Food Is the Language of Love in My Mother-in-Law’s Kitchen

Tiny potatoes from my mother-in-law’s garden still litter the floor in the corner of our kitchen, ready to serve up their starchy delights in several more meals. Slices of crispy fried shaobing, my mother-in-law’s specialty flatbread, and heaping bags of the local smoked tofu from her village still cram the shelves of our freezer. We’ve barely dug into the jar of my mother-in-law’s mouthwatering homemade pickled kale, which perks up just about every stir-fried and stewed dish you could imagine, and we still have two more we haven’t even opened yet. And in the third drawer down next to the sink, bundles of rice noodles from my mother-in-law’s pantry have fed us for weeks already.

Whenever I gaze upon this abundance of flavors and foods for our next lunch or dinner, it reminds me of my mother-in-law and her boundless love for us, most often translated through treasures from her kitchen.

Like most Chinese parents, she would never say “I love you”, a phrase constantly showered upon me during my childhood. But over the years, I’ve found it in flavors of her lovingly prepared dishes, as well as in the items from her kitchen, pantry and garden that she always urges us to take home, with a forcefulness no less potent than any verbal declaration of affection.

Food has become a delicious means to bind us closer together, across cultures and continents. One of my favorite things to talk to my mother-in-law about is her home recipes, which I’ve come to miss since moving to Beijing. Sometimes we’ll call her on the phone, where I’ll ask her how to prepare potato cakes, a tempting stir-fry that turns these root vegetables into buttery cake-like morsels tossed with hot peppers and garlic. Or inquire about how much of the pickled kale I should use to make her classic tofu with pickled vegetables, a mouthwatering take on bean curd that transports me right back to her kitchen in the village.

Whenever she lovingly repeats every step with care and concern, making sure I understand her techniques, and patiently answers my questions, I know what she’s really saying to me. And it warms my heart, even long after we’ve said goodbye.

Photo Essay: 8 Favorite Pics of My Chinese Mother-in-Law, Showing Her Love

Recently, fellow blogger Marissa at Squirrels of a Feather did a post titled 10 Reasons Chinese Mother-in-Laws Rock. When I read her post, I was reminded of the many ways my Chinese mother-in-law is also amazing.

I’m not able to spend this mother’s day with any of the moms in my life (including my extraordinary stepmom back in America, who is as much of a mom to me as my own mother was). But I thought I’d take a moment to share a few of my favorite photos capturing some of the love my Chinese mother-in-law has shown me over the years. And here in China, where families rarely say “I love you,” it’s the actions that truly matter.

Wishing all of you a happy Mother’s Day!

Recently I wrote a column for China Daily titled Connecting Nature, Food, Life in Mountains, and it was inspired by the time my Chinese mother-in-law invited me to come up the mountain with her to gather wild edible plants. Here’s a photo from that day, with my mother-in-law holding a handful of wild bamboo shoots. It was so lovely of her to share this experience with me.

When I was staying with my husband’s family one summer, I complimented my mother-in-law on her mouthwatering pickled radish and asked about the recipe. So one afternoon, she actually taught me how to make it — and yes, it was as hands on as it gets!

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Every spring for the Tomb-Sweeping Festival (also known as the Qingming Festival), my mother-in-law prepares Qingming snacks from scratch. The green color of the snacks comes from the aromatic mugwort, which grows wild all over the village and the mountains. Here she’s preparing the dough, which will eventually be shaped into sweet rounds and savory turnovers.

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A number of holidays during the year, including Chinese New Year, call for savory turnovers known as migu and my mother-in-law always spends time making huge batches for us and relatives who visit. Here she’s laying out the finished turnovers, which will later be steamed or fried and then served up.

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I’ve often praised my mother-in-law’s homemade tofu (including in a China Daily column I wrote up for Chinese New Year this year) and it’s extraordinary to witness her in the kitchen, going through the process of crafting this essential Chinese food. She always makes extra for me, the vegan, and sends me home with more than any person could humanly consume.

People close to me know that vegan Chinese shaobing, or stuffed flatbread, is one of my favorite treats, and that includes my mother-in-law. For a time, whenever I stayed with her I would soon catch her in the kitchen cooking up another batch of what I think of as “Chinese pizza,” and always send me home with a huge stack of them for quick meals. Yum!

During the winter solstice, my mother-in-law showed me how to make sesame balls or maqiu, a traditional holiday treat. It was fun learning the process as well as helping to keep the fire-powered wok supplied with wood!

My mother-in-law and I stand before the family home during a Chinese New year.

Wherever you are in the world, here’s hoping you have a wonderful Mother’s Day!

“Mom” And “Dad” Is What I Call My Chinese In-Laws — and Here’s Why It’s Easier Than I Thought

Years ago when my husband Jun and I got our little red marriage books in China, I remember traveling back to his village and proudly showing off the photos of our civil marriage ceremony. While it still didn’t count to his family as a real wedding (in China, it’s normal to get married on the books, called dengji/登记 in Chinese, well before you actually have a wedding ceremony), they were pleased to see the two of us committed for life.

And as I learned, that commitment meant changing how I addressed Jun’s parents. From then on, Jun instructed me to call them Laoba (老爸) and Laoma (老妈), just like him. Or Baba (爸爸) and Mama (妈妈) — the universal Chinese words for “Dad” and “Mom” — if I so desired. The bottom line was, I would now refer to them as if they were my own parents, in the most intimate terms once only reserved for my father and mother.

This isn’t the norm in the America I grew up in, where you call your in-laws by their first names. And given all the jokes about in-laws (and the American tendency to want to live as far from your in-laws as possible), I’m sure there are some Americans out there privately referencing their in-laws using expletives. The bottom line, though, is that in America there’s always this implied distance from your in-laws — a distance that I was never expected to have with Jun’s parents.

Being suddenly asked to call two people who never raised me “Mom” and “Dad” should be an adjustment. And to be sure, it did take some getting used to. But it was actually a lot easier than I thought for a very simple reason.

I was calling them “Mom” and “Dad” in Chinese, not in my native language of English.

Even though Laoba, Laoma, Baba and Mama were just as intimate as the words “Mom” and “Dad” that I grew up using, I had never called my parents by the Chinese versions. So in way, it actually freed me to easily adjust to using them with Jun’s parents. I didn’t feel like I was stretching any definition of who “Mom” and “Dad” were because it sounded different.

Now it’s like second nature and I don’t even think about it anymore. That’s who they are — Laoba and Laoma.

So I have to wonder, is it harder for Chinese people to get used to this? Do they struggle to refer to in-laws with such intimate terms?

Then again, this is just about what to call someone. Now family relationships, the day-to-day stuff, that’s the real struggle (one that, admittedly, can lead to the use of expletives or other unflattering names at times).

But that’s another story for another day.

What do you think?

4 Things I’m Embarrassed to Share About Living with My Chinese In-Laws

The other night, while staying over at my in-laws’ place in the countryside, my husband and I were just about to get ready for bed when it hit us.

Oh crap, we’d left the laundry in the washing machine all afternoon. We’d forgotten to hang it out to dry.

We bounded downstairs to the laundry room with flashlight in hand, and fully expected to spend 10 to 15 minutes doing what we should have done more than six hours ago.

Except, when I ran over to the washing machine, it was empty. Totally empty. And when I turned my head, sure enough, there was our laundry, neatly hung on clothes hangers on a bamboo rack.

As much as I felt relieved that I’d been saved the trouble of doing that laundry this evening, a slight sense of guilt pricked me.

Once again, my mother-in-law had done housework for me. Housework I could have easily done for myself…and should have done, given it was my laundry.

It’s embarrassing to admit that I’m in my thirties and still enjoy laundry assistance from my mother-in-law whenever we stay at her home in the countryside of Zhejiang Province. But it’s true. This sort of thing happens ALL the time.

So in the spirit of being honest, I’m sharing 4 embarrassing things that I’ve experienced with my Chinese in-laws. Here they are:

IMG_2407#1: My mother-in-law will still do laundry for us

Yes, it’s true. My mother-in-law has been known to hang up my clothing left in the washing machine…and she’s even done entire loads of laundry for us.

To be sure, though, I generally don’t ask her to do it. Even I know it’s embarrassing to be in your 30s and have your parents or in-laws do your laundry. (I mean, come on, anyone who has seen Legally Blonde would remember how Elle and Brooke howled over the fact that Warner still took his laundry home to get it cleaned.)

Here’s what usually happens. Either I put the clothing in the washing machine, but stupidly forget to hang it up on time (like I mentioned in the introduction). Or, my mother-in-law grabs my dirty clothing without telling me, and does the entire load for me (this happened ALL THE TIME when I stayed with my in-laws during the summer of 2011).

Sometimes, though, I do ask for her help. The other day, we were in a hurry to leave their house and I had just thrown a load of laundry into the washing machine. So I asked her if she could hang it and she said, “No problem” with a smile.

So now you know one of my biggest dirty secrets.

版本 2#2: My mother-in-law cooks all our meals

When we stay with my in-laws at their home, there’s one thing we can count on – three square meals, all home-cooked by my mother-in-law. Always.

This is the complete opposite of how things work at my parents’ home back in the US. There, the assumption is we’re on our own and have to make our own meals (or buy them). Unless, of course, my dad or mom specifically asks us to join them for a meal (or invites us out).

The difference totally blew my husband’s mind.

Anyhow, here at my in-laws’ home in China there’s never any concern about cooking. Everyone knows that when it’s lunch and dinner, my mother-in-law’s voice will echo through the corridors – time to eat! – and we’ll all come bounding down the stairs.

It’s a strange place for me. I spent so many years handling all my cooking (and enjoying much of it). Now, when I’m staying with my in-laws, I just show up to eat at the table.

I have spent some time with my mother-in-law in the kitchen, learning how to cook from her. (She taught me how to make vegan Chinese-style flatbread, for example.) But in many ways, I feel foreign in her kitchen, a feeling that has nothing to do with my nationality, actually. After all, she uses a fire-powered wok to do the majority of her cooking, and I honestly have no idea how to manage the fire. Given how clumsy I am, I might just burn down the kitchen if I tried!

Now that I think about it, maybe it is better to leave the cooking to a woman who won’t cause a conflagration in the kitchen.

Money#3: My in-laws give us money more often than you think

When a friend of mine — also a Western woman with a Chinese husband – posted in a private chat about how guilty she felt because her mother-in-law gave her some cash to buy a new laptop (her old one crashed), oh, how I could sympathize.

I thought about the many Chinese New Years that had passed since John and I returned to China in late 2013, and how his parents always gave us heaping hongbao filled with more money than adults in the family should have.

I remembered how my mother-in-law handed over an additional stack of bills last year because my husband was starting his business (and she wanted him to have some “lucky money”).

I even thought of the numerous times when my mother-in-law spent money on us that she totally shouldn’t have spent. Like buying those new coats for John for Chinese New Year (which prompted me to buy new clothes to make her happy). Or the comforter she bought for me to stay warm during the winter. Or even the way she purchased all of the basic necessities for our apartment in 2014.

Embarrassing? Absolutely.

IMG_3338#4: We’ve lived with my in-laws. A lot.

In America, the ultimate badge of adulthood is having your own place, separate from mom and dad.

Well, the most embarrassing thing I could mention on this list is the fact that we’ve lived in the same house as my in-laws – for long periods of time.

Even now, we divide our time between an apartment in Hangzhou and their home. Heck, they added an entire suite to the house just for my husband and me, which proves how welcoming they are.

It’s worlds away from America. I can guarantee you that if I asked my American friends and classmates, none of them would say that their parents or in-laws renovated their homes so they could live together. It’s just not done there.

As embarrassing as it is to admit this, I have to confess I’m also grateful. This suite they’ve provided us is symbolic of the incredible support they’ve given me and my husband.

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Life isn’t always easy for John and me. But knowing that we have a couple of incredibly loving parents behind us – willing to do things that I’m a little embarrassed to talk about – makes the hard times a little more bearable.

If you’re all grown up, is there anything you’re embarrassed that your parents or in-laws still do for you?

5 Things I’ve Learned About Farm Animals from China’s Countryside

You could easily call my Chinese in-laws’ home a family farm. There’s a garden out back that supplies the majority of our veggies. Chickens and ducks roam around (and, often, beyond) the front yard. And there’s a guard dog keeping it all together, stationed at the door (and, when we’re eating dinner, under the table).

It’s all a far cry from my childhood home in the Cleveland, Ohio suburbs. And over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about farm animals.

Here are 5 interesting things I’d like to share with – including the real reason why chickens cross the road (ha ha!):

#1: How to feed a dog scraps from the table, instead of dog food

Back in the US, my neighborhood was a world of golden retrievers, terriers and poodles that lived for those daily helpings of dog food from the supermarket. I couldn’t imagine ever feeding dogs anything else…until I started spending time at my in-laws’ home.

Here, dogs are a mainstay in the house, where my mother-in-law loves them for protecting the house. (Whenever the current dog barks, my husband likes to joke the dog is “on duty”.) But when it’s mealtime, there’s no canned or packaged dog food on the menu. Instead, “Bruiser” (yes, that’s the dog’s name) enjoys leftover bones from the table and/or a mixture of leftover rice/veggies and things like lard, fish remnants, and discarded meat.

Isn’t it odd that, to me, anything but store-bought dog food is unusual? When you think about it, this is how people must have traditionally fed their beloved canine friends. Now that I’ve seen another side of how to feed the family dog, I can’t help but wonder if all that canned pet food is such a good idea.

IMG_0083#2: Shushing the chickens will make them run away

I’ll never forget the first time I heard my mother-in-law saying “shhhhh!” around the house. Who did she need to quiet?

Then I noticed that every time she said this, the chickens would high-tail it out of the room with a glint of fear in their eyes. Like they were caught stealing from the rice stores.

What I’ve learned is that “shhhhh!” sounds threatening to their avian ears, and it’s nearly effective enough on its own to banish them from any room or space. (Sometimes you have to add a hand motion, but they usually get the idea.)

It has become so ingrained in me that I swear if I ever heard “shhhhh” in a library, I might still think of panicky chickens dashing out the door.

IMG_1824 (2)#3: Hot ashes can dissolve the most stubborn animal droppings

Okay, okay, so this will probably never end up as a tip in your Good Housekeeping magazine. But trust me, if you have free-range animals around your house – especially chickens and ducks – things can get pretty sticky. (Pun seriously intended.)

Thankfully, when your house happens to have a fire-powered wok (like the family house here) hot ashes are plentiful. Just tip them directly on the pile in question, let it sit for a few minutes, then sweep it away with your broom of choice.

I’ve watched my in-laws do this hundreds of times and it’s almost become second nature to me. Can’t believe it either. Who would have thought that this girl born and raised in the Cleveland, Ohio suburbs would become a pro at tackling animal droppings? 😉

IMG_20150916_081825#4: Dogs and chickens can coexist…sort of

No, I swear that’s not a typo. While it doesn’t seem intuitive to keep dogs and chickens together, I know it’s possible because it happens here at my in-laws’ home.

But it can’t happen without a little help and oversight from my mother-in-law. She knows you have to train the dogs. Last year, she had to discipline “Bruiser” a number of times for trying to nip at the free-range chickens. (I also could have sworn that I once caught “Bruiser” with some chicken feathers around the mouth.)

IMG_0036#5: Why the chickens really crossed the road

Who hasn’t heard that time-honored joke? You know, “Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side.”

Well, I’ve seen the chickens here cross the road. A lot. And honestly, I don’t think that’s the entire answer.

I know why the chickens really crossed the road. There’s lots of grass, bushes and trees over there, so they can forage for their most favorite food of all – insects and worms.

It’s that simple.

Have you ever lived on a farm or a farm-like home? What have you learned about farm animals?

I Bought It for Love (or How My New Jacket Made My Mother-In-Law Smile)

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Ah, the things we do for love.

I wasn’t supposed to buy those new clothes. Even though I knew full and well about the tradition for Chinese New Year – that you should always start the year wearing new clothing.

Call me frugal. I’ve always been the sort of woman who sticks to her budget, who buys things carefully. Especially clothing, like winter jackets and coats. Growing up, we didn’t necessarily buy new ones every year. Instead, we’d just invest in a nice one that could last several years or more and get as much use out of it as we could.

Besides, this year finances were a little tight. I figured, why not save the money instead?

I was all ready to stick to my “no new clothing” plan for Chinese New Year. That is, until that evening at my in-laws’ house, when my mother-in-law pulled out two shiny new jackets for my husband. She had bought them from the local market, and beamed at John once he tried them on. One was a navy blue, the other a nice tan brown. Even I had to agree he looked handsome.

Yet a guilty feeling washed over me because of the money she spent. She shouldn’t have bought them. It’s something I would have rather done myself – except I hadn’t.

Then she said to me, “I could find something for you too.”

Uh oh.

It’s bad enough when your mother-in-law spends her hard-earned cash on the husband you should have bought for, but worse when she does it for you too. I tried to discourage her with the practical realities of buying for me – namely, that she’d never find my size. Not in the countryside markets where she goes.

But her smile and determination wouldn’t budge. “I can find your size.” Pretty soon she was measuring me up and promising to go shopping the following day.

“Really, you don’t need to,” I pleaded with her, thinking she had better things to do with her time and money than shopping for me.

But, no, she wouldn’t hear it. She said that how you dress is important in the village. That people notice if you’re wearing new clothes or the same thing all the time. It reminded me of something she once mentioned during dinner – that what you wear matters more than what you eat.

And more specifically, it mattered to her. Why else would she have bothered to buy my husband clothes or offer to shop for me? How we look reflects on her. And if we make a nice appearance, she’ll look good too. To put it simply, donning a little new clothing for the new year would make her very happy.

It’s hard not to care about the happiness of my mother-in-law when, frankly, she spends so much of her time caring about ours. She always loads the lazy susan up with vegan dishes just for me (really delicious ones, mind you). She’s been known to get up early on weekends to make steamed bread from scratch for us, or stay up late on a Saturday to fry up flatbread that we can bring to Hangzhou to have for lunches. She has done my laundry more times than I’d like to admit, and often hangs my clothing out to sun. She doesn’t really criticize us that much. And let’s not forget how she bought us all of these necessities when we first moved to Hangzhou, things she totally didn’t need to buy.

In short, she is the most amazing, devoted and loving mother-in-law I could ever ask for. So if wearing some new clothes would make her happy, how could I refuse?

So I said, “Okay, you go out shopping for me.”

The next day, she set out with my husband to the market. (I had to stay home – my foreign face would have jacked up all the prices, since it’s all bargaining.) John sent me photos of jacket after jacket that my mother-in-law hoped to buy for me. They were, to put it nicely, not my kind of clothing. I basically cringed at the thought of wearing them or, worse, being photographed in them. My frugal side shuddered. After all, the only thing worse than spending money on a jacket you really don’t need is a jacket you’ll never want to wear. So I vetoed every single one of them.

But that meant I still had nothing to wear – which wouldn’t do for my mother-in-law. After all, I was doing this to make it a good Chinese New Year for her. I’d have to think of another solution, and fast.

I grabbed my computer and immediately started browsing my favorite online clothing stores – the ones that actually have stuff in my size. Sure enough, they had some lovely jackets on sale that would definitely fit me. I liked them and felt certain my mother-in-law would too.

I still can’t believe how quickly I scooped up those jackets into my online shopping cart. I’ve never bought anything so fast in my entire life!

That, my friends, is how I ended up with this powder blue down jacket (which was, thankfully, discounted 50 percent off the original price.)

So, my bank account is now out a few hundred RMB. But that’s okay. When I tried on that powder blue jacket the other night, my mother-in-law also smiled with such pride – and even complimented me on how I had an eye for choosing good clothes.

In short, she loves it. And I don’t think you could ever put a price on that.

4 Favorite Chinese New Year Foods from My Mother-In-Law’s Kitchen

One of the greatest pleasures of Chinese New Year is the food itself. But there’s more than just the delectable dishes that line the family table Chinese New Year’s Eve and throughout the holiday itself.

My Chinese mother-in-law traditionally prepares a number of foods in the days leading up to the Lunar New Year. It’s like a parade of delicacies that lends as much of an excitement to the season as fireworks.

Here are four of my favorite Chinese New Year Foods from my Chinese mother-in-law’s kitchen:

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#1: Laba Porridge (腊八粥, làbāzhōu)

The Laba Festival (January 17, 2016 this year) falls on the eighth day of the final month of the lunar year and the official start to the Chinese New Year season.

Every year, my mother-in-law commemorates the day by dishing up the traditional laba porridge for breakfast. This sugary sweet glutinous rice porridge is studded with lots of tasty “treasures” – including goji berries, red beans, mung beans and Chinese jujubes.

It’s lovely to look at, and a delicious way to start the holidays.

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#2: Dongmitang (冻米糖, dòngmǐtáng)

At my in-laws’ home, no Chinese New Year is complete without a heaping bag of dongmitang sitting in the corner of our bedroom, ready for snacking at a moment’s notice.

Dongmitang are so reminiscent of the rice krispies treats I grew up with as a child in the US. But I think of them as a tastier, natural version without the marshmallows.

My mother-in-law makes her own puffed rice from scratch, adds rice syrup, pours the mixture into a mold to set, and then cuts it into bite-sized squares. Cool, huh? Sometimes she adds a little black sesame for extra nutrition during the coldest days of the winter. And sometimes, she lets us get in on the fun and help her, like my husband did last year.

But however my mother-in-law makes them, you can be sure she’ll bag them up and insist we take more of them upstairs with us. Even if we tell her we already have three bags of dongmitang in the corner of the room! Sigh…the love of a Chinese mother knows no end when it comes to food. 😉

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#3: Savory Turnovers (Migu)

Who doesn’t love sitting around with family during the holidays to make something traditional? Well in our home, that’s savory turnovers that we refer to in the local dialect as migu.

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Migu are these scrumptious turnovers handmade from rice-flour dough and stuffed with either veggies (salted bamboo, pickled greens and tofu) or veggies and pork.

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We prepare tons of them together, refrigerate (or freeze) for later, and then they become the most incredible snack or dish in a pinch during the holidays. Especially when they’re fried…yum!

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#4: Homemade Tofu

I’ve purchased hundreds, even thousands, of packages of creamy white bean curd in the supermarket, floating in water. But I never truly knew tofu until I watched my mother-in-law prepare it from scratch during Chinese New Year, a yearly tradition in the family.

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Making homemade fried tofu.

I wish I could describe all of the intricate steps involved in the process, but I’m still learning! Here’s what I do know:

One, it’s complicated enough to require the majority of my mother-in-law’s kitchen.

Two, the whole process produces a tasty by-product I happen to love on its own – soymilk!

And, three, you haven’t lived until you’ve bit into my mother-in-law’s homemade fried tofu fresh from the wok, dipped in soy sauce.

IMG_2007Trust me, if you’re as much of a tofu aficionado as I am, you’ve got to see this in action sometime. Or, if you’re really brave (and talented in the kitchen) try making tofu at home and experience the magic for yourself.

What Chinese New Year foods are your favorites?

My Family Recipe for Vegan Chinese Shaobing (Stuffed Flatbread), Featured on The Almost Indian Wife

Featured on The Almost Indian WifeThe Almost Indian Wife just featured me on Family Fridays, where I shared my own family recipe for vegan Chinese shaobing (stuffed flatbread), a snack food I’ve learned to prepare from my mother-in-law. Here’s an excerpt:

One of the coolest things about my mother-in-law is that she’s totally accepting of my vegan lifestyle. I never expected that a woman who grew up in Hangzhou’s mountainous countryside – where people tend to be pretty traditional when it comes to food – would embrace my dietary needs. But she does. Maybe it’s because the two of us have really bonded over food. I love asking her about her secrets for, say, crispy tofu or spicy pickled daikon radish. But when I discovered that one of the local snack foods was shaobing, a fried flatbread stuffed with savory salted veggies and then pan-fried until crispy, I knew I had to learn how to make it myself!

Most shaobing include bacon-like bits of fatty pork, making the food typically off-limits to vegans like me. But thanks to my mother-in-law, I’ve learned an amazing recipe for vegan shaobing. It’s even a little reminiscent of pizza back from home, so much so that I often jokingly call it “Chinese pizza”.

FYI, here’s what the shaobing look like when they’re done:

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Head on over to The Almost Indian Wife for the full post and recipe. And if you love it, share it!

5 Awkward Things for a Longtime Married Couple in China with No Kids

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I’ve got a secret to share with you.

Remember how a couple of weeks ago I mentioned John and I just celebrated our 10th marriage anniversary? And remember how we subsequently met with our friends at a nice Hangzhou restaurant on said anniversary?

Our friends who dined with us that evening had no idea it was our 10th anniversary. (We actually told them it was a dinner to celebrate my birthday – which was true, in part.)

It’s crazy, I know. And you might be wondering, Why would they hide such an important anniversary from their friends in China?

Because in China, it’s incredibly awkward to be married for 10 years and not have any kids. So awkward, that my husband just doesn’t want to mention it to his friends or even talk about it with people we know (like a friend’s mom we walked through the park with the other night). It’s funny how something that made me feel so proud could actually make me feel embarrassed at the same time.

For those of you wondering what that awkwardness is like, here are 5 things that reflect the challenges of being a married couple of 10 years in China with no children:

1. You will need a coping mechanism for the many times people ask you, “Why don’t you have children?”

In the US where I grew up, this sort of question is mostly off-limits (unless you have one of those really nosy relatives who doesn’t know the meaning of the term “off-limits”). In China, it’s par for the course. After all, this is a country where “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” are a Chinese equivalent of asking “Are you well?” – ways to show your care and concern for someone else.

Well, believe me, when people find out we’re married but have zero children, they look INCREDIBLY concerned.

This is a culture that believes marriage and children are as inseparable as Beijing duck and those tasty little pancakes – you just cannot have one without the other. Chalk it up to Confucian values, particularly filial piety. In fact, of the three unfilial actions, the worst of all is never having kids (which are the next generation to care for the elders and worship the ancestors).

When I hear this question – “Why don’t you have children?” — the flippant side of me desperately wants to say, “Mind your own business!” But that doesn’t go over too well with most people, as you can imagine.

Sometimes I just say, “Because we don’t.” Sometimes I tell people, “Because we can’t,” and leave it up to them to figure out what that means. Sometimes I just change the subject. But more often, if my husband is with me, I just leave the answering to him!

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Me and my mother-in-law.

 2. You will need to find your inner courage whenever your mother-in-law suggests you’re an “old maid”.

I love my mother-in-law to pieces, but whenever we return back to the family home after a long hiatus, she immediately brings up having kids and then tells me I’m “too old”. After all, we’ve been married for a decade and I’m over 30 (30 is the official “expiration date” in China for having kids).

I know what you’re thinking, it’s just her opinion and it’s just a bunch of words. But things like that have a way of wiggling into your subconscious and tugging on your insecurities. Before you know it, you’re wondering, “Am I too old?” Or worse, you follow this whole train of thought to its depressing end – often something involving you curled up on your bed crying away a perfectly good afternoon.

It takes a LOT of courage to fight through these awkward moments and find your inner confidence. I still don’t have a magic bullet to deal with suggestions that I’m too old. What I have found, though, is that moments of just being present – taking a walk through the park, or focusing on my breathing – can help me feel more comfortable with where I am right at this moment.

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 3. You will dread going home for holidays like Chinese New Year, when all of your husband’s peers from school come over to visit – with their school-age children.

Unlike us, my husband’s peers jumped on the baby bandwagon almost immediately into their marriages (including a friend whose wife was famously pregnant and showing at their wedding – a bridal bump I had the chance to witness with my own eyes).

So whenever Chinese New Year comes around, they come around to visit as well – with, well, their young and even school-age kids.

Actually, for the most part, his friends and peers don’t give us pressure. It’s their parents that do – parents who will compare us to John’s peers and then pelt us with all sorts of uncomfortable questions or comments (usually of the “Why don’t you have children” or “You’re too old” variety) when they notice we have no little ones in tow. The whole situation completely strips all of that sepia-toned nostalgia from the idea of “home for the holidays”.

We were able to dodge a lot of these questions this year, because most people were just glad to see us back in China. But next year? I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Deep down a part of me is secretly saying, “Help!”

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 4. You’ll feel isolated from your friends with kids – and instead gravitate to friendships with other people who “don’t belong”.

Don’t get me wrong, we love our friends with kids. But sometimes being around them can feel a little uncomfortable, particularly when they – with well intentions – bring up the topic of us having kids. Sometimes we feel like we don’t entirely belong to the same club, if you know what I mean. So of course, we inevitably gravitate to our other friends who feel as if they “don’t belong” in Chinese society.

In particular, one of our best friends in China is Caroline, who happens to be what people call a “leftover woman.” “Leftover women” and “leftover men” describe people of a certain age in China (over 27 for women, 30 for men) who haven’t married yet. They also feel as out of step with China’s society as we do, because it’s just not normal in China for adults to be single.

We’ve always loved Caroline, our mutual friend who introduced the two of us years ago. But maybe we feel even closer to her because she’s like the ultimate safe space where we can vent about the awkwardness of our situations – hers not being married, ours being childless.

I feel like I’ve come to understand Caroline’s pain every time someone else pelts her with that unwelcome question: “Why aren’t you married yet?” She’s even shared with us some of her less-than-pleasant encounters with the question, encounters that make her angry and frustrated, and I feel her. Because to me, the question isn’t all that different from “Why don’t you have kids yet?” It’s a question that also singles you out, that divides you from the world, that reminds you of something you lack or something that perhaps you even desire but cannot have.

The other night, she told John and me about this one ridiculous girl she used to work with (“ridiculous” was her description) who kept interrogating Caroline about things that could easily have been ripped from a list of the “10 most cringeworthy questions in China”: Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you own an apartment? Why don’t you have a car?

“What do you want to hear from me?” Caroline said to this girl (surely in a voice that was getting dangerously close to angry). “That I’m unable to find someone? That I have no money?” Somehow, just hearing about Caroline’s courageous, “take no crap” response to this girl made the three of us erupt in a cathartic burst of laughter. In these moments, we always feel a little less alone and isolated.

 5. “Being married for 10 years with no kids and living in China” will become one of the scariest things you write about.

For the longest time, I never wanted to go public with this topic. It scares me because it’s such a personal thing – and one that weighs on me on a regular basis (for many of the reasons I mentioned above). Why put it out there and risk having more people tell me either 1) You’re too old for kids or 2) What’s wrong with you?

But one of the things I’ve learned from my husband is the importance of self-acceptance. This is who I am – a woman who has been married to her Chinese husband for 10 years, lives in China, and has no children. Will I be like this forever? Honestly, I really don’t know for a lot of reasons I can’t share on this blog. But regardless, I must face my reality and embrace it – in all of its awkwardness. And for the moment, maybe that’s enough.

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This is who I am, red-starred hat and all!

What do you think?

As we move to Hangzhou, we’re feeling the love (and support) from family in China

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Sometimes, I think the love of a Chinese family is one of the best kept secrets in the world. And if ever there was an example of that, it’s our upcoming move to Hangzhou. As we trade the countryside for city life, I still can’t believe how my husband’s family has gone out of their way to help us make the transition.

Secretly buying our brand-new apartment essentials

Okay, I know rice cookers, pressure cookers, dishes, woks and bedding don’t appear out of thin air. But when my mother-in-law suddenly pulled out all of these brand-spanking-new things (and more!) from storage in our house, it felt like some magic trick. Or the wedding registry I never imagined I had signed up for.

Because, after all, we never asked them to buy any of these things. But they bought them anyway!

My mother-in-law has continued this apartment hocus-pocus almost every day leading up to the move, trotting out new things during lunch, and has even pulled a few extra-special surprises out of her own proverbial hat (including honey and even veggies from her garden).

Making it an auspicious move

“It’s not superstition. It’s the Book of Change, a Chinese tradition.” Whether or not you agree with my father-in-law, the fact remains that good luck matters to my in-laws in every important aspect of life — including moving house.

So naturally, once we announced the news on Saturday, my father-in-law whipped out that indispensable little red book in his library — the Chinese Farmer’s Almanac, based on China’s Book of Change. It lists every date in the year, recommending what you should and should not do on that date. According to his almanac, the best upcoming date for our move (and preparing our new bedroom) would be this coming Tuesday, May 27.

And believe me, this stuff counts to them. How much? Enough for my mother-in-law to make a second phone call to my husband’s oldest brother (who initially said he couldn’t move us on Tuesday), convincing him to do it earlier in the day!

Money? We didn’t ask for money!

Compared to so many Americans I know, Chinese families seen to operate on a completely different wavelength when it comes to money — and my husband’s family is no exception.

You don’t even need to ask them, “Could you lend us some money?” It’s a given they will, which I still haven’t quite gotten used to (yes, I am a bag of nerves whenever John has to borrow cash from his family — and John always thinks it’s so funny).

And more often than not, you don’t even need to bring up the topic of money with them — because they’ll do it first.

That’s exactly what my father-in-law did the other day when he sauntered over to John and me in the yard. John’s dad had this serious look on his face that made me all nervous inside, as if he was like my dad and about to lecture us on something we messed up in his house. But this “serious talk” turned out to be nothing more than him saying, “You’re going to need some money for your move. How much?” (A question that, of course, I felt too embarrassed to answer. I mean, here’s my father-in-law approaching me with a gesture that seems too generous to be real, and expecting me to give him a number?)

Days later, I discovered a thick stack of crisp, red bills lying in the corner of our room — an amount that turned out to be more than three times more what I expected!

Sometimes it’s not even a question, but an order. Like, yesterday John’s oldest brother phoned him out of the blue just to say “Open an account so I can send you some money” when John hadn’t even asked for it. After my husband recounted this to me, I was shocked (in a good way)…and then almost wanted to pinch myself.

Nope, it wasn’t a daydream.

In the end, it’s all about the love

My Chinese relatives will never hug or kiss us, or say how much they love us the way my American relatives do. But they’ll pony up brand-new apartment essentials and money without us asking them, and make certain we move on the luckiest possible day. It all comes down to one simple idea — this is how they show us their love.

Now if you excuse me, I’ve got a move to get ready for. Hangzhou, here we come!

In Hangzhou, the city where John and I fell in love — and love with all our hearts!