When I was 5 years old living in Beijing, I would sit in a child’s bike seat on the back of my nanny’s bike as we rode to the grocery store. We would pull out of our driveway, take a right out of the compound, I would yell “Ni hao” at the “bao an,” the official Communist Party guards at the front gate, and would stick my hand out to the right hoping for a high five. I was a loud and energetic five year old that really didn’t understand the customs and climate that I was growing up in. My nanny, Song, was the best. I called her “ayi,” which means “auntie” in Mandarin. We would bike to the local grocery store called Jenny Lu’s. I would be welcomed into the bustling market with a smile and a pinch on the cheek from the Jenny Lu herself, a cute old lady that owned the place, and would immediately run to the fresh produce aisle. An oddly exhilarating thing for a kid to be excited about, but I loved helping my ayi pick out the fresh chives, scallions, and onions; and the pork or chicken we would be using that day. We would buy wrappers that I always thought resembled pizza dough, and usually a whole bunch of other treats that I pleaded Song to let me sneak home past my parents. We would make way too many dumplings that day.
I had no idea what dumplings were growing up, I only knew them by the Chinese name, jiaozi. Song and I would roll the dough thin and make the filling. A spoonful of filling is all you need to make the perfect jiaozi, but I would go overboard and pack a handful of pork and herbs in one to see how big I could make it. Dip your thumb, index, and middle finger in egg yolk, while the other hand was holding the circle of dough. Pinch the dough 5 times and glaze it with egg yolk. For a five year old, I was absolutely amazing at this.
Song and I would spend hours in the kitchen. She sang me Chinese songs and told me stories about her life living in Western China. Her full name was Lu Song. It’s such a common name in China, but I always thought she was so special. I thought she was named after her singing, because she had such a beautiful and soothing voice. I was so mesmerized by her and how gentle she was with myself and my siblings, and how everything she did reminded me of the beautiful songs she sang. Her namesake in my mind, and my love for her came from our time singing and making jiaozi in the kitchen.
Pan Fry or Steam?
Once the jiaozi was prepped, we had to decide how they would be cooked. I hated when they were boiled, but loved when they were pan fried. Song would pan fry the fresh ones we had just made, and boil a few from our frozen stock in the back. My family was insane. We had an entire freezer in our pantry just for frozen jiaozi. Stocked to the max and labeled by the type. I took complete advantage of this freezer and was able to eat jiaozi for every meal if i wanted to. When a friend came over to play, we ate jiaozi instead of pb and j’s for lunch. I rarely visited Chinese Restaurants in Beijing because I had the best jiaozi waiting for me at home. That was the thing about the area I lived in, there were no good Chinese restaurants because we didn’t need to have them. The food local Ayi’s cooked for their families was better than anything you could ever get at a restaurant.
Strangers, like Song, that had been hired by expat families to take care of their kids for the 1 or 2 years they would be living in a very different place, turned into second mothers who loved the kids as their own. My family went from a 2 year stay, to more than 5, and I know a lot of it had to do with my siblings and I loving Song so much. My extended family at home thought we were crazy, how we had found family and comfort in the outskirts of Beijing, China.
Back to the US
5 years after meeting Song, our countless trips on the bike to Jenny Lus, our equally as countless attempts at becoming friends with the Communist guards, and hundreds of jiaozi later, it was time for my family to move back to the US, leaving behind what we had made our home. I was only 10 years old, and couldn’t wrap my head around picking up and leaving. I was leaving behind my friends, who were all from different countries from around the world, my ayi, and the food I had literally grown up on. (As a particularly picky eater at the time, I only ate jiaozi and fried rice). Inside the gates of our diverse community, and inside the walls of our busy kitchen, I learned to hold onto the memories of the different people I was lucky enough to come across, and the jiaozi I made over and over again that never got old. Every passing day before we were set to get on a 12 hour plane ride back to the US, had a new goodbye party, hugs and kisses and tears, and bracing ourselves for the last car ride out of the driveway, to the right out of the compound, and one more time trying to crack the guards. The furniture was packed in boxes, and the house was close to empty, but our pantry freezer was still filled to the brim. I was either really hungry or just super dumb, but I thought that we were keeping the jiaozi frozen and alive so that we could bring a little piece of home with us back to America. The dreaded day came, and although it was more than ten years ago, I still remember it so clearly. I had chills waking up, and burst into tears immediately when I saw Song at our front door, with a perfectly packed lunch box full of jiaozi waiting for me. Pan fried, not boiled, and “Wo ai ni” (“I love you”) written on the napkin.
Jiaozi and Adult Life
Food has a strange and completely unique impact on every single person. Some food memories can gross people out, or even constantly bring back flashbacks of intense feelings. For me, Jiaozi is something that is locked away in a very special place. Surprisingly, I have only eaten Chinese food a few times since moving back (and even then I rarely order ‘dumplings’). It’s probably because the food here compared to back in Beijing is a greasy mess, or because I can’t stomach fried rice anymore, but also because Jiaozi holds such a specific memory in my mind. When I have eaten it, I make it myself. Going to the Asian supermarket to buy the ingredients, rolling the dough and making the filling myself, and packing the dumplings with 5 pinches, leaving 1 or 2 to experiment how big I can make them. I pan fry them, obviously, and then share them with my family at our dinner table. I always make sure to pack some in a Ziploc bag to keep in the freezer for late nights when im craving something delicious and sentimental. Jiaozi and Song had become my lasting memory of China.