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Illustration by Ashley Wong

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What’s it like to feel like an outsider in your own country? First Person writers tell their stories

The shrill echo of a school buzzer brings me back to a childhood memory I’ve yet to forget. A group of Grade 6 boys sit at a table in the lunchroom. All of them happen to be ethnically Chinese – some Vancouver-born and others hailing from Macau, Hong Kong or Taiwan.

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Through the open doors facing the basketball court, my buddy’s mom appears in the midday glare. With a neatly tied plastic bag in one hand and car keys in the other, she hurries over, placing the bag in front of him. Speaking in hushed Taiwanese Mandarin she touches the back of his neck, smiles at all of us and, as quickly as she came, disappears through the same door. He pushes the bag in the direction of me and my friend. “You guys can have it. I’m not hungry.”

We tear into the bag, our sticky hands clicking the plastic lid open to release a nostalgic aroma and familiar sight – a generous pile of shui jiao (boiled dumplings). Inside the bag is a smaller Tupperware container housing the vinegar. We were anxious to play outside but equally stoked for these homemade dumplings. His mother timed it perfectly, they were piping hot and hadn’t been out of the boiling water longer than 10 minutes. We stuff them into our mouths foregoing the chopsticks, sucking cold air through our teeth between bites to offset the very real risk of scalding our tongues. The comforting flavours of ground pork, ginger and jiu cai, or Chinese chives (a notoriously fragrant species of allium ubiquitously purposed for dumpling fillings in Chinese cooking), floods my mouth and nostrils. It’s so good. We laugh and jockey to grab as many as we can. As I pop another into my mouth I catch a blond-haired figure in the corner of my eye. She plugs her nose while pointing in our direction and theatrically gags, snickering to her friends. At first, I didn’t understand. As I made the connection, feelings of embarrassment and self-disgust drew my eyes back down to the lunchbox. This is one of my earliest memories in feeling ashamed about my food.

I get that we were young. Some dumb kid made fun of me for eating “stinky Chinese food” for lunch – big deal. But despite how innocuous and innumerable exchanges like this may be, I’ve internalized them and carried the experiences into adulthood.

I own and operate a frozen handmade dumpling company out of Vancouver’s Chinatown. Every week I fold thousands of dumplings by hand, freeze them and customers come to pick them up from all over the city. This three-year hustle has evolved into a business with a community of people who simply appreciate my elaboration on a Chinese staple. It’s nothing new or special. I’m a glorified hawker with an iPhone and a website, but I care about what I do and the messages food can communicate.

I’m also a mixed-race Chinese-Canadian, born to a father who immigrated from Hong Kong and a mother of British expats in Canada. I belong to the generation of “hapa” kids who were the byproducts of mixed-race couples. I grew up in a white and Chinese neighbourhood. Despite this, I never felt a particularly strong sense of belonging to either. I was always inbetween. I didn’t always feel included with the Chinese kids because I couldn’t speak Cantonese. The white kids would sometimes use my otherness as low-hanging target practice for their teasing. A sense of resentment grew toward both groups because of this.

Through Chinese food, however, I could create a sense of belonging. While growing up, I ate and watched the food my grandmother and father cooked. Food became how I connected to what it meant to be Chinese.

Studying my culinary traditions and displaying these understandings through my business has turned out to be my salvation in self-worth and identity. I don’t know what I would be if I couldn’t cook, eat, think, live and share these traditions.

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In my business, I research the regionality of ingredients and cooking styles of China and Taiwan, and dig through photo libraries of my time spent backpacking and living in these countries. I test recipes to create these staples dishes and condense them into a familiar and unthreatening dumpling – that’s how I’ve been able to introduce new things to new people. I can’t please everyone and I don’t expect to, but I have to remind myself that just because some customers may not be into a certain flavour doesn’t mean they dislike or think Chinese food is gross.

Growing up, our family would treat non-Chinese guests to a meal in one of Vancouver’s exceptional regional Chinese restaurants. I remember my dad saying we shouldn’t order certain dishes because they were just “too Chinese.” Although he said it in jest, this awareness of having certain foods rejected or unfit for non-Chinese diners made an impression. And I still make those accommodations. Recently, an acquaintance asked me where to find decent Chinese food in the city, with one caveat – they weren’t to be “too Chinese.” Those two words jolted me. I laughed in passing, conflicted as how to respond. Yet I also knew exactly which restaurants to eliminate. After giving her a shorter list, I hung up the phone and stared at the wall, wondering why I didn’t confront her casually racist request, and why I chose not to include certain restaurants in my recommendations. I also thought about those dumplings in that elementary-school lunchroom all those years before.

I’m learning to own my cuisine, and not to apologize or warn people before giving it to them out of fear of it being too Chinese. Ironically, jiu cai is one flavour that is now a permanent fixture on my menu. And customers love it.

We already have enough reasons in this world to dislike each other. My hope is that we check ourselves before we speak badly of other peoples’ cuisine. Food is the sustenance of our heritage – its preparation, taste, appearance and the stories around each dish offer a candid portrait of what a culture values. Food is our last ditch effort to finding commonality.

Be proud and eat some shui jiao.

Matthew Murtagh-Wu lives in Vancouver.

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