Stella and I carried bags of groceries through the narrow alleys of Hefei, a capital city in the centrally located province of Anhui. I felt excited to spend a few days with a Chinese family during the Chinese New Year and Stella had agreed to teach me how to make Chinese dumplings.
Snow fell as we wound our way through the alleys, passing doorways that LED to traditional Chinese courtyard homes. We arrived at Stella’s Grandmother’s entrance and passed through the circular archway into a courtyard that faced a three story concrete house.
Her grandmother greeted us at the door in Hefei dialect, unintelligible to me. She was old and wrinkled from time. She birthed five sons years before the one child policy and now was honored to have great grandchildren.
“Ni hao.” I said with an awkward smile.
“This way.” Stella directed and we climbed the stairs to the second floor.
Behind us I heard her grandmother huff and puff as she slowly climbed after.
As we reached the landing we were greeted by Stella’s extended family. The 20 family members immediately relieved me of all my bags and I followed the parade to the kitchen in the back of the house.
The crew directed me to a seat and handed me green tea and nuts for a snack. I watched enviously as they started cleaning and chopping vegetables to make dumplings.
“Can I help?” I inquired.
“We’re just chopping cabbage.” Stella answered.
“I can chop.” I volunteered and walked over to where she was chopping.
“Okay.” She relented. Stella handed me the knife. She had promised to teach me how to make them. “You have to chop the cabbage into tiny pieces.”
I sliced the cabbage into quarters and started chopping away. Pieces of cabbage were flying in every direction under my enthusiasm.
“Are the pieces small enough?” I asked. “They need to be a little smaller.” She instructed.
I diligently returned to my chopping when her oldest uncle stormed into the kitchen. He yelled at Stella in Chinese and waved his finger at me. My knife paused. Stella responded to her uncle and the room went silent.
“What’s wrong?” I timidly asked. Her uncle looked furious.
Stella turned to me with a small smirk and said, “He’s angry you’re chopping cabbage.”
“Why? I just want to learn to make dumplings.” I stated.
“You’re a guest.” She explained. “In traditional Chinese culture he’s supposed to cook for you.”
“Will you tell him I want to learn to make dumplings. It’s fun for me.” I said.
Stella relayed the message to her uncle. He responded with more shouting and stomped from the kitchen.
I returned to chopping and contemplated her uncles anger. I wanted to learn to make dumplings- didn’t he want to teach me? I finished my small task and then returned to my tea. I didn’t want anymore confrontation.
In a large metal bowl Stella’s Grandmother mixed the cabbage with pork to make the filling. At another table seven or eight women gathered around and folded the filling into thin dumpling wrappers. Again, I watched. I didn’t want to offend the family when they opened their home to me.
Stella pulled me to the table and showed me how to stuff the filling in the wrapper. It felt wonderful to be included in the festivities and culture. A 5,000 year old culture that is steeped in traditions that have been passed down for generations.
Her uncle returned as we filled the dumplings. I felt his anger as he observed my dumpling making abilities and my disregard for tradition.
“You make dumplings like a man.” He commented in Chinese.
“Please show me the proper way.” I said with a smile.
With a shrug he scooped up some filling with chopsticks and placed the filling on one side of the wrapper. Then he folded it in half pinching the dough to completely seal the dumpling. I tried again following his instructions.
“Better.” He grunted.
We all worked together and filled a large bamboo tray with the finished dumplings. Her uncles anger shrunk to annoyance, but he was clearly still unhappy to let me help.
Stella and her aunts took the dumplings and dropped them in a pot of boiling water. As the first batch of dumplings were pulled out of the pot her uncle guided me to a seat. He filled my plate with dumplings and refilled my green tea.
The dumplings tasted delicious. But under her uncle’s heavy glare, I realized I wouldn’t be making any more dumplings or anything else. I eased into my chair, and felt myself returned to my role as a guest. The rest of my time at Stella’s I ate, drank and let myself be waited on, even though my American-learned niceties made me cringe.