Every beginning leaves its own unique mark; and what beginning is more universally significant than the start of the New Year?
2019 entered with a perfect synergy of past, present, and future.
Or what life might have been for us had our grandfather not taken that boat across the ocean to a new world. I’m referring to my family, but with yours, it might have been your mother, or grandmother, or great-great grandparent. Or, perhaps, you’ve gained a hint at what life for your ancestors might have been like right in your own hometown. Whatever the case…
Our family rang in the New Year in Hong Kong with the fabulous family of our eldest son’s fiancé. We met in Shanghai and traveled to Hangzhou before landing in their hometown of Hong Kong. It was an incredible bonding experience that allowed me to experience a small part of China from a local perspective. It also expanded my cultural understanding of my own Chinese heritage.
We began our adventure in Shanghai, where our eldest son currently lives and works. We ate heavenly pork-stuffed mooncakes at Zhen Lao Da Fang, walked to The Bund and gaped at a sea of lights unlike anything I could imagine, learned (and kinda failed) to cook Sheng Jian Bao–pan fried pork buns filled with so much juice they explode if you don’t bite a corner and slurp–learned the intricacies of tea service at a out-of-sight tea house, and celebrated Christmas in our eldest son’s super cool apartment on the top two floors of a converted home. That’s just a taste of the many treats and sights we experienced as we power-walked through the city. (Did I mention the jazz club?)
Then we traveled by train to Hangzhou, The City of Heaven, where we stayed in a historically preserved village, hiked up a muddy hillside through a stone cemetery and the famous Longjing tea fields, ate fish noddle soup for breakfast under tarps in the rain, and took in the sublime beauty of West Lake by night and by day. (I can’t begin to guess the kilometers we walked!) Then we caught a flight to Hong Kong.
How perfect to leave my Westlake home in Greater Los Angeles to visit the picturesque West Lake in Hangzhou?
Once in Hong Kong, we stayed in a tiny but efficient Airbnb, learned the mass transit system, and marveled at the forest of high-rise apartment buildings. We enjoyed dim sum brunch with our future daughter-in-law’s maternal family–her sweet pó po (mother’s mother) and eldest aunt, neither of whom spoke English, and her youngest aunt and uncle who spoke English very well–and slipped into the family ritual with ease, noting the love they already felt for our eldest son and feeling a warm acceptance of expanded family.
Although dim sum brunch in Hong Kong felt familiar to my experiences in Honolulu, where I was born, and Los Angeles, where I live; it also had some notable dining differences.
In the west, restaurants either serve dishes with serving spoons or forks, or leave it to the customer to grab their har gow or siu mai with their own chopsticks. In Hong Kong, and mainland China, serving chopsticks are left on selected platters, usually set upon a rotating table top known in the West as a Lazy Susan. (If you’re interested in the history of this ubiquitous contraption, check out The Lazy Susan, the Classic Centerpiece of Chinese Restaurants, Is Neither Classic nor Chinese.)
In the East, paper is conserved and proper washing of linen is not assumed. Therefore, napkins, cloth or paper, are rarely set on the table. Instead, restaurants occasionally provide a box of multi-purpose tissue or rely on their customers to bring their own sturdy Tempo brand tissue.
Incidentally, carrying a pack of Tempo is also handy when visiting restrooms about town since toilet paper may or may not be provided. I was particularly fond of the jasmine scented Tempo and made sure to bring home quite a few.
Also…cold water is not a thing. Seriously. If you have your heart set on a tall glass of ice water on a hot day, forget it!
The main reason is the quality of the water: It can’t be trusted to drink. As a result, all of the water served in restaurants or in the homes are boiled and served hot. If you want room temperature water, let your hot water sit. If you want cold water, buy a bottle. And if you’re in Hong Kong–according to my future daughter-in-law–if you insist on ordering water with ice, you say, “Add two bucks!”
In fact, an additional charge applies to almost any change in your order even if what you’re requesting would normally be less expensive or an even exchange. Want noodles instead of rice, toast instead of English muffin, cold water instead of hot? Add two bucks! Fortunately, that’s Hong Kong dollars, which converts to roughly twenty-five cents.
Personally, I was happy to see pots of hot water on every table and kitchen counter, since hot water (or room temperature) is my standard drink, augmented by morning coffee and a whole lot of tea. I even learned a new way of drinking tea from my son’s future father-in-law, who gifted me this lovely tea cup.
So, yeah… I was a happy camper when it came to drinking in China.
Unless it involved alcohol.
I would have been in hot trouble at a business banquet, where everyone is expected to down fire liquor in seemingly endless toasts. It’s not only a mark of prestige and local acceptance to keep up, but a hard and fast requirement. As a non-drinker, I wouldn’t be allowed to attend such a business banquet, unless I was someone ridiculously important, which we all know I’m not! But as a hot water and tea drinker, I was in hog heaven.
Culture clash side note: On the flight home from Tokyo to Los Angeles, one of the American flight attendants, an abrasive woman in her fifties or sixties looked at me in surprise when I requested a cup of hot water. “You don’t look Chinese,” she said. “Chinese always order hot water.” After two weeks in Asia, I found the woman’s demeanor and brash comment to be shockingly impolite. Even more so when she snatched a snack box off my table to show the non-English speaking passenger against the window what she was offering!
So, what does all of this have to do with the past, present, and future?
As I mentioned earlier, my yé ye (mother’s father), who died before I was born, came to Hawaii from Canton, where he had a wife and several sons. While on Maui, earning money to send back to his number one family, he married a Hawaiian-Chinese woman and had seven more children. (By the way, this was not an uncommon situation back in the Hawaiian plantation days.)
My mother’s early Ching family portrait
So, you can imagine my interest in visiting China!
Past met future as I took in the homeland of my grandfather while spending Christmas and New Years with our son’s bride-to-be and her marvelous family. Our family has grown, and I am blessed beyond measure.
Which brings me to the present.
I’ve finally caught up on sleep and almost set the house in order. Now it’s time to buckle down for the work ahead–editing (and everything else involved) for the Fall release of my debut novel, The Ninja Daughter!
Out of everything I’ve written, The Ninja Daughter is the closest to my heart. It’s a homage to three (of four) cultures that have informed my personality and the way I walk in the world: my Chinese (and Hawaiian) mother, my North Dakota Norwegian father, and the Japanese art of the ninja. These are also the cultures of my protagonist, Lily Wong, and what makes her such an intriguingly complex character.
I’m excited to dive into the editing process with my publisher/editor, Jason Pinter. And double excited to be one of three launch authors for his new Polis Books Agora imprint, spearheaded by Chantelle Aimée Osman.
So here’s to 2019!
May it continue as it has begun…
with adventure, health, prosperity, family, and joy.