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Food is love: how embracing Chinese cuisine helped me reconnect with my birth family

Josephine Jay found her Chinese family at 18 and learned to connect with her roots at her birth grandmother's home in Fuyang.

26 Dec 2020

Illustration by Josephine Jay

Over lockdown, I have managed to gain a great deal of catharsis reconnecting with my roots through cooking. This came after a friend introduced me to Lǐ Zǐqī (李子柒), an increasingly famous internet video-blogger. Lǐ Zǐqī has been largely credited with the revitalisation of fùgǔ (复古), the idealisation of traditional rural culture, among urban millennials. Locked in my small Edinburgh flat watching starving seagulls fight over restaurant debris, I too was hooked. 

Aged eighteen, I successfully made contact with my Chinese birth family in 2015. It was not a decision I entered into lightly, and while I am glad to have done so, the path to reconciliation has not been an easy one. Since then, it has been a slow and uphill battle to reconnect with my cultural roots. I, like many Chinese adoptees, struggle with being seen as ‘too anglicised’ in the eyes of other Chinese people, and ‘too Chinese’ in the eyes of many Brits.

I was raised in a Christian-Jewish household where the understanding that ‘food is love’, rang true with every meal. In fact, one of the main reasons my parents looked to China to adopt was because of the similarities in both cultures – most of all the emphasis placed on food and education.

“I was raised in a Christian-Jewish household where the understanding that ‘food is love’, rang true with every meal”

I believe what you eat is an incredibly important part of any culture. Be it the chicken liver pâté recipe my Jewish grandmother has passed down another generation, or the yearly tradition of dumpling wrapping come Chinese New Year.

But having spent a month living with my wàipó (maternal grandmother) in her small village in the mountains of Fuyang in the summer of 2016, I recognise the inaccuracies in Lǐ Zǐqī ‘s videos. There is little that is fun or romantic about slaughtering the pigs she keeps in the garden shed, nor chasing ducks around the yard for dinner. However, there is a wonderful sense of tradition and timelessness in the rituals that surround her meals (and sexism, but that is a whole other matter).

My grandmother lost her taste buds in the Cultural Revolution. At least, that is the family line. Whenever the grandchildren go up to visit, we go via KFC. It is a well-kept family secret that her food is too salty and inedible, and another that we would all rather suffer in silence than admit this to her.

She lives in a village with twenty other pensioners and twice as many semi-feral dogs who benefit from her poor cooking as we, the grandchildren, sneak pocketfuls of the stuff into the garden to feed them in secret.

A moment that stands out clearly to me from that summer is a day when my birth mother led us all up into the mountains to look for fresh-water crabs for wàipó to cook for dinner. Having been raised in a household where my greatest challenge to finding food was beating my dad to last night’s left-overs, I thought this was a wonderful adventure.

That feeling lasted about an hour. As it turns out, crabs do not like to be caught and eaten. We made extremely slow progress and I came home empty-handed thinking wistfully of KFC.

In the Disney 00s movie Brother Bear, there is a scene when Kenai (a human who has been transformed into a bear) goes fishing for the first time and learns to be a real bear watching others at work. This resonated with me as I flipped rocks and snatched at fleeing crabs the size of AirPods.

I was struck again by the sense of tradition and timelessness in this process as my mother, my siblings and I followed the stream leading back into the village just as my wàipó had taught her and generations of our family had done before them.

“There is a wonderful sense of tradition and timelessness in the rituals that surround her meals”

Food is the main vehicle through which I have been able to communicate with my birth family. I know for many of them, living through China’s turbulent past and the Great Famine, they have a complicated relationship with food to say the least. 

Since then, I chose to study Chinese at university in an effort to try and bridge the linguistic gap and spent a year of that degree in Shanghai attempting to bridge the physical one. During the year, I was able to make infrequent visits back to my family home and my grandmother’s. I spent the Autumn Moon Festival and Chinese New Year at my wàipó’s; congregated at her house with our extended family for both occasions. 

At their family home, my birth mother gets up at six each morning to cook. She is last to sit down and first to rise from the dinner table. Watching her, I sense she takes great pride in preparing these meals for her family. My birth family keeps an open door policy where cousins, aunts and uncles drift in and out across meal times for a bite to eat and to share their latest news. As tradition dictates – a hangover from China’ feudal past – men, children and guests eat first, women last, and my birth mother, the cook, last of all. 

Food gives my birth mother a chance to connect to each person individually and nonverbally. Be it through the pickled vegetables she gets especially for my sister’s congee or remembering which child, (me) hates coriander, food is once again a vehicle for love. 

“My birth mother gets up at six each morning to cook. She is last to sit down and first to rise from the dinner table”

Having spent time living with my birth family, I’ve learned that Chinese people do not say, “I love you,” in so many words. They say it in plates of sliced fruit placed silently next to you whilst studying, in overloading your plate at dinner and over-ordering to the point of ridiculousness at restaurants, then fighting over who pays the bill. After our first meeting, when my mother said goodbye to me at the train station, she did so in the form of eighteen eggs hard-boiled that morning and handed over in silence. 

I took a lot away that summer. During that time, I learnt two dishes from my wàipó and birthmother; a salty stir-fried aubergine dish and an egg and tomato one fried with garlic. At Chinese restaurants in the UK, I always look for these dishes on the menus. These are both staples of rural China which you can find across the country with minor variations in different areas. I have found a few places that make them, but have still yet to find one in league with my birthmother’s. 

I know it might sound a little trite, but it gives me a great deal of pleasure to recreate these recipes in my small kitchen in Edinburgh. They are a continuation of generations of women before me, a portion of my time spent in Fuyang that I can recreate in any corner of the world and one I hope to be able to pass on again in due course.