From China, With Love

Six months ago I sat in a hotel room with my husband, Craig, in Guangzhou, China, and had my first meal with my newly adopted 11-year-old Cantonese daughter, Fong Chong. The main course of that meal was some explosively spicy pickled chicken feet, which Fong Chong had picked out earlier that day during our first shopping trip, only a couple hours after we first met her. I hadn’t come this far — 18 months of adoption paperwork and 8,000 miles — to not share in this first meal. So I ate the chicken feet. And I liked them.

 
We all giggled as we ate. Even though we couldn’t speak a word in a common language, sharing that meal was our first bonding experience. It was funny, yes, but it was also poetic. I realized that this child was capable of experiencing joy in this most scary and awkward of situations, and also that she had a hearty appetite and adventurous palate. I was relieved and overjoyed. It was, after all, only through my discovery and love of authentic Chinese food that I had discovered my Chinese daughter.
 
It all started in 2008, when I traveled as a journalist on a story assignment to Chengdu, Sichuan province, to write about eating and learning to cook its renowned cuisine. I had been a fan of authentic Sichuan food since the first Grand Sichuan restaurant outside Chinatown opened three blocks from my house in Manhattan in 1998. I had exquisite tea-smoked duck, dry-fried green beans and dan dan noodles that would blow your mind even in China, all delivered right to my door. Fast-forward 10 years and I was eating that food at the source and living my dream of getting paid to travel, eat, cook and write.
 
But something happened on that trip to Chengdu — my first-ever to China — that changed the whole trajectory of my life and linked me with China in a way that a girl who grew up in small-town Oklahoma could never have imagined. I fell madly, deeply and totally in love with Sichuan cuisine. I could not get enough of the mala — numbing Sichuan peppercorn married with blazing hot chili peppers — that distinguishes Sichuan food from all other Chinese cuisines. And I met some of the most endearing, enthusiastic people that one could ever hope to meet at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine, China’s only culinary university, which trains the country’s and the world’s greatest Sichuan chefs. 
 
When I came home, I knew I could not let the bond I had forged with these people slip away. On a travel-induced high, I decided that instead of writing about them just one time, I would partner with them to make their cuisine — and the privilege I had just had of experiencing it — available to other travelers. From that day forward, my new friends Mr. Yang, head of the school’s international relations, and Chef Qingqing, its most charismatic English-speaking instructor, promised to provide professional cooking classes to any travelers I brought there. I promised to bring Westerners to Chengdu to learn at the stove of the masters. 
 
And so it went, my start-up, one-woman business — with the indispensable aid of a repatriated Chengdu-American wonder-woman whom I recruited to run the tours for me — sold just a few tours annually to fellow Chinese-food aficionados, who generally came back as happy and obsessed with the city and its food as I did. But after five month-long research trips over three years, and time spent taking cooking classes and educating myself in the cuisines not only of Sichuan but of Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Yunnan province, I realized I was not dabbling in this venture but committed for a lifetime.
 
In August 2009, already deeply invested in China, I got one of my daily Google Alerts for any news story that mentioned “Chinese food.” I don’t read them all — there are an alarming number that report on the murder of Chinese-food delivery people, for example — but this one caught my eye. It was a first-person essay by a 14-year-old Chinese girl who had been adopted by a family in Arizona one year earlier. She was writing about how much she loved her new family and life in America, with the caveat that the Chinese food here is nothing like the Chinese food in China. This last part I knew already. What I didn’t know, and what hit me as an epiphany of the highest order, was that you could actually adopt an older child from China. Not a baby, but a preteen or teen. 
 
As a happily married woman of 45 who didn’t find her true love until age 39, I had not recently been entertaining the thought of kids or adoption. But this random article made me realize I could bypass the whole baby thing and adopt a child who better suited my age and interests. The story intrigued me enough to check out the website of the adoption agency that this amazingly well-adjusted girl had come through. 
 
Serendipitously, the ASIA agency had just posted a new group of “waiting children” that it had been given exclusive permission by the Chinese adoption authorities to place in American homes. These children were “special needs,” i.e., with mild to severe medical problems and/or healthy but older, aged 4 to 13. In other words, they were the kids no one wanted. 
 
I was curious enough to send in my name and declaration of interest to see who was on the list. After looking through the photos of 30+ kids, I requested to see the biographical files, photos and videos of only one child, and I was smitten-beyond-rescue by the one and only Fong Chong, age 10, abandoned on the street at age 6, with a relentlessly unsmiling demeanor but an amazingly beautiful face and signs of real awareness and thoughtfulness. 
 
Ask any adoptive parent and you’ll get an insanely crazy story about the process. Ours included the loss of all of our adoption paperwork — produced and gathered over nine months — while it was at the Chinese embassy and the simultaneous and surreal phone calls from a man in Africa claiming to have it. All of which resulted in us having to start the whole process again from scratch. 
 
But finally the day came, on Valentine’s Day 2011, when we met our daughter for the first time. It was then that we discovered not only that she liked exotic Chinese food — duh! — but that she also liked bold flavors, and especially very spicy food, which is extremely unusual for a Cantonese. I know it sounds superficial, but that first evening, when we were searching for any sign at all that we had made the right choice in this life-changing act of blind faith, just knowing that my daughter shared my palate made me sure that everything was going to be OK and that it was going to be a good match. 
 
Not that it has been easy. You don’t take someone from their country, their culture and their language without some major adjustment issues. But I can say without reservation that our mutual love of real Chinese food has carried us through the initial storm. Our local Chinese restaurants were no help; though Fong Chong loves chatting with the waiters, she invariably pronounces the food “bu hao chi,” or “not so delicious.” But my enthusiasm for cooking the food she craves has made our transition so much easier than it could have been. 
 
Food has been her ultimate comfort in a land of strangers and strangeness. And it has been our bridge to attachment. Before we met her — and despite our appreciation of authentic Chinese food — my husband and I couldn’t bring ourselves to eat common Chinese foods such as preserved bamboo shoots, fermented tofu and chicken feet. But then our new daughter demanded them. And as we tried them alongside her, it aided our understanding of why Fong Chong was repulsed by sandwiches, pizza and — heaven help her — cheese, not to mention salads, since Chinese do not eat raw, uncooked foods like barbarians do. We don’t have to walk a mile in her shoes, we realized, as we’ve eaten for months with her palate. And while we love noodles, rice and stir-fries for most every meal, we now understand what a sacrifice it is to ask her to eat our food at every meal. 
 
So while we do ask her to eat the occasional noodles with red sauce (aka spaghetti), more often than not, in these early days we try to meet her on her own turf and provide a little of her beloved homeland in her new home. When she had been here about two months, I was stocking up on Chinese staples when I noticed some freshly harvested chicken feet. Though they were giant and forbidding — severed leg bone at one end, claws at the other — I decided to tackle them. I found some recipes online and learned to parboil them, which tenderizes and gets rid of impurities, before braising in a savory-sticky sauce. 
 
Though I didn’t find them addictive, I must have done something right, because Fong Chong loved them so much that she made up a little song about them as she gnawed the flesh off of every last one. To her, and most all Chinese, chicken feet add the thrill of texture to a favorite taste and are more than worth all the work in eating them. So now, perhaps once a month, I make her some wicked chicken feet, braised in soy, hoisin and oyster sauces like they would in Guangzhou, but finished off with hot chili peppers like they would in Chengdu, because I know that she — like her new mom — loves the heat. Nothing makes her happier. And nothing, absolutely nothing, makes me happier.
 
Taylor Holliday is the owner of Lotus Culinary Travel and the mother of Jia Fong Chong Havighurst.
 

Comments

its_me's picture

Your experience is truly emotional. I think this is one of the most special meals of your life. We all do enjoy good food. Sometimes we have such wonderful experience while traveling to a place or at a hotel that we remember it for a long time. I had some amazing service at Canton hotel.

imwilliam's picture

Reading your story was wonderful. Its good to know that you are bonding so well with your new daughter. Hopefully she would become more experimental and try some other things as well. You never know she might fall in love with pizza and asks you to make her one. I recently was going through some amazing write ups on http://www.patbarrettimages.co.nz/words.shtml.

its_me's picture

We truly gain different experience when we travel to a different place. Each journey of ours is studded with so many memories. These memories stay with us forever. I love traveling. Now I am planning to visit Hawaii and I am looking for some great Hawaii hotel deals.

imwilliam's picture

You have truly done something amazing. This story would inspire others to take such steps. Each vacation, each tour gets associated with special memories for some reason or the other. Sometimes the natural beauty of a place stuns you. The Breathtaking Natural Wonders of Australia made my vacation so special.

Your experience is most unique as you found your daughter and with her you began a new journey of life. The experience you had in the hotel room would stay with you forever, it is amazing the kind of memorable experiences we keep on gathering during travel. However, although I had some memorable adventures I had some bad memories of the hotels I stayed in.

Sancy's picture

Great content.I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. Thank you so much for sharing. Sancy

It looks like you've found the perfect way to combine work with family. Being always on the road is very difficult, you must always find accommodations near your work site. If you'll have to travel to Oregon in the future, you should check out the hotel in medford oregon special offers. Who knows what this city will change your life!

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