Chinese immersion preschools in Manhattan

This morning, we did a couple tours of 3-4K schools in the Manhattan Chinatown area, one of which is a Mandarin Chinese immersion program that is also part of the Universal Pre-K program in New York City. The class is taught in English and in Mandarin, with emphasis on verbal Chinese communication (listening and speaking). In the afterschool component of the program if you opt in, the teachers support and teach children how to write in beginner-level Mandarin Chinese. I loved looking at the walls and seeing all the activities and art projects these young kids did in Chinese. Given the season, they made Valentines for their mothers and fathers in Chinese, did some painting and paper craft projects to depict spring (春 chun) in Chinese, and also decorated dragons for the Lunar New Year / Year of the Dragon. From the book shelf, it also looks like they get story time in both English and Chinese, as well, and sing Chinese nursery rhymes and songs.

In an ideal world, Kaia would be fully bilingual; hell, I would be fully bilingual, too. Looking back, I always wish that I was put in an immersion program like this one where I was exposed to both culture and language from a young age. I got plenty of exposure to culture given I grew up with my grandma and followed all her traditions, plus our schools were very progressive and proactively taught us about Lunar New Year, along with other cultural traditions of other countries. I was exposed to Toisan and Cantonese through my grandma and my relatives, but I didn’t learn Mandarin until I was in college, and that learning was fully my choice. In some ways, it does make me a bit sad that Kaia will be very unlikely to know or understand any Cantonese or Toisan at all; those are actually my father tongue languages, not Mandarin. Though language does evolve, understanding a language is not just simply understanding a language: knowing a second language also exposes you to cultural nuances that you cannot simply know just by exposure to cultural traditions. Chinese is notorious (and famous) for its endless idioms and word plays, and understanding them brings you closer to understanding the culture itself better.

The 3K applications are due on March 1. Who knows if Kaia will place anywhere at all, much less a Mandarin immersion program. But I do know that the ideal situation would be if she had consistent Chinese language exposure outside of my barely-basic Mandarin skills.

Kaia eats through a banana peel

This evening, Kaia had a decent dinner, and oddly, she rejected any fruit we offered her at the end. She didn’t want blueberries or mandarins that we suggested. So we cleaned her up and let her play a bit before bedtime. As I was washing some dishes at the sink, Kaia kept pointing at the fruit bowl on the counter, specifically calling out the bananas on it. “Banana! Banana!” she yelled a few times.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to give it to her. The last several times she asked to eat a banana and I opened them for her, she refused to take even a single bite. But this time, I decided to just hand her the banana whole and see what she would do. Well, one minute later, she had bitten through the banana peel into the flesh and was chewing away at the entire fruit. A fat bite of the peel was sitting on my kitchen floor, and she happily chomped away at the whole banana, completely unaware of how strange this behavior actually was.

Well, I guess that was a sign that she really did want to eat the banana. So I went ahead and peeled it and let her eat it, holding the banana from the base peel. In the end, it was quite miraculous: she’d actually eaten about 90 percent of the entire banana, which was a decent size. She left me about one bite that she didn’t want anymore and handed it back.

This reminded me of the time about one year ago when she was a young toddler/big baby, and she asked for a mandarin, but I was multitasking and trying to get something else cleaned. So I had handed her the mandarin whole and asked her to wait until I finished cleaning something on the counter. Two minutes later, she had chewed through the mandarin skin and gotten to the segments. I took a picture of the fruit looking totally mauled, like it was attacked by an animal. It would serve as a way to remember how cute my baby was when she didn’t want to wait for me to peel her fruit.

Leftover ingredients never go to waste in our house

After our Lunar New Year lunch, while we certainly had far more leftover food than I initially imagined, we also had some leftover raw ingredients that I needed to use up soon. Some of these things included an extra king oyster mushroom, chives, sweetened condensed milk, and six egg yolks. In the past when I used egg whites in different desserts or soups, I usually used the remaining egg yolks to make a chocolate mousse or something related. But I didn’t have any chocolate or cocoa powder this time, which led me to look at what else I had on hand: brown sugar that was hardening, plus several lemons. I decided to make something I’d always wanted to try out, but never did: lemon curd! Lemon curd is one of those indulgent spreads that is used on scones and muffins, but people rarely think to make at home, though it’s actually quite simple. Lemon curd only requires four ingredients (sugar, fresh lemon juice, egg yolks, and butter), some stirring on the stove, and then straining. The straining will take the longest if you want to be very careful about straining out any egg bits that may have curdled, but once that is done, you will have a decadent spread for toast, muffins, scones, or just to eat straight from a spoon. When I was done making this yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t stop marveling over how delicious and fancy it tasted, yet it took very little time or effort (other than the straining).

I used the remaining king oyster mushroom in a quick and easy sugar snap pea stir fry that Kaia enjoyed as part of her dinner yesterday. And for the sweetened condensed milk, since it has a long refrigerated life, I decided to gradually use it up in some homemade Hong Kong style milk tea. Before yesterday, I actually had no idea how Hong Kong style milk tea was made. You boil water, add your tea leaves, boil again, then simmer/steep for 15-20 minutes, then strain. To finish and serve, you add whole/evaporated milk and a little sweetened condensed milk per cup. If you don’t like strong tea, you will NOT enjoy Hong Kong style milk tea! It uses an insane amount of tea, which is why you get such a caffeine jolt after having a cup, and the tea most typically used is Ceylon tea (that’s right: I used my DILMAH!). While the typical cup of black tea will use one teaspoon of tea to one cup (240ml) of liquid, Hong Kong style milk tea requires FIVE teaspoons per cup of hot water, with about 1/3 cup of milk added. I didn’t have evaporated milk (which is usually used, and far richer than whole milk since it’s literally evaporated down), so I used regular whole cow milk with a teaspoon per cup of sweetened condensed milk. I had just over a cup-size serving, and it’s evening time now, and I am still feeling the effects of this caffeine!

No waste in our house. 🙂

Mian, mian! (Noodle, noodle!)

Even when you aren’t aware, babies and toddlers are constantly taking in all the information around them, from your words (in whatever language) to your facial expressions to your actions. These tiny humans really are little sponges. That’s why as their parents, it is our job to try to do as much as possible to teach them, whether it’s with language or through our actions. They will do as we do, not do as we say, as every parent so wisely knows. Today, we all had the day off as it was President’s Day, and we went out for ramen in the neighborhood and went to a playground afterwards with Kaia. At the ramen shop, as Kaia was getting reunited with her beloved noodles once again, I asked her what these were while Chris started swinging them in the air from his chopsticks. Instead of responding in English with noodles, she let out a little giggle and grinned, exclaiming, “Mian! Mian!” She was saying noodles in Chinese. My heart almost burst.

Even when I don’t think she’s paying attention or listening to me, she actually is. And it’s in these moments when it’s evident. It reminded me of the time when I was patting her dry after a bath on the bathroom floor while she wiggled around on top of her towel, and out of nowhere, she started singing the “Lao Shu Ai Da Mi / Mouse Love Big Rice” Mandarin song chorus that I realized she was always listening when I was singing to her. She sang it with the right tune and almost all the right words. She was really paying attention and taking it all in.

She also has her very affectionate moments after refusing hugs and kisses when I ask for them, whether in English or Chinese. While I was stir frying sugar snap peas with king oyster mushrooms this late afternoon, she came over and insisted that I hold her up because she wanted to see the stove action. I held her up to see, and she said she wanted some snap peas and mushrooms. When I tried to put her down to scoop out the stir-fry from the pan, she insisted I hold and hug her as she nestled her face into my neck. I couldn’t help but think it was so sweet, so I stopped what I was doing and just sat with her on the kitchen floor, hugging her close. These are the moments, I thought. I have to embrace them while I can because one day, they will be no more, as she will be all grown up and running away from me.

Taro sago dessert soup – a good gateway dessert for littles

For our Lunar New Year lunch on Saturday, I originally wanted to go *all* out and do two desserts: one would be the simple taro sago dessert soup (芋香椰汁西米露/Yù xiāng yē zhī xī mǐ lù), which would be easy to make; the second would be the more challenging tang yuan, or black sesame glutinous rice balls in brown sugar-ginger soup. After having several of my dough balls get completely crumply and destroyed a few nights ago (I hadn’t made this in ages, so I was out of practice with how to properly roll the glutinous rice flour dough), I decided to forgo the tang yuan finicky mess and go with the taro sago dessert soup, which even a young child could make.

Taro sago dessert soup was one of my favorite Chinese desserts growing up. When we used to have big family meals with my cousins, aunt, uncle, and grandma, the banquet-style table would always be filled with endless and sumptuous seafood, meat, and vegetable dishes. Looking back, I realize that I took it all for granted, as we never have meals with this much variety now at all. At the end of the huge meal, there was usually a complimentary dessert soup, usually in the form of red bean. While I did enjoy sweet red bean soup growing up, it was not my favorite. I was always pleasantly surprised when the massive bowl of dessert soup would come out, and the waiter would ladle out steaming hot bowls of taro sago soup. It was always this pale purple color with small chunks of taro and tiny translucent tapioca balls bobbing up and down. The soup had a hint of coconut milk flavor and just enough sweetness to let you know this was certainly dessert. I never realized then how easy it was to make this soup at home with just a handful of ingredients.

So I made it for Saturday, and it was very well received; several guests had a second helping. Yet we still have quite a bit left over since the recipe made a very, very large batch. So while eating it tonight, I offered Kaia some. She initially rejected it, but gradually grew envious the more she saw me spoon it into my mouth. So she came closer and asked to “try some.” I gave her a small spoonful; she ate some and made a face, ran away, then tentatively came back to me to ask for “more?” She proceeded to have about a quarter of my small bowl of taro sago soup and clearly loved it, constantly repeating “taro yummy, taro yummy.”

I thought more about (East) Asian desserts, and I also thought about Chris (and many people who think like him) and criticize them, saying that East Asian countries like China and Japan don’t know how to do dessert well, and “that’s why they put shit like red bean” in their desserts. But I actually think this thought is flawed. East Asians thought about putting legumes, seeds, and roots like red bean, black sesame, and taro in desserts; from a health perspective, this should be embraced, because you’re not only having a sweet and indulgent treat, but combining it with something that will nourish your body. Who is to say that something like sesame or beans should be used in only savory applications? Why put arbitrary limits on different types of raw ingredients? With these raw ingredients, East Asians pair them with just enough sweetness so that your teeth don’t ache after, but your belly still gets a sweet hit. And that’s actually a great way to introduce sweets to young children like Kaia, especially as we want to limit their sugar intake but still not feel like they’re being left out of sweet treats. Kaia can be indulged with a dessert with a small amount of sugar, yet still have something healthful that her parents can feel good about. And that all sounds good to me.

Lunar New Year lunch at home: home-style banquet

When I decided to host a Lunar New Year lunch this year, it was the first time I’d done this in years, likely since 2018 or 2019, so pre-pandemic and pre-baby. We hadn’t hosted any meal here in ages, and I thought it would be fun to go all out and re-create a banquet experience of lots of different New Year’s foods for our small crowd of friends. With just 2.5 of us eating most of the time, it’s a bit overkill to make so many dishes for just a small number of people. It’s more fun when you have many, many mouths to feed. So these are my opportunities to really recreate that banquet dining experience. It took weeks of planning, three grocery shopping trips to Chinatowns, and over a week of food preparation, but it all turned out well from a taste perspective. This is what I served:

  1. West Lake beef soup – with minced beef and egg whites 
  2. Thit kho – Vietnamese caramelized braised pork ribs and eggs 
  3. Do chua – Vietnamese pickled julienned carrots and daikon 
  4. Steamed whole black sea bass with ginger and scallion
  5. Luo Han Jai / Buddha’s Delight: Stir-fried glass noodles with various vegetables, mushrooms, and tofu 
  6. Chinese sticky rice with Chinese sausage, cha siu, shiitake mushrooms, and dried scallops 
  7. Longevity noodles / yi mian, made with king oyster mushrooms, chives, and carrots 
  8. Blanched gai lan with oyster sauce 
  9. Dessert: hot taro sago dessert soup; pan fried slices of New Year’s cake (nian gao), homemade peanut sesame candy  

The thit kho and do chua were the two Vietnamese dishes I served and are meant to complement each other. The thit kho was a huge hit; everyone raved about how good it was. No one had eaten it before, which made sense: it’s usually a home-style dish that’s made by families during the Tet Lunar New Year. I’ve actually never seen it on any Vietnamese restaurant menu before. It’s amazing what magic happens when you pair the sweetness of young coconut water with the savories of pork ribs and a little fish sauce.

We had three kids in total: a near-6-year-old Ivy, an 18-month old Seneca, plus Kaia. I met my friend’s boyfriend for the first time. I handed out red Pepa Pig envelopes (hong bao) to the kiddos. Kaia got a new Chinese New Year book to add to her growing book collection. It was a fun afternoon of eating and conversation. But I would say that for me, the biggest highlight was when most people had left, and it was just us plus my friend, his wife, and their 18-month old. I was deboning the remaining fish, and both Kaia and Seneca wanted fish. So I took turns putting boneless fish in both of their mouths. Kaia got competitive and wanted more. Seneca tried to share with Kaia and hand her fish I had given Seneca; Kaia refused, saying, “No! No share!” The whole scene became like a bit of a fish-eating competition to see who could get and eat more fihs than the other. It was cute and sweet to see them not only enjoy my food, but act silly and toddler-like with each other. Kaia also proceeded to have an unprecedented amount of West Lake beef soup; her diaper was extremely, extremely wet after dinner that evening.

Chinese New Year flowers: the beautiful plum blossom

There are many flowers that are considered auspicious that welcome in the Lunar New Year, ranging from orchids to chrysanthemums to lilies and peach blossoms, but the one that I grew up with and know intimately because my grandma had a bush of them is the understated yet gorgeous plum blossom. Plum blossoms, or mei hua 梅花 in Chinese, are these huge, thin branches of small, dainty white or pale pink blooms. They initially appear unassuming, but once their little tiny buds bloom, they are like welcome sprays of warmth and happiness along seemingly bare and austere brown stems. If you are lucky enough to display them in your home, not only will they last quite some time (assuming you cut or buy them when the buds are tightly closed), but you’ll definitely need a large and sturdy vase to store them in, as the branches are quite long and big.

I grew up in a flat in the Richmond District of San Francisco, where we had a backyard that was once filled with gorgeous flowers and a handful of Chinese vegetables my grandma grew; this assortment included the gorgeous mei hua/plum blossoms, which grew in the top right corner of the yard. Although the Richmond is known for being in the colder and foggier part of the city, somehow, my grandma always made her garden bloom. But once she died, many things died with her, from the garden to all her amazing recipes and cooking. My dad attempted (and failed mostly) at growing a number of things, always blaming the weather as opposed to his own efforts/choices in flowers. I always wondered: if it was really so hard, then why did Grandma always succeed?

After my grandma died, my dad decided he didn’t want the plum blossom tree anymore. So he hacked it. I didn’t realize exactly how sad it was until years later, when I had vague memories of those plum blossoms and realized that they were never going to be anymore because my dad stupidly decided to kill it for zero reason. It’s not like he replaced it with some other beautiful tree or shrub. The yard continues to look like a haphazard waste land of weeds and random crap growing with no rhyme or reason. And recently while in Flushing, I asked a flower vendor how much a couple of branches of these plum blossoms would be. I was shocked: she told me she was charging $60 for a couple stems! If only my dad had realized how valuable these were, then maybe he wouldn’t have killed the bush.

Maybe at some point, I will buy some plum blossoms to display around Lunar New Year, in memory of my grandma. Whenever I see them, I am reminded of her and her green thumb. And I do quite love them even though I never have them. Plum blossoms are a sign of the beginning of spring, so it makes sense that they would be a part of Lunar New Year, or what in China is called the Spring Festival.

Nightly flossing: a mommy-daughter activity

Since I was young, I’ve been flossing nightly quite religiously. Even in my twenties, when I would come home after drunk nights out, I’d still somehow manage to brush AND floss my teeth before passing out in my bed. My mom constantly told Ed and me that we had to take care of our teeth: we only had one set of teeth (well, after elementary school, that is), so we had to take good care of them. Otherwise, we were in for a lot of very painful (and horribly expensive) work like she had to endure, as she had zero dental care growing up poor in Central Vietnam until she moved to the United States.

I hope to instill the importance of taking care of one’s teeth in Kaia, but also explain the “why” behind all of the “you have to” statements. For example: don’t brush too hard, otherwise your gums will wear away and won’t grow back! Rinse your mouth after eating fruit/citrus, otherwise your enamel will wear away and you’ll have sensitive teeth (like your mom; UGH). Brush your teeth every day, twice a day, to prevent plague and gum disease! No one ever warned me growing up that if gums wore away, they wouldn’t grow back. No one was probably even aware that something healthy like an orange could actually erode your enamel back then. So now, I’m paying the consequences…

The cute thing is that since her crawling days, Kaia has always expressed fascination with flossing. Each evening before reading to her and putting her to bed, I’d wash my face and floss. She’d watch me intently and get really excited when the floss would come out. Occasionally when she was a baby, she’d try to reach for the floss, so I’d give her a clean piece and watch her carefully to make sure she didn’t swallow it. We once had an incident where she watched me toss my used floss into the trash. When I turned away, she quickly went into the trash, retrieved it in near stealth-mode, and started chewing on it. That was a very not-fun and disgusting moment.

Now that she’s older, when she knows that I’m flossing, she will eagerly run into the bathroom in the evening when I am there and ask to “floss with mummy.” So while I floss now each evening, I will give her a short piece of clean floss, and we’ll “floss” together. I will sit down on the edge of the bathtub and floss with her so she can see what I’m doing with the floss in my mouth, and then she will give me a big grin and say, “Wanna sit with mummy” while flossing. Then, she’ll stand so that she’s right between my legs, and we’ll continue our mommy-daughter flossing activity together. Granted, while I am actually flossing, I know she just has the floss in her mouth and is chewing on and licking it, but at least she knows that this is a nightly, regular ritual. And hopefully, this is one ritual she will do properly when she is a little older and needs to floss. At the very end of the activity, I will tell her I’m all done, and I’ll throw my used floss in the trash. I will ask her if she’s all done, and when she is, she will also throw her used floss in the trash, as well. These are the sweet moments of watching my Kaia Pookie baby grow up — the moments most people don’t really talk about, but we all relish.

The backwards back bend of all-knowing toddlers – if you know, you know

While at the Central Park Zoo with Kaia’s friend Jacob and his parents on Sunday, we were exchanging notes and laughs about all the interesting things that we’ve learned as parents to a young toddler… like how smart they get very quickly regarding how to escape certain situations, whether that’s hair brushing or getting into a stroller when they don’t want to. Jacob’s parents were trying to put him in his stroller, and he didn’t want to get in. So on top of yelling and crying to indicate he didn’t want to, he also did the infamous backwards back bend/back arch that we all detest; Kaia does this when she wants to walk and refuses the stroller, and also when I am trying to comb her hair and she doesn’t want to (does she ever…?!). We all called it out and laughed at it at the same time because we were all too familiar with that back bend move.

Of course, it’s cute, and it’s a way that our toddlers are showing us that they are have strong opinions that may not always align with ours. But it’s nevertheless extremely frustrating in the moment and made even more infuriating when it’s in public, where everyone is watching your defiant child and you battling said defiant child. But, I suppose it’s something that in some way we should be happy about. Children shouldn’t always be obedient all the time; they should have opinions and different perspectives, and they should want to assert themselves even when their parents don’t want them to. As my friend said, “Our kids aren’t guai guai (Chinese for “good/obedient) like we were when we were their age.” But she also noted something else that’s true: we don’t really run our households like our parents did, and we aren’t parenting with the notion of instilling fear in our kids, nor do we want to. We’ve seen and felt the negative ramifications of that for sure.

“No, no, no! No new shoes!”

If I had to stereotype my child based on her gender, I would say that she most definitely does not act like a “typical” girl in that every single time I have gotten her a new pair of shoes, she gets angry and fights putting them on. She always wants what she is familiar and comfortable with on her feet. Granted, I haven’t indulged her too much in this regard because she doesn’t seem to have a strong preference (yet) for certain types/pieces of clothing, plus I am just very practical with most clothing given she will eventually outgrow it all (or get it all messy at school). So she’s really only had two pairs of shoes she regularly wore to daycare that she has since outgrown; two pairs of sandals, and now, two pairs of shoes she regularly wears to school. Today, I introduced her to a new pair of snow boots since it’s a snow day and Chris is taking her outside. When I showed them to her, she kept yelling “no!” over and over again, insisting she wanted her purple glitter shoes (which she also initially hated). When I finally put the boots on, she seemed to calm down and not really care anymore.

But what I’ve heard at school is funny: when I have come to pick her up, her teachers will gush and talk about how cute Kaia’s new shoes are. They told me that she would walk up to them at the beginning of the day, point down at her new purple or silver shoes, and say to them, “Look at my new shoes” with a big grin on her face.

Got it. So, let’s just get this straight: She brags about her new shoes to her teachers and friends at school, yet she screams and yells at me for getting her the freaking shoes in the first place. I see how the gratitude already is nonexistent from an early age…