Feb. 17, 2022
My mom always told me that regardless of how far and how long one travels, no matter how many new customs, lifestyles, and even ways of thinking one adapts, rarely does a traveler change her “stomach,” that is, dietary preferences. After living in the U.S. for more than 20 years, I find that my mother’s words hold so much truth.
Twenty years ago, the first time I ate cheese, I spit it out. I mistook the white cheese slices for “chicken breast.” I watched it with suspicion for a while. Under my American roommate’s urging, I carefully took a bite: the texture violently shocked my taste buds. I spit it out to prevent myself from vomiting my dinner. This involuntary act astonished everyone at the dinner table. Fast forward to today, I love cheesy garlic bread, a slice of smooth and creamy cheesecake, or a grilled cheese sandwich. However, these are not my go-to foods on a regular basis. Neither will you find them in my fridge or pantry. I only eat them once in a long while at someone else’s house.
Then, what do I eat? Chinese meals of course!
I love beginning my morning with a steaming hot cup of matcha latte with soy milk. It provides a nice even kick of energy that keeps me calm and peaceful. Throughout the day, I sip on ginseng tea, which is slices of dried ginseng brewed in hot water. I drink it slowly.
Often, I eat a salad for lunch at work. It took me quite a number of years to incorporate salads into my diet, mainly because the Chinese prefer hot meals. We cook almost everything, including green vegetables. The first time I was offered a salad, I fumed inside as I felt I was going to be fed like a cow. Gradually, eating salads became a win-win situation. My school provides amazing lunches for free. Unfortunately, the variety of pizzas, hamburgers, brats, hotdogs, ravioli, and pasta always cause some discomfort in my Chinese stomach. I view my eating salads as a symbol of my Americanization.
A weeknight dinner depends on what is available in my fridge. A quick stir-fry with steamed rice. A bowl of noodle soup with straw mushroom, bok choy, and fish balls. Or a plate of dumplings. Hometown meals offer all the comfort, familiarity, nostalgia, and assurance in one place. They are the strings on kites. While one might be soaring in the sky, one is never alone attached to a string. Despite the many transformations that may have occurred, a part of the original you is preserved. You might be different in many ways, but your core can never get lost.
Occasionally, when I visit an Asian grocery store, I buy an order of chicken feet. Chinese women are taught to obsess over chicken feet for their high collagen content. It is believed that chicken feet will beautify our skin. I am careful to not eat them in front of my American friends, just in case they are “grossed out.” There is so little one can do about food bias unless others are willing to try a different food experience. One man’s meal can be another man’s poison.
For the majority of the time, I live simply and eat light and nutritious casual meals. However, once a year, I fuss over rituals, customs, and food etiquette for the Chinese Lunar New Year.
New Year’s Eve’s dinner carries such significance. It is a meal to bid farewell to any unwanted past and welcome all your heart’s desired good wishes. There is chicken for good luck, fish for surplus, dumplings and golden egg rolls for abundant earnings, noodles for longevity, raw lettuce for prosperity, and a handful of candy for a sweet life. The chicken, fish, and duck are served whole as they bring “union” and “fullness” into reality. Should any be left out?
In China, New Year’s Eve’s dinner is typically a family meal. However, beginning on New Year’s Day, relatives, neighbors, and friends visit with gifts. More rituals are performed, and more meals are served.
I love inviting friends over on New Year’s Day for hotpots. Eating hotpot is a risk-free, hassle-free, happy, fun, and feel-good meal. The longer I live in the States, the more convinced I am that hotpot is a true symbol of the United States: while preserving individuality, there is togetherness, unity, and shared common goodness. Hotpot offers freedom, choices, and opportunities. Hotpot respects individual preference and embraces all with open heartedness. More than ever, Hotpot is no longer only popular in China. Hotpot is a symbol for a globally integrated world. Hotpot allows you and me to be unique, and, at the same time, Hotpot brings us together.
My #VeryAsian Chinese New Year meals are not just Chinese or Asian. They are very much American and global as well.
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