Making Jiaozi: A Symbol of Tradition and Cultural Identity

For the sake of privacy, I’ve renamed the people mentioned in this post.

Today, I began my first day of English lessons with Emma, a cute but sassy eight-year-old girl who is an old classmate of Shen Yifei’s daughter.  We began lessons at 2:00 in the afternoon…and I got back to Tonghe at 6:00, so four hours at the Chuan household in total.  About an hour and a half into the lesson (Emma possibly has the longest attention span for a kid her age), we heard the sound of a knife chopping against a cutting board.  “How do you say jiaozi in English?” she asked me.

“Dumplings,” I answered.  “Do you help your parents make them?”

“Sometimes I do.  Sometimes I don’t.”

I was glad to find that Emma’s household still maintained the tradition of getting together with the family and making dumplings during holidays (in this case, Mid-Autumn Festival) or on the weekends.  Some of my favorite and clearest memories are of gathering around the kitchen table in Shelby or at the prep table at Chen’s with my parents and siblings and mass-producing enough dumplings to feed my massive family.  But when I came to Davidson and began hanging out with the Chinese international students, I was shocked to find that the majority of them did not know how to wrap dumplings.  For a long time, I associated the ability to wrap dumplings with “being Chinese”; I now of course realize that the dumpling is a pretty universal concept that exists in a broad range of cultures.  Nonetheless, as a huaqiao, I took such pride in knowing that I could make homemade dumplings despite the fact that my family had migrated from China two generations ago.  While the tradition is not one that will completely fade out any time soon, the idea that that such a valuable tradition has been dwindling in so many Chinese households is saddening.

I often wonder why such a tradition fades, or how the passing on of such a tradition is possibly related to understandings of culture and education.  It seems that some Chinese families choose to privilege their children’s formal education over the education that they would otherwise receive at home.  This reminds me of Dr. Pan Tianshu’s mentioning of the general Chinese understanding (or many other people’s understanding, for that matter) of culture and education; while so many people tend to conceptualize culture and education as a formal understanding of (particularly Western) music, language, history, and art, many people fail to realize that culture is defined by any lifestyle, traditions, or customs that enable a person to survive in or adapt to the surrounding environment.  Sure, making dumplings is obviously not crucial to survival and perhaps does not scream sophistication among Shanghai’s best restaurants and eateries, but it nonetheless became a tradition in Chinese kitchens.  Unfortunately, as more families decide that schoolwork, dance class, violin lessons or tennis are more important or more indicative of a well-rounded and “cultured” child, simple traditions such as making dumplings are no longer priorities.

I was glad to see Emma actively making an effort to help her parents make dumplings.  Though it’s a tedious and long process, I know she won’t regret it later on when she can say that she knows how to make homemade jiaozi.