My father worked as a busboy at a noodle shop in San Francisco, Chinatown. My mother was a mail-order bride, whose marriage was arranged by a “mei-ren,” a Chinese matchmaker. At 17 years old, she flew from Hong Kong and stepped onto American soil, what the Chinese people call, Beautiful Country. Nestled in my mother’s womb, I also arrived in America, so that I was born six months later in San Francisco, to start a new life to pursue happiness in the land of the free.
At home, the first words I spoke were Chinese. By the time I was a 3-year-old little girl, I could hold my own rice bowl in one hand and navigate a pair chopsticks in the other to eat bok choy and steamed fish drizzled with soy sauce, julienned green scallions and minced ginger, all fresh from the farmer’s market grocery stands lined up along Stockton Street. It didn’t matter that I was first-generation immigrant growing up in financially disadvantaged circumstances. Delicious food was always prepared from daily walks to buy each day’s provision. The dinner table was the symbol of conversation, abundance, family and friendships, regardless of economic hardship.
No matter what was happening, my mother always made time to stop at the Chinese bakery, at least once a week. We would walk into the store, the air wafting with oven-baked fragrance of egg tarts to envelope us, along with honey-golden pastries like gai-mae bau (hot-cross buns shaped like rooster tails) lined up in glass counters to greet us. For a moment, all was happy and right in the world.
I always picked my favorite pastry: a peach tart. I loved how the flaky crust, buttery to my fingers tasted both sweet and crispy, and how good it felt to have a sip of piping dark oolong tea to melt warm into my tummy. My mother never said the words, “I love you,” but the feeling of receiving a shimmery-glazed peach tart from her hand, as she sat and rested across from the table from me, was how being loved felt to me.
It’s no wonder that I fell in love with my Caucasian, blue-eyed husband while sitting across from him with a pastry and cup of hot coffee at a café on our first date. I felt a beautiful warm feeling, as we talked, sipped and chatted. In a seemingly ordinary setting, I began to believe that I could simply be happy and feel at peace with this person. Without any special or expensive fanfare, I felt through Eric’s company and conversation, that all was right and good in the world. I felt I could be loved and the longing to love him too began.
Now, as a mom to two boys, ages 9 and 12, I welcome them home after a day from school with a cup of hot tea and an egg tart, or gee-boi don-go “paper cup sponge cakes” from the Chinese bakery. I don’t do this every day of course, because they love Oreos with a glass of cold milk too. The Chinese bakery is not as close of a walk down the street. But, I never forget to drive out to bring pastries home every few weeks or take the boys there.
Whenever I do, I know I’m creating a memory of what love tastes and looks like. I want my children to experience what it means to be loved. I sit next to my boys at the table with my own cup of tea and my pastry. I’m a little girl of my Heavenly Father, smiling, listening and at rest with my children. When I saw my mother at rest and relaxed, I felt that all was right in the world and I want to pass that to my children: memories of their mother filled with rest, in the ordinary moments in ordinary ways.
I pray that through their Asian American heritage, my children will grow up knowing that no matter what the journey entails, whether financial hardship or with struggles, it doesn’t mean life cannot be beautiful. I want them to know that we need each other, to be a refuge of God’s rest and belonging – and it can be experienced through the simplicity of being together at the dinner table or with a cup of tea.
I want them to see that my legacy of growing up first-generation Chinese-American is that the simple small things are the things that truly matter. That God is at the dinner table each night, as I make bok choy and cook salmon the way they like it. We can laugh over the day’s funny stories or talk through the challenges of the day. When they enjoy a delicious meal and hear stories around the table, they will experience what it means to be loved – and feel stronger in their hearts to face the next day.
Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. – Psalm 34:8
Bonnie Gray is the author of the bestselling devotional, Whispers of Rest and Finding Spiritual Whitespace. An inspirational speaker and retreat leader, she has touched thousands of lives through storytelling, visual arts, nature, prayer and meditation. Bonnie is featured on Relevant Magazine, DaySpring (in)courage and Christianity Today. She lives in California with her husband and is mom to two sons. Visit Bonnie at thebonniegray.com, on Facebook and Instagram @thebonniegray.