It’s the day after Christmas, and the Chins, my mother’s clan, are gathering to make jiaozi, or Chinese dumplings. Traditionally, jiaozi are made on Chinese New Year, but the Chins make them on December 26—after the ducks, the ham, the short ribs, and the Philly cheesesteaks. It is our cleanse. Chin family jiaozi are plump parcels stuffed with shrimp, pork, and chives. The edges of each dumpling are pleated, like the ruffles of a skirt. When properly done, the jiaozi curves inward and sits squarely on its bottom. They are then either boiled or pan-fried until their bottoms are crisp and gold. It’s a heart-warming affair, a testament to how our family has survived the years. We trash talk and we tease; we roll, we boil, we pleat, in perfect synchronicity. We laugh and share memories. The Chin family claims that this is a family tradition, but I have no recollection of doing this until I was in my twenties.
The Chins are from Dongbei, which is the region northeast of Beijing. It is a freezing place with fields of onion, sorghum, and wheat, where people ride on horseback and where jiaozi could be made by the thousands and left outside to stiffen in the sub-zero temperatures, preserved for months on end. Of course, my mother’s family, the Chins, believe that the Northern dumplings are the best, just like they think that Northern women are the most red-blooded, the Northern way of speaking is the wittiest, and that Northerners invented everything from jiaozi to the Internet.
The mojo of a Dongbei jiaozi is its skin. Dongbei dumplings have hand-rolled wheat-flour-and-water outsides, and while other regional, egg-based dumplings can be fragile, a Northern dumpling’s outside has more heft, and is as important—if not more—than the juicy center within. In order to make a jiaozi wrapper, you combine flour and water, let it rest, and then form it into a snake, from which you pinch off walnut-sized balls of flour. You then flatten the balls and roll them into thin circles. You must roll from the center to the edge, and rotate the circle around, so that when you are finished, you have a wrapper with a bump in the middle. There is a hand-hewn, peasant character to the Dongbei jiaozi. It should be aesthetically beautiful, tough enough to stand up to the cooking, but ultimately tender as an earlobe.
I have one jiaozi memory as a child, standing on a stool in my oldest aunt Sha’s kitchen, trying to learn how to roll. I was not very adept at it, and my family has never been known for its patience. If you did not have a knack for something (mathematics, piano, languages, jiaozi wrappers), you were subtly but stingingly ridiculed. As a result, I never particularly liked jiaozi growing up—at least not the Dongbei kind. As a kid, I ate the meaty filling and discarded the rest.
My grandmother’s dumplings are the ones I remember best. Grandma Chin was different from her husband, who was an architect, artist, and chef. He loved Mondrian and cigars. The Chins still talk about his jiaozi skins, so thin you could see through them. Grandma Chin, on the other hand, practiced calligraphy and watched Days of our Lives with fervor. We teased her for her admonishments to wear a cardigan in the middle of August, and the frequency with which she mopped the floor. I was eight when Grandpa Chin died and we stopped speaking Chinese; Grandma Chin was forced to speak to us in English. Her English was unlike any Chinese English I’d ever heard. She rolled her R’s and swallowed her vowels. I was starr-born (stubborn). When she clinked wine glasses, it was chrrrrrrs. She persisted in making a lot of labor-intensive Dongbei meals: pancakes and buns, the Chinese rice tamales called zongzi, the flaky, pan-fried pastries called xianbing, and also mountains of jiaozi. She was everyone’s idea of a perfect grandmother: fussy and loving, and swathed in shawls. And because of that, I took her for granted.
I spent many summers with my grandmother. At some point, I developed an interest in making jiaozi in a detached, Social Studies sort of way, just as I told her that I was interested in calligraphy and sewing. As always, my grandmother would prepare everything for me. Just as she’d finish sewing a dress in the pattern I’d selected, or complete the painting I had abandoned, she would continue to cheerfully make the heap of jiaozi I had discarded. I could not have been the granddaughter that she wanted. I was sour, temperamental, and defensive. Still, she worried that I was cold (“chilly, brrrr,” she’d say) even in the 90-degree heat. Every afternoon, she’d walk my little brother and me to the library. She endured me through my prickly childhood, and my even surlier adolescence.
Grandma Chin’s cooking never had the hyperbolic power of Grandpa Chin’s cooking, just as her personality had been overshadowed by his presence. She was a university economics major in the 1930s; after the war, she scrimped money and cooked every day to keep the family together. She took herself to China when the U.S. travel ban was finally lifted. What I was unaware of, growing up, was that she had known for years that my mother was unhappy in her marriage and seeing another man, and that my father was a jealous and physically violent person. All this she kept this to herself. “Xiao Fei,” she said, using my mother’s nickname—which means Little Fat, even though my mother had been slim since her teenage years—“if I have to take a machine gun to protect you, I will.”
The Chins treat jiaozi-making as a family tradition as old as time itself, though I do not remember it this way. My first memories of jiaozi were not of the Chins making it together in the winter, but in July, perched on the counter, watching as Grandma Chin rolled and pleated in solitude, humming tunelessly to herself. After she was diagnosed with cancer, she would come to my mother’s house and make hundreds of them all by herself, while we watched. I do not remember making jiaozi as a group until the Christmas when we were told that Grandma Chin was going to die. After she died, my mother opened the freezer to see hundreds of her mother’s dumplings, stowed away in Ziploc bags.
For the past ten years, before jiaozi day, I’ve taken a breath and readied myself. Did I describe the day earlier as a scene of perfect family bonhomie? That, when we make jiaozi, we are reminiscing over the good times, with bourbon and laughter? It is that, but it is also a battleground; my family will always be competitive. There is no place for anyone who is useless at the dumpling table, so those of us who can’t contribute are expected to stay away. I will never be able to roll as well as other family members, but I did learn how to pleat—not from my family, but from a classmate from Japan, who taught me that eight pleats were better than four. I’ve practiced so that I can have a place standing at the table now.
When the jiaozi-making begins, it unfolds exactly as it did the year before. Someone makes a joke about someone else’s wrapper looking like South America, and the insulted person slams down her rolling pin and storms off. One of my cousins mentions that my uncle Yo’s wrappers are the most beautiful, which they are, and his siblings, who have always treated him as the baby, dismiss the remark, as they always have. Another aunt tries to laud her child’s Chinese-speaking abilities, and is ridiculed. A couple of us talk at length about the dumpling place in San Francisco, because those are where the really great dumplings are made. We are told, by the older generation, to shut up. More glasses and rolling pins are slammed.
In the end, there are three separate plates of jiaozi, which is perhaps the only compromise to the passing years. Some of us now don’t eat red meat, and two of us have shellfish allergies. Or, in the elder Chins’ words, “Normal people, don’t touch those plates, they are for the crazy ones.” At some point, we raise our glasses and we say “Chrrrrs” to salute my grandmother, who is there in spirit. Over the years, we have gone through fractures, quarrels, one divorce, and one major switch in political allegiance. We have reinvented ourselves and our love for one another. Yet we congregate, every year, to make the jiaozi because they are constant—and good. I bite down on my first jiaozi and I think that this year’s jiaozi is better than last’s. It seems to me the skins have become more resilient and tender. Of course, when I say this to the older Chins, they tell me to knock it off. Our jiaozi has been, and always will be, the same.