Whenever we celebrate a Chinese festival, I never hesitate to tell my friends how much I want to eat jiaozi, how the mere thought of those dumplings makes my mouth water. Upon hearing my request, friends who come from southern China, where rice is the staple food, usually stare at me blankly for a second, then walk away without uttering a word. I can almost hear what they are thinking: Oh dear, not dumplings again!
My love for jiaozi goes back to my childhood in Yantai, Shandong Province. Each year as the Lunar New Year drew nigh, Mum would exhort me and my six brothers and sisters, ''You must be good and obedient, or else you will not be allowed to taste my special New Year jiaozi.'' At that time, we were poor and needy; with seven children to be fed, we knew well what that gourmet deprivation meant. We behaved ourselves and waited with great expectation for the magic day to come.
On the eve of New Year, Mum and my elder sisters would sit on the kang (a brick bed that can be heated) and start making dumplings. They would talk and laugh heartily while they kneaded the dough and chopped the vegetables. I was considered too young to join them in their ''high-skilled'' labour, but I usually would stick around, revelling in the occasion. They would work for hours, showing no signs of fatigue, until rows and rows of jiaozi were lined up. Mum would cook some for dinner and keep most of them for the next day.
In the morning, Mum would get up around 5 or 6, put the New Year jiaozi in boiling water and wake all of us up. Filled with excitement, we would jump out of our beds, put on our New Year clothes and watch as Dad set off firecrackers. Then the whole family would sit around the table and eat dumplings.
In those days, I believed with all my heart that Mum's dumplings were the most delicious in the world. After I grew up, I travelled to many places, and wherever I went, I searched for the familiar taste of jiaozi. It was never the same. I guess what was missing was the warm memories of making and eating them with my family.
After eating, we would visit friends, relatives and neighbours to wish them a happy new year. It was the most memorable time of the year. For the next three days, bad words were forbidden; everyone had to say words seasoned with honey to each other.
On the second day of Lunar New Year, Mum would instruct us to go around our neighbourhood and give away the many jiaozi we still had.
''There are people who don't have jiaozi to eat,'' she would tell us.
''But, Mum, how many jiaozi did you make? Do we have enough to give out?'' we would ask.
''One thousand pieces,'' she would reply with a smile.
Off we went, carrying bowls of jiaozi. I regarded it as a sacred task and I could not wait to share our dumplings with those who were less fortunate than we were. We felt we were very rich – at least that was how Mum made us feel.
In the early 1980s, when I was seven or eight, meat was a rare luxury. Mum put just a small amount of pork in the fillings, but still managed to make one thousand dumplings. Years later, when our standard of living was higher, Mum mixed more meat into the stuffing, and the tradition of sharing dumplings with the poor continued.
After graduating from nursing school, I found work in Qingdao City; sometimes I couldn't make it home to celebrate Lunar New Year. In those years, I would call home and ask Mum, ''How many jiaozi did you make?''
Her reply was always the same: ''One thousand pieces, my daughter.''
And in my mind's eyes, I could almost picture Mum smiling with immense satisfaction.
Six years ago, I moved to Singapore to work. Striving to find my feet in a foreign land, I couldn't always go home for Chinese New Year. I learned to make dumplings for myself.
I would always call home during the holiday. ''Are you making one thousand pieces of dumplings this year, Mum?''
''Not that many, my daughter. I am getting old. Do you have dumplings to eat over there in Singapore?''
''Yes, Mum, I make dumplings myself.''
''That's good, that's good,'' Mum would say.
I could sense that she felt a surge of great relief and happiness for me. Mum is a woman of few words. And I suspect that to her, if I had dumplings to eat, life in Singapore was OK.
In recent years, Mum's hearing has started to fade and her mind isn't as sharp as it used to be. I called her two years ago to let her know that I was going to make one thousand pieces of dumpling for Lunar New Year. ''I am going to call all my friends to come and share with me, Mum.''
It took her a while to figure out what I was telling her. ''That is good, my daughter,'' she finally said. ''You have grown up.'' Her voice faltered as she spoke.
Later that day, my second sister told me that Mum had cried after she put down the phone. It suddenly dawned on me that Mum has been practising hospitality her whole life, showing us how to love our neighbours. Now, in her ripe old age, she must feel content that she has passed on the legacy of generosity to the next generation.
She can foresee that for years to come, all her children will go and give what they have; instead of possessing things, they will be able to share. I guess that's Mum's heart-felt desire for all her children.
Last March, Jasmine Huang moved to Los Angeles, where she works as a registered nurse. She plans to celebrate Lunar New Year this month with friends in LA.
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