Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thanksgiving the Chinese Way, sticky rice and all

As the holiday season draws nears, I'd like to post the very first article I got published ten years ago. Can't believe I've been writing that long. It appeared in the San Jose Mercury News. BTW, the Chinese characters to the right mean "Thanksgiving Day."

Thanksgiving the Chinese way, sticky rice and all

While I was growing up in the nineteen sixties and seventies, my family always ate the same dishes every year at Thanksgiving—but, oh, were they delicious! As a Chinese American family, we blended the best from both cultures into one meal.

My mother was very Americanized. She was born in San Francisco, but grew up in Alameda. She seasoned her turkey with salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, poultry seasoning and beau monde. These flavors mixed together on the skin formed a savory, crackly, pudgy texture. The most flavorful part of the turkey was the wing, because it was covered with the most skin. However, the very best part of the turkey, over which my sister, brother and I constantly fought, was the turkey wing tip, not only for the aforementioned taste, but because it also had the most fat and was good for gnawing. We weren’t concerned about our cholesterol as children.

My mother was also famous (at least in our family) for her stuffing. No one made it better than my mom. The aroma of the stuffing and the turkey roasting together was mouth-watering rich. Sourdough French bread cut into cubes mixed with cream of mushroom soup, celery, bacon, eggs and seasoned with thyme and sage---mmm-mmm, savory and pungent.

My Auntie Eleanor, however, made the Chinese equivalent of turkey stuffing, a traditional Chinese sticky rice dish called naw mei fahn. Her dish consisted of sticky bumps of sweet rice mixed with green onions, cilantro, tiny dried shrimps and Chinese sausage. I must describe the Chinese sausage. Salty sweet with big chunks of fat dripping out. The Chinese call the effects of the sausage yeet-hay—greasy, oily, fried foods that tasted so good, but were very bad for your health eaten in large quantities. It’s hard to translate exactly.

Homemade turkey gravy was the best--smooth and creamy. My mother claimed she made it the Chinese way. She put flour and water in a clean mayonnaise jar, screwed on the lid and shook it up. When the flour and water were thoroughly mixed, she poured it into a pot and stirred constantly. The American way, according to my mom, was to put the flour in a pot, add the water and stir. She said her way produced no lumps in the gravy. I never argued with her because, truly, the only lumps in her gravy were huge button mushrooms and tiny pieces of giblet and liver chopped fine. (That’s the only way I’ll eat liver.)

My favorite American side dish was broccoli casserole—sharp cheddar cheese mixed with cream of mushroom soup (again) topped with crunchy Ritz cracker crumbs drenched in melted butter baked in the oven. Oh yes, and broccoli.

One of the families that lived near San Francisco Chinatown was always brought a particular apple pie from a certain bakery in Chinatown. This pie was different from American apple pie in that it was flatter in height and the texture of the crust was drier and flakier. The apples were not as sweet and seemed more compressed. The fruit also seemed to have a matte finish rather than a glossy one. I like all sorts of apple pies, but this one is not overly sweet and the texture is unique to “Chinatown pies.”

After dinner and dessert, we were all more stuffed than the turkey was, and had lots of leftovers to eat for several days. More importantly, we were filled with memories of a joyful family celebration for years to come.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell Discusses Asians in The Outliers: The Story of Success

Malcolm Gladwell is not Asian American, but he discusses Asians and others in his bestseller, The Outliers. "Outlier" is a scientific term to describe something that lies outside normal experience. Why did so many Korean Airlines planes crash in the 1990's? Why are so many Asians good at math? Gladwell theorizes that generational legacies have more to do with success and failure than we realize.

Because of Korean views of authority and heirarchy, Gladwell says, a co-pilot and flight engineer had to speak to a pilot in "mitigated" or polite speech, even when they thought he was wrong. The pilot was in charge, despite being tired or otherwise not at his best. They could do nothing unless the pilot told them to. So when bad weather, a minor technical malfunction, and a tired pilot combined, trouble ensued and crashes happened. But Gladwell also gives an example of a non-Asian country in which the people have similar views of authority and heirarchy and a high percentage of plane crashes. So it wasn't just an Asian thing. Korean Airlines has since changed the way their cockpit crews communicate.

Gladwell theorizes Asians are good at math because 1) it's faster to count in Asian languages like Cantonese than in English and 2) Asians persist until they understand it. Where do they get this persistance? From their ancestors who worked extremely hard at the complex task of growing rice. He quotes a Chinese proverb that says "No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich."
Gladwell enumerates on many factors that contribute to individual success. Of course, a person has to be talented, intelligent, and hard-working, but those characteristics in themselves do not guarantee success. Outside factors which individuals have no control over such as birthdate, and birthplace are sometimes overlooked. Opportunities and cultural legacies also play an important role.

As an Asian American Christian, I can thank God for creating me the way he has and placing me in the time and place I live. I can seize the opportunities he places before me or ignore them. I have the choice to embrace generational legacies that help me and reject those that hinder.

Success can be a group project. In an interview, Gladwell said, "It's because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances— and that means that we, as a society, have more control about who succeeds—and how many of us succeed—than we think. That's an amazingly hopeful and uplifting idea."