Asian Girl Problem #103: The Cake That Wasn’t

Up until a few decades ago, Chinese people didn’t bake. The British had some influence on Hong Kong desserts during their reign, but up in the mainland, people didn’t eat sweets. If you could afford dessert, it would consist of something like steamed mochi or red bean soup, which, to those of us raised on Good Humor and Little Debbie, aren’t worth the coal it takes to cook them. By the way, this is also the number one reason they remained svelte–expending lots of energy dodging gross desserts.

When China finally opened up to foreign economy and trade in the 80s, they discovered French and Cantonese style desserts and evolved them according to their own tastes, which is how you end up with the modern-day fruit cakes that are fluffy, mildly sweet and covered in whipped cream. The kind of cake that if sat on, would emit the sound of a whoopee cushion and flatten into nothing Because it is 90% air, all style and little substance. Which is exactly what my mother loves about them.

Despite being a health freak, her former sweet tooth comes back to bite every few weeks. Always looking for healthy desserts, she asks me to bring home an Asian bakery cake whenever there’s a special occasion.

“Tell them to make it with less sugar, less fat, no artificial ingredients, no colors.” She reminds me every time. And again when I bring it home for her. “Did they make it with less sugar, less fat, no artificial ingredients, no colors?”

No, I don’t tell the Dalai Lama how to meditate, and I don’t tell impatient Chinatown bakers to tweak their recipes to taste more like this “Yep!” I tell her. The lie is good for both our souls.

“It could still be a little less sweet. Tell them that next time,” she says as she returns for a second slice.

Asian Girl Problem #79: Coke x Chinese New Year

Technically one day until Lunar New Year! This year my only plan is to take my mother out for Korean food…a culture which also celebrates, by the way, and probably feels a little left out that we always tag the holiday with “Chinese.”

From what I’ve heard, New Year is about visiting family, getting money from elders, feasting, watching really bad variety shows until midnight, and then staying up all night to play games. If you can’t stay awake, that’s what the firecrackers are for. Unfortunately, I’ve never gotten to participate in any of these activities except the eating. I’ve often been in China for the weeks leading up to New Year, but never on the actual days due to school or work obligations.

Still, being there around this time has always tugged at my heart. A few days before the big day, the train stations are flooded with migrant workers humping enormous burlap or plastic bags on their back, filled with gifts and food to bring back to their family farms. They might wait days at the stations and sleep in the terminals to get their hands on one of the cheaper tickets, travel days to get there, and then stay home for a night or two before heading back to work. It almost reminds me of salmon returning to their streams to spawn. Those who can’t handle the crowds end up putting off seeing their family for another year.

The only way this directly affects my family is that my grandparents usually have to take care of themselves for a few weeks, when their housekeepers and caretakers go home to see their families. But the silver lining is that now that they can afford it, my parents go back much more often during this time to look after them.

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Check out this ad that Coke made about the children of migrant workers who see their parents once a year on New Year, if they’re lucky. It is equal parts fascinating, heartbreaking and bizarre considering the ad’s source and motivations, but wholly representative of what I feel when I visit modern China.

Asian Girl Problem #67: O Christmas Tree

When I was a kid, I really wanted to believe in Santa. We didn’t have a fireplace, so I hung a stocking on the wall of our apartment, and took daily assessments of whether I was naughty or nice, thinking he would surely visit me on Christmas Eve. When morning came, I ran to the stocking and looked inside, but it was empty, like the dark abyss of my childhood.

I was friends with a lot of the journalism kids in high school, and when they asked me to share a Christmas memory I had one year, this is a paraphrase of what I submitted to be published. I can’t believe I thought I wasn’t emo.

Luckily, my Christmases started looking up when we moved out of the inner-city apartment into the suburbs. My parents felt super guilty about not giving me any traditions, when I had to hear about it from all my friends, and then listen to them talk about their presents for all of January. So one night before Christmas, my dad came home with a couple of huge boxes. One had a plastic tree inside, while the other had all kinds of tangled lights and wacky ornaments. It was a display tree from Walmart, priced to sell at $30, decorations and all. 

Even though we would never adopt Christianity or the consumer side of the holidays, that tree made me feel super proud and connected to American culture. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that if you were a kid without a Christmas tree in Ohio, your lifestyle was seriously worth questions by everyone in the neighborhood. Over the years, we amassed a huge collection of ornaments, including some gorgeous handmade pieces. When my parents moved house a few years ago, they sold it all at a garage sale.

I really can’t think of a single tradition of my youth except putting up the tree. I’ve never seen A Charlie Brown Christmas, I don’t eat anything specific each year, and I don’t get gifts (although I take the opportunity to craft for friends) .I don’t know if I would teach my children to believe in Santa, but I know I’ll be making hella holiday rituals for my family. And my kids would probably rather go without a tree, but I’m really excited at the possibility of getting a gold one for my first house. I can’t resist that twinkle!

Asian Girl Problem #60: Lady Of Marriageble Age

Asians have similar dating rituals as everyone else. But if the parents are ever involved, you know it’s going to make for an experience that’s bizarre, awkward or worse.

I learned about the birds and the bees through a combination of inner-city kids at school, my older cousin and the internet. My parents did not mention anything, just scolded me when I watched teen shows or put a basketball under my shirt to make believe I was pregnant.

Things get messier  when grandparents become involved. My grandpa made me promise that I wouldn’t have a boyfriend until I was 20, or get married until I was 25. Luckily, at the time I already knew about the fine art of placating old people. I figured that by the time I was 15, I’d be all that and with a ton of male suitors.

Fast forward to age 25, when I’m no closer to finding anything resembling love. Family and friends don’t harass me a ton, but I know they all ask my mother when I’m not in the room. And when we go to gatherings, there is often conveniently a single Chinese male I’m supposed to meet. This happened on Thanksgiving, when a family with a son in med school invited my parents and some other friends for dinner. Sign I’m too old to be single: I actually looked forward to this. My mom and I even shared a crassly heartwarming moment:

“I’m excited to meet him.”
“Although, looking at his parents…you can’t expect too much.”
“You never know–raised on good American nutrition…”

To my luck, I got a twofer that day, him and his friend. And though obvious there would be no love connection, it was great to talk to kids my age instead of the younger kids I’m usually stuck entertaining. One of my favorite parts was reflecting on quintessentially Asian experiences with these strangers. Like whether our parents knew what “porn” meant, or how they answered the “How are babies born?” question from our youths:

“My parents told me babies come from the government.” (hooray communist China)
“My parents said they prayed for me.” (sure, blame God.)
“Mine said she hoped and thought about it really hard.” (laziest answer courtesy of my mom)

I had a good time and my new friends went back to whatever other states they’re going to school in. But the best part is, no matter how platonic my friendships with guys are, my mom will always be convinced that they’ve fallen in love with me. And that’s one lie I do appreciate.

Asian Girl Problem #59: Thanksgiving Thoughts

As an only child with no (sane) extended relatives stateside, the last thing I want to do on holidays is sit down to eat a smelly turkey with my parents. That’s why this and every other national holiday is an opportunity for us to get together with other Chinese families and share the joy. Sometimes we take it outdoors to a park and grill, sometimes we go to someone’s house, and sometimes we hit up a restaurant. The best parts: at least a couple different gatherings and no family drama.

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This year, I had about three Thanksgiving dinners. The other awesome thing about having Chinese Thanksgivings is that we make dishes from both cultures, so we get almost double the amount of food–because the only traditional food that I look forward to are the stuffing and desserts.

This year, notable dishes were curry puffs, Peking turkey, sushi and crab. Sorry, Norman Rockwell.

Having the rest of my family in China just makes me more thankful that I have such supportive parents nearby. Hearing many of my Chinese friends who are alone in the States talk about having the “American Dream” of relocating their parents here makes me even more aware of this privilege. Add in our health and friends, and the rest is gravy.