Growing up, the first thing that my mother would ask me — or my brothers and sisters — when we came through the door was, “Ni chi le ma?” The Chinese equivalent of “How are you?” Roughly translated in our household, it meant, “Have you eaten?”
There would always be something to munch on. It might be sweets from the bakery, a bowl of soup with Mom’s homemade noodles, a club sandwich cut into triangles. Or, if we were lucky, a bright pink box filled with dim sum that Mom brought home on those special days when she had lunch with her sisters and their mother (my grandmother) at their favorite restaurant in Honolulu. “Treats from the heart,” my grandma would say as she smacked her lips and touched her heart.
I especially liked the soft steamed buns filled with sweet roast pork, any dumpling — fried, boiled or steamed — and custard tarts.
On weekends, Mom orchestrated dim sum get-togethers with the aunts, uncles, cousins and anyone else who happened to be visiting from the mainland, usually extended family from California. I didn’t always enjoy the company — as a kid, I always thought adult conversations were so boring — but I sure loved eating the dim sum.
After I graduated college and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in teaching, my pursuit of dim sum was stalled. I couldn’t find a place whose dim sum I loved as much as what I’d gotten at home. And I was busy and broke. After getting my teaching credentials, I was hired to teach elementary school in Pasadena. There was so much that a young, inexperienced teacher had to learn and do. I didn’t have time to think about dim sum. I gravitated toward cheap-and-easy takeout meals and cafeteria lunches.
I threw myself into my job. I wanted to become the kind of teacher that I wished I’d had as a kid. And I like to think I succeeded. I taught all different grades, but I specialized in the arts. I helped my students write stories, paint and put on plays. I became very much involved in the community and became friends with many of my students’ parents. I was often invited to their homes to share delicious meals. I was happy. But I didn’t forget about dim sum. I would often return to Honolulu for the summers and get my fill of dim sum from new restaurants that Mom had discovered.
Back in L.A. after one such trip, I decided to take charge of my dim sum cravings. I learned how to make simple dumplings. I bought a wok, steamer baskets and lots of ingredients from the markets in Chinatown. My dumplings improved every time I made them. I didn’t master intricate folding techniques, but they tasted better than the frozen enchiladas I usually kept on hand. By my early 30s, I looked around to take stock of my personal accomplishments. I could make dumplings and would soon be tenured.
There was just one problem.
Dim sum is meant to be shared.
And that meant I needed to take the next step in becoming the real me.
I called my mom for her birthday and just said it. “Happy birthday, Mom. I’m gay.” There was a momentary silence. I was about to rush into that silence, to reassure her that she would still be getting her traditional gift shipment of pears from Harry & David — she really loved those pears — when I heard her clear her throat.
I half expected her to ask me, “Ni chi le ma?” Instead, she asked, “Have you met someone?”
“No, not yet.”
“I hope he likes dim sum,” she laughed.
Clearly, she wasn’t surprised by my revelation.
I’d never felt the apprehension that usually accompanies coming-out stories. There was never a time that I feared disappointing my parents. My anxiety was about what it all meant — it was time to meet someone. All that focus on my work had made me complacent about everything else in my life.
Dating, and meeting someone, would be the next step to becoming me. I just had one picky requirement. I absolutely did not want to date a teacher.
A few days later, my mom sent me a traditional Chinese teapot with four matching teacups, tucked into a woven basket. Inside a card, she wrote, “Must have tea when you serve your friends dumplings.”
This next chapter in my life found me purchasing a fixer-upper in Silver Lake that had avocado green appliances. If I taught summer school for the rest of my life, I might be able to afford to remodel. The new house meant I was closer to work.
And I was still single, but not for lack of trying.
After settling in, I unpacked the wok and the steamer baskets. I went shopping for the ingredients. Ground pork, water chestnuts, cilantro, sesame oil and napa cabbage. It was time to make dumplings. I used every won ton skin in the pack. I had enough dumplings for the week.
But on this night, this comforting process left me feeling lonelier than ever.
I decided to explore my new neighborhood and go to a local bar. Maybe I’d meet someone. Still, there was that apprehension. I made a deal with myself. If I could find a place to park, I’d take it as a sign and head on inside.
The bar was dark, smoky — yes, you could smoke back in those days — and crowded. I got a beer and stood around pretending to look at ease. I heard someone say, “You want another?” He had a nice smile, a friendly face, and we got to talking. And talking. And talking. We had lots in common.
Yep. He was a teacher.
At one point, I remarked that I always get hungry when I drink, and wished the bar served some food. Chicken wings would hit the spot. Ron didn’t let that get past him. “You hungry too? I didn’t have dinner. You want to get something to eat?”
And then I did something that surprised even me.
“You like dumplings?” I asked.
And suddenly, it was Saturday night and I was preparing my homemade dim sum for a new acquaintance, while we continued to chat and get to know each other better.
I’m not sure Ron knew dumplings from doughnuts, but he must have liked them because he kept coming back for more.
Thirty years later, he’s still hanging around.
All my fears about dating a teacher turned out to be unfounded, by the way. I was worried that there would be endless talk about school politics and griping about work. I loved my job, but I didn’t want my life to be consumed by education. That has never been a problem. Instead, we spend our time sharing our respective passions with each other — his is history, mine is art.
It’s amazing how we can both look at the same thing and yet see different things.
We love going to museums together, and when we look at a piece of art, I break it down for him in terms of color and form. He explains it to me in terms of the painter, their influences and how it all emerged at this particular moment in time. Sometimes, we get so carried away that people think we’re docents. And our friends, bored, have left us to go hang out at the museum restaurant.
Recently, Ron and I decided to make it official and got married in the garden of the home we share. We only invited two dear friends to join us. They were our “best men.”
Knowing us well, they brought us a two-tiered wedding cake and takeout dim sum for our wedding “banquet.”
I served tea from the pot Mom gave me. As we toasted our nuptials, I realized that the most important words we spoke that afternoon were not “I do.”
Rather, they were the answer to my mother’s question. She died many years ago, and I wanted to hear those words once more, her way of letting us know that she cared and loved us. “Ni chi le ma?”
In reply, we raised our cups of tea, and I answered, “Yes, we have.”
The author and his husband have retired from teaching and live in Silver Lake with their dog, Charlie.
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