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I was eight the first time I tried to make them. It was Chinese New Year, and I had a naive grin on my face as my dad summoned me over.
“Xier.” He hands me a piece of flat dough. “Watch me.” So I smile and concentrate on his calloused hands. He spoons the pork filling onto a circle of dough, folds the dough over and gently mends the sides together, his coarse fingers suddenly delicate. Ten seconds later, he's finished sculpting his museum-quality dumpling and stares at me. Of course, I'm still smiling confidently. He and I both look down at my hands still cupping that demanding piece of dough. It's pale yellow and so thin it's almost transparent. I avert my attention to the looming pot of pink pork before I timidly gaze up into my father's expectant eyes again.
I failed that first trial, taking three and a half minutes to produce a deformed dumpling that refused to close because half the filling was spilling out. But I was young. My dad laughed and said, “You'll learn.” But now I'm 12, and I haven't learned. And now, my dad doesn't laugh. He yells.
Today's Friday, and since there's nothing planned for dinner, Dad decides that we're making dumplings. “Come down and help!” he shouts, but I pretend not to hear as I work on my homework.
Then he sends my little brother, Liang, upstairs to say that Dad wants me to make dumplings. “Wait,” I mumble, but Liang's not patient and he kicks my books closed before racing back downstairs.
I trudge to the bathroom, where I wash my hands. “Xier, come on!” my sister, Meng, calls. Leisurely sliding down the banister, I make sure everyone notices me before going to wash my hands again, downstairs, just to waste time.
Finally I step into the kitchen and see everyone's eyes on me. I sit down with a grimace and reach for a circle of dough. I spoon a wad of filling onto it. Of course, I've added too much pork, and my dad asks, “Don't you know how to make dumplings?” So I desperately try to fix the sides and prove I do know how to make my country's delicacy.
However, the dough is too thin and the part I'm pulling breaks off in my hand. I hurry to smooth it back on and stop embarrassing myself, but on the other side of my dumpling, the pork is slipping out.
Panicking, I try to mend both problems at once, with one hand on each end, but making dumplings just doesn't work that way, so the entire thing splits in half right down the middle and I'm left with the floor to clean. I sense that stinging feeling in my nose that always precedes tears, but I can't cry – not here, not now. Forcing the tears back, I open my eyes. The dazzling light hits me and I observe that, thankfully, everyone's gone back to their own dumplings.
I make another one and it's all right, but there are a couple of loose areas where the filling is at risk. My dad doesn't notice, and I'm certainly not going to tell him, so I quickly drop my dumpling on the plate along with all the other showoffs.
But Meng notices. Peripherally, I watch my sister prod at my pathetic dumpling. “What shall we do with this one, Xier?” She relocates it to a separate plate, and I know it's been deemed trash. I fake lackadaisical indifference. My nose, however, sympathetically tingles again, but I shoo away my tears.
Eventually, I finish making four dumplings, and I merrily exhibit them next to my sister's, even though my four lack the poise and refinement that each and every one of hers flaunts. Nevertheless, I am proud.
Later, my dad takes my first, futile dumpling over to the stove and my spirits soar. Perhaps it wasn't useless; he was going to boil it! So I smile contentedly, and voluntarily wipe the table and clear the dishes, all the time thinking that now I have made five dumplings. Still grinning, I go take out the trash, and there's my dumpling, all bruised and torn, pitifully poised right on top. And of course, I can't stop my tears three times, so they leak out unexpectedly, warm and compassionate.
Scampering upstairs, I slam off the lights, sprawl on my bed, and swathe my face in the blanket. And I try to sleep. It's only 7 o'clock, but I sleep and I sleep and I sleep. I sleep so much that when I wake up, I'm still sleeping. And I lose my sense of the world.