Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Take that, Calvin Trillin!

Last year, a student was texting in flagrante delicto on the second day of class. I asked her to please put her phone away. In response, she retorted, "Do you know how to make Chinese food? Because, if you do, can you bring me some General Tso's chicken? It's my favorite." 

Oh, where to begin with that one. In a perfect world, I could send her to her dean and there she would be reschooled on the school motto, "Diversity, Opportunity, Respect." But who was I kidding? The fact that she did not even bother to pretend to text surreptitiously says everything you need to know about how things work in my school.

I contemplated pointing out to her that General Tso's chicken is an American invention, just like fortune cookies. I considered asking her if she makes requests of all her teachers to serve her favorite dishes in class after they dare ask her to put her phone away. And if she does, what specific requests has she made? Scallion pancakes? Lasagna? Mac and cheese? Irish soda bread, fried chicken, barbecue?

In the end, I opted to keep teaching. At the end of class, I told her in front of her classmates that I'm vegetarian. So no, I won't be bringing in General Tso's chicken, which, by the way, is not real Chinese food, so if you're interested in that, you should order some from the Panda Express at the mall.

That was the best I could muster. 

Last week, in the aftermath of the piece-of-crap Calvin Trillin poem on Chinese food called "Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?" published in the April 4, 2016 edition of The New Yorkerthe Asian American community (writers, bloggers, celebrities, and allies) blew up Twitter with cogent responses to Trillin's lazy, reductive, poorly-written piece of doggerel. 

Trillin's poem begins by positing the "they" against the "we." 
Have they run out of provinces yet? 
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
"They" are the faceless, nameless entity that threaten to disturb the comfort of the "we." "We" are the fretters who can't seem to keep track of exotic, regional cuisines of China that have multiplied like wild mushrooms on the foodie scene in America. 

Then comes a parade of provinces, starting with the familiar "Cantonese" to the "food from Szechuan," to "Shanghainese... dumplings whose insides were soup" to "Hunan" to "Fukien" to "Uigher" to "Xian"--and it's all oh-so-confusing to keep track of! 

By the second stanza, Trillin's lame rhyming couplets take a turn from a whiny, irritating voice to one that's far more ominous as the tone shifts from why are there so many kinds of Chinese food to keep track of? to damn that country and all its confusing provinces for creating "tension" and "increasing our fears." Whoa. There it is. There it is: yellow peril, loud and clear. 

Does it take a genius to predict that Trillin's words would strike an Asian American ear as reductive, racist, and xenophobic? Apparently so, and even the geniuses at The New Yorker failed to see the problem with this poem.

As a respected food critic and humorist who is versed in the subtleties of regional Chinese cuisines, Calvin Trillin does not need a history lesson on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. So, how then did Trillin and the New Yorker become so myopic and tone deaf? How did they fail to see the one hundred and one ways in which this poem was not going to be one bit funny to many of its readers? Oh right. The white gaze. Again. 

But something really awesome happened in response to Trillin and The New Yorker's blunder. Asian Americans talked back! Bet they weren't expecting that from the so-called model minority whose immigrant parents told us not to draw attention to ourselves. 

And, as usual, when POC talk back, the people who are called on their bigotry resort to these familiar refrains:
  • How is this racist?
  • You missed the joke.
  • You misunderstood his point.
  • He has friends who are [insert name of oppressed group].

Amidst outcry from the Asian American community, Trillin explained to the Guardian that his poem was "simply a way of making fun of food-obsessed bourgeoisie.” Among the people who rushed to defend Trillin was author Joyce Carol Oates, who tweeted that he was "Misunderstood / for writing funnily of food." Samuel Cohen notes, "He's being ironic. He's been a food writer and poet of doggerel verse for a million years and I've seen him riding his bike around Chinatown, where he loves to eat. He is not actually complaining about the variety of regional Chinese cuisines and he is not actually nostalgic for the days of chow mein. He is making fun of white people."

As so many people have already pointed out: good satire doesn't require a disclaimer. So let me try to wrap my head around this one. Trillin was making fun of white people by commodifying a culinary history he claims to love? #TrillinFAIL #NewYorkerFAIL 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Remembering Qingming Festival

At some point in my schooling in the American system, like so many children, I went on a field trip that involved making a grave rubbing. As the teacher gave instructions and demonstrated, I was horrified. Did she not fear the wrath of the departed? How disrespectful to traipse through sacred grounds as though it were Disney World. Luckily, one of my classmates was more than happy to make two grave rubbings. I did not have to participate in desecration of someone's ancestor's final resting spot after all. Disaster averted!

Yesterday was Qingming Festival, a national holiday in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China for honoring one's ancestors. On Qingming, families gather to bai san, literally translated as kowtow to the mountain, a nod to the feng shui belief that the most auspicious grave sites face water and rest along a mountain side. 

Tsuen Wan Chinese Permanent Cemetery, where my grandfather is buried
As one of the mostly densely populated cities in the world, it's no wonder that cemeteries in Hong Kong are also bursting at the seams. I read somewhere that it's easier to get public housing in Hong Kong than a burial spot. (Note to the living: if you are claustrophic, you'll need to reconsider Hong Kong as a final resting spot.)

Although I have not returned to Hong Kong in 30 years, I still remember the importance of Qingming festival, which falls on the first day of the fifth solar term of the traditional Chinese calendar, or 15 days after the vernal equinox, either April 4th or 5th, depending on a given year. In Cantonese, four is a homonym for death, so the fourth day of the fourth month was always a spooky mnemonic for me. 

My family--siblings, parents, uncles, aunt, cousins, grandmother--hiked up many concrete steps carved into a mountain, bearing elaborate food and libation to offer to the spirit of my grandfather, buried in Tsuen Wan, and my great grandmother, buried in Chai Wan. Although I was scared of ghosts and hated the long trek up the seemingly never-ending steps of the mountain, it was a fun holiday filled with shenanigans between cousins, as we pretended to be mules carrying provisions into the desert to save many lives. A roast pig was involved, so we took turns as pall bearers to piggy, an offering to our departed ancestors, along with Hennessy XO cognac, fruits, and other delectables. When it came to food, we did not play around. Mountain or no, feasting was the promised reward. 

Along the way, the grown ups would inevitably retell famous family stories of how grandfather did not condone laziness or insolence one bit, that just one glare from grandfather and you knew to shape up or else.

When we finally reached our destination, we swept the grave, lay out the offerings, burned spirit money and incense, and one by one, took turns kowtowing three times to show our respect to ancestors. And then came the reward for trekking up the mountain: FEAST! 

Paying our respects to grandfather (I am the second from left in the front row). As I look at this picture today, I'm struck by the simplicity of my grandfather's tombstone compared to ones behind us in this picture. My uncle Tony was only 20 years old when he had to buy a grave for his father. He, my grandmother, and later my mom, worked hard to pay off that piece of land.

I have not celebrated Qingming in 30 years, but in two weeks, my family will be convening at my beloved grandmother's final resting spot, also on a mountain--yes, feng shui really matters!--to begin a new North American tradition of honoring our ancestors. I can barely wait. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

On reconnecting with a pleasure I had let fall to the wayside

When my amazing colleague and friend, Kim, invited me and several of our colleagues to join her on the Slice of Life challenge, I told her YES, hoping that, by the time March rolled around, I'd miraculously be energized and excited to blog every single day for the next 31 days. When the miracle I was hoping for did not happen, I told myself I'd try it for three days, and if I hated it, I could stop.

And so I tried.

On day one, I told myself it didn't matter what I write, just write. Don't worry about who is going to see this first draft writing.

On day two, I discovered I had no desire to write about my work. After a full day of teaching, and with grading and planning always looming nearby as I stole some time to write, I needed this space to be a retreat, a place where I could fill my well. And I confess: I prefer reading and commenting on slices about anything over work. 

By day three, I knew I could stop and not feel that I had let myself down--after all, I had reached my initial target of 3 days. But I didn't want to.

In the last month, I've reconnected to a pleasure I let fall to the wayside when I became weighed down by the daily grind of teaching. The irony of this is not lost on me. An English teacher who teaches writing but doesn't write on a regular basis? Bad, bad, bad. And yet, that is a vast majority of teachers. Imagine if school leaders actively created working conditions that support the professional growth of teachers? For all the talk of "rigor" and "literacy across the curriculum" at my school, I have yet to see a visionary move to support the lives of teachers as readers, writers, and scholars. And it is so fixable.

Putting your money where your mouth is matters. I am so proud of all of us for taking the plunge into this challenge. I have had the pleasure of writing alongside masters whose words and spirit inspired and sustained me throughout the month. I have deepened friendships with colleagues I already admired, respected, and adored but now feel even closer to. And I am so grateful to Kim for rallying us to write. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Family history and how I learned English, Part 2

Those of you who read my entry yesterday on my mother's childhood dream to build a life in America noted her courage, passion, focus, and determination in your generous comments. (Oh, your generous, generous comments!) 

My mother was not the first in her family to overcome hardship. Her parents escaped Communist China in a harrowing journey, first by train from Shanghai to Guangzhou, then below decks in a smuggler's flimsy boat over the South China Sea, to make a life for themselves in Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997. They were part of the exodus of Shanghai tailors hailing from Ningbo who relocated to Hong Kong, which quickly became a city known for its bespoke industry. (Note: China ceded Hong Kong to the British in 1841, during the first Opium War. I blogged about my family history in the Opium war here.)

My mother was three years old when her family escaped Communist China to start anew in British controlled Hong Kong. While her parents faced a language barrier and discrimination (Shanghainese and Cantonese, the dialects spoken respectively in Shanghai and Hong Kong, have so little in common they might as well be called different languages), my mother and her siblings played the roles that many children of immigrants know well: translator, negotiator between old and new ways, beneficiaries of parental sacrifice, which always comes with an inherited responsibility, whether stated explicitly or not.  Adversity is an amazing motivator and teacher of life lessons. 

In yesterday's entry I left off with my mother's ingenuity and determination in ensuring that her children learn English. What began as a childhood dream gathered momentum as she grew into a woman with a plan. Like her parents before her, my mother is deeply skeptical of oppressive governments; she had no intention of staying in Hong Kong when it was ceded back to China in 1997 as delineated by the Treaty of Nanking. 

So, she enrolled us in the Hong Kong International School, a school with an American-style curriculum, founded by Lutheran missionaries. By the time I entered Kindergarten, I understood English, thanks to the solid foundation my mother paved for me in English language preschool, Sunday school, the YMCA, English language bookstore visits, and a home tutor. But forming the strange sounds of the language still felt like an affront to my senses. On top of that, I was painfully shy around strangers. I refused to speak. 

My teachers put me into the Learning Center, the international school version of an IEP, where on a regular basis, I received small group instruction in social skills, practiced reading aloud, played games, put on puppet shows and skits. Once, our teacher even brought us up to the faculty apartments adjoining the school to show us a litter of newborn pups her Cocker Spaniel had just given birth to. 

Noting my reluctance to speak, the kind, patient teacher encouraged me to write stories. Afterward I would read them to her in a very quiet voice, and she would praise me, and encourage me to put on a silly costume and act out the words I had written. I loved the Babar costume best and dreamed up plot after plot involving elephants and their various family outings, conflicts with siblings, playground dramas. Even in elementary school, long before I ever heard of Aristotle, I understood that art imitates life.

Though a budding author, I had no confidence in my language ability until the year my family immigrated to America. I was ten years old, the same age my mother was when her father died. In my family's first year in America, I skipped a grade. Something in me clicked, and all the words I had been holding inside, entrusted only to the pages of my diary, came tumbling out. I never looked back.

The year I found my voice corresponded with my initiation into the role of child of new immigrants: translator, negotiator between old and new ways, beneficiary of parental sacrifice, with which came great responsibility. 

In three generations, the arc of my family history spans my orphan grandmother who was not afforded the opportunity to attend school and was therefore illiterate, my mother, a high school drop out who nevertheless devoted herself to educating her children, my siblings and cousins with Bachelor's to post-doc degrees among us.

I'm pretty sure that grandma shared her stories with me because she knew I would write from the heart about them one day. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dreams from my mother, or how I learned English

When she was in 6th grade, my mother became best friends with a new girl in her class. An army brat from Hawaii, she spoke fluent English, and was, according to mom, fun-loving, confident, a breath of fresh air. Only months after she arrived, the new best friend moved away again. 

Though their friendship was brief, my mother credits Hawaii girl for inspiring her to dream of building a life in America one day. 

When she was only ten years old, my mother lost her father to tuberculosis. He had been ill for some time. One morning, he projectile vomited enough blood to fill a bucket. That was the last time she saw her father.

To avoid the social stigma of being called fatherless, which was a real thing in the 1960s in Hong Kong, my mother chose to tell her classmates that her father was a sailor deployed to faraway lands.

Not long after, she met Hawaii girl, an American born child of a sailor. It's no surprise at all that she glamorized her new best friend. The prospect of making a new friend with no history attached must have appealed to a grieving 10 year old girl. Moreover, my mother always loved languages. English was one of her favorite subjects in school. She could practice her English with her new best friend.

Unfortunately, due to economic circumstance, my mother dropped out of high school to work full time to help support the fatherless family

So, when her children were born, she was determined to give us opportunities she did not have. She was only 20 years old, but she had a plan. What began as a childhood dream now drove her decisions on how to parent us. 

Thus, she enrolled us in an English-speaking nursery school run by British missionaries. The school was conveniently attached to a church, and on Sundays, she dropped me and my brother off for Bible school. Through Jonah and the whale and Joseph and the multi-color coat, we learned English. We were Buddhists with a mom who believed that we should learn English, because one day she intended for us to live in America. 

I cried every day for several months. At home we spoke Cantonese, so when I was suddenly plunked into a preschool where I did not understand the language, I was scared and retreated into silence. Eventually, though, I began to sing the songs along with the other children. Music equalized the scary world of English for me, and to this day, I remember relaxing a little when the teacher played the piano and we sat on the rug around her singing nursery school rhymes.

On weekends, my mother took us to the local YMCA for swim lessons. Afterward, we ate at the restaurant attached to the club, where she insisted that my brother and I place our orders in English (the Y was a favorite of ex-pats in Hong Kong, so waiters were invariably bilingual). She rewarded our efforts with books that we were allowed to choose from the English language bookstore next to the YMCA. She hired a tutor who helped us practice reading aloud from our English storybooks.

That I can still recall the details of my earliest memories of learning English is a testament to my mother's creativity and fierce determination. What began as a a childhood dream for her as she mourned her father paved the path of our journey to America. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Grandma's tomato egg flower soup with bean sprouts


On a rainy, raw Monday afternoon, after a full day's work capped with yet another wrist-gnawingly mind-numbing compulsory meeting of little substance, I take Hagrid on a walk in the cold drizzle, when memory, like will-o'-the-wisps, flickers around me when I least expect it, beckoning me toward a languid winding river flanked by green pastures and open blue sky.

I follow the river, and suddenly I am at the table from childhood, drinking a bowl of Grandma's tomato egg flower soup with bean sprouts, into which I've scooped some warm, sticky rice from my rice bowl. 

It has been a while since I last tasted this soup; it's not particularly a favorite of mine, and yet, here is where the surprise appearance of will-o'-the-wisps has led me today.

Born into a time when only sons (and daughters of the upper class) were educated, my grandmother, an orphan raised by distant relatives, was illiterate. She had little use for measurements and recipes. Grandma cooked from the heart with her taste buds, nose, eyes, and ears, distilling flavors and textures into a combinations that nourished and delighted countless discerning palates.

You won't find most of my grandmother's creations in Americanized Chinese restaurants. I absolutely cannot stand the starchiness of the egg drop soup of American Chinese restaurants. Not at all like the real deal. 

Luckily, my mother, brother, sisters, and I were all apprentices in grandma's kitchen. So here's a glimpse into this soup, recreated from memory. (Note: egg drop soup, translated literally, means egg flower soup. I've never forgiven the unimaginative English translation!)

Grandma's tomato egg flower soup with bean sprouts
  • Vegetable oil
  • Several tomatoes, seeded and cut into wedges (note: if desired, blanch to remove skin)
  • 1-2 eggs, beaten well (grandma always beat eggs with chopsticks)
  • a handful of soy or mung bean sprouts
  • broth (homemade is the best, can be any kind of broth: veggie, chicken, pork, etc.)
  • salt to flavor
  • optional: scallions to garnish, white pepper, sesame or chili oil to flavor
  1. Heat up wok or frying pan. Add some oil, and when oil is hot, add bean sprouts and stir fry until they begin to become translucent. It won't take long. Be careful not to overcook. Transfer sprouts to a dish.
  2. Using the same wok, add tomatoes and stir fry for several minutes.
  3. Add enough broth to turn it into a soup. Turn heat down and simmer.
  4. In a bowl, beat egg(s) thoroughly. If you want to be a boss like grandma, do it with chopsticks and beat it so well you can't tell yolk from white. Do it with gusto so that you incorporate air into the beating. You should see air bubbles in the finished mixture.
  5. When the tomatoes are tender (they should not be too hard or too soft), turn off the heat. Drizzle the beaten egg mixture into the soup in a circular pattern (do not drop the whole bowl in at once... think egg flower, not egg drop!). The egg will flower in wisps. Add bean sprouts. Stir gently.
  6. Garnish with scallions, if you like. Flavor with sesame or chili oil, or both. Eat with a bowl of rice.  


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sir Hagrid's Famous 'Fro, or I Belong in Best In Show Pt. 2

Time to tame the 'fro: Hagrid on my "grooming table" 
Not perfect, but I want to end the session while he's still mostly relaxed

In a previous post, I wrote about how I belong in the movie Best in Show. (Incidentally, apparently some people not familiar with the film completely missed my cheeky tone in that post. So, for the record, it was all cheek, and this one is as well!)

Here's another reason I belong in Christopher Guest's Best in Show... 

I am the self-appointed hair stylist of Sir Hagrid.

As non-shedders, Bichon Frises are at the very top of the list for breeds with the highest grooming needs. Maintaining Hagrid's coat involves daily brushing and combing, regular bathing (especially if your dog is allergy-prone as Hagrid is), as well as haircuts every 3-4 weeks, and trimming around the eyes even more frequently. Oh and of course nail trimming and tooth brushing. 

You name it, I do it. 


Because I am paranoid and belong in the movie Best in Show.

I have read and heard of too many stories of groomers rough-handling dogs with force. Of clipper and scissoring accidents resulting in visits to the emergency vet.  Of dogs left in drying boxes unsupervised, essentially cooked to death. The list goes on, but I'll stop there. 

If you are groomer, or happen to have a groomer your dog looks forward to seeing every time, please remember that a) I'm happy for you, I really am! and b) I know I'm being paranoid, and of course I don't think all groomers are incompetent. I just don't choose to leave my dog at a salon where I can't see what's going on.

When Hagrid was a puppy, I figured, how hard can it be? My mom cut our hair until we went off to college. If I messed it up, Hagrid wouldn't know the difference, and it would grow back eventually. 

The first time I gave Hagrid a bath, I cried. I was not at all prepared for the transformation from fluffy powder puff to skinny drowned rat. I thought I had ruined his hair forever. I was never so relieved when his hair dried and he fluffed back up. Phew.

I wish I could say the same for the first few haircuts I gave him. Once, a vet scolded me to take my dog to a professional groomer, who might be able to teach me a thing or two about cutting my dog's hair. 

But now, Hagrid's famous 'fro is often a conversation starter, inviting smiles and compliments from people of all ages and backgrounds. 

My grooming skills are a work in progress. I smile when strangers ask me, "Where do you take you dog to be groomed, because he has the best hair cut!?"

Can we get on with the walk already?