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November 2005

 At the end of one of my Monday night gatherings, my Chinese friends asked if they could make dumplings at my house sometime.  I think that we have the largest kitchen in all of China, so it seemed like a good opportunity to use it.  As soon as I agreed, English fell by the wayside and a great chatter of Chinese erupted as they planned the dumpling party.  Occasionally they switched back to English to ask me, “Do you have flour?” or “Do you have a rolling pin?”  I led them to the kitchen and gave them free reign to inspect the facilities.  Somewhere in the middle of their preparations, it occurred to them that no one actually knew how to make the dumpling filling.  Although it is a Spring Festival tradition for families to make dumplings, they had only helped fill and fold them, but their mothers usually made the filling.  I suggested that maybe Jane, who wasn’t there that night, knew how to make the filling.  They continued with their plans, deciding that they would just have to find out how to make the filling over the coming week.

 On Friday evening, Eva and Emma arrived first.  Emma got right to work making the dough for the dumpling skins.  She mixed water and flour together and kneaded the dough for a really long time.  Eva started chopping garlic and onions, talking the whole time about how it was her first time to do such a thing and she had no idea what she was doing.  The fate of the dumpling filling seemed precarious.  Later Kelly arrived and offered her advice.  Jane came with some pork and cabbage filling that she and her mother-in-law had prepared beforehand.  Kelly and Jane did what they could to help Eva’s beef and onion dumpling filling.  By the time Gillian arrived, all of the dough and filling was ready, so we set about filling the dumplings.

 Dumpling making seems to be a rite of passage here, an initiation into the inner workings of Chinese life.  They were excited to teach me their ancient culinary art form.  I followed their demonstrations and they were soon impressed by my dumpling filling and folding skills (or at least pretended to be.)  I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I had made dumplings two times before.  

 While making the dumplings, they all talked and joked, half in English and half in Chinese.  Eva was repeatedly fired and told to go wash dishes because her dumpling rolling skills were apparently abominable.  She rolled her dumpling dough into weird polygons instead of circles.  Kelly was the expert dumpling folder and sat next to me to help me refine my folding skills.  Emma was the best roller, they determined.  Charlie couldn’t arrive until later, when all the work would be done, so they were already planning his punishment.  They talked gleefully about how many bowls and cups there would be after the meal for him to wash.

 Eva was rehired later when it was discovered that she was good at stirring the dumplings while they boiled.  She told me, “My mother-in-law gave me very good directions.  She said when you stir the pot you should move the spoon around the outside and only go in one direction.  Otherwise, you might break the dumplings.”  She also taught me how every time the water come to a boil, you should add a cup of cool water. (If you don’t add the cold water, the dumplings will explode.)  Repeat this process four or five times and then the dumplings are ready.  I busied myself chopping the garlic to put with the balsamic vinegar and sesame oil for a dipping sauce.  Finally, Charlie arrived and everything was ready.

 Everyone was hungry after so much preparation and we ate ravenously.  The pork and cabbage dumplings (made by Jane’s mother-in-law) were delicious, and the beef ones were tolerable but didn’t have much flavor.  Eating dumplings is surely one of the more challenging chopstick tasks.  First of all, the dumplings are unwieldy and slippery.  If you squeeze them too much, they break and fall apart; squeeze too lightly and you drop them.  To add to the challenge, you have to dip the dumpling into a balsamic vinegar and garlic concoction.  This can by quite hazardous as I learned on a previous dumpling dining occasion.  I had dropped my dumpling into the sauce, which splashed all over my shirt.  Furthermore, while most Chinese dishes are chopped to bite-size, dumplings generally require two bites.  To eat them this way, you must position the chopsticks at the far end of the dumpling, so that you can bite half of the dumpling without dropping the other half.  But getting the full dumpling successfully transported to your mouth in this unbalanced manner can be quite difficult.

 After they had finished eating, I laughed and said, “We just spent three hours preparing dumplings and you eat them and are full after five minutes?”  Then they explained that eating dumplings was not really the point.  The point, it seems, is the chatting during the preparation.  Everyone sits around together and insults each other’s dumpling making ability and just visits.  “That is why we always make dumplings at Spring Festival.  Every one sits together making them and we talk.  It’s about family and socializing.”

 Although they had all finished eating, I was slower and still toiled with the cumbersome dumplings. On previous occasions they had marveled at my chopstick ability, but now they were realizing I wasn’t quite so adept when it came to dumplings.  They were all watching me struggle with one particularly slippery dumpling, when Kelly finally advised, “Why don’t you just stab it?”  I explained that I thought it was rude to use my chopsticks as spears.  They asked how I knew that. I said, “I don’t know, maybe someone told me or I read it somewhere.”  They admitted that my etiquette knowledge was correct.  But then Kelly said, “Yes, but you are a foreigner.  We don’t expect you to know our rules, so it’s OK if you stab the dumpling.  It’s not rude for you to do it, only if we do it.”  So I stabbed that dumpling.

 And this, my friends, is the true beauty of living in a foreign country.  You have complete freedom.  They don’t know your rules, and you’re not expected to follow their rules, so you can do anything you want.  You can impress them with your chopstick ability and dumpling folding skills, but when the going gets tough, you can just stab the dumpling.

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