While enduring the oppressive humidity of Beijing, I flipped through the pages of an extensive menu at a tea house. The adjacent lake was overgrown with eight-foot-tall lily pads, a thriving cluster of plants that is the result of cultivation for decades. My father and I were visiting the Summer Palace, the former imperial vacation home of the emperor turned national park and tourist destination. A server placed a complimentary bowl of jasmine tea leaf eggs, a Chinese staple, between us. We peeled the soy-sauce-stained shells as he recounted his eighteenth summer, the year he was mandated to dig artificial lakes and pave roads in Yuan Ming Yuan, also known as the Old Summer Palace. The literal translation of Yuan Ming Yuan is “a garden of ten thousand gardens,” a title worthy of a lush, sprawling cluster of pagodas, plant life, and tea houses. My parents grew to be teenagers in Mao Tse-Tung’s China, and the government required students to complete governmental tasks during summer breaks. When Mao’s regime assigned grueling projects, objection was not a choice. In an idyllic scene, my father told me stories of his childhood.
“We sang in school, ‘America is a paper tiger, we will crush them.’ The day Mao died, everyone cried, but I don’t know why. He was like a father figure.” It is characteristic of my parents to recount these memories and laugh about them. When asked if he was paid for his labor, he chuckled and said, “Of course not. You do it for the love of the country. One of my first jobs for the government was collecting chamber pots!” he exclaimed. “I was probably five or six years old.” Neither of my parents had lived in quarters with western toilets and indoor plumbing until the age of eighteen. Every resident had their own ornate chamber pot, and one would place the pots outside of their apartment in the hallway at a certain hour for a government worker to collect. “I knew when I really smelled bad because when I took the bus home, everyone crowded on the other side of the bus as far away from me as possible.” We drank hot tea, cold beers, and peeled tea leaf eggs while enjoying the expanse of the lakes partly built by my father’s own hands.
As a first-generation Chinese American, I often reflect on the Asian diaspora. The unique struggle of many immigrant children is being caught between the old world and the new. I grew up resenting my peers’ attitudes toward Chinese American fast food, often trying in vain to educate those around me that it was not authentic. Although Chinese food is slowly being accepted in the world of haute cuisine, conventional views toward ChineseAmerican fast food is a persisting contributor to the xenophobia Chinese Americans experience.
On a typical school day in my childhood, my mother would have prepared a traditional simmering dish on the stovetop. Unknown scents of unfamiliar spices warranted hurtful and isolating comments from classmate houseguests. As a young girl wanting badly to be accepted as American, I internalized these statements as truths. Later in life I asked my mother to teach me the recipes as a way of reclaiming a connection to the heritage I rejected in my youth owing to xenophobic comments. Additionally, preserving the recipes of home-cooked meals of my childhood is something I hold onto to feel close to my parents. The preparation of those dishes is an ongoing homage to their sacrifices so their children could hope for a better life.
Jasmine Tea Leaf Eggs
1 dozen eggs
1 cup dark mushroom soy sauce
1 cup regular soy sauce
5 whole star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
2 cups loose leaf jasmine tea
3 tablespoons salt
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the eggs to the pot and hard-boil for approximately 10 to 12 minutes. Discard hot water and rinse under cold tap water (this allows for the shell membrane to separate from the egg). Lightly tap each egg on a hard surface to barely crack the shell, with the shell intact on the egg. Add the remaining ingredients, cover with lid, and simmer on low for 1.5 to 2 hours.