***This post was written a few days back but I’ve only had a chance to share it now***
I went to go visit one of my aunts today. This aunt is the mother of my oldest cousin, and so I call her “da ma”, which means ‘big mother’ in Chinese. I went to her house because she is known for her cooking. Da ma is the best cook in the whole extended family and to me, her dishes always taste like home.
Da ma lives on the eleventh floor of an apartment located in a residential community to the East of Nanjing. Her apartment, shared with her husband, their daughter, son-in-law and grandson is littered with toys of all different shapes and sizes. Da ma and her husband (I call him ‘da bai bai’ – big uncle’) used to live in a dim, cramped little apartment in the centre of Nanjing, but after the birth of their grandson they moved into the suburbs to be closer to their daughter and her newly developing family. Da ma and her husband, whilst retired, are still very busy: early in the morning the whole household gets up, mum and dad head off for work, and the grandparents accompany their grandson to his kindergarten. After the bub is dropped off, da ma spends the rest of her day cleaning, cooking, and doing chores. At 4pm it’s pickup time, followed by several hours at the local playground or at a local art or English after-school class, and after that it’s time for da ma to make dinner for her busy, young, modern Chinese family.
I went to go find da ma because I wanted to learn how to make zongzi. Zongzi are sticky rice parcels wrapped in reed leaves and they are traditionally eaten for the Duanwu festival, which falls around May-June each year. You can have sweet zongzi, which consist of rice, red beans and/or dates dipped in sugar, or savoury ones: delicious soy sauce parcels of rice, stewed meat, nuts and salted egg yolks. Today we were making sweet ones.
I explained to my grandmother the other day why I wanted to learn how to make zongzi. I told her about how I had forgotten so much of my family’s culture while I was trying so hard to assimilate into Australian culture. I told her about how I regretted that. From the age of five, I grew up in Australia, Canada, Germany and the United States. I went to ten schools in ten years and all I wanted to do was to fit in. I readily gave up any connection that I had to my Chinese heritage. At art school I remember doing a performance piece in which I cut a whole bunch of red ties, red signifying my family and my family’s culture.
In my teens my grandfather was seriously ill – he lived in a hospital bed for about the last four or so years of his life – and I was too ignorant or distracted to really pay any attention to him. That and I didn’t have the ability within me to acknowledge or sit with the pain that awaited me when I would return to China to see him so helpless and so constantly close to death. A few years ago he passed away, leaving an incredible legacy of poems, books, memories and stories of his generosity, suffering, wisdom and kindness. Poems and stories which I could not read, and stories with people that I couldn’t understand. I felt the regret of not having gotten to know him better.
My mother’s father, my other grandfather, also passed away a few years ago. He sounded like an incredible man – district leader of his area and respected by many people from his village. When he died, a traditional Chinese mourning ceremony was held, and loudspeakers blared the wailing sounds of grief for three days straight. Visitors came from near and far to pay their respects and a large pile of fake paper money was burned to give him prosperity in the afterlife. I didn’t really know who he was, except that he had a friendly smile and that he had been extremely hardworking. After he died I was told that when he was young he rode a bicycle from his village in the country all the way to Shanghai. Back then it would’ve been around the 1960s, and with roads being what they were that would’ve been a real feat. At the time of hearing this I thought he sounded like an interesting person, but in all honesty I had no idea who he really was.
Feeling the guilt and the shame that comes with regret, I made a decision a while ago that I didn’t want that to happen again. I told my grandmother about how if I didn’t learn the recipes of my da ma, no one else in our family might. Zongzi was a popular dish that perhaps a cousin of mine could make, but others, some of which I also learnt today, weren’t. I told my grandmother: come the day when my aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents wouldn’t be here anymore, the recipes, stories, knowledge and the skills of my family would only lie with my generation. And seeing how distracted my cousins are by the new, dynamic, ever-developing China, sometimes it felt like the responsibility lay solely with me. Unable to hold back what I was feeling any longer, I couldn’t help but tear up as I said this. For some mysterious reason not completely known to me yet, it really struck a nerve. “I want my children and my grandchildren to have a taste of what it was like to be at the dinner table with you all”, I said.
And so fast forward to today, and I find myself sitting in the cramped and colourful kitchen of my da ma’s house. My da bai bai has been asked to film this understatedly momentous occasion, and in the footage you can hear him asking about my camera’s megapixel capacity and yelling out when he spies a fly on the food. My da ma had prepared the ingredients for this little lesson the night before, and we sit there folding reed leaves into cones and filling them with sticky rice. Once I get the hang of it, and once we have wrapped up all the rice, the camera is turned off and the sticky rice parcels are put on the boil. My da ma starts washing the bowls we’ve used in the sink, ready to get on with the day as she’s picking up her grandson soon, and my da bai bai returns to the kitchen with a pink electrified tennis racket to kill the offending fly. After a few minutes of swiping I hear a little zap, and the fly is dead. As the fly is disposed of I write down what I have just learned in the notebook of scribbles and memories that has accompanied me on my travels.
Soon after that I’m off again on my bike and heading off to my next destination. Da ma is busying herself so as not to be late for her grandson and da bai bai waves goodbye to me from their apartment building’s door. I entered their home full of questions and curiosities, and I left with another piece of the puzzle.