As I write this, I am sitting in a crowded café on the ground floor of our hostel in Xi’An, a city exactly 7,674 miles from home. At home, seven thousand miles away, Jesse’s mom and sister are moving most of their belongings into a house they’ve rented about ten minutes from our house. When we return in two weeks, it will be the first time we have lived that close to anyone we’ve been related to in almost a decade.
This past week, we spent two nights in a city just south of Beijing. Renqiu is not a place tourists visit. There isn’t a restored temple there, nothing old to show off, nothing sparkly or shiny. No markets of souvenirs await Western pocketbooks. It’s a town of 300,000—a “small town,” our friend Faye calls it, though it is several times larger than the city we live in—and most people there work for the Petrol companies. We passed several flocks of sheep on our way into town.
In the apartment complex where Faye’s parents live are both of Faye’s aunts and uncles. In the apartment complex next door, a short walk away, live Faye’s grandparents. We spent the afternoon with Faye’s grandparents, playing mah jong, listening as Faye’s grandfather played traditional Chinese music. And then, as he whipped out a harmonica and started playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Faye’s grandmother let me help make dumplings. We crowded around a small table—Faye, her sister, mother, aunt, father, and I—and spooned meat and vegetable filling into delicate dough rounds. We pinched them closed, and Faye’s family was too polite to make fun of my clumsy offerings, which sat next to their perfect ones. These people have been making dumplings their whole life, and I thought then of my grandmother and her pie crusts, the way she knows the exact right measurements, the way she knows the texture the dough needs to be by touch, the way her fingertips have been trained by decades and decades to know how to make it perfect.
I thought of my mother making buttermilk biscuits. By sight, by memory, by touch. Perfect every time.
I wonder what I will perfect over the course of my life. What dishes will become my staples? If I have children, what food will they remember me by?
I am loving almost every moment of China, but the one thing I am looking forward to about coming back—above all others—is living close to family. Knowing that ten minutes away will be people who are connected to us by blood and history.
Now, I just need you to help me convince my parents to move to Wilmington.
But until then, I will think of my mother’s buttermilk biscuits and my grandmother’s pie crusts, and I will come home from China in two weeks, and I will try to recreate these dumplings myself.