Now reading Dumpling Diplomacy

Dumpling Diplomacy

Achieving family peace through shui jiao.

It wasn’t until I was nearly thirty that I told my parents I had a girlfriend. Is that not normal? What is normal?

We were an immigrant family ingratiating ourselves as best we could in America. I was six when I came over. Yet my parents held onto our Chineseness with an iron death grip, making us take Kumon math classes, calligraphy courses, piano lessons—those sorts of things.

Half of the Chinese kids I knew embraced it. They’re the ones who segregated themselves with the other Asian kids in cafeteria and skipped prom. The other half got Asian dysphoria, and rebelled by diving headfirst into their Chinese parents’ greatest fear: black culture. I was neither of those. I was the whitest Chinese kid: into baseball cards, alt-comedy, Rick Steves travel shows, and Steely Dan. Asian kids like us are pejoratively called bananas (yellow on the outside, white on the inside).

I was also never into Chinese girls. I dug white girls. White girls who would supposedly never be into Asian guys. Yet I had no trouble dating them.

My reluctance in opening up to my parents about my girlfriends is complicated. The tug-of-war between Chinese and American societal mores had a lot to do with it. Let’s just say that they would have preferred an Asian girlfriend, and I didn’t.

Here I was, a financially stable, responsible 28-year-old adult. Yet I still couldn’t muster the courage to tell my parents about Elizabeth.

Things were getting serious with her. She was beautiful, smart, funny, and my secret dream—a blonde.

The first person in my family to know about Elizabeth was my aunt, Western-educated and therefore a hundred times more relatable than my parents. I framed the news as a cherished secret—“Well, you know, just between you and me…”—knowing full well she’d divulge to my parents within twenty-four hours. She probably saw through my feigned coyness that I was too cowardly, that I needed her to break the news to my mom and dad.

Sure enough, the next day, when my mother called for our twice-a-month phone chat, she didn’t bother to tiptoe around the subject or let me volunteer the information. The first thing she said after hello was, “Tell me about your girlfriend!” I realized, based on her excitement, that she must have thought I was gay all these years.

But even after two years of falling in love with Elizabeth, I was reticent about sharing details with my parents. What does she do for a living? Where did she go to school? How did you meet her? My answers were pithy and vague: English major. At a party. Good cook. Really nice.

Can we get a picture of her?

No. I was dead set against this. As irrational as it sounds, looking back, I wanted to delay their realization that she was white for fear of how they might react.

I pushed it all off as long as I could. But when Christmas rolled around that year, Elizabeth decided for me that she should fly across the country and meet my family. It was time. The reservoir of excuses finally ran dry.

The drive from our hotel to my childhood home was too fast. My stomach knotted and I tasted bile. My parents only knew Elizabeth’s name, not what she looked like.

We walked up the driveway and rang the doorbell that played Für Elise.

The door swung open and there was mom, her apron caked with flour, with two outstretched arms, beaming. There was no judgment, hesitation, or once-over of the gwai lo. Just forward momentum, then a maternal squeeze to each of us. It was the reaction of a mother knowing her son was happy and in love.

“Come in, come in!”

Mom led us into the kitchen, where they were wrapping dumplings. Dad—five feet, five inches of South China virility—stood hunched over the counter eyeballing soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, and cornstarch into the ground pork, and mixing with his hands.

“I hug you two later,” he said in his endearingly high-pitched accent.

Instantly, Elizabeth was entranced. It was like one of those Saturday afternoon cooking shows on PBS we watched together, but in living color. She peppered mom with questions: What are these called in Chinese? What’s in the filling? How do you fold these? Elizabeth’s curiosity, especially about matters of food, was insatiable. Unlike me, she had no fear. That’s what I loved about her.

“We call these shui jiao,” mom said. “They’re pork dumplings you boil in water, then serve in broth. We usually dip it in soy sauce and vinegar. The secret is adding lots of napa cabbage. That’s what makes the dumplings juicy.”

Within five minutes of meeting them, Elizabeth had donned an apron and was folding dumplings with mom and dad. All the obligatory questions about her life would come later, over dinner and cake. At the moment, there was work to do.

I sat back and watched with equal parts amazement and relief. Here they were, Chinese mother and future Irish-Catholic daughter-in-law, a first impression via shui jiao. Elizabeth immediately adopted as the white daughter they never had.

The dumplings evolved into a tradition. And every time we fly back to visit, my parents teach Elizabeth a new Chinese recipe. It feels completely normal.