I grew up in a shophouse. The kitchen was at the end, three steps down. It had a tall ceiling and one side was opened to the outside. When it rained, the whole kitchen would get wet. My grandma had a blue tarpaulin made that she rolled down to stop the rain from coming in.
One of things I remember most about the kitchen were the strings of orange peels hanging from the big exhaust hood above the stove. Once a while, she would take some of the dried ones down and used them to make green bean soup. We don’t do this anymore do we? Just eat and throw away now. The kitchen was my favorite place in the house. Before every dinner, she made sure the kitchen god was 'fed'. Nothing fancy. Just placing a fresh set of joss sticks in the urn.
Before the rice dumpling festival. My mother, grandma and a few female cousins spent many days and nights in the kitchen making the Bak Zhangs. They cooked them in large metal drums of boiling water. There were three of them, spread out in the kitchen and sitting on top of kerosene stoves,. My mother and cousins would keep a watchful eye over the flames while they bundled the cooked Bak Zhangs into different plastic bags for our relatives and neighbors. Come to think of it now, it must be such hard work doing this. Somehow they just did it year after year because that was how it was supposed to be. It’s tradition. But it was not just work. The Bak Zhang team would talk and gossip into the night as they made the rice dumplings while I sat on the steps listening to their conversation- about in-laws, their children, husbands, work and other things grown-ups talked about. Looking back, I guess that’s how I would describe family to someone. Being together, doing things, talking. Nothing extraordinary really. Just everyday stuff.
Now that there are just the three of us in Chicago, I feel my daughter is missing out on what I experienced living in an extended family surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles. Even though I was the only child, I never felt alone. It was not all good all the time but it was comforting to know there was someone looking out for you besides your parents. My wife would disagree. She said since my daughter did not have the same experience, she would not feel that something was missing. It’ll be different for her here. Maybe she’s right.
Chicago. Summer 2007