Monday, December 29, 2008

Spezzatino Magazine: Diasporic Dining:
Family, History, and Comfort Food

According to the philosopher Rosi Braidotti, travel and memory blur space and time. When traveling, she observes, we are always preoccupied with time (either hurrying or waiting); we exist in a kind of “in-between” moment and place; and we pass through spaces that are both ever-changing and timeless: the airport lounges, train stations, and bus terminals whose physical environments are constantly refreshed with moving bodies yet always seem to remain exactly the same.

When we experience space and time in these ways, she suggests, they leave marks upon our bodies and identities. We are always looking to be settled and secure, yet we never are. Somehow we are always uncomfortable: wedged in to chairs that do not accommodate our bodies, crammed into claustrophobic cabins, and wishing desperately to be home. Our origins fall away from us, lost in the haze of jet lag and jet fuel; we cannot distinguish our destination through the horizon’s fog. Our identities are never secure: our documents are scrutinized suspiciously; we struggle to master local customs and languages; our movements and presentation mark us as travellers; we speak in stumbling polyglot and attempt to translate our identities into something intelligible. We arrive mixed up with memory and anticipation, searching for a fixed point to get our bearings.

And most likely, with our souls and bellies craving a really good meal.
In their respective books Chow: From China to Canada: Memories of Food and Family and Comfort Food for Breakups: Memoirs of a Hungry Girl, both Janice Wong and Marusya Bociurkiw have created memoirs of migration. Food is the phrasebook they use to translate their experiences. In so doing, they have also generated portraits of Canadian immigration and identities, and tales told of families displaced across history, language, yearning and remembrance. As Bociuirkiw writes, “The pages of my cookbooks are a palimpset, layered with notes and food stains, and the complex flavours of love and loss.”

“Dot hearts” from a daughter: Janice Wong’s Chow
“From morning till night, sounds drift from the kitchen, most of them familiar and comforting... On days when warmth is the most important need of the human heart, the kitchen is the place you can find it; it dries the wet sock, it cools the hot little brain.”
—E.B. White (1899-1985)

Victoria, British Columbia, is a quiet capital city on Canada’s west coast, and the site of Canada’s first Chinatown. On August 8th, 2008 (fittingly, triple eights, which are viewed as lucky), Victoria’s Chinese-Canadians celebrated 150 years of community building, history, and achievements in Dai Fau, or “Big Port”. This celebration, along with Victoria’s sleepy nature and charming architecture, belies the painful narratives of Chinese Canadian migration. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Chinese workers were recruited to pound railroad spikes and tunnel in dusty mines. Others worked cutting timber and on ranches; in steaming laundries and restaurant kitchens. Most other professions were closed to them.

Despite Chinese Canadians’ important contribution to nation building, the nation itself did not welcome them. Immigrating Chinese had to pay a head tax; increasingly restrictive laws such as the 1923 Exclusion Act (which many Chinese Canadians subsequently referred to as Humiliation Day) forbade the immigration of most Chinese. Wives and families overseas could not join their husbands and fathers. Stranded Chinese workers were left to their own devices, to cook, live, and form their own families in linguistic and geographic isolation.

Not surprisingly, the themes of kinship and citizenship are entwined in Wong’s recollections. As she explains:
“My parents' natures were shaped by their status as the Canadian-born descendants of early Chinese immigrants. They grew up when the Chinese — even Canadian born — were unable to vote, were restricted from the full rights of citizenship. This still shocks me when I consider that one of my great-grandparents was born in northern BC in 1875, and two of my grandparents were also Canadian born. The Chinese in Canada received the right to vote when my dad was 30 years old. My mom was 25.”

In 1917, during this difficult time, Wong’s father Dennis was born in Big Port. He was quite literally raised in the kitchen. Prematurely born, baby Dennis was kept inside his mother’s warming oven and rubbed with olive oil to strengthen him, an act of homey ingenuity symbolizing the survival strategies of Chinese Canadian communities. As Wong remarks, the qualities developed through her family’s labour, “like subtlety and restraint and independence and tenacity… continue to resonate with me.”

Wong’s mother Mary was born not far away from Big Port, in Nanaimo’s Chinatown in 1922, then a “frontier town” where in 1911, 99% of the Chinese Canadian population was male. Her family grew much of their own food; as children, Wong’s mother and aunt husked corn and hauled pots of it to the mah-jong houses on warm summer evenings.

Chow, says Wong, began as a “simple tribute to my dad and his love of cooking”. It grew into a gift to her father, who died in 1999 after spending most of his life feeding others in his restaurant, and to the rest of her family. Wong’s memoir weaves intimate details of her family’s lives together with a social history of Chinese settlement and community-building across Western Canada. Food and memory are the warp and weft of Wong’s fabric. She describes, for instance, the feeling of comfort she experiences when cataloguing the contents of her parents’ cupboards: jars of preserved plums, shiitake mushrooms, bean-thread noodles; dried scallops and oysters; salted red ginger; and dried lily buds.

“In addition to memories and family stories, we had a small collection of [my father’s] recipes, handwritten notations he made whenever my siblings and I asked for a recipe. I also had a few of his letters, which always contained a reference to food, a menu from the opening day of his first restaurant” – coffee, 8 cents; entrĂ©es, $1 – “a few telegrams, my grandfather's head tax-related documents and an old shoe box full of photographs, some dating back to the mid-1800s… I also visited the archives in Nanaimo and Victoria, and compiled historical material on China, Canada, BC and Saskatchewan; research related to Chinese Canadian immigration, Chinese culinary history, general food science and cultural and food-related anecdotes.” Chow is thus part cookbook, part autobiography, part documentary, part oral history.

“Physically, I gave [my family] the gift of a book, and beyond that, I've come to understand that I gave my family a sense of the man who was a father, a husband, a son and brother, a food lover, a restaurateur, a friend and neighbour. After the book was published, customers from my dad's restaurants told us their stories, giving my family an even greater sense of who my dad was and what he meant to the community.”

As ye give, so shall ye receive. “I hadn't imagined that the original book would end up being published. The fact that it was published and that it resonated with people, across diverse cultures and backgrounds, was also an unexpected gift” back to Wong, who was “happy and surprised to know that there was so much interest in what we thought of as a simple family story.” Finally, says Wong, “I slowly came to understand that Chow was also a gift to myself. It was evident in the generosity with which friends, relatives, and acquaintances shared their stories and assisted with the many aspects involved in creating and publicizing the book. And it was evident in the faces of strangers who attended the various events associated with the book. Folks lined up to tell me their stories. I was particularly charmed to hear from a woman who told me that Chow reminded her of her Ukrainian grandmother's history. Chow gave me a greater sense of community. At times I was surrounded by people who had known me and my parents at every stage of our lives.

I also gained a deeper connection to my ‘Chineseness’. I'd grown up in Saskatchewan in the 1960s, one of two Chinese kids in my grade school — the other one was my brother. Mixing in and speaking only English were priorities for my parents. Aside from the distinctions I chose to contrive, I didn't want to be different from my Caucasian friends.” Indeed, Wong’s engagement with her family’s food is at times hesitant or rebellious. As a child, offered handmade dim sum (which, she says, loosely translates as “dot heart”, “delight heart” or “touch heart”), she refused, preferring to eat a boiled wiener.

Eventually, however, Wong reconciles her identity and experiences (and those of her family) through food. She remembers, for example, Christmas turkeys basted with soy and oyster sauces. “A hybrid identity is something I've always taken for granted. Growing up in a small prairie city, one of a handful of Chinese people, the classic Canadian multicultural ‘melting pot’ was the life I was immersed in. As kids, the fluidity with which we sampled our neighbour's cooking and their traditions, and observed or bent our own traditions to suit our tastes, seemed very natural, like second nature. It was effortless… [but] after learning my parents' histories, I'm even more impressed by their ability to mix and meld. Their lives had to span far greater shifts than mine.”

-Krista Scott-Dixon, spezzatino magazine

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