Yian Chen

Creative Nonfiction

Yian Chen was born in Shanghai, China. He and his parents immigrated to the Chicago suburbs when he was little. He studied biology at Yale University and moved to Baltimore in 2008 to attend medical school. In his writings, he often draws upon his experiences in medicine. For this piece, he explores cultural hybridity as reflected through immigration, relationships and tastes in food.

In Praise of Bao

Bao. White and fluffy, subtly sweet dough encasing tangy glazed roasted pork. Bao. Fist-sized snowballs stacked on top of one another, steamed in a large metal rack. Bao, pronounced like “wow” or “chow.”

My fiancé Tanya loves eating this bao, but it is not like the "authentic” Chinese food which I enjoy. It has a well-defined texture (like leavened bread), isn't soggy (like overboiled noodles), isn’t too salty (rather, a tad sweet). She likes the bao from our neighborhood Safeway — the frozen bao which can be cut out of a bag, microwaved and consumed in less than 2 minutes. The pork is fatty, savory and dark red. The bread is sweet.

My vision of bao however, is quite different. To me, bao is xiǎolóngbāo: soft, thin flour folded around minced pork and meat gelatin into a dainty spiral. For a person from Shanghai like me, bāo is a delicacy, steamed in bamboo trays on leaves of lettuce and bursting with flavor of pork stock. It is usually served with Chungkiang black vinegar and scented with subtle hints of ginger garnish. It is the xiǎolóngbāo that my grandparents taught me to place on a spoon before biting into them — to prevent the flood of juice from escaping. Or perhaps consider shengjiang bao, a fiery hot pan-fried cousin, coated with hot sesame seeds and served in styrofoam cartons lined with foil. You have to be careful when you bite into these crispy demons, lest you want to be singed by the hot filling.

These permutations of bao are authentic: what my parents and their parents ate for breakfast before crossing the seas. They are foreign foods, found solely in dingy shops like those in California’s Asian mecca of Monterey Park or gaudy-dragon-statue-filled restaurants in Diamond Bar. Where signs are written in Chinese characters.

I like to cook. I started in high school, learning about the intricacies of pasta: about the differences between capellinis and linguinis, strangozi and fettucini. I began making my own sauces, pan-frying meats with zucchini, onions or carrots to reduce the acidity of tomatoes and hone their flavor. I also experimented with French cooking, reducing stock and wine into Bordelaise to accompany a fine broiled filet. Nevertheless, almost nothing I made was purely European—it was often "influenced" by a splash of teriyaki, of soy or my favorite Chungkiang rice vinegar.

Sadly, I never learned to cook Chinese. I never learned to fold dumplings, fry spring-rolls or make a basic noodle dressing. I would go to Chinese restaurants where my parents would chortle about the authenticity. My parents and I could not replicate the heat of the wok, freshness of vegetables nor expertise of dumpling-ology at home. They went to these places (a small Sichuanese dive in Chicago, a noodle shop without an English menu in Los Angeles) to taste something they had distinctly savored many years ago. To me these foods were tasty and special, but did not evoke the same level of nostalgia or degree of belonging it gave them.

Technically, I am first-generation Chinese. My family immigrated from Shanghai to Chicago shortly before I turned three years old. Unlike my English-speaking parents and paternal grandparents, my maternal grandmother spoke no English, and from her many visits, I gradually absorbed her regional language: Shanghainese. While I cannot speak official Mandarin, I can get by with Shanghainese.

For years, I proudly advertised myself as bilingual. When I spoke Shanghainese, I felt connected with my past, my extended family and China. I would speak Shanghainese to my grandmother, asking her about the “old days,” before skyscrapers and McDonald’s lined the streets. When she was away, we would talk on the phone in Shanghainese, whispering secretively as if our language was exclusive. Through high school and college, I would try my best to retain this part of my upbringing, to hold on to a part of the past, even while my family and I became more American.

Not long ago, my grandmother died.

She was seventy-seven years old and sick for many years. While I am glad that she no longer suffers, I miss her and wish that she had not departed so soon. She was my last living grandparent, a link not only to my familial origins but to my cultural heritage. She won’t be able to teach my future children to speak Shanghainese. She won’t nag them not to eat spicy food for fear of developing acne. And she won’t be able to tell them about what happened during the Cultural Revolution. While many of these things can be learned elsewhere, their personal significance may never be fully captured.

Yet, when I think only of “authentic”forms of bao, so many delicious fusions are neglected. Recently, I talked to one of my medical school professors, a psychiatrist from Italy. He reminisced often about homemade Italian food, remembering his native Pisa and its culinary delights. A fellow immigrant, he had to repeat his medical residency and overcome the obstacles of acculturation much like my parents had to. Eventually, he adjusted to the United States. Once, he added Greek feta cheese to his usually-authentic Italian pasta. "It's pretty good," he winked. Over the years, I’ve noticed how my parents have become less particular about their food as well. My father cooks dinner with olive oil now; he serves soup before the main course (as opposed to after, as in China) and no longer uses a wok for his vegetables.

Perhaps I should consider bao similarly—Safeway's red pork-stuffed bao are the result of years of change, of importing and integratingChinese tradition into the United States. Ten years ago, I would never have imagined renditions of Chinese classics sitting in American grocery stores.

Perhaps my bao and Tanya's bao are the same, not only in nomenclature but also in spirit.

At my grandmother's funeral, my mom placed a picture of me, Tanya, and my grandmother together for everyone to see. In this photo, I am leaning over my waipo holding my stethoscope to auscultate her fluid-filled lungs. In that moment, she smiles for the first time in days.

"I guess that means I'm family," Tanya asked me.

"I think it does," I replied.

My family is descended from Ningbo factory owners, from Qing Dynasty officials and Cultural Revolution survivors. Across the world, Tanya's family traces back to William Penn and Jewish immigrants who fled from Hungary. How fate brought our lives, families and heritages together may never be answered.

* * *

After work, we open a package of bao from Safeway.

"Why do you like it," I ask Tanya.

"It's sweet," she says simply.

I take a bite and smile. She’s right. It is.