up all you want, but it won't change the pecking order. It feels good to be around a bunch of grown ups who still treat you like a kid though, so you'll appreciate it even when you're rolling your eyes.   

When I was still living at home, my mom would find time every weekend (unless we were already with them in person) to call her sisters and catch up. I have vivid memories of her sitting sideways on a kitchen chair, phone cord dangling, and the rise and fall of her native tongue filling the space around us. I know she still does this with her sisters, though they've now moved onto FaceTime'ing the top thirds of their faces or competing with each other in online games to combat their insomnia. 

In the Chinese culture, there are symbols and meanings that represent good fortune. And it's believed that by filling your life with these lucky objects, you will increase your happiness and joy. All my life, they've been pointed out to me by my family. But it's only now that I'm grown that I realize the luckiest objects were the people who raised me. 

Because there are some other things you can sure of when you find yourself at a get together with your Chinese family: you will be reminded of your luck; you will realize your good fortune; and you will feel so much joy. 

 

The Tale of An Accidental Squash And A Really Good Pot of Soup

squash-soup

I've been working my way through this new vegan cookbook and one of the recipes I had my eye on has a beautiful photo, including what I mistakenly thought was butternut squash (it's actually sweet potato). Once I decided to make it, I headed to the grocery store and grabbed the biggest butternut squash in the display — fully intending to use it right away.

Well, you all know what happened next. I had to go back to the grocery store (hey, with four kids I'm there every day anyway) to get the sweet potatoes. So the squash held court on a patch of highly coveted counter space in our tiny kitchen.

My husband does most of the kitchen clean up (since I'm the one creating most of the kitchen mess), so it was left to him to pick up and put down that squash every time he wiped down the counters. I knew I could get away with it for a few days, until finally and predictably he casually and cautiously asked, Are you using this squash for anything? 

I know how much he appreciates the effort I put into feeding our family, and he never questions how I go about doing it. But that huge squash was really getting on his nerves. 

Most of the week's meals are filled with tried-and-true recipes. I just can't take a chance with food experimentation when I'm facing hungry kids and limited time — and squash would definitely qualify as an experiment if you ask my children. I do my best to cook up a batch of vegetarian soup or stew for the grown up lunches, but I was finding it hard to think of something to do with that accidental squash.  

And so it happened that as I was flipping through my binder of recipes for the weekday homemade chicken noodle soup that I know everyone will eat, another recipe fell out and caught my attention. Its main ingredient is squash. 

But that's not all that made me glad to have found it. The recipe was given to us by a chef at a restaurant we visited what feels like a lifetime ago. We had been camping with three very young children in Prince Edward County, and my sweetheart planned a romantic (and we'll use that term loosely here since we had three kids with us) dinner at a local restaurant called the Waring House. He'd read about it in the paper, I believe, and knew we'd both appreciate the use of locally sourced food. 

Except — if memory serves — we didn't really get to savour the taste of any of it. I don't think it was one of the better eating-out-with-toddlers-and-babies experiences we've ever had, and I don't think it was for any of the patrons that were dining with us that night, either. We were seated in a quiet room with a beautiful view and a very cranky baby. I think we took turns standing outside with her, while the other parent coaxed the kids to hurry up and finish their food already. 

Maybe my soup went cold or I didn't get a chance to finish it, but somehow we came away with a printed copy of the chef's recipe, and it's been sitting in my binder waiting to be made ever since.

Tonight, my husband will come home from a long day at work, and we'll have the soup while it's still warm. And we'll catch up with one another, because no one will have to go outside with a screaming baby. Maybe we'll have a laugh about that disastrous night, maybe we won't. But I do know we'd both say we are glad we tried it anyway. 

And I don't mean the soup. 

 

Squash Medley Ginger Maple Soup

Ingredients:

  • 1 large squash, baked
  • 2 cups of sweet potatoes, baked
  • 2 cups chopped onions
  • 1 tbsp oil
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1 tsp grated fresh ginger
  • 1 cup chopped carrots
  • 4 cups of vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
  • salt and pepper to taste

Method:

Place the squash and the sweet potatoes in a 350 degree oven, halved, cut side down on a parchment lined baking sheet and roast for one hour. Sweat the onions until transparent in the oil and add the cayenne and ginger. Add the carrots, squash, sweet potatoes and stock and simmer for 40 minutes. Puree this mixture in a food processor in batches to get a smooth consistency (I used a hand blender). Return the soup to the pot and add the maple syrup. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves six. 

 

 

 

Games Night: 5 Games Guaranteed To Make Your Family Laugh

family-games

When I was a kid, there was a shelf in our family's spare bedroom that was filled with board games. My sister and I made a lot of trips in and out of that room to grab games that would have us spending hours at our kitchen table with bottomless bowls of chips. We played them with each other, with neighbourhood friends and with our cousins during epic sleepovers.

I knew I wanted a board game shelf when I had my own kids and we have built a pretty impressive collection, stocked with a lot of the classics from my childhood (Sorry, Monopoly, Twister, Trouble, Boggle, Scrabble). But, thanks to the creativity and genius of today's game designers, we also have several lesser-known games that are fantastic. 

Here are my family's top five favourites (for now, because we're always looking for more). They are games that suit the number (four) and ages of our kids (six to fourteen).

BOUNCE OFF

You flip a card and both players try to recreate the pattern by bouncing their balls into the grid. Whoever does it first, wins the card. Truth be told, this is a great game when my youngest is out of sorts and needs a good redirect and a way to let off some steam or spend some one-on-one time with me. It's also a great playdate game because you don't have to spend a lot of time explaining rules. 

APPLES TO APPLES (and APPLES TO APPLES JUNIOR)

Photo from mattel.com

Photo from mattel.com

This is a hilarious card game that actually works on descriptive language and writing skills the sneaky way (by making it fun!). One player acts as the judge and chooses a descriptive card for each round (with adjectives). Each player has a hand of cards from which they choose a thing they feel best fits with the descriptive card. The judge chooses the best combination (and some of them are pretty hilarious) and that player then wins the card. Everyone gets a chance to be judge. This game was so popular that several versions have since come out, including Apples to Apples Junior (age 3+) which we added to our collection so our youngest could play, too. 

TELESTRATIONS

Okay, so the video above shows a pretty tame round of this family favourite. When it's played at my house, there is a LOT of whooping and hollering and laughing until we have to dry our eyes and blow our noses. My kids LOVE this game (and so do the grown ups). It's become our go-to game when we have friends over, too, because it's the perfect icebreaker. It's easy to teach and so fun to play.

**We recently bought the Telestrations After Dark version (ages 18+) and brought it a holiday gathering — I haven't laughed that hard in a long time. 

SLEEPING QUEENS

Photo from gamewright.com

Photo from gamewright.com

This card game was recommended to us by another family with four kids. We managed to find it in an educational store (for teacher supplies) and it's been a game that goes everywhere with us since. The best part about this game is that it was dreamt up by a real life six-year-old, when she couldn't fall asleep one night. And because of that, the game makes perfect sense to its pint-sized players. It strengthens math, memory and strategy (you've got to wake those sleeping queens!) skills without your kids even realizing it. Two parenting thumbs up!

EXPLODING KITTENS

This hilarious card game made its way to us via the business section of the weekend newspaper. JB read an article about the Kickstarter campaign and how wildly successful it had been for the creators of this game. When he read more about how the game was played, he decided to would be a good gift to put under the tree last year — he shares a really good sense of humour with our kids. From the moment they opened the box and heard the "meeeeeoooooooowwwww" they've been hooked. This is also a highly portable game that always comes camping with us and always ends up being tons of rowdy fun.  
 

We've got a few more days to come up with this year's under-the-tree family board game idea, and I would love to hear your suggestions. I hope this post has given you some good ideas. Feel free to ask any questions you might have. Happy gaming, everyone!

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (and Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, too)

I'm crushing on Coach and Tami Taylor, y'all. 

We are in the midst of an epic Friday Night Lights binge, and I find myself wishing we could go on a double date with these two love birds.

I see some of my marriage in their marriage, and I like how it looks when I'm a spectator.

Taylors

We've had so many people tell us this was a series we would enjoy, but we never got around to it. 

Then a doomed March break came along, and the stars (or lights, as it were) aligned. 

Although we didn't have big plans, we had some plans. We'd be heading up north to meet our siblings and their kids for a couple of days of toboganning, movie watching, and family dinners. 

Then the fevers, coughing, shivering and overall misery descended.

And here's the thing—I can be self-centred and stubborn sometimes.

I got mad.

Allow me to channel my inner Tami Taylor when I tell you, 

I'm not proud, but it is what it is and that's what I was feeling. 

After a particularly long couple of days of doling out EVERYTHING THAT EVERYONE NEEDED—while JB struggled to move from the bed to the couch and back to the bed again—I declared my own need for some alone time and snuck upstairs with the family iPad.

I had read a blog post about March break and binge watching that morning and decided to gift myself a good Netflix session. I remembered all the Friday Night Lights suggestions from the past and decided to watched the pilot. 

If I had to say what I think lives at the heart of my marriage, it's that we accept and forgive each other's shortcomings. But we never do that at the cost of letting the other get away with being unfair or ugly. 

And it's not because either of us feels the need to be more right or prove a point. It's because we are committed to making sure we never lose sight of what matters. And we've learned the hard way that there will be many times in our relationship when one of us sees that better than the other.

Through two days of my sulking and pouting, JB didn't say a word about my behaviour. But I'll tell you what else he didn't do. He didn't let me get away with it. He did not bend himself to soothe my flaring temper.

He gave me the time and space to wrestle with it on my own, so I could pin it down and walk away, like he knew I would.

It's been a long winter and we've scaled some hurdles over the past few months. I would have loved to go on some kind of leave-it-all-behind adventure, instead of staying home. When our close-to-home getaway fell through, I took it out on him.

He understood there was a part of me that felt frustrated we weren't packing our family up to head somewhere sunny and warm. That makes me sound selfish, I know it does. And JB's refusal to apologize for our predicament told me he thought so, too. 

After I finished the pilot, I went downstairs, found JB and told him he needed to watch it so we continue the series together. He knew if I liked it, he would too. And, of course, he had already forgiven me before I had a chance to ask. 

It's been three more days and fifteen episodes. And if you know Coach and Tami Taylor, then you know I've shed tears watching them point each other towards their best: without judgement and always with forgiveness.

Netflix

 

Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can't lose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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