“Permission to Fail”

I’m making good progress reading the book Permission to Come Home by Jenny T. Wang. Right now, I’m on the section called “Permission to Fail,” which is exactly what it sounds like it’s about. In life, through big and small events, we’re constantly learning, and in learning, it’s inevitable that we will make mistakes, but that’s part of the process of living. When babies are learning to walk, they will stumble and fall — it’s not a mistake! It’s all work in progress! They learn from their fall, and then they persevere and try again and again until they can pull themselves up, stand up and stay there, then take one step, two steps, multiple steps. The tiny steps that are built into that process are around using arm, core, and leg strength. They are learning little by little how much of each to use to do what movements at which time.

I thought about the process of babies learning to walk when I was thinking about this section of the book. And I thought about the very damaging advice that my mom used to constantly give Ed and me: “One step wrong, and everything in your life goes wrong!” It was such a fixed (anti growth) mindset, a narrow way of looking at the world, putting ourselves in a situation where we’d basically have zero hope… unless we followed everything exactly as our parents wanted, and then, our lives would be perfect! And then, I comically thought of Kaia learning how to walk, stumbling and falling, and my mom yelling at her, “One step wrong, and everything in your life goes wrong!”

Everything, regardless of whether it was rooted in reality or not, was either a major success or failure growing up. If it was a failure, it resulted in my and my family having “no face.” When I got laid off at my first job out of college just nine months after I started (and during the worst financial crisis to date of my lifetime), my mom got angry at me. She said, “You have no face! No one respects you! No one will want to look at you to your face!” She advised me to immediately move home and start looking for jobs there. In the next month, my cousin was getting married in Las Vegas, and she tried to prevent me from going to the wedding. “The wedding isn’t important!” she yelled. “Why are you going to spend money to go to a wedding where no one will care about you because you lost your job? You have no income, so why are you spending money on travel? You have no face at this wedding! Don’t bother coming!”

It was such an awful, demoralizing, terrorizing thing to say to a 23-year-old who hadn’t even been in full-time employment for a year: because I got laid off and had no job, I was not worth seeing. I had no self worth. I was not worth socializing with. It’s never anyone’s “fault” when they get laid off, especially during a financial crisis where everyone, left and right, is losing their job, the economy is unstable, and companies are cutting costs left and right. But she tried to make it seem like it was my fault, as though I did something wrong. That’s why she kept on saying I had “no face.” To my parents, if you were working, you were a “worthy” person. If you didn’t work, if you had a low-paying job, or if you were unemployed/stay-at-home parent/partner, you were “nothing.” That’s how my parents measure value in an adult.

I’ve lost my job a couple times since that first layoff. It was never easy, but I’ve grown a lot along the way. It was never my “fault.” I never saw them as “mistakes,” but as situations to learn from — because that’s what all of life is ideally: continual learning, growth, and personal evolution. But one thing I did learn from that period? I would never, ever tell my parents if I ever got laid off or fired — ever again. They would never provide a safe space for me. They would never be supportive of me in my down moments and instead, would just push me further down. I didn’t need the constant criticism or judgment. I was already such a harsh critic of myself already, so why did I need two other people judging me?

It’s sad to remember these times, especially since these types of interactions were not isolated. But I think the biggest thing here, as the title of the chapter indicates, is giving yourself permission to fail, even if those who are supposed to be closest to you won’t. Who cares what other people think? You have to give yourself permission to fail, to grow, to move forward. C’est la vie — or at least, that’s the life worth living.

“Reclaiming mental health as Asian Americans”

After I got the advice from a friend to re-join a second library system, I used my Manhattan address to confirm access to the Queens Library last week, which I hadn’t accessed since 2012, when I lived in the borough. I always had Queens Library access and New York Public Library access since I first moved here, as it was one of the very first things I did once I got set up in this new city; Queens covers just the borough of Queens (since it’s so freaking huge!), while New York PL provides access for Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island. As an avid reader, I figured it would be wise to continue getting access to books that my tax payer dollars were covering. Until 2018, I was borrowing hard copies and picking them up/dropping them off at the nearest library. But since then, I access the library fully electronically via the Libby app. This then allows me to either listen to audio books directly from the app, or send the electronic book from the library directly to my Kindle. It’s been amazing: I cannot even count how many books I’ve read this way, and I’m obsessed.

The first book I got off the wait list for in Queens Library that NYPL did not even have in its catalog was Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans, which is written by psychologist Jenny T. Wang (who I actually started following on Instagram during the pandemic!). I already knew by page 2 that this was going to be a good book after I read this line:

“Our suffering and well-being do not exist solely in overcoming major crises or managing diagnoses, but also within the conversations held behind closed doors, in the tears we shed alone in the shower, and in the deep emotions that we cannot ignore despite our best efforts.”

I think when the average person thinks about mental health, they do define it based on crises and diagnoses; they don’t think about the everyday interactions and how they have such an impact on us. I think that is especially lost on older Asian generations like my parents, who think of “mental health” being a concern just for people who are “psychotic,” “crazy,” or “mental.”

I’m about halfway through the book now. It’s an easy to digest read, but it’s definitely extremely triggering, especially once we got into the section called “Boundaries.” So I can’t read too much of it at once and need to give myself breaks, which is what the author actually suggests, along with questions to stop and ask yourself. Other than the sexual and physical boundaries subtitles, my parents have basically violated every other boundary of mine:

They regularly would go through my belongings, from reading letters addressed to me without my permission to my school binders and notebooks to my closet/drawers; my dad has even gone into my electronic files on the shared computer, which resulted in quite the family drama.

They eavesdrop on my conversations and then would gossip about it later/yell at me for what I discussed with others.

Whenever I come home, I’m constantly being asked to do this, do that, with zero regard for what I might be in the middle of doing. I get yelled at if I don’t come right away.

When I come home, I’m expected to drop any plans I had made with any friend/relative so that I can spend time with them… most of the time doing nothing, just being under the same roof. She used to insist that, “(Insert name) is not that important… tell them you are sick and can’t make it,” or, “You already saw (insert name) a couple days ago. Why do you need to see them again? WHAT IS SO IMPORTANT OVER YOUR FAMILY?” And, if I don’t cancel the plans, then I’m “disobedient and against my parents, which means you’re against Jehovah!”

When I was in middle and high school, my mom used to regularly call my friends and ask them to be spies, to “report back” anything “inappropriate” I might have been doing. A friend I used to go hang out with after school at her house was one of these people. She told me my mom would regularly call her to “make sure” I really did go to her house.

Once I started working, I knew something was very, very wrong with my mom’s demand that I only take time off to come home and see her. If I took time off for a trip, it had to be with them. I was not permitted to take time off for myself, to take a trip with friends, or god forbid, a trip with a boyfriend/partner. So when I did take small trips to hang out with friends or travel to new places with them, I just didn’t tell her. The first time I finally admitted to taking a week off to go to Mexico with my then-boyfriend, the fireworks went on for two days. All she did was scream and yell. She said I was betraying her; I was not to supposed to take trips with a man I wasn’t married to; I wasn’t supposed to take time off unless it was to see her. How could I be so selfish…?

My mom has “tested” me by asking to me to write her checks for thousands of dollars… for dental and health procedures that she didn’t even need or follow through with. It was all a test to see how “loyal” I was to her. After sending her one of the checks (and after she cashed it), she told me she ended up not proceeding with that dental procedure. You can imagine how annoyed I was (and how infuriated my husband was…). She just wanted the money and likely had zero intention of ever getting the procedure done from the beginning.

My mom used to say to me regularly, “I control you until you get married, and then when you get married, your husband controls you.” That was fun to hear. I guess it’s no wonder why I made a goal during my senior year of college to get a job out on the East Coast, far out of her control and constant spying. And once I moved to New York, I vowed to never live anywhere close to my parents ever again.

She also used to tell me regularly that Ed and I “have no right to get angry at your parents! You have NO right! We do everything for you, and you get angry with us?!”

It took me a while to figure out that being angry at one’s parents, or at anyone, is completely fine and healthy. All feelings – happiness, sadness, anger, frustration, whatever – they are what they are. There is no such thing as a right or wrong feeling. It’s just a matter of how you deal with them and move forward with them that matters. To tell someone they aren’t allowed to feel is pretty inhumane… and quite sad, when you think about it.

My first therapist once asked me, “Do you think you will ever move back to San Francisco?” I paused for a bit, and then responded, “I’m not sure. I don’t think so? Maybe I could. But only after they’re both dead.” It sounds like a very harsh thing to say, but I really meant it. The truth hurts. I don’t think my mental health could handle being that close to them. They have no concept of boundaries or how to treat me (or really, anyone else) respectfully and with true kindness. And like any other human being, I deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. I’m not asking for that much.

It’s hard to think about the fact that I will never have a good relationship with either of my parents. In an ideal world, we’d get along and be much closer. But it’s not meant to be. Ed was the same way. But his life has already ended. Mine hasn’t… not yet, anyway.

Good in-laws, bad in-laws

Today is my mother-in-law’s 67th birthday. Since she’s in Melbourne, time-wise, she is ahead of us, so we called her on Whatsapp video last night to wish her a happy birthday. Pookster was acting a bit faux-shy, and despite our practicing saying “Happy birthday, Suma!” the night before, Kaia didn’t really carry this through on the call.

Earlier in the day, I was rummaging through a drawer I rarely go into, and I found a bunch of random knick-knacks that Chris’s mom had gifted me over the years. Some were from travels, while others were gifts just-because. Amongst these items were a maple leaf painted case to store tiny items, a carved moose envelope opener, and an outdoor-themed notepad. She had also given me a number of kitchen items, ranging from a collapsible cloth bread “basket” she got in Portugal, cute character designed bag clamps from Korea, and a set of French cheese knives she picked up while in France. Everywhere she went, she seemed to think of me and get me something, even if it seemed completely random or impractical; it’s the thought that counts at the end of the day. She never had to get me anything, ever. I always thought it was cute… even if I never used most of the items in a practical way.

I told Chris about how I found the moose envelope opener. “It’s such a random thing to give!” I exclaimed, smirking and then laughing. “Who uses letter openers anymore?”

“Well, the drawer full of stuff I’ve gotten from your parents…. well, it’s empty except for one San Francisco hat,” Chris retorted.

Part of me chuckled when he said this, but part of me just felt annoyed. Chris and I have been together over 12 years now. My parents are really so divorced from reality that they have no idea how little regard they have had for their one son-in-law. My parents have never wished Chris a happy birthday or a merry Christmas. They have never given him any gifts whatsoever, other than the San Francisco Giants hat they gave him the very first time they all met. While they have paid for some meals for him, there was always a hidden cost: getting angry at me later for him NOT paying the bill, accusing him of “taking them for granted,” or insisting whatever Chris had paid for them was insignificant or “nothing” compared to whatever they’d made up in their head that they’d done for him. They never call, text, or email him to say anything at all, or even just to check in to see how he’s doing. Yet my mom remains delusional, saying that Chris’s parents “do shit” for me and that they treat Chris far better than his parents will ever treat me. Nothing could be farther from the truth: as far as I am concerned, Chris pretty much doesn’t have parents-in-law considering they have pretty much no interaction ever.

While Chris gets annoyed by this, occasionally, his mom will text or email me directly to check in with me to see how things are going, how Kaia is, and how work is going for both of us. And she doesn’t just ask high level and generic “how are you?” questions, but instead, she asks specific questions, like about Kaia’s school applications, my work promotion and what that means for my job, or Chris’s job search. When people ask you specific, detailed questions about your life, it’s because there’s real concern and love; otherwise, why would they take the time to ask, or, why would they even care to hear about it at all? Chris gets annoyed because he thinks it’s a bit intrusive or nosy, but what he doesn’t seem to recognize is that his mom doesn’t have to check in with me… at all. She doesn’t need to reach out to me directly without him involved. She has no obligation to have a separate relationship with me. She does all this because she genuinely wants to and cares (plus, she wants in on information that Chris doesn’t willingly share, but that’s another story). These are all the things Chris’s parents do for me that my parents would never do for him. I think it’s something to be happy about and grateful for.

There are the good in-laws, and there are the bad in-laws. Chris’s parents are the ones to model behavior from. My parents are an example of how not to be an in-law.

Ear piercing and children’s autonomy

I was two years old when I got my ears pierced. My mom took me to the doctor’s office, where they pierced my ears, and my mom took care of my ear piercings until they fully healed. There are many photos of me when I was 2 where you can see little shiny gold dots that are on each of my ears as proof of my piercing. At some point, my mom switched my earrings to small 24K gold hoops, which stayed in until I was about 3rd grade. This was when I started getting curious about other types of earrings and wore other ones (and immediately got infected because of the cheap metal on those earrings).

I looked back on my mom’s decision and actually liked it; I have zero memory of feeling any pain at the piercing or dealing with the healing of the piercings. My mom completely took care of it and remembers it. So I thought that eventually one day, I’d do that for Kaia and get her ears pierced at a similar age so she wouldn’t have to remember the pain of the piercing, or deal with the healing and treatment of the piercings after; this seemed so logical to me, as I’d be sparing her of the memory of the pain. The problem with this approach, as many people say today, is that this removes the child’s decision making from consideration; maybe she doesn’t want her ears pierced? If she doesn’t, then why are you as her parent putting her through the pain of going through this? Extremists compare ear piercing before an age of consent to things like genital mutilation or child marriage. I’ve always thought those comparisons were insane and senseless, as ear piercing is hardly in the category of either of those atrocities.

But now that Kaia is 2, I’ve had second thoughts about this. I don’t know if I want to do this to her and watch her go through the pain, even if it is brief, not knowing for sure whether she even wants it. Sure, I’d love for her to get her ears pierced and (like me) have no recollection of the pain or the healing of the piercings. I would love to buy her earrings to wear when she gets older and even go earring shopping together. But now, I think I’d be more comfortable doing it when she’s actually says she wants to have it done, and ultimately consents. And caring for the healing — this could just be part of her process of growing up and “taking care” of something of hers herself, with my supervision. And that’s not such a bad thing now, is it?

Every family has their decisions to make, whether it’s on big things like vaccinations, circumcision, and the smaller things, like ear piercing. I totally respect their choices (okay, minus the vaccination piece; if you aren’t getting your child vaccinated on a typical AAP schedule if you’re in the US, you’re just being selfish and sick), and to each their own. But I think I’ll wait until Kaia says she wants her ears pierced before we proceed with it. I’m happy that my mom got my ears pierced before I could remember. It’s like a bit of blissful ignorance in my childhood for me, especially since as a teen and an adult, I’ve loved having pierced ears, as earrings are my favorite type of jewelry. But I don’t want to look back one day and have Kaia begrudgingly remind me that I pierced her ears “without her consent” and that she’s traumatized that I subjected this to her before she could agree to it.

Mandarin Chinese private immersion school right in our neighborhood

This morning, we attended a private school program orientation for 2s through 8th grade in our neighborhood. The biggest selling point of this school is that it’s a full immersion program for either Mandarin Chinese or Spanish. I had passed it multiple times during weekend walks in the neighborhood, attempting to get Kaia to fall asleep in her stroller, and so today they hosted an open house. It really was a real school “open house” in the sense that not only did the principal and multiple staff members present and participate, but they even had guest parents (who participate in the parent association) and guest students speak about why their program was so special. And yes, they even had refreshments. The orientation in the gym was about an hour long, and after it concluded, we were whisked onto a 30-minute school tour, one for Spanish immersion, and one for Mandarin immersion. 

It was hard not to be impressed with the school after all the other daycare/school tours we have done, but it felt unfair to compare given the others I had attended were fully just daycares or public schools. The presentations were very comprehensive and well put together. The biggest differentiator with this immersion program is that up to age 3, the kids are 100 percent immersed in Mandarin/Spanish; from ages 3-5, they have instruction in Mandarin/Spanish 90 percent of the time, and it starts going down to 80 percent and then 70 percent in subsequent years as they get into higher elementary/middle school years. No pinyin is taught until second grade for Mandarin, since pinyin is obviously not used for native speakers – I was pretty (pleasantly) surprised to learn this during the tour. It’s mainly introduced to allow the students to use Chromebooks to type Chinese (using pinyin to indicate which characters you want to use). Both Chinese/English are on the walls, so it’s not just spoken that’s constantly reinforced like in the immersion school we saw in Chinatown, but it’s also the written that is emphasized everywhere. From a language enrichment/immersion standpoint, I’d never heard of any program that quite “immersed” children into the “target language” like this. And well, as they said during their presentation, theirs was the only program in the city (if not the country) that approaches language learning in this way. 

And, as you would imagine, the tuition is NOT cheap. The annual tuition is only for the school year, so from September through June. For summer programs, this, of course, would be extra (and would only go until 3pm; if you want “after care,” you will also need to pay for that… because you have to pay… for everything). Well, if you want nice things… 

Chinese public 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. I will say that I was a little surprised there was far more English than Chinese on the walls, but it sounds like given this is all public/DOE run, they had to comply by those standards.

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.

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.

Peanut sesame candy

Around Chinese New Year every year, my grandma used to buy a big plastic tray of togetherness with all the traditional Chinese sweets and candies that would bring in an auspicious year. While I always thought most of them were chalky and sickly sweet, occasionally, I did enjoy the candied coconut meat strips, as well as the red-and-gold-foiled candies that had a homey sweet flavor. One thing that we also had around Chinese New Year was a store-bought peanut-sesame candy, similar to peanut brittle. I see it all the time being sold around Lunar New Year in Chinatown today: It was always cut into long, thin, flat rectangles and individually wrapped. This was one Lunar New Year sweet I remembered eating and loving. The nuttiness paired with the slight sweetness from the caramelized sugar base was really addictive. Sometimes, the candy was made of just sesame seeds, while other times, it had a combination of peanuts and sesame seeds. I’m sure it’s one reason I had so many cavities at my first dentist appointment.

I was doing some research for my upcoming Lunar New Year lunch when I went to the Woks of Life website, one of my go-to sites for authentic Chinese recipes, and the feature recipe was for this exact candy – peanut sesame candy! I was floored. People actually MAKE this regularly around Lunar New Year? It only takes THREE ingredients? I was sold!

But me being me, I tweaked the recipe a bit, and I ended up mashing three different ones into the one I ended up using yesterday. And… it was a bit of a disaster. The rock sugar took ages to melt fully. The recipe said it would take only five minutes. I was standing there, stirring the pan for at least 40 minutes. And by the time the rock candy fully did melt, it seemed like the sugar had burnt a little. When I finally poured the candy mixture onto my silicone mat to roll out, it was a huge, sticky mess. I barely had enough time to roll it flat and cut it before it started hardening. I was not happy with the result. While the toastiness of the sesame seeds and peanuts came through well, Chris admitted that the candy had a slightly burnt aftertaste. This was just take 1.

Maybe, just maybe I should use regular granulated sugar and forgo the traditional rock sugar. That was a huge blocker in getting this recipe correct, as I spent too much time trying to melt the “rocks.” I will try again in the next week and see if I can perfect it so that I can have a nice, sweet Lunar New Year bowl of sweets to share next Saturday.