Dumpling-Making Kin

by Ching-In Chen

I grew up making dumplings with my family — my mother preparing pork, shrimp, tofu, egg, and spinach, all seasoned by soy sauce and sugar, and enlisting my little brother and I to help wrap while my father was stationed by the stove as “the boiler,” watching to make sure the pot had boiled three times. 

As a very anxious and socially awkward young person, I often felt like I didn’t belong anywhere — not in school and not in my family. Concentrating on pressing the dumpling skin together over the filling, I got to a humming place where my body and mind worked in concert with each other, each finger moving surely into the next motion.

As a young adult living far from biological family, the thing I missed the most was the family tradition of making food together. I experimented with creating my own traditions for birthdays and other holidays with makeshift kin. I started to host an annual dumpling-making party around my birthday, close to the Lunar New Year. A way to take stock of the community I had gathered or maintained over the past year. An invitation to build in the new year by inviting newer friends to make food with me.

I would buy the ingredients for my family’s dumpling recipe and ask my guests to bring themselves, their wrapping hands, and anything they wanted to eat or drink that wasn’t a dumpling. It was always a surprise and delight — a moment approximating that humming place where I felt like I belonged in this chosen place with these chosen people.

When I first met my partner Cassie, I invited her to my dumpling gathering. Though we had just met the week before, she was one of the first to show up to help. At the height of the party, when the huge co-op living room was packed with friends mixing, meeting, and wrapping, I realized in a panic that I had run out of wrappers. It was the first time Cassie stepped up to support this ritual by offering to make an emergency run to the grocery store. In the years since, she found her own role within the ritual by researching and organizing the dumpling-making process for our vegetarian friends. I never had to explain to her why this ritual had become an important way of marking and honoring time for me. Instead, we co-made the ritual by welcoming friends into our home, wherever we have lived.

Last year, having just moved to Seattle for a new job and living in a space awkward for hosting social gatherings, we worried about how to host a gathering in our home. After fretting about it, I decided to trust in our ritual and hosted a lovely intimate gathering, the last one before social distancing became the norm.

This year, as my birthday approached, I thought about hosting a Zoom dumpling-making party, but the thought of asking folks to spend more time on Zoom didn’t sit right with me or sound fun. So, in the spirit of so much of my plans this year, I let the idea of the annual ritual go. Instead, I hosted an editorial meeting for the student literary journal on my birthday and Cassie snuck out and got me little treats to sweeten the day. I took my newly adopted dog on two walks and got outside and offline as much as I could. We ordered hotpot ingredients to cook at home. I felt sad to not be able to gather with friends but also gratitude to have little pleasures when so many were struggling.

I told this story to a (mostly) Chinese diasporic group I have been meeting online, who I met through Bayo Akomolafe’s “We Will Dance With Mountains: Let Us Make Sanctuary” course. We started jokingly meeting around the “lazy Susan,” and then decided to rename it to “around the ‘thing that turns’” due to the sexist nature of the name. What keeps me coming back to this group is our willingness to examine what we have inherited from family, culture, and tradition and to choose what we want to deepen and what we might want to let go. There’s a fluid nature to our explorations and a willingness to question, re-consider, and re-make received cultural notions. This is exemplified by Vu Truong, one of our Vietnamese group members who doesn’t consider himself Chinese but has been coming because we are close enough in culture to feel a connection. 

At our last online gathering last weekend, we decided spontaneously to celebrate Lunar New Year by gathering together when it became the new year in Asia, which meant 8 a.m. for me! Cassie helped me wrap and boil dumplings while I listened to group members tell stories about family traditions around ritual. When it became midnight in Vietnam, Vu brought out lucky money envelopes, had us choose our own envelope, and gave us a blessing based on what we chose. I got 50,000 đồng (which Vu said was equivalent to $2 and enough for two coffees), as well as a blessing for 50,000 healing words for the new year. When we signed off, Cassie and I ate dumplings for breakfast and then I continued on my day, belly full and humming. 

Ching-In Chen

Ching-In Chen is a genderqueer Chinese American hybrid writer, community organizer, and teacher. They are author of “The Heart’s Traffic” and “recombinant” (winner of the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry) as well as the chapbooks “how to make black paper sing” and “Kundiman for Kin :: Information Retrieval for Monsters” (Finalist for the Leslie Scalapino Award). Chen is also co-editor of “The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities” and “Here Is a Pen: an Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets.” They have received fellowships from Kundiman, Lambda, Watering Hole, Can Serrat, and Imagining America and are a part of Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation writing communities. They are currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences and the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Washington Bothell.

Ching-In making dumplings. (Photo: Cassie Mira)

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