Searching for Renminbi In Dumplings

September 11, 2010 § Leave a comment

For the last dinner at my Bushwick apartment, I made Chinese dumplings with my American boyfriend and my Ghanaian roommate, the old-school Beijing style. We were amateurs. Clumsy hands, awkward chopsticks and embarrassingly shaped little lumps of dumplings that barely survived the boiling water. We laughed at our effort and I couldn’t help to remember how it all started.

I grew up in one of those concrete residential buildings the government mass-produced that scarcely exist anymore in today’s cosmopolitan Beijing. In my fuzzy memory, these buildings were many shades of grey – grey windows, grey balconies, grey stairs and grey doors with the occasional bright red “Five Good Family” certificates posted on them. The first time I learned how to make dumplings was in my grandmother’s grey kitchen, during the Spring Festival in 1990. I was eight years old, and there was nothing more exciting than this annual gathering.

The preparation usually started days before. My grandmother, a vividly animated woman who proudly gave sermons about when China still had an emperor and cursed out Chairman Mao openly, while preparing some of the main dishes – beef stew with potato, steamed fish, braised lamb, Buddha’s delight, etc. All my aunts and uncles prepared the soups, numerous cold dishes and desserts. My parents, as usual, brought gifts from America and Europe instead. My father had traveled all over the world before I learned how to walk, and my mother had so many friends that she was never a “dutiful” daughter-in-law.  They were the odd-balls of the family. They were considered too “western”, never cooked anything at home or taught their daughter how to cook.

It was the year of the Horse. My cousin and I made menus, and drew little horses on them. We set the plates, made little nametags for each family member to assign their seats. We decorated the room with festive items. And we acted as waiters with as much pride as the Grenadier Guards who served the Queen.

On the day of the festival, everyone, even my parents, got together and made dumplings. We put a few Renminbi (Chinese currency) coins in some of the dumplings. Whoever got them would have good luck for the coming year. I remember treating the dumpling-learning process as the most important art project of my life. Carefully measuring the perfect amount of fillings, gently placing it on the dumpling skin, cautiously dipping my fingers in water so they wouldn’t get too wet, and finally, with so much effort, shaping it into a dumpling. I was so nervous I went through the whole process of sculpting each dumpling without breathing. After finally letting some oxygen into my lungs, I stared at the monstrous looking thing on my palm and wondered; maybe I could just smash it onto the wall to see if it would stick, or bounce back and attack me. I peeked over at my cousin’s perfectly shaped dumpling, and blamed my parents for my inability to be “traditional”.

I had always believed that it was because I wasn’t “traditional” enough, that year and all the years after that and before I packed my bags and moved to England, I never got a Renminbi coin in my dumplings. Sometimes I stuffed myself to the edge of insanity so I could get a coin – no luck. Everyone else got them, at least once. They always made a gasping sound when their teeth hit the hardness of the coin. And everyone else cheered and applauded. I never knew how that felt, and I blamed my parents for that, too.

Exactly twenty years had passed since that morsel of memory. While now, I’m capable of cooking a full meal in my tiny Brooklyn kitchen, my family, who no longer lives in those grey buildings, also no longer gathers to make dumplings together at Spring Festival. They are all busy working, decorating new condos, vacationing in Australia and attending parties. I heard they all tried to take my grandmother out to fancy restaurants that specialize Spring Festival dinners for the past year. And because everyone couldn’t get together all at once, she ended up having to eat four times. She told me that the restaurants had dumplings too. And if you requested, they would put Renminbi coins in the dumplings. I thought if I ever find myself in Beijing in February, I’d tag along my grandmother and try my luck again.

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