Monday, February 28, 2011

The Saga of the String Bikini

I just said no to my first string bikini. Not one for me—I said no to that piece of clothing years and years ago—but my 12 year old daughter wants a bikini and found the cheapest one at the Forever 21 outlet while we were in Orlando. But it was a string bikini, one with little tied bows on each side. I didn’t check to see if pulling the strings would make the bikini bottom fall off, but believe me the reason those little strings are there is to tempt some teenage mass of male hormones to try.

Now I’m not opposed to bikinis. Growing up in Hawaii, bikinis were a way of life—pretty much everyone wore them at some point or other. When I moved to the Midwest for college, I was shocked to hear folks from my Christian fellowship debate the morality of bikinis and even more to find out we were discouraged from even tank tops on our spring break trip to Daytona Beach. The ubiquitous verse used to control women’s clothing, “Do not cause your brother to stumble,” was cited often.

Always one who wants to distinguish between what’s a cultural value vs. a moral/godly value, I debated some of my Midwestern peers, arguing that perhaps what it took for brothers to stumble in the buttoned up, turtlenecked and sweatered world of Chicago might be different from the tropical paradise of Hawaii.

I wish I could say I refrained from wearing a bikini because I didn’t want my Midwestern brothers to stumble, but the truth is, deep down I secretly wished some good-looking brother would someday be somewhat tempted to stumble on my account. No, my reasoning for nixing the bikini was you need boobs for bikinis and I’m more than a bit boobless.

So now my 12 year old wants a bikini, and despite being nearly boobless as well, she will look cuter in one than I ever did. Today’s bikini tops are like today’s bras--padded so the top is actually quite modest and plumping at the same time.

As she held up that little black string bikini she had her heart set on, a stream of questions went through my mind:

· Is there really a difference between a string covering your hip bones vs. half an inch of fabric?

· Am I having ambivalent reactions to the budding sexuality of my child?

· Do I have the right to veto a style of bikini when I’ve opened the door to bikinis since birth?

I didn’t have much time to ponder, but the answer to all these questions was, “Heck yeah!”

To the petulant pouting, whining and evil eye I ultimately said, “When you’re 18, you can choose to buy whatever clothing you want and broadcast whatever image of yourself you want, but while you’re living in my house I will help modulate that image.”

Yes, I even said it in those words.

Later, when questioned again, I re-explained that the whole point of a string bikini is tempting the opposite sex to pull the string and thereby release the bikini.

“Oh, really? I didn’t know that,” she said, “I just thought the bows were pretty.”

And then when we went to Clearwater Beach and our 2 girls strolled down the beach in their Speedos with their dad (“Mo-om, we’re the only girls on the beach in 1 pieces!”), they got cat-calls from boys/men on motorbikes. Our 12 year old may have even gotten the most whistles because she was trailing behind the other two and looked alone.

Of course, the girls didn’t notice anything until told afterwards.

So no strings for now. Until we really pull on the end, untying the bow and releasing this kid into adulthood, she’ll just have to settle for that extra half inch of fabric on her hips.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hating Disney

I don’t do well on vacation. Scott notes that while I’m generally not that stressed out in normal life, put me on vacation and I get much more tightly wound, grumpy and out of sorts. Talking it over with my sister while standing in the “It’s a Small World Ride,” I realized it’s because I’m a “P” on the Myers-Briggs.

A “P” is a person who loves openness, spontaneity and possibilities. At work, I act like a “J”, a person who loves order, timeliness and planning. I love to plan for work. I hate to plan my personal life.

Hence, misery on vacation.

Vacations promise a wonderful open period of rest, rejuvenation, reconnection and recreation. But there are just too many options for how to rest, rejuvenate, reconnect and recreate, and I don’t want to waste any of them. So I obsess about each meal, wanting each one to be delicious and a good value. I obsess about the timing of each activity, and each wasted moment sitting in traffic or lines.

Add how much I hate spending money and how money freely flows from my pocket to those of all the vendors, restauranteurs and entertainers, and you can see why I get even more grumpy.

So here’s my list of why I hate Disney (and maybe vacation in general):

1. The food: Expensive, unhealthy, long lines, need I say more?

2. The guests. I got my head chewed off by a woman in the parking lot because after saying “Excuse me” a couple times in trying to pass by her open car door, I pushed a little—big mistake—her leg was in the door and she was not happy. Rather than obsequiously apologizing (which I should have done), I said in an annoyed voice, “I’m sorry, but I said excuse me several times,” to which I got my head ripped off for not saying “excuse me” loud enough. I’m sure I ruined her day too, so “problem guests” counts me as well.

3. Motion sickness: I swore when I was a kid that I would not be a deadbeat like my mother and would ride roller coasters till I croaked. That’s before my eye/ear alignment matured, and now even carousels make me sick. In graduate school I took Dramamine at Great America, almost falling asleep while waiting in line for a 7 loop rollercoaster. I no longer drug myself to have fun, so I’m a party pooper.

4. Crowds

5. Lines

6. Spending money

7. My kids spending money, especially when it’s on plastic junk that will either break or be donated in the next year.

8. The never-ending whine, “Can I get a (fill in the blank with ice cream, soda, treat, hat, wand, piece of plastic junk, ‘nother ride on _____)” to be met with the accusation that I’m an evil mother when I say no.

9. The fact that I’m sure there’s some evil capitalistic, bad-for-the-environment, consumeristic damaging consequence to theme parks.

10. “It’s a Small World.” OK, this is just a pet peeve, not really something I hate, but there are only 3 little Chinese animatronic figures compared to about 6 Hawaiian ones. Really? We who represent ¼ of the world’s population get 3 little figures???

Today, we finished our last theme park after braving Harry Potter World yesterday (which really was fabulous even though it fulfilled at least the first 8 of my pet peeves above) and Hollywood Studios today. I used my sister’s Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World’s suggested touring guide for both parks and it worked great. By following a plan that I didn’t have to think up I avoided stressing that each little potentially great moment was slipping away and generally avoided standing interminably in lines.

And because of my motion sickness excuse, kids going on roller coasters became a great excuse to read Water for Elephants.

I also gritted my teeth and allowed my son to buy a $31.90 Dumbledore wand and even somewhat cheerfully bought frozen butterbeers for $4.50 a pop (pun intended). I embarrassed my kids by willfully staying in each holding pen to listen to every bit of the Harry Potter story, and again when I waved wildly almost jumping up and down attempting to be chosen as an extra for Indiana Jones (which sadly didn’t happen—maybe it’s because all 3 were hanging on my arms attempting to pull them down).

We watched 2 episodes of American Idol and cheered wildly when our gal won both times which gets her a golden ticket to the front of the line at her nearest Idol audition (the best Fastpass in the world).

Which brings me back to the fact that while there are things I hate about Disney, no matter how I weigh it all, I still love Disney.

Love does cover a multitude of sins. Even $31.90 Dumbledore wands.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Loving Disney

This week I’m exposing my three children to all the excesses that American culture provides. Yes, we’re spending February vacation in Orlando. Between a steady diet of French fries, non-stop entertainment, and promises to make their dreams come true, it’s no wonder that everyone is grouchy, overtired and feeling (and smelling) slightly greasy.

Is it any wonder I have a love/hate relationship with Disney? But today, let’s talk about loving Disney.

Loving Disney is a generational sin. My parents love Disney. I think the magic, the fantasy, the promise of “happily ever after” completely appealed to my Chinese immigrant parents, so they started taking me to Disneyland when I was 3. Apparently, they made the mistake of watching “Snow White” in the theater first thing. I was so enchanted I refused to leave so our first Disneyland adventure consisted of watching “Snow White” 3 times in a row.

When my step-grandmother passed away 9 years ago, Mama called with the news and asked me to fly to San Francisco for the funeral. Despite how that meant missing the one major work event of the summer, I agreed. Mama called back 2 minutes later with, “Since you’re coming, why don’t you bring all 3 kids and we’ll fly down to Disneyland afterwards?”

As Scott and I talked over her proposal, me thinking it was crazy to fly solo across the country with a 5, 3 and 1 year old who wasn’t yet walking, he reminded me that my parents had been hinting at Disney since Ling was born. “If something happens to them so that they never get to do Disneyland with their grandchildren, you will live with regret for the rest of your life,” he warned.

So we went. Luckily, my brother (who’s 12 years younger than me and had no clue about kids) flew with us so he could carry the car seat along with some of the carry-ons. Once on the plane, he leaned back and then slept the whole way to California. As I took yet another child to the bathroom, a flight attendant with no trace of irony looked at my brother snoozing with his mouth open and said, “It’s good you have someone to help.”

“That’s my brother, not my husband,” I snapped back, “Believe me, my husband would not be allowed to sleep like that over a transcontinental flight.”

After the funeral, we did four straight days of Disney. Mama booked the Best Western that was literally across the street from the front gates, which meant we could push through the turnstiles the minute the park opened, leave for lunch, give kids a chance to nap/swim/rest, then come back later in the afternoon.

I didn’t realize the time we’d spend chasing characters for photo-ops and on the last day one of my kids threw up at 10 a.m., which meant Baba got to go home with her (and the Disney staff had the mess cleaned within 5 minutes!), but overall, we achieved the ancestral task of visiting the Tuan mecca and had a great time doing it.

This trip I’m doing a lot of Disney sans husband, since the reason we’re here is for Scott to attend a conference, but we did overlap with my sister and her family for one day at Magic Kingdom—doing Disney with at least one fellow Tuan definitely makes the experience better.

So here’s my top ten for what I love about Disney:

10. Every “cast member” I meet is helpful, polite and friendly. When the parking attendant said, “Have a magical day” after charging $14 to my credit card, I even smiled!

9. 9. “It’s a Small World”—just love sitting in my boat going through air-conditioning while a spectacle of happy, celebratory, multi-cultural robots sing “There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware it’s a small world afterall. . .”

8. 8. The wonder and magic for young children

7. 7. Music, dancing and happy stuffed animals

6. 6. Splash Mountain with its “laughing place” and “zip-a-dee-do-dah”

5. 5. Buzz Lightyear’s Intergalactic Spin even though I’m terrible at video games so come out ranked “Space cadet” each time

4. 4. Going with my sister, who has inherited “loving Disney” and also loves planning. She subscribes to Ridemax and runs programs for weeks before the trip, calculating how we can maximize our Disney experience via Fastpasses, a runner and all this with 6 kids in tow.

3. 3. Typhoon Lagoon—a waterpark on steroids that even better, let me sit on a beach chair in the warm sun and read for 4 hours while my kids had fun.

2. 2. The smoked turkey leg I ate for dinner--$8 for a pretty tasty hunk of meat that made me feel like a cave woman as grease smeared my face.

1. There are no waits in the bathroom lines—a miracle for women—and the bathrooms are clean!

So far we’ve been to the Magic Kingdom and Typhoon Lagoon. Today we took the day off to sleep late, gorge at an Indian buffet, and ate at Cold Stone Creamery for dinner.

Now the debate is whether to go to Hollywood Studios, Epcot or Animal Kingdom with our last Disney day, and how to best cross over to the dark side, brave the crowds to see Harry Potter at Universal.

Will Harry be worth it? Because Mickey sure is. . .

The Biggest Obstacle to Fame and Fortune

Sometime in the near future, I, along with some friends, will begin a mom blog for My friend Tim, who runs the evangelical portal on Patheos, came up with this idea.

When Tim first suggested we do a mom blog, I couldn’t fathom it. In fact, despite my husband setting up Plumbing Demons way back in 2005 and encouraging me to write in it ever since, I just couldn’t pull off blogging. As an IT guy, Scott knew the real ways folks are getting their voices out there, but I was writing my book and way too overwhelmed, so I only started blogging when I realized I could post articles I’d written that folks were requesting.

In 2009 I put up 2 blog entries (my 2 articles). In 2010 I wrote 7 blog entries. In mid-February of 2011 I already have 11 entries!

So what’s the problem now?

Tim wants a semi-professional photograph.

Now I’ve written in this blog before about photograph issues, and how the one I’m using is from a wedding with someone’s hand in the background vaguely looking like it’s poking my hair. But at least I’m within 3 years of the age of that photo.

To take a new photo would involve:

1. Finding someone who could be considered semi-professional as a photographer, preferably a friend who won’t charge
2. Finding the time to get together
3. Figuring out the right outfit for a nice photo
4. Figuring out the right setting to take the photograph
5. Letting my new haircut grow out for at least 2-3 weeks and hitting a day when it’s not so humid that my mutant wavy Chinese hair won’t frizz
6. And most importantly, losing the 5-10 winter pounds that crept back before any public image of me gets immortalized.

To put it succinctly, the biggest obstacle is my muffin top and the extra little curve under my chin.

It’s all way too overwhelming.

I wrote Tim that list. He said I should use Profile picture #3 from Facebook. I wrote back saying that the reason I switched profile pics is that #3 is 6 years old and I thought there should be truth in advertising. He wrote back that I looked the same.

Aww. . . That’s why Tim’s my friend.

Do men freak out about photographs? Is this a purely female mid-age thing? I don't usually think of myself as vain. My fellow mom-blogger Tara, who almost never wears make-up, wore makeup almost every day we were in 90+ degree China because she knew those photos would be immortalized.

Meanwhile our other challenge is finding a name for our blog. The least likely to succeed, but my favorite is Tim’s suggestion, “Mommaries,” which he thought was slightly more subtle than “Mommary Glands.”

Tim’s wit. . . another reason he’s my friend.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Text has Landed

For almost 48 hours, my kids have finally entered the real world of American communication--texting.

Two weeks ago, Scott said if they cleaned up the kitchen every day including dishes, wiping the table/counters and sweeping, all without complaining and fighting, he would start the family text plan. Of course, they were all supposed to be doing the above chores anyway, but the key phrase was “without complaining and fighting.”

“I don’t want to hear you argue over who does more or who does less,” he commanded, “If you want to text, then do it all even if your sibling’s not cooperating. I don’t want to hear about it!”

So our middle child, Kai, took it upon herself to win texting for herself. And she did a great job—my kitchen hasn’t looked so good after dinner in 14 years—in fact, it probably hasn’t looked so good ever.

When she complained and her siblings both said, “I don’t care about texting,” she shut her mouth and kept cleaning. And I gave both siblings long lectures that negated the whole point of not getting aggravated around family chores.

So on Tuesday, Scott called AT & T and turned it on, then texted them to break the news. Here are the family texts I’ve received in these 48 momentous hours since:


Scott (1:50 p.m.): Text away!

Scott (2:43 p.m.): Huh? No response?

Kai (2:49 p.m.): Mom I can text now. Wanna go out for ST [special time]

Kai (3:09 p.m.): THANKS DAD!!!!!!!!!!!!! I LOVE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!

Ling (8:25 p.m.): Come get me plz


Kai (7:17 a.m.): Heyyy mom

Kai (2:19 p.m.): Hey

Kai (3:30 p.m.): My sister is a stinky diper. Oops lol

Ren (4:02 p.m.): Can you help me with a little math and the memory book thing for sp. [special time again]

So the earth hasn’t stopped, they haven’t committed any major faux pas (to my knowledge), our communication continues verbally with a little digital enhancement, and I haven’t seen any great addition to their social life. In fact, I think Ren, the 10 year old boy, is the one who’s texting his one friend the most, maybe not surprising in light of male communication patterns.

So far so good. But watch out kids if that kitchen doesn't stay clean!!!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Amy, Ming and Joanne are Intimidating me!

“I’m feeling like a complete failure in life,” I said to my husband a few nights ago.

It’s a common refrain he’s heard over our 18 year marriage.

I suffer from an addiction to significance, made worse because I’ve inherited it from both sides of my family. Both my grandfathers got their Ph.D.s in America, one at Columbia, the other at Harvard. Both were government officials in China (one a Nationalist ambassador to the Ivory Coast, Philippines, and Argentina, the other the right hand man for General Lee, the president of China after Chiang Kai-Shek fled for Taiwan). I think both of them were addicted to significance as well.

Of course, when you think you’re going to help rule or represent the most populous nation in the world, you probably have the right. As opposed to me.

Which brings me back to the failure conversation.

Always wanting to be kind, generous and engaged, Scott didn’t roll his eyes, but said, “What’s happening now?”

“Between Amy Chua, Ming Tsai and Joanne Chang I’m feeling like I’ve accomplished nothing in my life.” In the past weeks I’ve read the books of these 3 famous Chinese-Americans, all first generation like me, all Ivy League grads unlike me.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Simply Ming: One Pot Meals


I’ve enjoyed all 3 books and I literally want to bake about 85% of the recipes in Flour, which is unheard of for any cookbook I own.

Amy Chua, the famous “Tiger Mom,” teaches law at Yale and is making a boatload of money, even if she might be the most hated woman in America.

Ming Tsai, the famous TV chef, happens to be the cousin of my mother’s goddaughter. My mother dated one of his uncles. So when we went to his restaurant Blue Ginger with my parents, she told him all their shared connections and he gave us free desserts. The first two times I ate at Blue Ginger, I thought I had eaten the most delicious food I’d ever tasted.

Joanne Chang owns Flour bakery here in Boston. I’ve only been to Flour 3 times. Luckily none of its locations are that convenient, because Chang’s pastries are just amazing. She won the sticky-bun throwdown with Bobby Flay on Food Network, so she has some national exposure, and her cookbook sold out before Christmas. I started reading her blog in December because I wanted to know what recipes she included before I bought her book and read every entry from a 2 year period.

I reminded Scott how Ming went to Yale, but then pursued his dream of being a chef. Joanne went to Harvard and then pursued her dream of pastry. “I’m not achieving my dreams of fame or fortune,” I concluded.

He looked at me incredulously.

“Of course, I didn’t go into the right career if I really wanted to ever achieve fame or fortune,” I conceded.

“Yes, I was going to point that out.”

What a bummer. Think about it, do you know of a single famous campus minister in the entire US? Nope, not one. I definitely went into the wrong career to be world-famous or achieve world domination.

Which brings me back to the question I left off several blogs ago, what are we racing towards? And what do we want our kids to race towards? Most sane parents know that power, prestige, the status of one’s alma mater and gobs of money won’t buy us or our kids happiness, health, loving relationships or a significant positive impact on our world. Yet all those things do buy choices and opportunities, and who wants to deprive our dearest of opportunities?

Because I often confess my addiction to significance (even starting a group called Overachievers Anonymous with grad students at Harvard but they eventually balked so we just turned into a Bible study on Genesis), I’ve had a couple White friends give me slightly different perspectives.

One said he thought my addiction wasn’t a bad thing—that my drive was essentially about the Kingdom of God breaking into our world to heal, liberate and empower. I liked that, except that because I want both to be part of the uprising, and get credit for it, I think he let me off too easy.

My leader for the inner healing class I took some years ago had another perspective. In our group, I confessed all the generational sins of my family and everyone prayed for me. In the tradition of that class, my leader prayed and God gave her a picture for me, a picture where my family wore a long cape-like train, what she said was the mantle of leadership. But idols were stuck onto the train, all the things my family worshipped and used their leadership to serve instead of God—fame, power, lust for immortality. She thought my desire to be significant was mostly about my family’s gift of leadership, but that this God-given gift could easily be subverted by worshipping the wrong things.

Like fame and fortune.

On Sunday, my pastor preached about indulgence, pointing out that we crave and feel powerless resisting the object of our indulgence, yet after we indulge, we inevitably feel like crap and are filled with self-loathing. Porn. Chips. Chocolate. Greasy-fatty junk food. TV. Random internet surfing. See what he means?

His interpretation of Jesus’s radical words about gouging out sinful eyes or cutting off stumbling right hands, was “Just say no.” Cut off whatever tempts us to indulge. Get rid of the chips, chocolate or junk food, which is what every single dieting book tells you to do. Put the computer in a public space so you can’t trawl porn sites without being seriously embarrassed.

Given those words, I guess I cut off my right hand when I chose to go into the lowest-status ministry there is—ministry where you raise your own salary and aren’t ordained—rather than becoming the lawyer my mother always wanted me to be.

But in my better moments, I remember that I went into ministry because I loved it. When I was 14 and first thought, “Maybe I should be a minister when I grow up,” (my version of God’s call) the job just sounded fun. You get to teach, you get to lead, you get to counsel, you get to take kids on summer trips to the Big Island, what’s not to love?

In Graduate/Faculty ministry where I currently serve, we love Frederick Buechner’s quote,

True vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

When I’m not feeling insignificant, overshadowed or just plain grumpy, most days I feel deep gladness in working my tiny little plot of our world with the needs God’s presented to me.

Both Ming and Joanne also chose that path—finding their deep gladness in food and flavor to meet American taste buds, and I for one, have been grateful for their service, even if my hips aren’t. Perhaps Amy Chua has been working out her gladness also.

All to say, what could be better than to help our children work towards discovering their own deep gladness in the context of the world’s needs, and encouraging them to be part of the solution?

Now that’s a race worth running.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Japanese/Hawaiian Butter Mochi for Chinese New Year’s anyone?

            Thursday was Chinese New Year so the year of the rabbit has begun! Happy New Year!

After leaving Hawaii for college, I went for many years missing Chinese New Years and only feeling faint regret that I had passed by the biggest celebration in Chinese culture without noticing. But now that I have children, everything has changed. Chinese New Year now symbolizes Chinese ethnicity, and I am always feeling slightly guilty for how little I impart of my culture and background to our three children.

Growing up, I rebelled against my parents shoving Chinese ethnicity and superiority down my throat. Which is probably why I married a white guy and have hapa-Haole children rather than the pure-breds I was told as a child I needed to produce. (My Chinese conflict with my parents is the subject of the memoir I’ve been writing for 8 years—someday hope to get it out there!)

But now, as the parent of 3 half-Chinese children, I want them to appreciate and be proud of their Chinese side, a challenging task when you live in a white suburb of Boston. It doesn’t help that a study on bi-racial child identity I read years ago while researching interracial friendships for my dissertation basically said there are 4 or 5 responses a child can have to being bi-racial. All but one are incredibly negative. The one positive outcome? Grow up in Hawaii where it’s actually more valued to be mixed-race than pure-bred, and where the culture has created a term for those kids—“hapa” which means half in Hawaiian.

Because moving home to Hawaii has been the impossible dream, I’ve tried to make Chinese New Year a more exciting and fun holiday in Boston to woo the kids towards healthy ethnic identity. I cook Chinese food for a week. I brave the parking nightmare in Boston’s Chinatown to buy nian gao (sticky cake) the quintessential Chinese New Year’s dessert because nian is a pun for sticky and year. Scott and I give them red envelopes stuffed with $20 bills and make them kow tow like I was forced to do as a child. I even googled the next decade of Chinese New Year dates and put them in my calendar so I wouldn’t forget.

Unfortunately, my Entourage calendar no longer works, which means I didn’t know when Chinese New Year fell this year. Luckily, my friend Tara invited me to a Chinese New Year’s party several weeks ago, so I was forewarned. And Tara, at half Finnish/half-Jewish isn’t even Chinese.

Two weeks ago, I happened to be near Chinatown with 2 kids and thought I’d better buy the nian gao because who knows with the snow when I’ll ever make it back?

A dense patty of sweet rice flour, sugar and oil, traditionally wrapped with a ti or banana leaf, nian gao is steamed for hours. When it’s fresh, it’s so sticky that a knife will only sink in and not cut, and you have to scrape it off your fingers with your teeth. As it ages, it gets harder and harder until it’s so hard you can barely cut it at all. When it was hard, Mama would slice it and pan fry the slabs. In the heat, the nian gao grows soft and sticky again, but also develops a delicious crunchy crust.

Nian Gao
One year Mama decided to make her own nian gao, and spent hours upon hours steaming them to give away to her friends. All the windows in our house steamed up so that the paint peeled off the walls in our kitchen. Mama’s nian gao was very good, but the next month’s electric bill meant that was our one and only year of home-made nian gao.

Unfortunately, in Boston’s Chinatown, nian gao comes in a tin pan rather than a ti leaf, and it’s always hard when I buy it, which I find annoying. So last year, inspired by my mother’s example, I decided to make my own nian gao. I got her recipe and compared it with those on-line. I steamed that darn thing for 4 hours and it still hadn’t cooked, so I called home and found out the water had to be at a roiling boil the whole time. 6 hours later, I had homemade nian gao.

And the kids hated it. They said it didn’t taste right and was the wrong color—the result of using brown sugar instead of Chinese stick sugar that some of the on-line recipes said to use. Perhaps overwhelmed by the effort it took to make that nian gao, I forgot to give the kids their red envelopes. They didn’t get them until September. So last year’s Chinese new year was a bust, and they constantly delight in reminding me of that!

I can’t count how many folks have told me that they like Chinese food, but just don’t prefer Chinese desserts. This even includes fellow Chinese-Americans. One, a gourmet dessert chef, says it’s because the Chinese never invented ovens, so our desserts are limited to what you can steam, fry or boil.

My kids were part of that nay-saying crowd for a long time, but I’ve finally converted their taste buds. They were ecstatic about going to the Chinese bakery, and even more ecstatic when I allowed them to buy almost everything they wanted. $48 later, we left with a large nian gao and lots of Chinese treats—egg tarts, coconut mochi, “footballs” (what we call ham sui gok which is like a sesame ball with savory fillings instead of sweet), mooncakes, banana rolls.

We devoured the treats, but I protected the nian gao, wanting to save it for Chinese New Year. It was hard when we bought it, by Chinese New Year’s Eve it was somewhat cracked and I had to use my weight with my giant chef’s knife to slice it.

We brought it to Tara’s Chinese New Year’s Eve party, which included many Chinese international students. I fried it like my mother, and all the Chinese students had no idea what I was serving them.

“It’s nian gao!” I told them, “We ate it every Chinese New Year in Hawaii!”

“Oh,” they said, nodding politely, “Hmm. Back home nian gao is white. I think this type is Southern tradition.” Turns out, these students coming from all over China, had different Chinese New Year’s food traditions, and nian gao wasn’t one of them.

But when they tasted my nian gao, now softened with the heat and crunchy on the outside, everyone was delighted—it was delicious, and they devoured it all.

Which meant that by Chinese New Year’s day, I had no nian gao. With the 3 snowstorms that have hit since our Chinatown trip, there’s no way I was going to brave parking downtown, so I decided to make butter mochi, which is about the world’s easiest recipe. I just couldn’t face steaming a nian gao for 8 hours only to have it rejected because I don’t have the right kind of sugar. I think butter mochi is a Japanese/Hawaiian concoction, not authentically from any culture, but since it uses sticky sweet rice it’d suffice for a “sticky cake.”

The kids liked it more than traditional nian gao. I fed it to my staff team, who also loved it—and most non-Chinese who try nian gao will only take a small taste (I’ve brought it to numerous kindergarten Chinese New Year’s parties and always go home with almost the entire cake). The butter mochi was gone after a day, so I baked another one last night.

And in our Chinese/Scottish/Hawaii/Maine/Boston household, it probably makes sense to serve Japanese/Hawaiian butter mochi to hapa-Haole kids on Chinese New Year!

Butter Mochi
1 box mochiko or sweet (glutinous) rice flour, 1 lb.
2 cups sugar
1 cup shredded coconut
1 tsp. baking powder
½ cup butter (1 stick), melted
5 eggs, beaten
3 cups milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1. Mix dry ingredients together.
2. Mix eggs into butter, then add milk.
3. Mix wet ingredients with dry.
4. Either butter a 9 x 13 dish or spray it with Pam.
5. Pour batter into pan, Bake at 350 for 1 hour.
Note: You can buy Mochiko at any Japanese grocery store and at many Chinese or Korean stores. Otherwise, look for glutinous rice flour.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Collard Greens

A couple weeks ago, during my typical Whole Foods visit (a trip with at least one kid, tasting every sample we can find throughout the store, ending up at the gelato counter where we taste at least 2 flavors each, and finally ordering a $2.88 gelato for the kid while I abstain), they gave out Dixie cups “double green smoothie.” To be charitable, it didn’t taste too bad, but it did look like what you find in your 6 month old’s diaper after you start her on spinach. And given that the smoothie contained both spinach and kale, it’s not surprising it looked like the contents of that diaper.

The double green smoothie lady also pushed a website: where she promised I could see how nutritious my diet is. Because I’m incredibly self-absorbed and a trained social scientist, I always want to see how I score on everything—personality, strengths, even what my handbag says about me—and given what a foodie I am, my nutrition score was no less intriguing.

So I came home, took the test, and found that I have an excellent prognosis to live into my 90s! However, although the test conceded I was doing pretty well by having about 68% of my diet consisting of vegetables, fruits and whole grains (as opposed to most Americans with only about 30%), their goal for me was to raise that number to 94%!

You’ve got to be kidding.

In fact, what kept me from looking more healthy by their standards is that I eat a rich dessert 1-3/week, drink wine 1-3/week, eat red meat 1-3/week, and eat “white” meat or eggs 5-7/week. I already feel so deprived, I can’t imagine going further!

But now I get a daily nutritarian e-mail message advising how I should eat. What I’ve found most interesting is the ANDI score, that score that you can find in Whole Foods, which rates each food based on how nutritious it is per calorie. Here’s the top ten, with 1000 being top and 0 being bottom:

Kale (cooked) 1000

Mustard, Turnip, Collard Greens (cooked) 1000

Watercress (raw) 1000

Bok Choy/Baby Bok chok (cooked) 824

Spinach (raw) 739

Broccoli Rabe (cooked) 715

Chinese or Napa Cabbage (cooked) 704

Brussels Sprouts (raw) 672

Swiss Chard (cooked) 670

Arugula (raw) 559

I first ate collard greens when I ate “soul food” on an summer urban missions project. It was love at first bite. Some years later, I attempted to stir fry my good friend’s canned collard greens. Didn’t work. Unlike in Chinese tradition, you’ve got to cook those greens until they cry uncle!

Inspired by their 1000 point ranking, I bought 3 bunches of collards, cooked them with 2 ham hocks and produced incredibly delicious greens that even the kids all liked. Of course, everything’s delicious with smoked pork grease! The bummer was that 3 bunches cooked to almost nothing so that we devoured almost all of it that night, leaving lots of good pork juice. So the next day I bought 5 bunches and cooked them in the remaining juice. Still delicious. doesn’t tell me how much damage the smoked pork hocks (which are probably -500 on the ANDI score) wreak on 1000 point collards. But in case you want to give them a try, here’s the recipe I came up with.

Collard Greens

5 big bunches collard greens, rinsed, chopped, big stems removed

olive oil

8 cloves garlic

4 cups chicken broth

2 ham hocks

1 Tbs. vinegar

2 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. crushed red pepper

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Saute garlic in a little olive oil

2. Add chicken broth and ham hocks, simmer for awhile

3. Add collard greens, turn heat to medium high. Let greens cook down for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally

4. Reduce heat to medium and season with salt, sugar, vinegar & red pepper. Continue cooking for 45 minutes-1 hour.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Oh What a Beautiful Morning!


This morning is our 4th snow day in 4 weeks. 4-8 inches of snow and freezing rain. Snow soaked with rain so each shovelful feels like lifting bricks.

But I’m humming “Oh what a beautiful morning” because we watched the Hugh Jackman version of Oklahoma last night. School was cancelled at 6 p.m., prompting shouts and dancing and lots of joy from the younger set. I already knew Scott wasn’t coming home—his hospital discovered their surprise 5 day audit started on Monday, and with the snow storm, all the leaders got hotel rooms—so after dinner, I announced the kids could either go straight to bed or watch Oklahoma and finish folding laundry.

The two younger ones wanted to watch whatever Disney show was on TV, even begging to take laundry to my bedroom, promising to fold it while watching the show on our upstairs TV so I could watch Oklahoma downstairs. What kind of fool do they think I am??? Laundry barely gets folded when they watch TV in our family room. Why would I, a seasoned mother for almost 15 years, trust that laundry would get folded out of my eyesight?

There’s no way I was going to sleep on clean laundry or fold it myself. So I repeated my offer, “Go to bed right now or fold laundry while watching Oklahoma.”

The lure of screen time, even watching antiquated Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals while folding laundry was too much for them. They caved, and Hugh Jackman strode on stage with a cowboy strut, “All the cattle are standing like statues. . .”

I love Broadway musicals, and Oklahoma was the first musical I ever watched on TV when I was exactly the same age as my son, 10. I don’t know why a 10 year old Chinese girl in Hawaii would fall in love with singing and strutting farmers and ranchers, but I was hooked, and have been obsessed with Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals ever since.

It probably didn’t hurt that Mama also loved musicals. She watched the original Broadway versions of many musicals during her days living in NYC, so she gladly passed her love of Broadway to me, letting me lie in her bed to watch TV versions late at night because our color TV resided in her bedroom.

I sometimes wonder about the loves we pass onto our children as opposed to the pressures we place on them. From my mother, I received my love of Broadway musicals, my value for good friends you can laugh with, an overweening obsession with food, and the passion for great bargains.

Academic achievement, Chinese identification, loving my siblings—all these felt like pressures in contrast, even though I now am grateful that I was coerced into valuing all three.

Faith in God was always my choice, perhaps even my rebellion, but as a result, I’ve completely owned it all by myself.

With my kids, the love of the Broadway musical is well on its way no matter how much they groaned that Oklahoma looked old fashioned in the beginning. They couldn’t believe Hugh Jackman is also Wolverine—we’ve seen all 4 X-men movies in the past 2 months—and we marveled at his talent. When the show finally ended at 11:30, I had to force them to go to bed rather than click on the songs they wanted to re-hear.

The love/obsession with food is clearly in place. From Scott they’ve received the love of snow skiing, water-skiing, Shirley Temples, and (for the girls so far) orderliness. (I keep wishing the latter on all 3 kids since not only do I not love order, I’m also completely incapable of it)

But how to help them love God, the greatest and most important love of all, that I still wonder about. I’ve seen the pressure strategy backfire, making the child think God’s all about control and behavior codes and breaking your will for the hell of it.

So maybe it’s like raising your kids to love Oklahoma. Exposing them, talking with them, doing it together, and hoping the love catches on. At least with God, there’s someone on the other side who wants a relationship too, unlike Hugh Jackman who I’m sure is perfectly happy without us.

So we go to church. We pray as a family most nights. We talk about Jesus. And I pray fervently that God will talk back so the kids know he’s more than just a random entertainment option.

Meanwhile, today after putting away all the laundry, the kids will have to shovel snow that’s as high as an elephants eye and it looks like it’s climbin’ clear up to the sky. . .

Oh what a beautiful morning!