It is important that Zelda knows about her family lineage. On Angela’s side, there are many cultural elements related to her Scottish family. I’m sure Zelda will eventually learn what “muckle” means, and about Angela’s rightful fascination with fried food. I kid that her introduction to Scottish culture should be a viewing of Trainspotting. No, probably not.
Although I would disagree with Ewan McGregor’s character when he shouts “It’s SHITE being Scottish,” I am biased towards Zelda’s Chinese heritage. After all, we named this blog “The Eng Dynasty.” With my parents in town this past weekend, Zelda had a chance to connect with her Chinese tradition on a whirlwind tour through the DC metro area.
PART I: All That and Dim Sum
My eating habits have been pretty good since I found out I was pre-hypertensive and pre-diabetic last month. The unspoken goal was to eat healthy for six of the seven days of the week, exercise, and allow me to have one cheat day (2 meals). Yesterday, we met up with my parents and my sister’s family for Dim Sum near Washington, DC. Yesterday was the cheat day meal I planned. Unfortunately, Chinese food isn’t known for being the healthiest, but the Chinese meal is a big part of my life.
I spent most weekends of my young life eating dim sum at a restaurant called Jade Villa (formerly Golden China) in Virginia Beach. To this day, it is still one of my favorite places to eat because of their weekend offerings. The sweet and savory dumplings, steamed buns, shu mai, roast pork, and other miniature Chinese delicacies helped form my palate. It was where my dad showed me how to use chopsticks, and where I discovered the stereotype that all Chinese restaurant restrooms are not created equal (as good as their food is, their bathroom is not as ideal). Angela knew it was important for me to pass this Chinese meal tradition on to Zelda. If I can remember correctly, one of the first places we took her out into the world after she was born was a dim sum joint in Rosslyn. Zelda slept through most of those earlier trips in the spring and early summer months. Now at nearly nine months, she is alert and eager to soak in her surroundings.
Unfortunately, she has yet to grow any teeth, so she couldn’t try any of the food. I can’t wait for her to move from baby formula, breastmilk, and pureed foods to solids. I need to make sure she enjoys Chinese food like I did (or at least try). The one time I gave her a little dab of soy sauce, she recoiled into a grimace. Poor girl. That will change. Thankfully for this trip, she was very awake and wanted to interact with everybody at the table, especially my dad. I took the opportunity to snap a few pics of their interaction.
PART II: Visiting the Empress
After lunch, we said goodbye to my sister’s family and followed my parents to visit the gravesite of my grandmother, Ng Ma Lui Ho (we just called her Ying Ying; or grandmother). Like dim sum, gravesite visits to my ancestors was a bit part of my upbringing. Growing up, my dad would lug our family up to New York to see his father’s gravesite in Queens while my grandmother was still alive (she died in 1997 from a heart attack). The goal was to bring the extended Eng family up there once a year. The visits not only served to update our ancestors on what we were doing but a way to honor them in a ceremony. We also had a chance to visit our relatives in Chinatown. Sidenote: Chinatown in the late 80s, early 90s was gross, rough, and altogether fantastic. My family’s apartment had rats the size of Cornish hens, but it was still a real slice of authentic New York. I don’t know if you knew already, but Chinese people are rather superstitious, so the ceremony had its ritualistic customs and traditions.
The gravesite service usually consisted of my grandmother stopping by a Chinese grocer off of Mott St. to purchase the necessary food, or offering, for my grandfather. The food usually consisted of my grandfather’s favorites: roast duck, roast pork, whole fish, noodles, etc. After purchasing the items (in Chinese culture this usually meant yelling at each other for ten minutes before an acceptable price was met), we would head out to the Chinese cemetery in Queens for the ceremony. At the ceremony, we would place the food along with three shots of his favorite drink (usually whiskey), flowers, incense, and fake money for burning. The most important part of the ceremony, however, was making sure the gravesite was properly cleaned and manicured (sometimes called Qingming, or Ching Ming). Although that isn’t a problem now, back in the early 1990s, the caretakers at the Chinese cemetery in Queens made it look like the grassland. As a result, our family usually brought basic garden tools to the site.
After family members cleaned the gravesite and the food, flowers, incense, and drink placed, the family customarily gathered around in a semicircle fashion for the formal ceremony to begin. All family members bow three sets of times (three is a significant number) and offer their condolences, well wishes, and prayers to their ancestor. After each successive bow, the youngest members of the family (usually my sister and I) would pour the whiskey onto the grave. The ceremony ended when the last of the fake money was burned to ensure they had enough funds in the afterlife. I told you we were superstitious. After that, we would all get in the cars and head back to DC to consume the food. We usually did this all in one day.
It was less formal event for our trip yesterday. It took about twenty minutes for us to get from Rosslyn to my grandmother’s gravesite in Suitland, MD. We didn’t have any booze and couldn’t find a flower shop in Suitland where my grandmother is buried. So, my dad improvised. The food offering was a bunch of bananas, and the drink was three bottles of water (Ying Ying didn’t drink). Zelda enjoyed playing in the grass near her gravestone. The moment was intensely emotional for me. Ying Ying died in 1997, so there was no way that she would have seen Zelda in her lifetime unless I fathered a kid before I hit puberty. I told her about Zelda, my family, and hoped she would bless us in the year to come. Tears streamed down my face as Zelda played on the grass near her marker. It was one of the most beautiful moments I witnessed in her short life. I’ll remember it forever.
She also took the time to visit my other relatives buried close by, including my great grandmother (Shee Hing Lim, d. 2008), great grandfather (Ng Hong Sing, d. 1984), and my uncle (Ng Bin Huon, d. 1956 due to birth complications).
PART III: Family is Everything
We ended the day by traveling up to Silver Spring to eat our second round of Chinese food. It was a birthday party for two of my cousins, Megan and Marie. It was great to see some of my extended family, some of which I have not seen since my Chinese wedding in 2012. My Aunt Anna took the opportunity to play with Zelda and introduce her to my relatives. It was a touching moment to see my girl interact with family and connect with her rich Chinese heritage. By the way, the food was phenomenal. I am convinced that the best Chinese food in the country is in Maryland. For NOVA people like us, it is well worth the trip. I am not looking forward to eating salad all week after all this good food we just had. Sigh. But it was worth it, especially for the interactions Zelda had with her family.
My grandmother would always say that family is the most important thing in life. Without it, your life has no goal or purpose. In traditional Chinese culture, your social circle usually does not extend outside of it. “Work hard,” she would say to me in Cantonese, “and love your family.” Ying Ying taught those values to my father, who in turn instilled that in me for my budding brood. You can be rich and successful all you want. Without family, however, you are nothing. I have to remember that from time to time as I strain myself to get work done and put Zelda or Angela on the backburner. It’s days like yesterday that remind me how thankful I am for having everything I need and more.