With another Chinese New Year peering around the corner, it seems ripe for reflection again. With the recent publication of Amy Chua’s controversial book: “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” and the arguably even more inflammatory publicity in the Wall Street Journal, Chinese parenting has taken a hard knock in the media in recent times. Whilst I can’t say my own parents were quite as demonic as what was described in that article, certain elements still rang true and inexplicably after reading the article I had to suppress urges to call my parents and explode at them, at length and with great force.
But once the rage subsided, I could eventually concede that my parents only meant well. I’m thankful that they wanted me to study hard and perform well academically. I’m even more thankful that neither of my parents can read English, so could never really tell whether I was studying or procrastinating, could never read my school report card, just encouraged me to do well and left me to figure out how to actualise that. I’m also thankful they approved of my decision to pursue science too, although admittedly my mother’s sage reasoning was “science is a good fit for you – your arms are weak and there shouldn’t be much heavy lifting” as though the only other clear viable career option for me was being a labourer.
But they knew not how to do anything else – they were merely passing on the lessons of their parents, and their parents before them, and so on. Whether one agrees with it or not, the Chinese way of parenting is steeped in Chinese history. From when the Chinese language and character system was being developed some 7000 – 8000 years ago, the impetus to learn, study and excel surely followed suit.
For a more objective and thoughtful study in Chinese parenting, I highly recommend the excellent documentary, Last Train Home (归途列车) by director Lixin Fan. The documentary is centered around the lives of one migrant worker family, the Zhangs; the impact of industrialisation on them; and the spectacular annual human migration that occurs when 130 million migrant workers return home en mass from the big cities to their rural home towns for Chinese New Year. On one hand it had me marvelling at the persevering Chinese desire to improve one’s circumstances and on the other it frequently brought tears to my eyes and angst to my heart as unfortunately familiar scenes and conversations played out in the tragedy of misguided parenting. Those that are are quick to judge the unorthodox Chinese parenting styles might gain some insight via this film, and whilst it is unlikely to convert you into an avid supporter of Chinese parenting, it will shed light on the Chinese parents’ hopes and motivations for their children as study is the fastest and most effective method to breaking the cycle of poverty.
In 2008 I embarked on my own migration back to rural China in a bid to discover more about my family, understand my heritage and see it through adult eyes. I accompanied my parents on a trip to Taiwan, visiting relatives in Hong Kong and re-discovering my family origins in China, topics I touched on briefly in early posts. But there’s no two ways about it, it was a very taxing experience. Particularly when in a haze of organisation I made the fateful mistake of booking the three of us into a triple hotel room on the Taipei leg of the trip. I learned the hard way that your parents are not two old friends you don’t think twice about sharing a room with. They are old people who sleep at sundown, have trouble sleeping through the night, sleep talk, talk to each other loudly, complain, snore, use the bathroom frequently, and then wake at the crack of dawn with yet more loud inane chatter.
But it was all made worthwhile when we visited my father’s village, Licha village (pinyin: Líchá Cūn) in Zhaoqing, China, a small city in Guangdong which existed some 2000+ years ago. The village itself is a mere 700 years old and is very unique in that it is designed like a lucky bagua maze where the houses radiate from a central bagua and are constructed using curved wok-handle roof tiles and “green bricks” (where green is more aptly described as green/blue referring to the character 青). These features are rare even in China and have ensured the village, unlike so many others across China will be preserved, protected from urban development and tourism fostered. The tourism project is obviously underway as I was very surprised to discover that the Chinese version of Amazing Race actually visited the little village last year and that the village even gets a mention in Lonely Planet China!
It was a short trip that had a profound effect on me – I experienced where my family was from, wandered through our deserted ancestral homes, absorbed the quiet simple life the villagers had, and ate the simple local food that they were immensely proud to share.
Though there was no one tactical element I can pinpoint but I simultaneously became very humbled and proud of my history. I concede that my parents are at heart like the simple folk in that village and in more ways than one, like the migrant workers in the Last Train Home, who to ensure we had a better life migrated across vast oceans to Australia. The Chinese have long been criticised for their ability to copy but not innovate – I’d say my parents fall largely into that category. They have copied their parents and ancestors, didn’t think to question, and did their best to pass on long-held Chinese traditions and Confucian teachings of filial piety. And it seemed a winning formula that served the village well enough for the last 700 years.
To honour that history, I’d like to share with you a dish that my father used to make for me when I was young – not a new year dish per se, but one that was inspired by the dishes of his childhood in Zhaoqing. It’s merely a simple rice side dish – one that incorporates rich, strong flavours and is designed so that a small amount stretches a plain bowl of rice out further, a common theme in rural village towns. The green mango in this dish is unusual as my family traditionally never ate or bought green mango save for this dish. Its addition lends the overall dish both a sweet and tart flavour. The purple perilla herb is one I was very familiar when growing up. It is a member of the mint family and is called chiso or jiso in Cantonese, shiso in Japanese or beefsteak plant in the Western world. It has a strong flavour, is fairly uncommon in popularised Cantonese cooking and is an acquired taste but was commonly used in my father’s village in Zhaoqing.
Zhaoqing style diced pork and green mango with black bean, perilla and chilli
- 350g of pork, diced into 2-3cm cubes (the recipe calls for fatty pork but I used scotch fillet steak)
- 400g green mango, diced into 2cm cubes
- 3x birds eye chillis, finely chopped
- 2x large garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 spring onions/shallots, chopped (keep white and green sections separate)
- 5 tbsp sliced perilla
- 3 tbsp whole salted black beans
- 2 tbsp preserved vegetable, chopped
- 1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
- 1 tbsp light soy sauce
- 1 tsp potato starch
- 1/2 tsp sesame oil
- white pepper
- 3 tbsp water
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil, for stir frying
- Mix the Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, white pepper, potato starch and sesame oil together and marinate pork in the mixture for about 10 minutes.
- Soak the black beans in warm water for a few minutes to remove the skins. Rub beans gently until the skins come off. Rinse and repeat until skins are removed.
- Heat half the vegetable oil in a wok over medium heat and pour in pork. Cook through and set aside.
- Wipe wok clean, pour in remaining vegetable oil and fry the black beans, chilli, garlic and white section of the spring onions until fragrant.
- Add in a little water to create a sauce, bring to the boil then add in preserved vegetable, perilla and green spring onion shoots and stir fry briefly. and .
- Add in the pork, then the green mango and just heat through – about a minute or just long enough to soften the green mango slightly.
- Serve with steamed white rice.
Now, my parents have really delivered when it comes to drumming in the importance of honouring Chinese New Year traditions. Chinese New Year is a time for families to re-unite and indulge in big feasts that signify plenty. My own family observes Cantonese traditions and we have a one-off large feast to close off the old year, typically held on New Year’s Eve but it is acceptable beforehand. We are expected to buy new clothes to wear during on New Year’s Day (a most welcomed tradition I thoroughly embrace) and have our hair cut in the preceding days to new year as hair has traditionally been considered sacred, an extension of one’s self and cutting off hair (or even having unkempt, unruly hair) during the new year period is considered very unlucky.
On New Year’s Day, observing Buddhist traditions has over time become widely accepted cultural practice and we abstain from meat and start the year with vegetarian dishes. These dishes will typically contain vegetarian food stuffs with colourful auspicious names like “growing fortune” (lettuce), “golden shoots” (carrots) and “strike a fortune” (black hair moss) and foods with inauspicious names like gourds which have a name that sounds homophonic to the Cantonese colloquial term for ‘death’, or pears which sound homophonic to ‘divide’ are as welcome during new year as flesh eating bacteria. As posted previously, there are new year ingredients like oysters, that clearly aren’t vegetables but the Chinese studiously ignore all accepted animal classifications and steadfastly believe they are. Cantonese-style new year dishes tend to be either mild in flavour or sweetened as experiencing sweetness during the new year is obviously auspicious – thus for the same reasons bitterness, spicyness, sourness or saltiness during the new year period is considered unlucky. If all these rules and millions more are strictly observed, then a good year is sure to follow – or at the very least, a very tightly regulated one.
So with the impending Chinese New Year looming, as as millions of Chinese, migrants or otherwise, prepare to embark on another journey home to be with their families, I’d like to wish you a prosperous, lucky and importantly happy year of the rabbit.by