Dear Asian Youth,
Asian parents are strict. They are harsh and stern and unyielding, their words often sharp around the edges and their hugs and kisses scarce. While there are certainly bad parents in this world, it is a common misconception that all Asian parents are.
A misconception because mine, well, mine are everything but bad. Yes, “I love you”s and explicit words of affection are once in a blue moon: they are few and far between, infrequent and unfamiliar against our tongue, but like stars in the Milky Way, our love for each other is infinite. My parents may not be open in their affection, but nonetheless, their love can still be found, snuggled in the corners of onyx eyes, hidden in the soft curves of lips, and most often, tucked away safely inside food—sometimes salty and sometimes sweet—but always made with care.
I remember when I understood the significance of food in my household. It was a subtle realisation and there was no heartfelt speech or passionate confession. The moment of understanding was like the first snowfall, hushed and often unexpected, or like the sun settling below the horizon. Like the liquid gold of sunlight against green leaves in those brief moments of sundown, it was a quiet thing that one would merely take note of before moving on.
My dad and I had been making dumplings. I slid a little closer to him, my shoulder accidentally bumping into his elbow, causing flour to spill from his rough, calloused hands. He simply sighed, and with a shrug, he went back to deftly weaving the dough into dumplings. With my slender fingers, I smoothed out my own circle of dough, sticky and thin and dusted softly in flour. I was new to this, lacking the same dexterity as my dad who was making dumplings at twice the speed I was.
Although I occasionally made dumplings with my dad, it was always to indulge him, never because I wanted to and certainly not often enough to grow as skilled as he was. I simply could not understand why he always seemed so enthused when I would agree—to me, it was but a simple process of making food, nothing more and nothing less.
He was on his 9th dumpling when he started to sing. As usual, it began as a hum, and by the time he was on his 11th dumpling, the vibrations had turned into words, and Chinese was tumbling out of his mouth in smooth rounded waves. The rich and powerful sound echoed throughout the kitchen, bouncing off wooden boards and furnished walls. It took me a second, but soon enough, the song clicked into place—it was a familiar one. Whether it was in the car or at home or in his tiny garden in the back, he would always sing it, voice low and deep and surprisingly good.
“He was my favorite singer back in college,” my dad had once told me, ebony eyes locked onto the road as he made his way through traffic. He had said it so casually, so indifferently, as if he hadn’t just shared a piece of him I had never known before. At my silence, his eyes had flickered towards my own, a curious glint in them before returning to the crowded road. I had watched as the warm gold of sunset melded with obsidian orbs, lighting his eyes aflame as he squinted, nose tightly scrunched with irritation. “I… I didn’t know that. That’s kind of cool,” I had murmured lamely, at the time unsure how to explain why I felt so emotional about a simple thing.
I was stitching together my 5th dumpling when I joined in, my own voice light and silvery and a perfect imitation of a dying cat. I snuck a glance at my dad, half expecting a face of disgust (my singing is that bad). Yet, he was smiling—a faint tilt to his lips and crinkles at the corners of his ebony eyes.
He seemed… appreciative. As warm yellow and pink light began to creep through the windows, staining the pale walls a soft peach, I returned his smile (as hidden as it was). I went back to working on my own dumplings, and on my final one, I made a horrible mistake. I had pressed the dough together incorrectly, and it came out deformed, a misshapen lump vaguely reminiscent of a toad, an especially warty toad. I burst out giggling, tears wetting my lashes, and my hand offering the lump to my dad as if it were some sort of trophy (surely, he’d be proud of it—it was a toad!). He snorted, shook his head, and smiled before dumping the poor toad (I named him Bobby) into the pot of boiling water. We watched as the plump piece of dough sunk to the bottom before rising back to the surface, softly bobbing like some sort of floatie. A moment of silence passed, and then, we exploded into a cacophony of cackles and laughter, mine high and squeaky and once again, no better than a dying cat, and his low and hearty.
In the backdrop of our laughter, the sun had set, casting deep hues of red and orange and dimly lighting the room like a ripe mango.
The moment was just a simple, everyday act of unspoken and unseen love; yet, I still vividly remember it. I can still recall how there was something content, something fond and loving radiating from his expression, from the shake of his head and the wrinkles of his eyes, usually sharp obsidian eyes suddenly warm with mirth and happiness. I wasn’t unfamiliar with seeing him content, but for some reason, the happiness etched into the lines on his face and the small raise of his brows were so clear in that moment. The realization that this is why he wanted to make dumplings with me, suddenly came into blinding focus right then and there.
I realized that—like that time in the car—he had shared a piece of himself with me, and it was his way of conveying his love as a parent. He found joy and happiness in making dumplings and eating them with me, and as such, he hoped that I would too.
And like the sun setting below the horizon, the realization was quiet, subdued, and easily accepted; because whether or not I’m aware of the depthness in his every little action, to me, the small plates of food, short nods of approval, and other simple yet caring actions have always been enough—and will always be enough.
- Feileen Li