I was watching a very entertaining television hosted by Padma Lakshmi on Hulu called, “Taste the Nation” today. It’s the kind of show we really love since, as globetrotting folks, it gives us a chance to experience in a small way other places and cultures we have not, as yet, had the good fortune to experience. And, we love food and food culture.
One of the things Padma spoke of during the episode on Indian food was the difficulty she has in getting her daughter to really appreciate her Indian food and culture. I can certainly sympathize with this notion with respect to our four children. Not only was our eldest born outside Canada, but they all spent their childhood years outside Canada. So, the connection that I have to my roots was difficult to pass on to them. I knew they would come back to Canada so this did not concern me overly. They would be immersed in Canadian culture. Today, three live in Toronto and our youngest is in Montréal.
What actually concerned me more was that our kids would not be close to their Chinese language and culture. My education in Chinese cooking, language, and culture started almost immediately after I met the beautiful, young Chinese lady who is now my wife and the mother of our children. I took Chinese language lessons, listened to cassettes, and eavesdropped on conversations in Cantonese. I bought Chinese cookbooks and watched Asian cooking shows. My wife is a first generation Chinese and her own understanding of her language and culture was already diluted by her immersion into Canadian culture. When our first child was a baby, I encouraged my wife to speak her dialect with our daughter. Even I tried to add my limited knowledge to the mix. As a result, our daughter only knew ‘milk’ as “nei nei”, loved singing along to tapes in the car of the music of a popular Taiwanese singer, and would arrive at her grandparent’s home each weekday, calling out to them in a mix of English and Toisan dialect, “Gung Gung, Pwa Pwa, Shuet Mai here!”, meaning “Grandfather, Grandmother, Snow Beauty (her Chinese name) here!” It was both touching and gratifying to hear her do this.
As our family grew, it become impossible to keep up with our quasi-bilingual education and English quickly took over. But, our children grew up eating Chinese food cooked, ironically, by a white man whose roots in Canada go back at least six generations to Acadia and New France. Their comfort foods include chow mein, various stir fried dishes, Chinese hot pot, gwun chow ngow haw, char siu, and yum cha. They also loved the Thai curries and Japanese dishes I also learned to cook.
We lived in Hong Kong twice which I thought would really reinforce Chinese culture for our kids. The first time was when the age ranges were 1 to 8 years and we stayed for 3 years. It definitely was good but the kids were a bit too young to really influence them. The 3 older ones were in English International schools so it wasn’t a true immersive experience. When we left, I thought that was the end of the best chance for our kids to be authentic Chinese. But, after living in the U.K. and New Zealand, we went back to Hong Kong almost 10 years after we left, staying for nearly 7 years. Our eldest was finishing high school and going on to university in, first, New Zealand and then Toronto, so this time Hong Kong for her was a place to visit and shop. But, for the other three children, Hong Kong became an essential part of the development of their individual, unique personalities and memories. Many of the important ’firsts’ in their rites of passage from childhood to adulthood occurred during these years. None of them managed to become bilingual but they do understand some. What was the most gratifying to me is that today they identify as Chinese. They are proud of both their Canadian and Chinese heritages. And, given the family histories of our culturally diverse family, I guess this has to be considered a success.