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. 

 

 

 

Sarah Slean: And What Her Music Means To Me

sarah-slean

I'm supposed to be making dinner so I can rush out the door and get my tiny pianist to his lesson. But I've made the mistake of putting a Sarah Slean vinyl on the turntable in our front room. 

There's always music playing as a background soundtrack to the activity vibrating through our home. Tonight, I wander away from my bubbling pot and closer to the sound of Sarah's voice and the gorgeous strings that rise and fall like a tide that can't decide whether to come in for the night or run away from the sun. 

The curtains are still open in the front window and the light is starting to fade outside. I know my neighbours can see me, but I close my eyes, raise my arms and move them with the music anyway — as though I'm the one conducting the musicians. I'm not graceful, but it doesn't matter. I am only moving for myself and because of what I feel when I hear those sounds. 

I brought my youngest child to the symphony for the first time when she was four. During a particularly moving piece, I glanced over to see her head tilted back on the seat, eyes blinking rapidly, and lower lip quivering. There were tears sliding from her eyes. I reached for her hand and she whispered, Mama, I'm starting to feel a little bit sad, because the music is so beautiful.

I understood what she meant. It's what I've always appreciated about Sarah's music — every song is an invitation to step into the emotions and thoughts too easily lost in our busyness. And each time I listen to her songs, they call me back again: to learn something new, to reflect on something past, to forgive, to let go, to love. 

It's been a 15 year journey for me and in honour of the value she places on generosity, when it comes to creating and sharing her music, Sarah chose some of her long-time supporters to attend an intimate performance for the launch her of her ninth studio album, Metaphysics. You have to choose those who choose you, she told us. I am without the right words to describe what it was like to sit inches from the beautiful string instruments and to watch Sarah perform on her beloved childhood piano. 

Sarah released her first EP, Universe, at age nineteen. If that doesn't hint at her extraordinary talent, then let me share that she is not only an accomplished poet, artist, songwriter and pianist but also an accomplished string composer, who has written four original scores for 21-piece string orchestras as well as two string quartets. The strings on her double album, Land & Sea are absolutely exquisite and it seems we will be treated to more of the same on the newest album

Sarah Slean is, in the words of TIME magazine, one of the most compelling acts Canada has to offer and you shouldn't wait another minute to hear for yourself. 

I've created a playlist of my favourite songs to date. This list will grow in a matter of days when the album is released on April 7th (I'm already drawn to Loved Well). You can pre-order the album on PledgeMusic until the 1st.

Canada needs to celebrate its artists and you won't go wrong with Sarah.