Jiaozi and Gyoza.
The average person might not see a difference between them– they’re just dumplings, and dumplings taste good. Still, the differences are important. Jiaozi is a historical dish from Taiwan and China, eaten by Chinese people as far back as the Tang Dynasty. Its Japanese counterpart, however, is a more recent creation. It is said that while Japanese soldiers occupied countries like Taiwan and China, they enjoyed the local Jiaozi so much that when they returned to Japan, they made their own version: Gyoza. As a result of this seemingly small cultural exchange, my life began in May of 1895, when the Japanese occupation of Taiwan began, years before I was physically born.
My grandparents lived in Taiwan during the colonization, and thus, they all spoke Japanese. Through dedicated studying and my parents’ will, I became–and remain–fluent. As my Japanese skills began to overtake my Taiwanese skills, I felt a growing disconnection from my family and heritage. I felt ashamed, even, for learning the language of my ancestors’ tormentors while only retaining the fluency of a toddler in Taiwanese.
On the culinary level, though, we remained determined to keep a solid grasp of our culture. My mother and I have made dumplings together since I was a toddler. My childhood consisted of the intimacy of my mother’s hands cradling mine, teaching my inexperienced hands to properly fold the dumplings, her laughter as my dumpling fell apart, and her smile as I ate them, freshly cooked, and asked for more. Later, when my sisters came along, the tradition of two became the tradition of four, and the same intimacies brought us all closer together.
This bliss came to a sudden stop in March 2020. During the pandemic, I fell into the depths of anorexia, and anything I deemed “unsafe,” I refused to eat. Unfortunately, such “unsafe” food included the entirety of my mother’s cooking repertoire, and I rejected my family’s traditions around food and the love and connection that came with them. Even after hospitalization, therapy, and countless exposures to my “unsafe” foods, I refused to touch my family’s recipes. I even refused to allow my mother to make dumplings for herself or my sisters. Eventually, however, after much convincing, I decided to give dumplings another go, and I noticed something I hadn’t seen before: my mother used both Gyoza wrappers and Jiaozi wrappers. Perhaps she used both because she liked a variety of textures, or she didn’t have enough of one type of wrapper for all the filling she’d made– but it felt like my mother was doing her best to reach me.
As we made dumplings together, I felt like a child again: My mother’s deft hands moved back and forth like a wave, leaving behind perfectly folded dumplings in her wake. She then stopped her magic to help guide my hands. From these flour-coated touches, a far-from-perfect little dumpling formed. We continued to fold them, talking about the future, laughing, reminiscing. As I looked at the little variations (some pronounced, in mine) in how each dumpling was folded, I realized something. These variations were where my mother– no, my family’s– love resided. The mix of Gyoza and Jiaozi, created by my mother’s skilled hands and my lousy ones, looked beautiful to me as they slept on the counter, shining under the light and waiting to be cooked.
As I continue to work on myself and my recovery, I plan to keep working on my Jiaozi and Gyoza, shaping them just as they should be, keeping the folds crisp and neat. I want to be able to match my mother’s skills in dumpling-making, and recognize the little nuances between Jiaozi and Gyoza. As I continue down the path of life, my mother’s dumplings and the lessons I learned from them will follow me, reminding me of home, and providing me with strength.
Catie Tsai Chen is a Taiwanese American high school senior graduating in May of 2023. She enjoys writing, particularly essays and short stories, and is excited to continue her writing journey as she goes into university.