Creative Nonfiction

Creative Nonfiction #70

A Touch of Dim Sum

Eating dim sum is an emotional roller coaster—the excitement and exhilaration you get from creative dishes and intense flavors. The servers reveal each dish hidden inside their bamboo steamer in their cart like how Wheel of Fortune hostesses reveal each letter on their puzzle board. You never know what’s inside. Some will make you sweat and some will make you squeal, from pig blood curd and beef stomach lining to coconut milk pudding and egg custard tarts. And at the end of the meal, you will leave the restaurant with food in your stomach and, if you are like me, tears in your eyes.

It all starts with a weekly visit to Grandma, who always asks my sisters and me to take her to eat dim sum. “Grandma’s treat,” she promises. But who pays is not the problem. The problem is that we ate dim sum the last five times. 

Despite our complaints, we still take her to eat dim sum because we love her and want to spend time with her. We think: She made sacrifices for us, so we can make sacrifices for her. While driving four miles to eat dim sum is not quite the same as fleeing 8,000 miles away from a war-torn country, it’s the best we can do. I can only imagine how frightening and lonely it must’ve been for a single mother with seven children to leave her home to come to an unfamiliar land surrounded by unfamiliar people speaking an unfamiliar language.

That must be how she feels when she walks into a foreign restaurant, where people eat foreign food and order in a foreign language. 

All she seeks is a piece of home. She finds that at dim sum restaurants. She can talk to servers in her mother tongue without worrying whether or not they understand her. She can talk as loud as she wants for as long as she wants because that is the culture of dim sum. She can hold the server’s hands and grab their arms and they would understand that this is our culture’s way of showing affection. When we agree to take her out, she springs to her feet and rushes to grab her keys and coat. It’s sweltering hot outside, but she still brings her coat. When we see how excited she is, we are too.

Living in an area with a large Cantonese-speaking population, there are plenty of dim sum restaurants. There are a number of them in Sacramento, where we live. There’s Happy Garden and King Palace, situated right next to each other and run by two sisters. We can never tell the two restaurants or the two sisters apart.

As we wait to be seated, the sight, sound, and smell of the place fill me with nostalgia and memories of my childhood. The place remains the same—big and bustling, the servers skillfully maneuvering their dim sum carts through closely-packed tables and running children. I was one of those children. Most dim sum restaurants have a large stage built in for wedding receptions, birthday parties, and other celebrations. But to me, the stage was my playground, where I would run back and forth or stand in the center and pretend I was performing on American Idol. And then one day I stopped doing that because one time at one of the restaurants one of the sisters yelled at me to get off the stage. To this day, I still don’t know which restaurant or which sister it was.

After about fifteen minutes, we finally get a table. As Grandma slowly makes her way to her seat with her two-wheeled walker, she smiles and waves to the other patrons who have also come to enjoy a meal with their family. “Do you know them?” I ask, surprised and slightly embarrassed. “No,” she says nonchalantly. And she doesn’t need to. Here, at a dim sum restaurant, everyone from servers to patrons is connected by a common language, culture, and history. We are immigrants, whether it be first or second or third-generation, in search of a piece of ourselves. For first-generation immigrants, it is lost the moment you leave your homeland. For higher generations, it is lost the moment you are born. But when we speak Cantonese, even if it’s broken Cantonese, we feel a bit more connected to our culture and community.

Yut long har gow mm goi,” I say nervously in Cantonese, requesting one order of steamed shrimp dumplings with a heavy American accent. The server smiles approvingly, takes a basket of steaming dumplings from her cart, and places it on the lazy susan. Proud that my Cantonese was intelligible, I further flex my Cantonese muscles by ordering a dish of gam saa cheung fun, deep-fried shrimp delicately wrapped in a thin layer of rice noodles, which is not in the server’s cart so she has to order it from the back kitchen. As she stamps our order sheet, she compliments Grandma on her youthful appearance and sharp wit. Although Grandma can’t hear half the things the server says due to her bad hearing, she passionately shakes the server’s hand and wishes her good health. When the same server returns to bring us our gam saa cheung fun, Grandma forgets and passionately shakes her hand again and wishes her good health a second time.

She performs this ritual with every server, including the ladies pushing carts with Grandma’s favorite dishes—siu mai, steamed dumplings with a pork, shrimp, and mushroom filling beautifully folded into a flower-like shape, and fung zhao, gelatinous chicken feet braised in a sweet, salty, and spicy glaze. I watch as Grandma enjoys her favorite dishes while blessing every passing server, and I can’t help but laugh and love her even more.

The servers adore her as well. They give Grandma the freshest tidbits: freshly fried taro puffs—the outer shell still crisp when you bite into it, uncovering a thick layer of mashed taro and ground pork filling—freshly steamed Malay sponge cakes, freshly pan-fried turnip cakes, and freshly baked barbeque pork buns. They even cut the food into small, bite-sized pieces to make it easier for Grandma to eat. After placing the food on the lazy susan, the servers linger around our table to chat with Grandma.

They ask her, “How is the food?”

Grandma smiles and responds, “I’m 80 years old this year!”

“She has bad hearing,” I explain to them. I turn to Grandma and talk into her ear, “You’re 90!”

Grandma laughs. “Really? I’m getting old. My memory is getting worse.”

Then the servers laugh and tell us to man man sik, which translates to eat slowly, which really means to take your time, eat more, talk more. Here, you are not a visitor, so make yourself feel at home, make yourself comfortable. There’s no hurry. Enjoy yourself. We help ourselves to more food, talking as we are waiting for the next dim sum cart to approach our table, eating a little more, waiting a little more, talking a little more, then eating some more, until our bellies are full and we have to ask for Styrofoam containers to take home the remaining food.

After the leftovers are packed and stacked and bagged, the server brings the bill. As my sisters and I prepare to pay, Grandma hands us a twenty-dollar bill. “My treat,” she says proudly. The total comes out to be $40, not including the tip, but we don’t ask her for the remainder. That’s the risk we take going to dim sum with Grandma. Some days she pays, some days she doesn’t pay enough, and some days she forgets to pay. In truth, we never expect her to pay. But when she insists on paying—or partially paying—she won’t take no for an answer. I admire her for her resolution and generosity and appreciate this gesture of her love. Then we exit the restaurant, grandmother and grandchildren, our arms linked on both sides and our pace slowed to match hers. I relish this moment and wonder if she’s deliberately taking her time because she doesn’t want it to end, either.

Now, in addition to the frustration, guilt, excitement, nostalgia, surprise, embarrassment, pride, admiration, and appreciation I feel during this emotional process of dim sum, I also feel grief because Grandma is no longer here. Dim sum is no longer the same. The servers ask me where Grandma is and I hold back my tears as I tell them she died. 

Grandma had fallen before. She recovered quickly and returned to her active and fiery self. So when she fell again, we all thought it would be another speedy recover for her. Even the doctors said it was a minor injury and soon discharged her from the hospital. I visited her at her house on the day she was discharged. She was laying on her bed. When I approached her, she opened her eyes and smiled feebly at me. She pointed to her coat and keys. “Let’s go eat dim sum,” she said softly. 

“I just ate,” I lied. “Let’s go tomorrow.” 

She nodded weakly, closed her eyes, and returned to sleep. 

That was the last time she asked to eat dim sum. The next day she lost her appetite. And the day after that she was sent back to the hospital, where the doctors found a tumor. 

I remember the days before her death, as she lay on the hospital bed—her hands swollen from IV fluids, her arms bruised from blood draws, her legs emaciated from loss of appetite. I knew this was not the life she wanted. She wanted to be eating dim sum dishes with chopsticks instead of being fed meal replacement drinks through a straw. She wanted to see her grandchildren eating, laughing, and smiling around a lazy susan instead of crying around her bed and arguing with doctors. 

Months later, for the first time after her death, I go to eat dim sum. I look around and feel slightly indignant when I see people eating dim sum with their grandmothers, something we used to do. A woman pushes a cart filled with siu mai and fung zhao, Grandma’s favorite dishes. And the woman pushing it, Grandma blessed her. Then I realize dim sum satisfies not only my physical appetite but also my emotional appetite. Every time I crave a memory of Grandma, I can go here and find her in the food I order and the language I order it in. This is what dim sum is all about. The phrase literally translates to “touch the heart.” That’s exactly what dim sum and my grandmother did.

By Shawn Tran

A Sacramento native, Shawn Tran is a UC Berkeley graduate and current master’s student in Taiwan, specializing in public health. He hopes to craft more narratives exploring themes of culture and relationships. His writing is featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and The Daily Californian.